Managing senior executives

getting the right support, at the right level, and at the right time for your project

Why Are Projects So Hard for Leaders? The Facts of Life

The leadership of organizations in the current climate are always under pressure to meet expectations from shareholders to maximize earnings and from customers to lower costs and provide better service. In order to meet those competing expectations, the senior leadership must balance to different perspectives at the same time as illustrated by the model below (Holland, W.E. 2006).

Run the Business/Change the Business

Companies have two things to do simultaneously (Exhibit 1). There are the operational Run the Business activities to get products and services out the door and get paid for them at the end of the month. Most organizations have fairly robust processes and systems in place to handle these operational needs of they will quickly be out of business! However, the second axis involves the Change the Business activities that are undertaken to ensure the organization will be competitive in the future. The fact is that projects are on the Change the Business axis. Unfortunately for those of us in the project management arena, the operational activities on the Run the Business axis usually trump any activities on the Change the Business axis. Why? Because the facts of life in the first paragraph. And the other challenge we face challenges their leadership in a way most have not been trained for adequately.

(Holland, 2006, p. 1)

Exhibit 1 (Holland, 2006, p. 1)

Projects and Change

Projects create changes in a variety of ways. The most obvious of these changes occur when the project involves large systems implementations. Those systems usually touch nearly everyone in the company and create changes in:

♦ Work (business) processes

♦ Procedures

♦ Systems

♦ Performance expectations

Often a project will uncover bad business practices that are not directly related to the project, but must be dealt with by the management team. For example, on one of my projects where we were installing a new software application, we discovered that sales people were giving administrative assistants their network ID and password so their orders could be entered into the delivery system. That was in clear violation of company policies, security practices, et cetera. However, in spite of that, it was very difficult for management to address the problem because the biggest violators were the top sales reps!

Dangerous Assumptions Made by Operations

When the project is sanctioned by management, Operations often assumes that it does not “own” the preparation for an the final implementation — the project does. For those of us in the project management arena, we know that Operations must own the preparation because they will ultimately own the results that provide the payback for the project in the first place (the business case). However, even when we are fortunate enough to have an Operations group that accepts the responsibility for the preparation and results, they will usually underestimate the complexity and difficulty of getting ready to accept the project deliverables. They often have the attitude that ‘our people are smart. If you just give us the software, equipment, or whatever, our people will figure out how to use it effectively.’ That is rarely the case, as we can all testify to! This is the primary reason we have so many projects that are technical successes and business failures.

So if these are the problems, what is the role of leadership and how can the project manager influence the leaders of the company?

Role of leadership in projects

The first and most important role of leaders is to set direction that provides the answer that the organization wants to know - “why are we doing this project anyway?” The second important role for leaders is to help the project manager build commitment to the results of the project through visible support. That may mean town hall meetings, messages on a frequent basis, and a multitude of other ways. The key is that the commitment is visible. The final key role is to reach across boundaries to create alignment. Many projects create conflicts that only the leadership can address. For example, when I led a project to install a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, there was a clear conflict between sales, where the need was for easy and quick entry, and manufacturing and accounting’s need for accuracy. Only the leadership could address who would compromise on what in that situation.

A Script for the Sponsor Role

We need to get the Sponsor a role description that identifies how they must participate during the course of the project. For example, the Sponsor must provide guidance and direction to the project manager on the business requirements as the project unfolds. This individual must also take the lead in resolving cross-functional organizational issues like to one I described above. The Sponsor should also be the individual who ultimately approves any changes to project scope and provides the funds required for approved changes.

Role of Champion

Another key individual that I want assigned to my projects is the appointment of a Champion. Who is that person? My choice is a key lieutenant of the project Sponsor. Someone the Sponsor trusts and who can be much more involved in the details as the project progresses. I want this person to work with me to ensure the successful adoption of the project deliverables and evaluate changes to business process and their impact so we can identify and mitigate business risks. Finally I want this person to be the focal point of communications with the broader organization so the information about the project is coming from an insider, not an outsider from the project (whether or not you have a company badge!). This individual can also assist me to influence the Sponsor and the broader leadership team.

Working Committee

I also like to form a Working Committee that represents the functional areas affected by the project. They can bring expert business understanding to the project and evaluate the pros and cons of various options and ensure the business integrity of the solutions that we chose during the course of the project. I also like to use them as a communication conduit between the project and the rest of the company.

Handling Problems and Crises

Another way to successfully engage leaders is to have an escalation process defined well in advance of needing it. I want to let the leadership (sponsor, champion and/or other key leaders) how I will handle problems and crises when they occur. There are 4 key principles that I operate on in this area.

  1. I notify the Sponsor and Champion as soon as I suspect that a problem is on the horizon.
  2. I work with the Champion to “frame” the message to the Sponsor correctly so that they don’t either misinterpret the situation or jump to conclusions.
  3. If they need to inform the rest of the leadership team because of the nature of the situation, I build the message for them – and keep it balanced!
  4. Finally, I never go to them with a crisis or a problem unless I am clear about how I and team are preparing to handle it.

Danger Signs and Symptoms of Weak Leadership Support

If you begin to see the following behaviors during the course of your project, you have a problem. They can range from pure neglect to pressure to sharp words. There can also be inappropriate delegation for critical leadership responsibilities. For example, delegating decisions to the Champion that you know clearly should be made by the broader leadership team (e.g. a broad change in policy that touches a large part of the organization). And there is always the potential for corporate politics to rear up and create and problem related to the boundaries of authority.

What Do You Do If You See These Symptoms?

If you see any of these behaviors, the key is to take action immediately. Sit down with the Sponsor and Champion and review the role definitions to make sure they are still relevant. At the same time, remind them of the role they signed up for and make sure they are still committed. I find the theatre metaphor works well in these situations.

Theater Metaphor

In a play we all know that the actors play roles and have definite scripts. It would unthinkable for a play to open without all the actors knowing their lines and dressed in the appropriate costumes. We would do that through rehearsals in preparation for Opening Day. The same must be true for a project and the people within the company.

And it is not just with the leadership, but keep a watch out for rogue project team members or disgruntled members of the Working Committee. Deal with these people as soon as you are aware of what is going on. Finally, make sure you have a communications or change management expert to respond to rumors immediately so they don’t grow and create misunderstandings or worse.

Five principles to live (or die) by

I have 5 principles for dealing with leadership during the course of my project. They are:

  1. Define the roles for the leadership team
  2. Use operations integration methods
  3. Monitor the situation
  4. Make sure people are ready — both within operations and within the project
  5. Communicate with management

1. Define Leadership Roles

Remember that the leaders have both authority and respect within the company. There are times when only they can communicate certain messages. Messages intended to persuade must come from the commercial side, not the project. If the message involves expertise then it must come from the Champion. If the persuasion must denote authority then only the Sponsor can deliver that message.

Use that authority or respect and make sure the Sponsor and Champion are willing to play their part in the play. The other part of this principle involves how they manage the mid-level management team. My experience is that this is the area where the greatest resistance to the change comes from. I need their boss to give them the message.

2. Use Operations Integration Methods

You will need a change management and communications expert to help you develop and communicate the case for change for the project. You must have the ability, in conjunction with the Champion, to work the political situation that occur and keep the right executives informed with the right “lines”.

3. Monitor the Situation

During the course of our project, we all know that there are other initiatives may impact your project occurring at the same time. You must keep open lines of communication with the project managers of those other initiatives so you can determine how the initiatives fit together. We all face the situation of too little time, too few resources, and too many conflicts. If you watch for any potential conflicts you can use your escalation process to keep your project front-and-center and not lose leadership support.

4. Make Sure They Are Ready

Before you move from the Execute phase to Close-out, you must assess the readiness of the organization to accept your project deliverables. You must give yourself and your team enough time to take actions to correct any deficiencies if you find them. Again, plan ahead to give yourself enough time because the tendency is to feel the relief that you are finishing and forget this step.

5. Manage the Leaders with Management

You must manage the relationship with the leadership the same way you manage other stakeholders of your project. Be sure to use rich communications and never allow them to be surprised. Escalate any problems using the protocols you established in advance and minimize the use of email. You should establish a regular meeting time with your Sponsor even if they are traveling even if it is only for 30 minutes. It is imperative to keep the lines of communication open and manage the relationship for when you will need it.

7 Key Points to Take Home

  1. Leaders often lose focus on projects once the decision has been made
  2. PM will need to be an active leader to keep senior management engaged
  3. Give senior management their role descriptions early
  4. Use a Champion and Working Committee to keep senior management’s attention
  5. Respond quickly when you see danger signs
  6. Use the theater metaphor to explain what help you need, and why you need it
  7. Remember the 5 principles to live or die by!

Campbell, G.M., PMP and Baker, Sunny, Ph.D. (2007) Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management, 4th ed. Penguin Press.

Holland, W.E, Ph.D. (2006) Red Zone Management: Project Management for the Executive Suite. WinHope Press.

Holland, W.E, Ph.D. (2004) Change Is the Rule. WinHope Press.

©2007 G. Michael Campbell
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA

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