Strong communication skills are among the most fundamental abilities needed to build a successful career. When connecting with the CEO and other C-suite leaders, effective communication becomes even more crucial. We sat down with Professor James Dworkin, chancellor emeritus, and Dilip Chhajed, associate dean, at Purdue University, to discuss key strategies for communicating with the C-suite.

Prepare in Advance

Effective communication is a powerful tool. It can leave a strong impression on executives, and that may open you up to more opportunities for growth and advancement. Dworkin says the top three tips to keep in mind when you know you will be communicating with executives are “prepare, prepare and prepare.”

“Being well-prepared is essential, considering you may only have a brief window of their attention,” Dworkin says. “Practice what you’re going to say and be concise, as you may only have a limited amount of time to present your message.”

Chhajed agreed that preparation is important—not just on what you’ll say but how you’ll say it.

“Knowing your audience is very critical in any communication,” he says. “Knowing what the person likes—for instance, some people like more data or numbers—and being prepared by having done the research ahead of time is important."

C-suite executives, facing many responsibilities and tight schedules, may want to get the most out of every exchange within the shortest time. Choose your words well, and focus on what matters when engaging with senior executives.

When preparing, Dworkin says to:

  • Focus on the need-to-know details. C-suite executives have an understanding of the basic facts, so they don’t need a recap. They want to skip the familiar and get straight to the important information.
  • Keep it formal. While you should tailor your message to your audience, assume that C-suite executives are used to formality. Don’t approach them too casually.

If you wish to practice your speaking skills, consider joining an organization like Toastmasters or The Moxie Institute.

3 Communication Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some potential detriments to good communication, according to Fast Company:

  • Lacking confidence. It's important to project confidence and convey the message with conviction to gain the trust and attention of the C-suite leaders.
  • Being too vague. People often make the mistake of being too vague or too technical. Keep the communication straightforward and to the point, which C-suite members will appreciate.
  • Adding too many details. While it’s important to be prepared and provide relevant details, the C-suite leaders may not have the time or the interest in hearing every detail, and it may detract from the main message.

Communication with the C-Suite Goes Beyond Oral Skills

Understanding what is important to the person you are communicating with is vital in delivering a message that resonates with them.

For instance, the CEO may have different priorities and concerns from the CFO. By understanding their perspectives, you can tailor your message and research accordingly.

Dworkin shares how important it is to understand who you’re speaking with.

“I was on the search committee that hired then Gov. Mitch Daniels as the President of Purdue University,” he says. “I recognized the importance of preparation to make a lasting impression. I sought to understand his values and beliefs by reading several of his books. By gaining these insights, I was able to focus on topics that I knew would resonate with him.”

Writing and Listening Skills

Beyond understanding what’s important, effective communication involves strong writing skills and active listening skills.

“Writing is especially important when communicating with the C-suite, as you may be asked to provide a summary of your conversation,” Dworkin says. “You should be able to convey the key message in a concise manner, ideally in one page or less.”

Writing skills also translate to taking the initiative and being precise and informative in meetings, presentations and email.

Listening is also a key part of effective communication. Give executives your undivided attention, maintain eye contact, don’t interrupt and pay attention to non-verbal cues.

“I tell students: there's a reason you were put on this earth with one mouth and two ears,” Dworkin says. “You're supposed to spend more time listening.”

Other Soft Skills to Help You Be Successful

Soft skills are just as important when interacting with the C-suite. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, having the following soft skills will give you a competitive edge at work:

  • Enthusiasm. Demonstrate this by taking the initiative in seeking new and more challenging work.
  • Professionalism. Dress appropriately, arrive on time and stay productive.
  • Teamwork and collaboration. Share the workload and maintain the lines of communication.
  • Problem solving and critical thinking. Offer insight and fresh perspective for more efficient ways of addressing issues.

“Other soft skills may include negotiation, leadership and change management,” Dworkin says. “Some of those soft skills can really make a difference.”

Learn how a Purdue Online MBA Can Help You Reach Your Career Goals

"It's essential to recognize that the communication styles of C-suite leaders can vary greatly depending on their audience,” Chhajed says. And it’s important to know how to form your interactions with them accordingly.

That's just one of many insights students gain in the online course, Life in the C-Suite. “We delve into topics such as daily business operations, decision making and stakeholder management,” Chhajed continues. “All of these are essential for [understanding] the C-suite."

This course is offered through the Purdue Online MBA program. With this online degree, you can prepare to take the next step in your career while still remaining engaged in the business world. Request information today.