Bottom line on top, our sponsors want clear, concise, candid communications, and they want to be able to trust us to know the details, understand the options, and advise them on next steps.
How can I be so sure? They told me so.
I had a great opportunity to hear directly from an executive panel of project sponsors this past week, thanks to the Project Management Institute Central Iowa Chapter.
The forum was a typical discussion panel, with introductions, a moderator, pre-selected questions, and then plenty of opportunities for the audience to ask questions as well. The panel was moderated by Maria Volante of Dardis Communications whose facilitation included supplementing both the questions and answers with value-add input from her own experiences. The panel participants included Dan Greteman from Nationwide Insurance; Susie Thomann from Principal Financial Group, Doug Gumm from FBL Financial, and Christiaan Lidstrom from Wells Fargo. Each of the panelists brought years of project experience to the discussion; each provided their own unique perspective and demonstrated their passion about the topics at hand.
Overall, the event was a tremendous success. It was nice to see the PMI-CIC providing such a timely and relevant topic from which everyone benefited. It was clear that several members of the panel (including the moderator) had worked together before, and their easy rapport made the dialog engaging and interesting. They handled the questions with just the right balance of candor and grace, and did a great job acknowledging, understanding, and addressing their audience – a room full of project managers at varying levels of experience and skill.
And an essential message came through from each and every one of them, loud and clear that I want to make sure you know. When we communicate with them, they want us to be clear, concise, and candid; and they want to be confident that we know the details, have considered the options, and can make a recommendation of how to proceed.
They want us to be clear. They want us not to beat around the bush, or hide behind details, or muddy our message with so much information that they have to filter out the noise to figure out what we’re trying to say. If we need them to take action, we need to be clear what we want them to do. If we’re just giving them information, we need to say so.
They want us to be concise. They’re busy people, and their time is precious. They don’t want us to spend volumes, pages, or even paragraphs telling them what they need to know. A simple, concise statement is best. One of the panelists mentioned a one-page form he prefers, allowing each of the relevant pieces of information to be captured and documented, all within one page, so he can understand the situation at a glance.
- They want us to be candid. We must state the truth, as soon as we know it – good or bad. The project manager/sponsor relationship must be strong enough to handle whatever comes, and that strength is built on a foundation of honesty, accuracy, and trust. If there’s bad news, or if we’ve got a tough message to carry, we need to just tell it to them straight.
- Once we’ve shared a clear, concise, candid message, they expect us to be able to go much deeper than that if needed. They know that we are closer to the details of the project than they are, and if they ask questions or need more detailed information about a topic, they expect us to have it at our finger tips.
- They expect us to have considered the options for how to handle a given situation, and to be able to summarize options which we know in much greater precision than the fifteen minutes of their time will allow. Before bringing an issue, a decision, or a risk to their attention, they expect us to have thought through the best ways to handle it.
- And, they expect us to make a recommendation. They value our input, and they expect to hear our recommendation. If we’re aware of the situation, familiar with the details, and have considered the options, we’re very well positioned to recommend the next course of action. They may not always agree, but they want to hear what we have to say, and they take our input seriously.
Together, the panelists hit on great topics, relevant, timely, and critical for project managers; and they supplied plenty of anecdotes to support their ideas. The underlying theme was the “big projects” – the large, complex, and risky ones, with extensive impacts and multi-million-dollar price tags. And, their responses addressed both what they expect from project managers and what we project managers can expect from them. I look forward to sharing more nuggets gleaned from this dynamic and insightful panel in the months to come, but this first message was so compelling, so critical, and so consistently held by the panelists, that I didn’t want to do anything to distract from the message.
Regardless of whether your sponsor sits within the executive ranks of an organization, the message is still applicable. As a project manager, we need to be sure that we make our communications with them clear, concise and candid; and that we come to the table prepared with the details, the options, and a recommendation of what to do next.
Cinda Voegtli has written about The Medal-Worthy PMs Execs Are Desperate to Hire, complete with quotes directly from the executives (who don't seem to care much about Gantt charts). Any project leader—or any project team member, for that matter—should know how to speak up and make your case when something's not right or could be improved. If you're not sure what your sponsor wants, the best strategy is to simply ask.