As I’ve served longer in an executive role, I’ve started to notice recurring communication challenges between executives and the folks they work with. The most frequent issue I see is when a literal communicator insists on engaging in the details with a less literal executive.
I call the remedy, “extracting the kernel.”
For example, imagine a team is presenting about their upcoming timeline, and the CTO asks, “Can’t you just use ChatGPT to solve that instead of building a custom model?” From there, the conversation will often derail into a debate about ChatGPT versus building a custom model, but the CTO’s point is almost always not about ChatGPT. Instead, their point is that the timeline feels too slow. If the team anchors on responding to the specific suggestion, they’ll miss the more important discussion entirely. Even if they convince the CTO that a custom model is the better choice, the CTO will be annoyed that their real concern about the schedule wasn’t addressed.
If you’re that team presenting to the CTO, you could rightly argue that executives ought to be better communicators. That’s certainly true, but the reality is that executives are human. You’ll make much more progress by focusing on improving how you communicate with them than by blaming them for their deficiencies.
I recommend that teams receiving executive feedback try to “extract the kernel.” When you get a question from an executive, focus on understanding the insight or perspective within the question. Then confirm that insight with the executive explicitly. Going back to the example above, after the CTO recommends using ChatGPT, you could confirm back by saying, “To make sure I’m understanding, the most important feedback here is that we should figure out how to accelerate our timeline?” Now you can ensure that the CTO’s feedback is addressed rather than getting caught up on the incidental details in their question.