Words to Never Use in the C-Suite

Larry Bonfante, Founder, CIO Bench Coach | 2/25/2013 | 46 comments

Larry Bonfante
Language is a very powerful thing. Words convey not only meaning, but emotions as well.

I have seen individuals (and arguably nations) go to war over words. Therefore, the words you use when dealing with your C-level peers, as well as members of your boards of directors, are very important. Let's explore some words to use and avoid in these interactions:

Cost: When discussing finances, always use the word "investment," never use the word "cost." Cost has the emotional impact of feeling like something that is lost. Even when spent wisely, cost suggests the money is gone and the value was gleaned at a single moment in time. Investment, on the other hand, suggests something that pays dividends and continues to provide a return on the money that was leveraged.

Any three-letter acronym: We in IT do love our acronyms. However, this is a foreign language for most of our peers and stakeholders. When engaging with business people, we should speak the language of business and finance. We should avoid any words or acronyms that only fellow "geeks" understand or care about. I actually fine my staff for using "Geek Speak" when engaging with our clients. Maybe you should too!

"I think...": The words "I think" in the wrong context can suggest a lack of confidence or commitment. Always portray a level of surety and expertise. That doesn't mean you can't express vulnerability. It just means you have to do so in a way that engenders confidence. Like the old commercial for an antiperspirant went: "Never let them see you sweat!"

"We can't...": There is always a way to accomplish an objective. That way may require additional funding, additional time, additional resources, or reprioritization. We can't is a defeatist attitude. "Let's explore alternative ways to accomplish this" suggests that you are open to innovate and rethink the variable involved in reaching a successful outcome.

"No" or "Yes": This may sound a little nutty to you. When I became CIO of the USTA, I found out that my two predecessors combined had not lasted four years! When I inquired as to why people felt this was the case, I was told that my immediate predecessor said "No" to every request. His predecessor said "Yes" to every request, but didn't deliver anything! I always tell my team that the answer to any request is neither "Yes" or "No" but "How." How can we collaborate to get the required support, funding, prioritization, and focus to succeed? The answer is always how!

"It wasn't my/our fault": Nothing shows weakness as a leader more than a lack of accountability. There are indeed times when multiple issues and people contribute to a negative outcome. However, the true leader takes accountability for a problem and conveys a sense of ownership to fix the issue and solve the problem.

Are there any words you would like to add (or subtract) from the list? Comment below.

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Susan Nunziata   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   3/5/2013 8:39:22 PM
Re: Words to Never Use in the C-Suite
@Broadway: LOL. Learn these two words, they are the secret to a long and happy marriage: "Yes, dear." Just don't try that at work. 
SunitaT   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   3/4/2013 3:38:07 PM
Re: yes and no
 The only caveat I would make is sometimes you have to say no.

@vnewman, true. Sometimes we have to say either "YES" or "NO" and we just cant keep things undecided. But once the commitment is given by saying YES or NO its the responsibility of the leader to make it happen.

SunitaT   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   3/4/2013 3:34:20 PM
Re : Words to Never Use in the C-Suite
However, the true leader takes accountability for a problem and conveys a sense of ownership to fix the issue and solve the problem.

@Larry, thanks for the post. A good leader is one who gives the credit to the team when it succeeds and who takes up the responsibility if the team doesnt succeed. This gesture definitely helps the leader to gain more confidence from his teammates.
batye   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   3/3/2013 7:57:00 PM
Re: What If
"like a pack of lemmings" - Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. It's a myth, but it's remarkable how many people believe it.

The misconception of lemming "mass suicide" is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Disney Studio illustrator Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title "The Lemming with the Locket". This comic, which was inspired by a 1953 American Mercury article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.[10][11] Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration.[12] A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to CalgaryAlberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.

 in the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness create fake idea and get away with it... 


if the same movie get produced the present time - Animal welfare groups would take Disney to court for killing lemmings...

as new technology hits the market...Markets do cope with change as some Co. do survive some do go down... 
batye   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   3/3/2013 7:48:35 PM
Re: Yes or No
I'm sorry but I have to disagree as not always... some want to retain it individuality and want to develop it own style/way... it could create hidden conflict...
nasimson   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   2/27/2013 2:30:36 PM
Re: Yes or No
@tekedge: Isnt this true as well that when the boss is seen as someone who works to attain increasingly higher goals, employees will be impressed and more willing to mirror that behavior. It's a win-win for everyone.
nasimson   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   2/27/2013 2:25:58 PM
What If
What happens if there's a sudden change in the market or a disruptive technology arrives? How do you reverse direction to avoid running off the cliff, like a pack of lemmings?
Pubudu   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   2/27/2013 12:19:07 PM
Re: Conversation vs road blocking
I agree with you and larry,


This is an true and applicable for not only a C-suite but also any presentation.


vnewman   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   2/27/2013 2:12:19 AM
Re: yes and no
I love this list.  The only caveat I would make is sometimes you have to say no.  Our department is constantly being asked to make exceptions to policies for this "VIP" or to sacrifice security at times to make someone's job easier.  Other times, the resources it would take to complete a task puts an unreasonable burden on the department and other projects that may be just as important would suffer.  No one likes a naysayer for sure, in the same way no one respects a yes-man who overpromises and underdelivers.  But in certain circumstances I prefer a flat-out no without having to do a song and dance if it is for the greater good...
angelfuego   Words to Never Use in the C-Suite   2/26/2013 10:11:09 PM
Re: yes and no
I really enjoyed your article. Thanks for the tips. I will definitely add them to my tool belt when dealing with colleagues. I totally agree with everything you said. I study and practice affirmations, so I strongly believe that words carry a lot of power and can shift perspectives, choices, options, interactions with others, and can impact business decisions. The power of words are often mistakenly, underrated.
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