Project Management Institute

Elevated Talk

Getting A Project Done On Time and Under Budget Is Not the Only Benchmark For Success



Working to integrate seven of the new Valley National Bank branches acquired by his employer, Wells Fargo, Doug Sharp was ready to make decisions, willing to change course when necessary and available to speak with senior team members whenever they called—often in the middle of the night. In the end, though, the project was late and 15 percent over budget. Worse for Mr. Sharp, his counterpart—who was managing a separate, but similar portfolio— completed the project on schedule and within budget.

When it came time to assign the next the next project—after Wells Fargo acquired Great American Bank in San Diego—Mr. Sharp's boss recommended his colleague instead of him. Surprisingly, however, the head of retail banking and the ultimate decision-maker made a different choice, requesting Mr. Sharp. The reason? Mr. Sharp demonstrated great communication, and ultimately his project was more in line with the company's goals.

“It's sort of a self-deprecating story,” says Mr. Sharp, now president and CEO of the Project and Development Services group at real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle. “But I learned that communications skills are the most important attribute for a project manager.” At Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle, where Mr. Sharp's group oversees about 600 professionals and $3 billion in capital projects in 60 countries, Mr. Sharp strives to meet budgets and timelines—but only in conjunction with critical thinking about the sponsor's goals and with clear communication with top executives. That, he says, is the proven method for gaining trust, confidence and overall success.

You will gain immeasurably in the eyes of top executives if you are looking out for the same interests.

—Norman Wolfe, CEO, Quantum Leaders

Chicken or Egg?

While Mr. Sharp learned the importance of communication early in his career, it's an expertise that often can take a back seat to the teaching and honing of technical skills. The result is a great aptitude for the science of project management (the technical tasks and processes) and a lack of knowledge about the art—or the human side—of the field.

That imbalance has led to problems, as the technical aspects rarely make projects fail, says Jim Johnson, chairman of the Standish Group International, based in West Yarmouth, Mass., USA. The Standish Group reported in 2001 that only 28 percent of IT projects in the United States are completed successfully. In 2004, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society found that only about 16 percent of IT projects in the United Kingdom are considered successful.

Experts say bettering communication between project managers and executive decision-makers is a necessary step on the path to improvement. The best way for project managers to gain the confidence of top executives is to think like one. That's not easy, as project managers and executives have fundamentally different focuses. “Project managers can have a tendency to concentrate on the individual project, whereas executives look at the big picture,” says Tim Melville-Ross, chairman of global property advisors DTZ Holdings in London. There's an inherent “disconnect,” adds Robert A. Neiman, a partner at Robert H. Schaffer & Associates Stamford, Conn., USA, and the author of Execution Plain and Simple: 12 Steps to Achieving Any Goal On Time and On Budget. “Senior executives speak the language of money—constantly evaluating the value to their business,” Mr. Neiman says. “Project managers tend to focus more on technical decisions—not economic or strategic ones.”

Live, Breathe, Eat

One way for project managers to bridge that gap is to better understand the company—its finances and political culture—and then fit the project into the corporation's long-term goals. Jennifer Whitt, PMP, president of Atlanta, Ga., USA-based Optimo Inc., begins projects for clients including Accenture and Bell South by first learning about their business objectives. Is the impetus to boost sales, meet U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations or decrease time to market? Ms. Whitt designs the project plan with that success driver in mind.

Mr. Sharp agrees, pointing to a recent example in which LaSalle was managing a retail bank's national expansion. Through speaking with executives, Mr. Sharp learned that speed to market was the project's most important goal. With that in mind, his group made drastic changes in the process—creating a new technology and reassigning teams. Those changes allowed each branch to open 30 days earlier and won them an incentive bonus, a discretionary bonus and the client's trust.

Taking relationship-building a step further, experts say that true leaders will think in terms of what is right for the entire organization—not just right for a single project. Thinking holistically may mean even making a sacrifice on a project if it can benefit the company as a whole. “You will gain immeasurably in the eyes of top executives if you are looking out for the same interests,” says Norman Wolfe, the CEO of Quantum Leaders, a management consultancy headquartered in Irvine, Calif., USA. Along similar lines, a project manager should make sure his or her speech reflects the needs of the CEO and the company. A project manager should not say, “I need this,“ or ”I must have that,” says Steve Clements, chief consultant at Executive Speak/Write in Atlanta. Instead, he advises, a project manager should make needs “benefit driven” by saying, “this project can be vastly improved if …, or your employees will benefit from …” Mr. Clements says. “This creates a relationship and makes an executive feel like she's part of the team. That gives the executive incredible buy-in.”


Here's how to translate project management speak into language an executive will understand—and appreciate.

Project Management Speak Executive Equivalent
Gantt Chart Timeline
Dependency Task Sequence, or Order of Tasks
Resource Be Specific: People, Money or Supplies
Delays Reveal the Problem in Conjunction With the Solution
Project Risk/Risk Identification Potential Issues
PMBOK® Guide Documented Best Practices
Objectives Be Specific, Such as “Cash Flow”
Work Breakdown Structure List of Tasks, Scheduling
Labor Hours People
Critical Path Priority Tasks
Earned Value Calculation Project Status
Cost Performance Index On or Off Budget? By How Much? Give Statistics
Release Plan Where, How and When the Project Will be Delivered
Deployment Install System, Rollout
Planning and Coordination Events Planning

Sources: Eric A. Spanitz, Mark L. Lamendola, Gina Westcott, Tom Hallet, Frances Cruz

Additionally, project managers should get to know their executive sponsors. “You should take an interest in these people; they play a large role in your career,” says Tim Kinslow, practice manager for Web-based solutions at Trigent Software Solutions Inc., which is based in Natick, Mass., USA, with development centers in Bangalore, India. Mr. Kinslow says he speaks with other project managers to learn how an executive likes to receive information and how he or she makes decisions. Web research may reveal if the executive has written any white papers, won any awards, or filed any patents. Mr. Kinslow also will develop a relationship with an administrative assistant. “They also have a lot to contribute; they are the ones who know the most about how an executive likes to be communicated with and how the person ticks,” he says.


In doing this investigation, however, it's imperative that a project manager employs common sense. Mr. Melville-Ross says that occasionally people approach him directly—to get around the CEO. “That can be counter-productive,” he says. “CEOs who are not that accessible are often conscious about hierarchy. Don't break those rules.”

Once a project manager has an understanding of her executive client, she should use it to her advantage. Executives always have “different personalities,” according to Ame Engelhart, a Hong Kong-based project manager with leading architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Ms. Engelhart says that culture plays a role—explaining that her Asian and European executive sponsors joke around much more than executives in the United States. Ms. Engelhart's strategy: “I go with it. That gives the client what he wants, and it helps me to get my way.”

Executive Lexicon

Project management, as most professions, has its own language. That's fine and invaluable for communicating with those in the profession, but most executives are not trained in project management lingo. They may not understand the verbiage, leading to a breakdown in communication. Worse, it can alienate a client and create distrust, says Gina M. Westcott, the director of management development programs at Boston University Corporate Education Center. “People who don't know the specific language may become defensive and not support nor trust what you are telling them,” she says.

Dan Kemp, a senior consultant at Delta Corporate Services in Parsippany, N.J., USA, uses “plain English” instead of project management or “technical whiz-bang terms” with project sponsors. Mr. Kemp has seen huge projects get scrapped and people let go because of bad communication. “If you can't communicate with top management, they'll find someone who can,” he says.

Ms. Engelhart says that she doesn't use project management or architect-speak. “I cloak my language in another suit,” she says. “I'll say, ‘This will be best operationally,’ or ‘This will save you tons of money.’ I speak in terms of the business benefit because that is the language executives understand.”

UA Cinemas in Hong Kong uses project managers for all construction efforts to help management focus on the existing operating business units and not “drive them to distraction with one-off projects,” according to Bob Vallone, general manager of UA Cinemas.

He asserts that project managers must understand their audience, especially as they lead project meetings. At UA Cinemas, the emphasis is on a clear, simple message. “At the end of each meeting the project manager will summarize each agenda item, verbally instruct each party what they must act on and then, within 24 hours of the meeting, each individual or company is given a timeline for action on the specific job or duty,” Mr. Vallone says. “The purpose is to inform the client of any issues and solve them from both a financial and process flow perspective.”

A project manager must be upfront and honest in addressing any problems that may arise, and experts agree that there is a right way and a wrong way to introduce bottlenecks. Executives want to hear about problems—followed by possible resolutions. Mr. Kinslow suggests putting the issue in the context of the project. He will explain what the team was expecting and then reveal what has happened. Immediately after, he will introduce his solutions for getting the project back on track.

While project managers should never argue with an executive stakeholder, they also should avoid some simple words that can make an executive feel as if he is being confronted. Instead of using the word, “but,” which can be interpreted as negative, project managers should use the word “and,” which is construed as positive and collaborative. For example, if an executive says that he needs something two weeks sooner, the ideal response is: “Yes, we can do that and we'll need to use two times the programmers.” (Not, “We can do that, but it will require two times the programmers.”)

Wish List

Executives get reams of information, but it often isn't the information that they want. Instead of going over the hundreds of items on a Gantt chart, a project manager should give a “dashboard” with four points informing whether or not they are on schedule, on budget, the activities finished and the quality concerns met. This should be on a single sheet of paper or a single PowerPoint slide.

Project managers also always should have a 20-second sound bite about the project status ready for the elevator encounter, and a five-minute update prepared for the water cooler run-in. In the event that a project manager doesn't know the answer to an executive's question, the best way to deal with that is by asking if you can get back to the executive, says Mark L. Lamendola, a project manager and the founder of Merriam, Kan., USA-based project management course developer Mind-connection. “Executives never want you to shoot from the hip.”

When communicating via e-mail, project managers must use the same short-and-sweet mandate. No business sentence should be more than 15 words, advises Claudia Coplon, the owner of Executive Speak/Write. Further, she suggests that one should write an e-mail, and then go back and cut it by at least 50 percent. A project manager should include only what can be read at a one-page glance on a computer screen, she says.

Last, all of the experts agree there's a certain amount of communication that requires no speaking or writing at all. In many instances it's listening that is the best communication tool for project managers to gain the trust of an executive. Says John Baldoni, an Ann Arbor, Mich., USA-based independent leadership consultant and the author of Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders, “The more you listen, the more you learn.” PM

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