Knowledge Management Issues: How to talk to Executives

There are some important Knowledge Management and Information Behaviors needed when one deals with executives – such as front-loading communications, using layered concision, and invoking pre-existing memes.

Back when I was a young and stupid 39yr old, I discovered a perplexing thing – the more senior a manager was, the shorter their attention-span seemed to be.
At that time, several teams were being put through one of those cyclical “teach middle-managers about business” efforts, and the consultant that was paid to teach this was at loggerheads with several of the managers.

Some of these managers were under the impression that I was clued up on this topic, and asked me to help turn their 40-page business plan into something the consultant would smile upon. So far she had just kept telling them it was wrong and too long, and they couldn’t interpret the reasoning or explanations she offered. I didn’t help much because basically I agreed with the managers that if it took 40 pages to detail, then by golly, that was what the Exec would just darn-well have to read – I mean if we could read 40 pages of code in a siting at our salary, then why couldn’t a clever exec digest a business plan of similar dimensions?

In exasperation she threw her hands up and proclaimed that “no exec will read anything more than a single 5-point power-point slide” (or something to that effect).
This left us gawping and muttering amongst ourselves that evidently she was just one more of those inexperienced proselytizers of the sort of religious dogma that the business schools applied to clever young things to turn them into a highly-paid priesthood of faddish dimwits. (We held MBA consultants in somewhat low regard back then).
But it did get me thinking – what if she were right, do execs have some sort of attention-deficit issues?

This really was a puzzle – were people with limited attention-span more likely to become executives, or did the executive roles make them that way? I wondered (sometimes aloud I am afraid), if it was something to do with eroded or malfunctioning working-memory as a result of too many cocktails, or if it was stress-related interference, or maybe that the huge salaries made them less able to focus on less interesting things.

Years later when I had more experience and greater exposure to executives, I came to believe that the consultant was right, and that it was indeed a combination of stress and incremental pressure on time.
After the ravages of commoditization, BPR, downsizing, rightsizing, and globalization, executives often do not have the necessary supporting scaffolding to preserve slack in their available time.
The pace is murderous, and the average exec is responsible for twice what their predecessors were, and with probably half the supporting staff – So unless ideas are presented in very small bites and highly concise, they simply lose patience before the punchline – or will take a cursory look at the length and expected investment of time, and summarily discard the item unread.

This creates a huge problem because (a) managers and staff are not trained in how to compose an exec-readable email, and (b) as Chomsky noted – familiar and accepted ideas can survive concision well, but innovation and novelty needs longer explanation.

Unless the managers in the middle get really good at communicating with execs, much of the innovations coming from them and the staff below them will hit a mostly impermeable barrier and will never receive the necessary approval or funding.

Until we find a way of providing execs with more scaffolding or improved working memory, there are some tricks that managers can adopt in order to get a decent chance of attention:

  1. Front-load your communication
    Put the payload up front. A memo to an exec isn’t a detective-story where the punchline is at the end, you need to put the punchline and request for action right up front and not down at the end of your story.
  1. Use layered concision
    Let the first sentence be capable of approval – what you want (who needs to do what and when)  and why so that the answer can either be a yes/no or a referral. In case the exec wasn’t prepared to decide already, the next piece of information can be a single short paragraph justifying and explaining in terse format. If needed, the final part can be the 40 pages of exactly what the full story is.
  2. Invoke preexisting memes
    Cast the proposition in terms of already-accepted concepts and ideas, that way you allow the idea to be digested easier and trigger working-memory savings. If you overwhelm their working memory you get avoidance behavior. Don’t use examples or illustrations that distract.

There are of course more things to be considered, but these three steps can go a long way in getting the most likely obstacles out of the way.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it!


Matthew Loxton is the outgoing director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profileis on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Knowledge Management Issues: How to talk to Executives”

  1. How Top Management Uses Blogs To Increase Business-business Says:

    […] Knowledge Management Issues: How to talk to Executives « Matthew … […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: