Have you noticed how safety departments aren't the only ones in industry implored to "talk management's language"?

For instance, here's A. Blanton Godfrey urging on quality managers in a 1998 Quality Digest article:

"During the past few years, I have been amazed at how often quality directors and managers I meet have no idea how to communicate with their senior management teams. They continue to complain about how their CEOs or presidents can't understand the importance of having senior management leadership in quality."

Doesn't that sound familiar?

And from the annals of industrial maintenance: "Sometimes getting things started with maintenance thermography seems impossible. How can management be convinced to make investments? How do you get others to buy into this technology?

Explains a consulting firm: "(The maintenance department) took their early 'finds' to management with a no nonsense plan for investing in solving the problems they had identified. . . By talking management's language of returns on investments, and by doing their homework, they got management's attention. Management then gave them the money, personnel and time needed to get the job done."

Knowledge gap

It's the same challenge for departments scattered all over the organization chart. Here's how one safety pro sums it up: "My personal/professional opinion is that there are too few seriously committed execs, principally due to ignorance and a mindset as a result of schooling and experience. Business schools pay little attention to the importance of safety, human relations and morale."

So if many execs don't come by the safety/quality/maintenance/human resources/fill-in-your-pet-project mindset naturally, how do you get them to take on the leadership role?

Of course this is the $64,000-question that has been dissected in how-to books, insider articles, and lectures from consultants, coaches, and corporate pros for eons. Put yourself in your boss's shoes. Align yourself. James E. Lukaszewski put it this way in a 1989 article in Communication World: "You must be able to think like the boss. If you can't. . . it's unlikely you'll be successful."

But success doesn't just come to those who can talk their way past big, heavy office doors and imagine themselves sitting in the comfy swivel chair. There's more to it than that. Especially when you're putting on the table something as touchy and delicate as a safety, health or environmental issue. A leaking roof or quality defects won't make an exec squirm. But safety, health and enviro problems have a way of putting people on the defensive. "What do you mean I don't care?" is the implication.

"Aligning" yourself with the boss means more than memorizing sales figures from the annual report and dumbing down your technical jargon. We all could use a course in "vocabulary management" for the real world. And part of managing one's vocabulary to win project approvals and influence execs is not what you say - it's what you don't say.

Risk assessment

One time I ventured into a division president's office to try to convince him that his division should join ours for a company-wide awards luncheon. I gave him my short spiel. It would be good for morale, build a sense of community, bridge the traditional gap between the two divisions. All the touchy-feely stuff they don't dwell on in biz school. Sorry, but there just wasn't an ROI argument to be made for this lunch.

The president looked at me with all the interest of someone watching a first grade piano recital. After, oh, maybe 30 seconds I got the hook. "We're not going to do it." But. . . "I'm not interested." But wasn't this the same fellow who proclaimed at a company meeting that our two divisions would walk hand-in-hand down the path to a bright new future? Doesn't matter. He was reaching to make a phone call. This discussion was finished.

I could've reminded him of his earlier promise, using his own lofty rhetoric. "But remember when you said. . ." No, I get annoyed when my own kids use that one. Could I have pressed on, trying to sell him? Sure, but what was at stake? It was only a luncheon, after all, that would still go on with or without him. We weren't discussing corporate practices that could get someone killed.

The big picture

"Talking management's language" includes things like performing a quick risk assessment in your head over the prospects of continuing to press your case. What are the costs, what are the benefits? It's good to have some background about the manager on the other side of the spotless desk, too. This particular division president came from the "Don't-waste-my-time-but-laugh-at-my-jokes" school of management. It also helps to have some kind of rapport. Did he trust me? Did I have credibility with him? No, we had no previous dealings; I was from another division.

All these considerations go into how you manage your vocabulary when trying to sell a budget, an initiative, an idea. "Talking management's language" actually covers a lot of non-verbal ground.

So in the spirit of the no-nonsense, get-to-the-point management mindset, here are some suggestions: Don't pretend. Be efficient. Come prepared. Edit thyself. Don't gossip. 'Fess up. Don't whine. Get over it. Don't brag. Check thy ego.

- Dave Johnson, Editor