Behaviors to Master When Communicating with Senior Management

By: Jim Stewart, PMP on April 24th, 2019

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Behaviors to Master When Communicating with Senior Management

Training and Development

As a project management consultant, I frequently work with senior managers at the Director level and above. Currently, I am reporting to two C-level executives – the Chief Operating Officer of the consulting firm for whom I consult, and the Chief Technology Officer of the company where I am embedded. (Three, actually, if you count the VP who I am dotted-line reporting to on a particular cloud project.)

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Speak Using Senior Management Terms, Not Yours

When project managers communicate we tend to talk in terms of Gantt charts or dependencies, and use jargon like finish-to-start, float and lag. (Or in Agile, sprints and velocity.)

While all those terms are good and necessary for us to communicate with each other, they are not necessarily what senior management wants to hear. While we are focused on our project or projects, senior management is focused on the portfolio of projects and programs, creating strategic advantages, “making numbers,” innovation, growing the market, and exploiting competitive advantages just to name a few. The bottom line – to use a management term – is you need to communicate to senior management using their terms, not yours.

What follows is a list of behaviors I’ve learned we should master when communicating with senior management:

  • Communicate clearly and effectively. It’s not just a slogan to put on your LinkedIn page. Management needs clarity. If you’re writing a report for management, think several levels up. The last thing you want them to say is “I don’t understand what this is in reference to.” Or even worse, “This has poor grammar and misspellings.” You have spell checkers – use them. And/or get someone whose opinion you trust to review your reports before you share them.
  • Put yourself in their place. Think about the things that matter to them and when you approach them, understand they don’t want to hear about line 140 in your Gantt chart. Not unless, there is a reason to go down that road, e.g., there is some risk or benefit involved.
  • Keep your meetings brief. I rarely, if ever, get more than 30 minutes with a senior manager. And even then, at best it’s once a week. So, make sure you are prepared with what you want to say or show. They have very little time for extra words or for you to explain the problem they already understand. Tell them what you’d do about it. They are tremendously busy and if you can make their 30-minute meeting into a 15-minute one, so much the better.
  • Know exactly what they want - and deliver it. As part of my role, I have to provide the portfolio on a spreadsheet every two weeks. Yes, it’s also in an electronic dashboard. But current management loves Excel, because they love pivot tables and sorting. They also prefer the spreadsheet to have no variation in font, scrolling, etc. from reporting period to reporting period. So, I make sure while I’m checking for content, an admin is double-checking for spelling, grammar, etc. These things matter.
  • Metrics. Management loves things they can measure. “How am I doing now compared to how I was doing yesterday?” “Is the project on schedule and budget?” Don’t just say it – prove it.
  • Less is more. I have lost count of the number of times my proud PowerPoints were trimmed down from 8 slides to 4 slides, and ultimately from 2 to barely 1. Keep it concise. The report you’re turning in might be part of a larger report being consolidated and your manager might have less time to report to their When in doubt, see the third bullet.
  • No jokes. Managers, collectively, don’t have a sense of humor. Individually they might. But they are worried about one thousand things and your project is just one of them. And unless you are very senior, it is not necessarily the project they worry about.
  • Accept negative feedback graciously. Some of these bosses are really tough. But if they give you feedback about your performance or how you handle yourself with a customer, listen without being defensive.
  • Make them look good. Whether you’re working full-time or as a consultant, they hire you for one reason – results. When they can go in front of their bosses and say, “This project is finished”, or “We know where the risks are and have mitigated them”, they are very happy.
  • Don’t expect unconditional love. I heard a consultant say that once to a group. His name is Alan Weiss and he knows a thing or two about consulting and gets the job done. If you work for an organization who celebrates success, good for you. If you don’t, you’ll need to find your reward in your paycheck and in a job well done.
  • Stand your ground. Management – good management - isn’t looking for yes men/women or someone who cowers. You need to state your case clearly, own up when you make a mistake and back up your arguments professionally.

In conclusion, I’m not saying you should abandon your Gantt charts and risk registers. Use those to communicate with your peers and, if they want to see them, senior management. But understand senior management is thinking about things from a different perspective than you are typically. And the better you understand this perspective and what they need, the more successful you’ll be in the long run.

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