Dealing with senior management
As a project manager, your ability to deal effectively with senior management is critical. Depending on the context of your project, senior management can include the project sponsor, the governance body, the client, or any other key stakeholders.
At first glance, communication seems like a natural skill, just like breathing. We communicate all the time at work or in our personal lives, with our colleagues, friends, spouse, and kids; it actually takes concentrated effort to spend a day without communicating. Yet clear communication often remains a challenge, in all dimensions of our lives.
When communication with senior management is poor, we can suffer ineffective governance bodies, a project sponsor not sufficiently involved, or a difficult client or stakeholder—so much that sometimes working on the computer, even on a difficult task, can be the equivalent of a vacation.
Our leadership role
We can spend a lot of time blaming the other parties. However, as strategic project leaders, it is our role to invest enough energy to optimize our relationships and communication with senior management. Hiding behind tasks to avoid the burden of being a good communicator is not an option for a strategic project leader.
How to improve communication with senior management
Communication requires the effort and collaboration of both parties involved. While we do not control the behavior of others, we definitely can influence our own. It requires a good combination of self-awareness, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. These are vital leadership skills for project managers, not optional soft skills.
To achieve better results as a leader, it is important to minimize the barriers to communication with senior management.
The first step to improving communication with senior management is to understand the objective of the communication. A communication may be required for different reasons:
- Providing information
- Having a strategic discussion
- Obtaining an approval
- Managing issues
The approach should be adjusted to the objective. Otherwise, the message will be confusing, you will be easily sidetracked by questions, and you may potentially exit the meeting with a sense of failure.
It is important to consider the audience. When you communicate to the clients, the project sponsor, or the governance body, it is likely that they will not all be experts in the subject. You will be talking to many intelligent persons, all paid to have an opinion, and all having different perspectives according to their areas of expertise. They also have a distance from the details of the project and have limited time. It is essential to understand their context and perspectives and adapt.
You have to start the discussion at a level that they can understand. It is pointless and even risky to start the discussion a few levels ahead of the audience. Because each person has a different background and context, the meaning of words may not be the same for two persons. If you work in an industry that is heavy in technical language, it is easy to overload the message with technical terms. It happens a lot in fields such as IT and engineering, but it can happen in any field. It is better to avoid abstract, overly-formal language, and ensure the message is understood by the audience.
You need to review your content. The goal should not be information overload. To support a useful conversation, you only want to provide the most pertinent information.
- Timeliness: Is the information provided at the appropriate moment?
- Accuracy: Are you providing accurate information to support decision-making?
- Quantity: are you providing the right quantity of information?
Context is your compass. It is important to have the proper engagement with stakeholders prior to the official meeting. It may include bilateral meetings, working group, and conversation in private to inform and resolve issues before the official meeting.
Assumptions are often overlooked, but they have a significant impact. It includes your assumptions and the assumptions of the members of the audience. Do you go to the meeting assuming it will be difficult and with negative perceptions or thoughts? It will find a way to show and impact the results. Does the audience have a preconceived opinion on the subject? You may need to walk the path at a slower pace.
Your relationships with senior management make all the difference. It is better to develop them throughout the life of the project. Your presentation to senior management will benefit from the trust you have already built with them, in any other context. Use any opportunity to build relationships and trust.
Finally, don’t be afraid of questions. They are not a threat. The executives are busy and just not always an expert in the subject. Help them better understand and make decisions. Provide concise and clear answers. If needed, don’t improvise too much and send the answer offline after the meeting. Honesty is essential.
Please check my new book, published in paperback and on Amazon Kindle, Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: Achieve better results in a dynamic world. It was published on February 13, 2015.
For more brilliant insights, check out Michel’s website: Project-Aria