There's a Place for those Who Know When to Use Their Gut or Their Head—or Both; Channel Your Inner Voice to Please Executive Ears
BY PETER FRETTY
Before you can explain how project management aligns with corporate strategy, you must understand how executives think and act. Even armed with the latest information, statistics and market thinking, executives often must rely on what they “feel” the outcome of a business decision will be.
Fortunes are gained and lost on “sure things.” In an uncertain world, the business reality is that project management does improve business results—project managers just need to convince senior management of that. “Executives need to be able to see that you understand how the project [or project management] itself drives a strategic business objective. This is what puts them at ease,” says Tara Rethore, vice president of organizational effectiveness and change management at Lafarge North America, a construction materials company in Herndon, Va., USA. Clarify with executives, “What is the end game? What does success look like? Then consider how [project management] will change the organization, because the organization will determine the success or failure of a project via its execution,” she says.
You can take a page from the executive handbook, learning when to lead from the heart and when to persuade with the mind. Instinct can help you anticipate executives' concerns, and a solid grasp of facts can back you up as you address those issues. ”You need to understand the end game. But be equally grounded in reality so that you can realistically point out the gaps and resource requirements—this is how you know the stretch involved,” Ms. Rethore says.
FROM THE HIP
Executives respond well when they see that project managers are diligently seeking to understand and work with organizational strategy. If you cannot demonstrate that you understand their goals and concerns, your pitch for a project management-centric culture won't ring true to their sensibilities. Demonstrate you're aware of their needs by addressing potential questions in advance, says Mark Ives, services director at MetaPM, a project management consultancy in Melbourne, Australia.
INSIDE EXECUTIVES' HEADS
If you make executives think you've read their minds, you're likely to get a positive response. Use these tips to influence executive opinion.
Do the homework. Understanding what is important to the executives is the first step to long-term success. “At Lafarge, the executive team tends to be very technically savvy, and it is important to understand the logical flow and be very clear about where there are or are not linear work parallels,” says Tara Rethore, Lafarge North America. “This is where visualization helps. Even if logic is not as linear as people like, you need to be able to demonstrate value of the end game.”
Speak the language. Getting the right lingo down shows the value added for their business, says Thomas Gerber, Credit Suisse. “When you are speaking in their language, it is far easier to show with transparency how your project covers needs of clients, employees and stakeholders,” he says. You need to know the trigger points, understand what drives them and be able to articulate the issues so that they grasp the point exactly. This requires foresight and the ability to “read the room.”
Foster the framework. Understand that for executives to accept your pitch, a mindset change may be in order. “It helps to have a consistent framework for managing change—one that can be adapted to the situation rather than a blueprint,” Ms. Rethore says. “This task, when not addressed upfront, can become a burden to project managers.” This is when it is important to understand the logical steps that your leadership team follows. Structure your case in a manner that your executive team can best relate to it, perhaps incorporating existing, familiar methodology. Keep it simple and always tie it to the business objective.
Be visual. Bridge the gaps by using meaningful and simple graphics to support the argument. “Take items that are nebulous and create consistency across the board through powerful visual representations,” Ms. Rethore says. “This does not have to be sophisticated, but it needs to resonate with the executive team and throughout the organization.”
When promoting a specific course of action or initiative, for example, make sure your proposal or business case includes sufficient hard data to assuage executive fears, says Thomas Gerber, vice president of business development at Credit Suisse's Private Banking Division, Zurich, Switzerland. He recommends you devise an executive communication strategy that works within your specific company's circumstances. Although your particular framework will be tailored to your unique company culture, you should strive to:
Make your case relevant to both management and key stakeholders
Define and document financial targets and non-financial achievement goals, such as stakeholder satisfaction
Establish a stringent framework that shows the correlation between financial targets and the proposed business activities.
Using your instinct to help guide decisions may not be as foreign a concept as you might think. As any project manager knows, sometimes risks can, and do, crop up suddenly. You can increase your worth in executives' eyes and demonstrate your business instinct by outlining a plan of action for potential problems that may occur between your project, a larger associated program or the greater corporate portfolio. In other words, a formalized risk management plan relies on facts but also probabilities. Mr. Gerber lists several things executives can expect:
WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR
Put management at ease by addressing their key concerns, says Caroline Ward, Basking Ridge, N.J., USA-based vice president of corporate strategy at Verizon Communications. When crafting your case, use these points as a guide:
Strategic benefits—Within the context of industry trends and competitor moves, will this investment help position the organization for sustainable competitive advantage over the long term? Will it move us closer to achieving our desired growth profile?
Customer benefits—Will this investment help us to better meet the needs of key customers or customer segments?
Financial benefits—What incremental revenues, cost savings or cost avoidance will this investment generate? Will this investment provide a return in excess of the capital costs? Over how long of a time horizon?
Potential risks—What are the risks involved in pursuing this investment? What are the risks of not pursuing this investment?
Potential options—What alternatives do we have?
Transparency about the dependencies between financial targets and the key drivers.
A logical storyline considering financial and non-financial aspects.
A thorough understanding of affected areas and people.
Taking such a proactive approach demonstrates a head for details and an ability to take multiple factors into consideration, Ms. Rethore says. “Be mindful of the interdependencies within and between projects, which include being able to be flexible and adjust to environmental changes.”
In deciding how to approach executives and positioning yourself as a trusted advisor, remember that instinct is useful as long as it's tempered with practical considerations, says Lynn Robinson, founder of Intuitive Consulting Inc., a consulting firm in Wellesley Hills, Mass., USA, and author of Trust Your Gut: How the Power of Intuition Can Grow Your Business [Kaplan, 2006].
“Asking the questions that cannot always be answered through logic and analysis shows that you have a guide for your instinct,” she says. According to Ms. Robinson, intuition is most appropriate when:
There is insufficient data
There is too much data
You need to make a decision quickly and there is no time for research
Your data seems to support several different options
The situation calls for an out-of-the-box approach.
IT TAKES TWO
Although instinct is important for anticipating questions and problems, in most cases, data should be the trump card. One of most compelling reasons to rely on data is that in most business situations, the personal element should be removed from the equation, Mr. Gerber says. “Instinct is something very personal and should not be the only argument for important decisions,” he says. If your case is based mostly on your own vision, you'll lose the interest of executives who have differing priorities.
Post-project analysis is another place where data should be the main focus. Get your facts straight—and use them to support your case. They work especially well in a post-mortem analysis to prove how project management could have saved time, money or helped to solve issues. “Data is particularly stronger than instinct when management needs to understand what really happened, as opposed to understanding the causes,” says Alexandre Rodrigues, PMP, a Lisbon, Portugal-based executive partner of PMO Consulting/Threon–Iberia. “We can't manage and improve what we do not measure. Data provides a crucial basis to perform benchmarking within the organization and against other organizations in the market.”
INSTINCT IS SOMETHING VERY PERSONAL AND SHOULD NOT BE THE ONLY ARGUMENT FOR IMPORTANT DECISIONS.
—THOMAS GERBER, CREDIT SUISSE'S PRIVATE BANKING DIVISION, ZURICH, SWITZERLAND
This information should play a key role in your case to executives, he says, because “this is essential for steering the business and for performance appraisal.”
Ultimately, a blend of both instinct and data will help you make the most-effective case for project management or your project. In some situations, one is more appropriate than the other, but each can be used to temper and even enhance the other. “You can leverage the data to understand situations, but you need to be able to interpret the data and see how the strategy melds with the organization,” Ms. Rethore says. “Data are data, and do not become information without the interpretation of an individual.”
Tomasz Wegrzynski, VECTRA SA, Gdynia, Poland
PHOTO BY VECTRA SA/KACPER PEMPEL
SPOTLIGHT: TOMASZ WEGRZYNSKI
DEMONSTRATING a shrewd combination of market observation and business instinct, Tomasz Wegrzynski guided Vectra SA, Poland's second-largest cable TV company, to announce in early 2006 its plans to invest roughly €14 million to 16 million to upgrade its communications networks. The goal of the project is to strategically extend the reach of the company's broadband Internet access and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services. The investment is a bold move for VECTRA, a relative newcomer in VoIP. Although the Internet has been a growing focus for the cable television-based organization, the company didn't launch its VoIP service until 2005.
Q. What role does instinct play in making crucial leadership decisions?
A. Business instinct is undoubtedly a kind of unique intuition supported by a leader's knowledge and experience. This kind of instinct is very important and can understandably be critical on the pathway to success. However, this is only true when a suitable background of experience and knowledge regarding the company and the market situation are present.
Q. How has instinct helped you in your career?
A. One of the most important decisions I instinctively made was to withdraw VECTRA operations from our local Gdańsk market and courageously enter new territories. It was our reaction to a sudden appearance of a strong competitor—Polska Telewizja Kablowa (PTK) [a cable TV provider now owned by UPC, a communications company in Amsterdam]. PTK invested a fair amount of money in the development of its cable services in Poland, and it appeared that it would be a hard competitor. I took into consideration two options: focusing on fighting with PTK in the local market, or closing the operations in Gdańsk and moving on to other areas.
The decision was not easy, seeing that the Polish cable market had not been measured yet, and we did not know the potential for the growth of this business in Poland. Based on my business instinct, I decided to [avoid] PTK, not even start a struggle with it, definitely stop operations in Gdańsk and intensify our activity outside the Gdańsk region.
This decision appeared to be right in the long-term. Other local cable operators decided to compete with PTK in Gdańsk. They were all fighting for second place using most of their potential, and they did not have enough strength to develop country-wide. With time, they have vanished, being taken over by other companies. At the same time, VECTRA was growing in the country, and soon, we had become the second-largest cable operator in Poland. Now, we are a big fish in the sea.
Q. Besides instinct, what leadership skills have been important in your career?
A. Honesty, straightforwardness and openness have been instrumental. There is no room for authority without those qualities. People must believe that you are fair and frank with them so that the team doesn't wonder whether you will keep your promises and lead them to the stated goals. All they care about then is to do their work properly.
Q. What strategies have helped you get where you are today?
A. Investing in others has reaped its rewards. I decided early on to invest heavily in people who were willing to develop their skills while also developing the organization. As a result, the most important positions in the organization have been taken by very competent people who have earned their status with a lot of hard work.
Q. What lessons has the entire journey taught you?
A. First, to have fair rules, communicate them and stick to them firmly. Second, “smell your herd,” meaning that you should not only read executive summaries and look into the documents. Instead, you need to talk to people and be close to everything that is happening. The more you know about yourself and the company, the more effective your instinct-based decisions will be.
LEADERSHIP 2007 WWW.PMI.ORG