Four practical communications tips to help your manager help you
FYI, I am in San Francisco April 19th to 22nd for the AWS Summit and giving a talk on startup sales at the AWS Startup Loft at 12 PM on Friday, April 22. Let’s meet!
I was a long emailer. In the world of Seinfeld, this would be an episode dedicated to someone that writes obnoxiously long emails. Okay, maybe this is more of The Office material. The point is, I used to write ridiculously long emails that read like books.
Fortunately I was saved early on in my career by my boss. Pulling me aside after a team meeting he asked, “You like writing long emails?”
Not knowing what this was about, I replied, “What?”
“Do you think people that get your emails like them?” he continued.
“I don’t know, no one ever responds.” I gulped hard.
He then glared at me and said, “They hate them. I hate them.” He paused, then said, “No one responds because your emails are obnoxious.”
“People want facts without having to dig. Nothing less, nothing more, and only what needs attention.” He left and I was frozen in embarrassment. I was a long emailer.
A key lesson I have learned is that less words have greater impact than more words. I now value the art of editing and the beauty in brevity. I do get wordy on occasion, but that early lesson is now part of the bedrock of how I communicate.
It was not until I became a manager however that I truly appreciated the advice my boss shared with me years before. The higher you rise in an organization, the more your time and attention gets carved out in smaller and smaller slices. You get pulled into meetings, asked for input on projects, and extinguish fires, including ones that are not your responsibility.
Communications overhead is a huge challenge in most organizations. When I was at Oracle, I would routinely get added to superfluous email chains just because I was a manager and would get CC’ed on everything. My inbox was a disaster which caused all sorts of delays responding back to legitimate emails.
Looking back, most of the emails I would read were tediously long. It finally clicked what made these emails so painful. It took too long to get to what mattered for me to take action on. With more messages and meeting requests coming, I did not have the time to digest a multiple page email full of details and bullet points and paragraphs.
Good emails, meetings, and calls are concise and clearly state the actions to be taken. Most decisions do not require long deliberation or debate, they can be made quickly and rolled back without consequence if the wrong choice is made. Part of what makes for an effective manager is in the ability to process information and context in order to take decisive action quickly when required.
A few weeks ago I read a tweet on the subject of communicating to higher ups, known as ‘managing up”. The author stated that most people are terrible at managing up especially when it comes to communicating the right type and amount of information. The reason is that we lack situational empathy, meaning we do not consider the perspective of the person that we are communicating to and what is important for them.
When I was a sales rep, I viewed managers as obstacles. My strategy was to throw a bunch of stuff at them that looked like work so they would leave me alone. Then I became the manager, and I realized how ridiculous my thinking was. I finally understood that the value of a good manager is to help teams to work more productively, remove roadblocks, be internal champions, coach reps, and foster cross-team collaboration.
The best managers are force multipliers for their teams. For managers to be helpful though, they need help from their teams to provide the right level of context and information. Here are four tips I learned about effective communications to help your manager help you:
Set the context - We live in a distracted world where we are often multitasking. Most people that open up an email, memo, or report will often only skim the information at first. This might be ok if the recipient is a direct manager already aware of the subject matter. As you go to higher layers of management however, you cannot rely on that understanding. In these situations, use some language (no more than a sentence or two) to set the stage for what the person is reading and why.
Upfront key information - When a reporter obscures the main point of the story, it is called “burying the lede”. If you are just providing a status, then there is little to hide as the communication is short. If there is a sizable update to share or a critical decision to make, you want to summarize the key points upfront. If readers need to, they can dive deeper into the details below.
Establish next actions - It always surprised me how often this critical step is ignored. Never put a manager in the position of having to guess what action they need to take. Context matters. If a status update does not require an action on part of the manager, then state that. If you do require input from a manager, make sure it is clear what action or decision needs to be taken and in what timeframe said action should occur.
Be concise - Sometimes we are tempted to use complicated words in our speaking and writing to appear smarter or more serious. No one is buying it. You are always better off using less words and simpler language to convey your message. It is less taxing for readers, it removes ambiguity, and you appear more professional and authoritative.
I am still learning how to be more concise at AWS. As a writing centric culture, anything new such as a program or initiative starts life as a document. With all the writing (and reading) that goes on at AWS, we appreciate clarity and conciseness in writing. You learn at Amazon to be a ruthless editor, removing unnecessary words and phrases that do not add meaningful value to a document. Becoming an excellent writer is as much about what you remove as it is about what you write.
Adopting an editor’s mind to all our communications with managers and leaders goes a long way in earning trust and delivering results. Removing the overhead of most communication gives managers back time that can be dedicated to coaching reps, improving the flow of work, and advocating for their team, creating a virtuous cycle of workplace satisfaction.
How would you describe your communication style? What are some ways your team and leaders encourage effective communication and writing?
Mark Birch, Founder of Enterprise Sales Forum
The Enterprise Sales Forum is a professional community championing the practice of sales through monthly sales talks at chapters globally. Our chapters provide an open, collaborative and diverse environment to share new ideas, network and learn actionable insights for professional sales development.
why you wrote such a long article instead of a short one?