Hone skills for working with C-suite execs
Maybe you meet with the CEO every week, or maybe you just got word that you’ll be speaking to the hospital’s executive board for the first time. Either way, you should know that communicating with top level executives is not the same as speaking with your colleagues, and preparation can make your meeting much more successful.
With risk managers increasing moving into executive positions and increasing their stature within the organization, the chance of interacting directly with top leaders in the C-suite is more frequent. The first step is realizing that those meetings are different from your other meetings, says Andrew A. Oppenberg, MPH, CPHRM, DFASHRM, director of risk management and patient safety officer at Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center in Glendale, CA. Oppenberg also is a former president of the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management (ASHRM).
Improving the stature of risk managers has been a goal for ASHRM for several years now, Oppenberg says, and learning to communicate with C-suite executives is a necessary component. "Increasingly, risk managers want to be included in the senior management discussions, and they want to become chief risk officers," he says. "Many risk managers, however, become complacent about some of the skills necessary to achieve that presence. Some come up through the clinical path and are very comfortable in that area, but they need to develop the communication skills and know how to offer their services to the people in the C-suite."
A consultant who works directly with a healthcare risk manager says you should consider your audience’s background when preparing to meet. A CEO or other executive with a clinical background will seek information in a different way than, for example, a CEO with a finance background, says Mark Tomaszewski, MPH, a director with the consulting firm Jabian in Atlanta. Learn to speak the language of your key audience member. "If you’re talking about patient safety or a clinical risk, be ready to talk about that in a way that a physician will absorb it well," he says. "Deliver clinical information that you know he or she will want to know, and be ready to answer questions that a doctor might ask but a finance professional would not."
Also be aware that C-suite executives frequently think risk managers are like Chicken Little, blowing risks far out of proportion, Tomaszewski says. Risk managers must keep that in mind and filter out any warnings of doom that might seem over the top. It is easy to go overboard trying to explain that a risk carries potentially huge ramifications, even if it is unlikely to happen, he says. "Once you’ve gone too far and they think you’re exaggerating to get the funding or whatever resources you want, you’ve lost them," Tomaszewski says. "It can be a delicate task for risk managers because part of your job is to bring these risks to their attention and alert them to the consequences."
The healthcare risk manager that Tomaszewski assisted had a problem common for those not used to C-suite encounters. She went into too much detail about the problem and its background, so he helped her get in the habit of providing the key information in bullet form rather than talking on and on. (For more information on making the most of your time with executives, see the story on p. 90.)
Communicate their way
Remember that C-suite executives are looking for a different type of information than most managers, says Leslie G. Ungar, author of Pragmatic Coaching for Dramatic Results in Akron, OH.
"The higher up you go in an organization, the more the strategic is appreciated. The lower on the chart, the more people talk about the tactical. Clarity is valued at the C level," Ungar says. "If you want to be perceived as one of them, you need to look, sound, and approach them as though you were one of them.
A primary difference is that the C-suite execs want the message to be quick and clear, says Linda D. Henman, PhD, president of Henman Performance Group, a consulting and training company in Chesterfield, MO. "Senior leaders don’t care about the details. They care about speed and good decisions. They care about taking mitigating risk, but they don’t want to make that their main goal," Henman says. "Risk managers who realize that their listeners have a different orientation can position their advice to increase the receptivity of the listener."
Ungar explains that, from a communication perspective, the speaker controls themselves, their message, and their environment, but they do not control their audience. That perspective means risk managers need to concentrate on themselves and how they are communicating their message rather than focusing on the executives, he says. (For more tips on effective communication with top leaders, see the story on p. 90.) "C-level people in particular require clarity in their communication. They want the speaker to get to the results with the minimum amount of time spent in process and how they got there," Ungar says. "Risk managers on the other hand, tend to want to tell the C-suite person what all they did to mitigate risk. All the C-suite person wants to hear is the end result."
Sometime a risk manager meets with a C-suite exec to give bad news about a malpractice case or other problem, and Oppenberg says those encounters should carefully planned.
"If you have to bring a problem to the executive, bring a solution," he says. "Sometimes you can have several solutions and tell the person this is your call, and that’s why I’m bringing it to you.’ Unfortunately sometimes risk managers dump things on the person’s desk and expect them to handle it. That’s not what they’re paying you for."
Preparation will help you avoid a cardinal sin: wasting the CEO’s time, says Billie Blair, PhD, an organizational psychologist and president/CEO of the international management consulting firm Change Strategists in Los Angeles. Wasting someone’s time is to be avoided no matter how high or low the person is in the food chain, but the concern is still higher with top executives. "You have to have something like an elevator speech, the kind of short, to-the-point answer you’d give if someone on the elevator asked you what you’re working on," Blair says.
Don’t damage your image
Not having a grasp of the facts or taking a long while to get to them will not just annoy the executive, notes Greg Bustin, a leadership and strategic planning consultant in Dallas. That response also will damage your image. (See the story on p. 91 for an account of how face time with the CEO can go wrong.)
Some executives want to hear all the background, all the steps of the investigation, and all the facts behind your recommendation or request, while others want just the headlines, Bustin says. Your job is to know which tack is preferred by the person or people you are meeting with. In some cases such as a presentation before the board, you might find that certain individuals crave more data than others, Bustin notes. In that case, you might try to satisfy both types by compromising and targeting your data comments to the person you know is more interested.
Remember that it can be a compliment when the executive doesn’t want to hear all of the background, all the facts, and the story of how you came to the relevant points. "Not only might that be their style of processing information, but they’re also telling you that they have confidence in you," Bustin says. "They’re saying that they trust you did your job well and they don’t need to know all the background and check your work."
Also, don’t be discouraged if the CEO has little time for you, Bustin says. It is the nature of running a company, he says, to have people lined up at the office door waiting for a few minutes with the leader. The CEO usually has to keep it short with everyone, so don’t take it personally. Expect about five minutes to make your case if you are invited to meet with the CEO or executive board, Blair says. That time is your opportunity to get the person’s attention, and then you might need to answer questions, she says. But even if you’re ultimately in a long conversation with the executive, that first five minutes is your make-or-break moment.
"Don’t prepare a 30-minute presentation for a CEO," she says. "The CEO will not listen."
- Billie Blair, President/CEO, Change Strategists, Los Angeles. Email: email@example.com.
- Greg Bustin, Bustin & Co., Dallas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Linda D. Henman, PhD, President, Henman Performance Group, Chesterfield, MO. Email: email@example.com.
- Andrew A. Oppenberg, MPH, CPHRM, DFASHRM, Director of Risk Management and Patient Safety Officer, Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center, Glendale, CA. Email: Andrew.Oppenberg@DignityHealth.org.
- Mark Tomaszewski, MPH, Director, Jabian, Atlanta. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Leslie G. Ungar, Akron, OH. Telephone: (330) 668-6569. Email: Leslie@electricimpulse.com.