Whenever I attend gatherings of ERG leaders as either a speaker or panelist, I always wait for that one question that will, without fail, eventually surface: “What is the best way to show executives evidence of all the great value we are driving and to influence increased support?”
Behind that question, there seems to be an implied belief that — somewhere out there — we can find the perfect ERG metrics that will have tremendous impact and meaning for all executives. Unfortunately, being able to find the right metric and language for your organization is not as easy as just searching through all the “best practice” websites and magazines and simply copying what the “top-performing award winners” are using. While that might prove to be a good start, it will rarely be the only thing you need to do.
The fact is that the same language and metric that may be considered evidence of top performance by one group of executives in one organization may seem blasé or grossly underperforming to another equally senior group of executives in the same or another company. This often has nothing to do with the approach or tool you are using. It’s simply a result of “eye-of-the-beholder” thinking.
The belief that if we present just the right best practice metric all the smart executives will see it the same way is flawed. It ignores the fact that we (all humans, including executives) filter the majority of the information we hear and we tend to confirm only what we already believe, based on our personal biases — consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes, we are able to absorb something new, but usually this happens when an idea is presented as an extension of, or in relation to, something already familiar to us. As the great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson stated: “People only see what they are prepared to see.”
So, rather than feel frustrated and wonder if your executives are as astute as those at the “award-winning company” touted in a magazine, I recommend that you incorporate some of the techniques that I work into my client presentations into your next executive status report.
To get you started, here are two of the many approaches I’ve used in the past:
1. In dealing with potentially high resistance, take into account and leverage existing positive biases to counter negative ones, or at least interrupt the automatic negative conclusions. Here’s a personal example. Several years ago when I was running a training and organizational development team during an economic downturn, I was asked by the division’s top business leader, a tough but very fair senior executive, to perform a return-on-investment analysis of training expenses.
I knew that this particular executive didn’t think that training the organization’s general employees was the most productive company investment; he was looking for the deepest cost cuts possible. I also knew that this executive was a strong believer in executive coaching. Finally, I knew from my own experience with the topic of bias that if I gave him a bunch of numbers about training results, without any context, he would frame them from the only position he could, his bias, and his “gut” would confirm his existing belief in the poor performance of training investments. The result would be an over-severely cut employee training budget, which I knew would have a negative impact on customer service and employee morale. While some cuts were inevitable, I wanted to avoid gutting a vital part of the organization.
My solution was to assess executive coaching exactly where he had a positive bias, using the same approach as I did in my own training, and present the results side-by-side. The numbers, by the way, showed that a similar correlation existed between coaching and executive performance and training and employee performance. The result was a smaller, more reasonable reduction in training budget, followed by adequate increases in later years as the economy picked up speed. So, one question you can ask yourself is: “How can I frame my ERG results using familiar context to better convey relevance and impact?”
2. If you don’t have the personal credibility with the executive team to influence their opinions, I recommend that you leverage an executive sponsor. Research shows that people tend to believe people who they consider to be like themselves and they tend to be a bit more suspicious of those they consider to be unlike them. Things that can make you like or dislike someone include level, job type, alma mater, etc. The cumulative impact of similarity makes you more credible, while dissimilarities have the opposite effect. If you have an executive sponsor who is a respected “in-group” member of the people in your audience, ask him or her to endorse what you are about to present or take certain tougher topics and present them for you. Leverage the executive’s in-group credibility status. (Of course, for this to work your executive sponsor needs to be viewed and accepted as one of the group, which cannot be determined by him or her simply attending the same meetings or having similar title grades as your target executive audience. Choose carefully.)
If the idea of using these techniques seems a bit out of place for your organization, trust me, it’s not. You are simply employing the same preparation techniques that company executives use when they are preparing for a meeting with their staff and are looking for the best way to convey their message within their workforce’s existing frames of reference. By taking these small but significant extra steps, you will ensure that whatever metrics you choose to present will have great meaning and impact!