project managers must prioritize talking points to engage executives and keep meetings on track
BY MICHAEL APPLEBAUM
ILLUSTRATION BY STUART BRIERS
Project managers live and die by the details—but that's not always an asset. To grab—and hold—the attention of executives and project sponsors, practitioners must focus on what matters most.
Executives and project sponsors spend their days going from meeting to meeting, absorbing information on the fly and making decisions as they go. Forcing senior leaders to wade through minutiae won't hold their attention—and distractions can lead to dire project results.
One in three unsuccessful projects fails to meet goals due to poorly engaged sponsors, according to PMI's 2014 Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Executive Sponsor Engagement—Top Driver of Project and Program Success. Furthermore, 30 percent of executive sponsors are frequently overextended across many projects, the Pulse report says.
“The higher up in an organization the attendees are, the less time they typically have for meetings,” says Robert Prol, PMP, project manager for the Global Services Centre—Tax at KPMG, a PMI Global Executive Council member, Montvale, New Jersey, USA. “It's rare that a 30-minute meeting starts on time, or doesn't end early due to someone needing to board a plane, take a call or make a call.”
These constraints place the onus on project managers to maximize the time they have with executives, says Søren Porskrog, PMP, a Copenhagen, Denmark-based program manager at LEO Pharma, a pharmaceutical company.
“C-level executives probably only have 15 minutes in a week to talk about a given project, so I make sure I have relevant information from all of the work streams at my disposal,” he says.
To mitigate the risk that executives and sponsors will miss critical information when they have to leave meetings early, Mr. Prol uses an “inverted pyramid” presentation structure so that the most important items are discussed first. For instance, a typical meeting plan would start with a review of the amended agenda, followed by a discussion of open-action items. Then the team would address information gaps and other important topics that were submitted in advance (see “One Step Ahead” sidebar on the next page).
“Important topics would be actions and activities that are on the critical path and at risk, decisions that need to be made or escalations that need to be addressed,” says Mr. Prol. “If we can't resolve an item quickly, we table it and schedule a follow-up to address that specific issue. However, if the issue is critical, we may decide to focus on it in the project update meeting and table the rest of the agenda for next time.”
For his regular meetings with the C-suite, Mr. Porskrog displays the data he has collected from previous steering committee meetings into a main deck and bonus slides. The latter might contain detailed information, for instance, on new customer leads generated by a commercial work stream, most of which concerns only the chief commercial officer (CCO), he says.
“The CIO and CEO would only want to know: ‘Are you on target with your projected numbers of leads?’” Mr. Porskrog explains. “I would put that information in the main deck and reserve the full list of company names and meeting dates for the bonus slides. If the CCO wants to know more, he can jump to that part of the presentation at any time.”
“The higher up in an organization the attendees are, the less time they typically have for meetings.”
—Robert Prol, PMP, KPMG, Montvale, New Jersey, USA
CATER TO THE AUDIENCE
Project leaders must tailor the presentation to each member of the C-suite, as each executive has a unique interest in a project. “Some execs are focused on risk, others on financials and still others on project assumptions,” says Mag Saad, PMP, director of outsourced Project Management Office services at Capgemini, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Mr. Saad incorporates visual elements that easily identify the primary categories that each exec is focused on and then maintains that format for recurring meetings. For example, he might use a horizontal timeline with color-coded blocks to update project milestones.
“You have to keep blocks of information in the same position so execs get used to where they are placed,” Mr. Saad says.
If possible, project managers should use a personal touch. Learning about the preferred communication style and data presentation of individual leaders increases the likelihood that project managers will connect with an exec during a meeting, says Clement Chin, PMP, senior project manager at RAC Insurance, Perth, Australia.
That's easier said than done, of course, particularly at large organizations. When Mr. Chin worked at an investment firm that had roughly 1,000 employees, he learned the preferences of division heads primarily through teleconferences.
ONE STEP AHEAD
Sending out high-level details in advance lets project managers get ahead of the game during executive meetings, says Mag Saad, PMP, director of outsourced PMO services at Capgemini, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This approach allows the team to spend more time on strategy than context setting.
For example, if the chief financial officer needs to approve a budget increase in an upcoming meeting, the project manager should send out a summary memo ahead of time. The message should outline the amount of the proposed increase and bullet points that provide context, such as the changes that led to the budget overrun.
“Focus on the ‘what,’ but make sure you're ready to get into the details of ‘why’ in the meeting,” Mr. Saad says.
“Asking my boss or others who knew them better than I did about what they were like, what their interests and motivations were, helped as well,” Mr. Chin says. “If my boss was having a catch-up with one of them, I might ask if it was okay if I sat in on [that meeting].”
Regardless of the size of the organization, project managers must maximize the time they have with executives to keep their teams—and their projects— on track.
“The higher the level of attendee, the more time I may take to prepare for the meeting,” Mr. Prol says. “It's important to give executives the focus of the project team at the start, so we can address their needs, and let them move on to other meetings or activities.” PM
”[Because of limited time with C-level executives] I make sure I have relevant information from all of the work streams at my disposal.”
—Søren Porskrog, PMP, LEO Pharma, Copenhagen, Denmark
PM NETWORK AUGUST 2015 WWW.PMI.ORG
AUGUST 2015 PM NETWORK