Communicating with your boss

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Articles

3-4 min read

CFOs: listen up

Others are welcome to listen in, but I’d like to address my thoughts today to all of you Chief Financial Officers out there.

We’ll talk about communication, and especially as it relates to your interaction with your CEO (and with her boss, the Board). As you experience regularly, communication is a significant part of your role: it’s one of the key practices in your leadership of your Finance team; it’s part of the reason that team exists at all (communicating information for decision making); and it lies at the center of your professional relationship with your C-suite peers and, significantly, with the CEO and the Board.

Yet, we finance types sometimes are more comfortable with numbers than with words, are more adept at analysis than at communication. Fortunately, communication is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. So here are a few thoughts on how to do exactly that.

“Show me the baby”

I once worked for a CEO who regularly told all of us (and me especially, given my communicating tendencies) to “show me the baby!” This vivid metaphor was birthed (you’re welcome) out of his experience of folks talking about their new babies and launching into lengthy, vivid accounts of the labor and delivery. He’d stop the excited new parent and ask to see pictures: “Show me the baby!”

My tendency in explaining is to lead off with all the analysis and context and eventually weave my way (often slowly and laboriously) towards the brilliant and obvious conclusion. When he and I were new to our professional relationship, he’d give me some time to proceed along my familiar path, but eventually I learned to “show him the baby” first (provide my conclusions) and then let him ask questions about the “labor” (analysis and context) as needed.

Your CEO and Board may not expect or require this same approach. But it’s helpful for you to have the “baby” clearly in view and featured early and prominently when you’re communicating with them.

No rambling!

This relates to the prior admonition, but it’s also important enough in its own right to discuss further: we finance types are justly renowned for our rambling. I’m certainly prone to it. Maybe it’s because we want to make sure everyone understands the details and nuances and implications and so forth. And, of course, anything material needs to be clearly disclosed. But sometimes the sheer volume of verbiage (spoken or written) can drown out what’s important.

Master your message

Here’s what I mean by this: know with absolute clarity what you intend to convey. Strip it down to its essentials. And, yes, by all means know and deploy as necessary all relevant background and context and nuances and implications and options and GAAP/tax/regulatory requirements. But in all instances, always know with clarity the essential parts of your message. Even if you must communicate in haste in an urgent situation – and, in fact, especially in those cases where brevity fits well with urgency – pause briefly to master your message before you launch into your communication.

And, as you deliver your message, those urgent instances are times when being able to disclose the “baby” in a non-rambling manner is especially important.

A template

In the mentoring/coaching side of my consulting practice, I’ve been working with a solid, experienced finance professional who is relatively new to his CFO role. As we discussed communication together, I sketched out for him a rough template I suggested he use whenever he has something important to communicate to the CEO or Board.

It’s intended to force clarity, to identify “the baby,” and to create a rough, brief outline to ward off temptations to ramble.

And it’s something I wish I’d had on hand for my own use when I was in the same role, and it reflects lessons learned, often the hardest way (note that I’m obscuring the image a bit…the penmanship is more than a bit embarrassing).

The template translated

Here’s what’s going on in all that blurriness above:

  • Pay attention to your tone: urgent – if appropriate; panicky – never appropriate; calm – always appropriate.
  • Your objective: absolute clarity. (Learn and deploy techniques for enhancing clarity and understanding; topic for another day.)
  • Always communicate: (a) the issue (very concisely); (b) the level of urgency (flashing red lights or emerging/concerning or “just making you aware” or…); (c) the key facts and their implications.
  • If possible, especially if presenting a problem, come with actual or potential options for a path forward.
  • Have supporting data and context available in case it’s requested. And make certain (a) you know it thoroughly; and (b) you have a high degree of confidence in its accuracy and relevance.

Make the most of the opportunities

We get lots of opportunities to communicate with our boss and her boss. Let’s make the most of those “show me the baby” opportunities – for their sake, for our sake, for the sake of our organizations.

Eric R. Alexander

April 2024


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