Collaboration Skills: In Exec Comms, Your Superpower or Your Kryptonite
February 07, 2023
What does great collaboration look like, exactly?
You hear it a lot when you spend time with veterans of executive communications: A skillset every bit as foundational as communication, in this business, is collaboration.
Why is collaboration so crucial in Exec Comms—and what does masterful collaboration look like, exactly?
In Exec Comms, you operate in the circles of the senior-most company leadership and their key staff and subject matter experts (SMEs). But you often don’t have the senior title or level to match. Therefore, you must rely heavily, sometimes entirely, on your powers of partnership and influence rather than any type of formal authority. And even when you do hold a senior title, the best work always gets done in the spirit of partnership and wanting to achieve common goals for the organization. So it’s critical to develop an effective and scalable approach to collaboration from the outset.
Lean on humility, respect, transparency and a determination to create as many win-win situations as possible, no matter who you’re interacting with—be it the team staffing the reception desk or the CFO. In a professional, approachable and gracious style, strive to make every interaction mutually valuable, so the other side feels good about collaborating with you and won’t dread seeing your name hit their inbox or Slack for a future request.
Find your go-to partners
Within a few months of working for an executive, you’ll get a strong understanding of the key SMEs to go to across a broad range of topics, be it sales, finance, legal, product, marketing, etc. Cultivate relationships—real, personal relationships—with these go-to partners and seek to better understand their worlds. That will help you navigate, for example, when is a good time to reach out to them—or who on their team you should contact instead.
When making requests, be concise upfront, providing just as much context as appropriate so that your stakeholder understands why you’re making the request and why there may be urgency in getting their input. Don’t make them read through a long email and try to decode what you’re asking of them. List the request first and then provide context so they understand the why. We all do better work when we have a fuller understanding of the task and its objective.
Give advance notice
Your stakeholders are busy doing their day jobs, so give as much lead time as possible to not create a fire drill … and be clear on deadlines. Sometimes a scramble is unavoidable; approach those situations with the acknowledgement and appreciation for the person or team dropping what they’re doing to help. And if it’s warranted, inform your executive about any ‘above and beyond’ efforts and encourage them to personally thank those individuals. (Pro tip: You can help make this process easy for the executive by drafting a message on their behalf.)
There may come a time when your stakeholders need input or urgent help from you, so try to accommodate those requests as much as possible, based on what is appropriate in your role.
Don’t be that person
Unfortunately, I’ve seen instances where staffers take on the air of their executive’s status and feel it’s ok to be arrogant or dictatorial in their collaboration style—even when this behavior is in no way representative of the executive they’re working for. Remember that you are an extension of the executive and their office, and your behavior should demonstrate professionalism and humane partnership.
Meeting all kinds of interesting and smart people is one of the biggest highlights of a job in Exec Comms. And meeting them where they live is one of the most essential skills. Yes, collaboration is sometimes more of an art than a science, but the payoff is immense, both personally and professionally.
A founding member of the Executive Communication Council, Kari Matalone is senior director, corporate and executive communications at Snowflake, a cloud computing-based data company. Prior to Snowflake, Kari managed executive communications for six years at Splunk, and four years at Cisco. Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., Kari attended university in Brussels, Belgium, and began her career there, before returning to the Bay Area.