How C Players and A Players Communicate with Top Management

Having conducted hundreds of thousands of 45-minute, confidential interviews in which senior executives are assessed by their coworkers, Topgrading Professionals have discerned a clear pattern in how those top managers assess C Players’ and A Players’ communication skills. So we know how most executives like to be communicated with.  This short article spells out the keys to communicating effectively with top management.

Top managers criticize C Players for:

  • Being verbose.  C Players tend to explain their rationale for a recommendation in agonizing detail, hesitant to get to the bottom line for fear they will be interrupted. They explain, metaphorically, how to build a watch when their manager asked the time.  They lack the confidence to keep making their points if their manager interrupts them.

A Players get to the point, saying, “In the past we have avoided entering Asian markets for very good reasons, but I suggest changing that decision because of a dramatic new trend, which is —”

  • Saying, “It depends.”  An executive asks a lower manager if Division X will achieve its profitability goal.  C Players are insecure, fearing whatever their answer, their manager will criticize them.  So they say, “It depends,” and then proceed to be verbose, listing 10 reasons why the division might achieve the goal and 10 reasons for why it might not.  Senior executives think, “Of course it depends. That’s obvious!” The manager, frustrated, might then ask, “I don’t want a grocery list of factors, I want to know how you judge all those factors, and if your answer is yes or no?”

A cop-out answer to just about any question is, “it depends.”  Will my sports team win tomorrow?  Will the price of oil go up?  Will Joe marry Sally?  Should we close Division X?  It drives executives nuts to hear, “It depends,” and makes the executive sure that this person cannot sort the wheat from the chaff and focus on what is important. 

A Players might say, “Yes, we’ll achieve the profit target, barely, because although our competitors have cut prices, we’ve countered with longer-term deals and service guarantees that will enable us to keep our key customers and make the profit number.” Or, “No, we’ll fall 10% short, because our two biggest competitors slashed prices the week of Thanksgiving and we just did not have time to counter.”

  • Whining, “We all make mistakes.”  An executive can’t believe the mistake was made and confronts the person who made it.  When the executive hears, “We all make mistakes,” the conclusion is that this person is a C Player.  Pre-teens will tell their parents, “We all make mistakes, even you!  Remember when you caused the car accident?”  Attempts to blame the boss, citing mistakes the boss made, is a feeble attempt to deflect, to change the topic.  It reveals defensiveness, insecurity, and intellectual dishonesty.

When confronted with the fact that they made a mistake, A Players admit it and promise specific actions to both a) fix the problem, and b) prevent recurrence.

Conclusion:  When top management asks questions, get to the bottom line and never say, “it depends” or whine, “We all make mistakes.”  And when you’ve made a mistake and are challenged, admit the mistake, say how you’ll prevent a recurrence, and say how you’ll fix this mistake.

Published March 11, 2013

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