No matter what career stage you're in, if you want to advance, then somebody in a decision-making position needs to see you as ready to take on more responsibility.

How do you do show you’re ready?

Most of us think the way to prove ourselves as ready for the next role is simply to do really great work. While doing great work is a big clue to decision-makers, it's not the only one.

Doing great work is not enough.

There are also the impressions and perceptions that decision-makers have of you when they see you in action. And these are formed through your interactions with those senior people.

Two Kinds of Interactions with Senior Management that Matter

When we think about how senior management perceive us, we tend to focus on the formal interactions where we're presenting something, whether as an individual or as part of a team. In these situations, we’re really prepared because we know we’re going to be “on stage”. We know it’s a situation that matters.

But informal interactions are equally important as formal meetings, and maybe more so.

Recently, someone told me that answering the question, “what’s up?”, was a real issue for him at work. He never knew how to answer it and was concerned that it led to him being perceived as someone who's not ready to take on a top role.

Informal interactions can seem casual and they might even be ones where somebody senior simply asks you, “So what's going on?” or “Hey, what's up?” Yet they can make an impression, whether good or bad, so you need to know how to handle these situations.

If this is a challenge for you as well, you are not alone. And congratulations on recognizing that informal conversations matter – awareness is a great first step to improving outcomes.

I’m going to share the advice that I gave, which will arm you with a strategy for how to make the best of informal conversations.

My Favorite Strategy for Informal Conversations

The strategy is called the Business Update. It’s one that my friend and colleague, Catherine Claydon, and I like to share because it’s helped us progress to senior positions, and it’s simple to implement.

The business update is simply synthesizing and summarizing into three key points something business-related in answer to a casual “hey, what's going on?” or “what's hot in your area?”.

This allows you to confidently take a “casual work situation” (is there really such a thing?) and make the most of it from a professional standpoint.

As you choose these three key points, think about what's going on that will most resonate with the senior audience you’re talking to. Don’t just talk about it from a tactical, “in the trenches” perspective.

Two Kinds of Business Updates

The two most practical and high-impact ways to approach the business update are to focus either on the work you and your team are doing, or on the strategic themes going on in your sector.

These are topics that senior management will expect you to be articulate about. The key is to talk about it in a way that’s relevant to the senior person who asked the question.

Best of all, both of these topics allow you to “show your stuff” without feeling like you’re bragging. After all, you’re simply updating them on what you’re expected to know in a way that’s useful to them.

1. Updates about your work

This is about sharing what you're doing or the projects you and your team are working on.

First, choose the three key projects or initiatives that you and/or your team are driving. Then, pre-prepare the way you want to talk about those projects.

Your aim is to be able to convey the work you’re doing in a way that aligns with the bigger picture of what your organization is trying to do. That means zooming out from the tactical day-to-day aspects and elevating the way you think about those three key projects.

How do they support the organization’s priorities? How can they help move the needle for the broader unit you’re in, the organization as a whole, and the clients you serve?

2. Updates about strategic themes

These are the strategic trends going on in your sector or market. Again, you can pre-prepare your thoughts so you’re confident of what you want to share.

First, step back and look at what you see going on around you. Think about questions like:

  • What are your clients or customers doing and to what extent is that poised to shift?
  • Where is the competition gaining or losing ground?
  • What new regulations are being discussed and how would that affect your organization?
  • Where is the next innovation likely to take place?
  • What are the biggest risks and opportunities for the organization, and how can we be poised to win either way?

You may be surprised by the amount of knowledge and data you have that you’ve taken for granted but would be useful and interesting to seniors. Keep in mind that you’re closer to the action, and senior people rely on you to know what employees and clients are doing and thinking.

Having identified the key themes and trends you want to talk about, then consider how they could affect the person you're talking to and the business they’re in.

Your job is to make it easy for them to see the connection between what you’re talking about and the impact it’s likely to have on them.

Keep It Concise and Succinct

These informal situations may be brief if you’re getting a coffee before the meeting starts, or they could last longer if you’re at a reception. That’s why it’s good to have several versions of your business update: super-short, short, and not-quite-so-short.

For the super-short, I recommend creating a 10-second version of your business update. For example:

Senior Management: “What's going on?”

You: “I'm glad you asked. We're working on these three major initiatives that are going to really move the needle for the company. These are X, Y and Z.”

If talking about all three is too much of a mouthful for 10 seconds, then choose just one area to mention and highlight.

For the short, you can develop a 30-second version of your business update where you go into a little bit more about each one and why it matters.

For the not-quite-so-short, you may wish to stretch it out to a 2-minute version. But senior peoples’ attention spans generally won’t go much beyond that.

Remember, you want to “hook” their interest so they’ll ask you to tell them more. And if they don’t, at least you were concise and succinct.

Finally, you also want to make sure you're morphing your business updates over time as the situation changes.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

Casual does not mean unprepared and effortless. Often, it’s harder to master the art of the informal conversation than the set piece presentation.

So, jot down those three key points for your business update, whether it’s for the work that you're doing, the interesting projects that are going to drive the organization, or the strategic trends and themes in your sector or market.

By using the business update strategy, you’ll be taking huge advantage of those informal sidebar conversations that inevitably arise.

But to really nail these informal situations and convey the message that you’re ready for a more senior role, you’ve got to practice. Take Beyoncé – her masterful performances look effortless, but she is definitely practicing. So, get out there and practice too!

I hope the business update strategy helps you master those casual conversations with senior management. They’re a big opportunity to show that you’re on top of the business.

What will you say the next time someone asks you, “what’s up?” or “how’s it going?”

Leave a comment and let me know.