Speak loud, speak proud
effective communication strategies
Simply put, communications is the critical differentiator for project management success. Of course, this isn't a surprise. Many surveys and studies mention communication as the number one reason projects fail or succeed. Project managers who don't communicate well are labeled as lacking “Senior Voice” or “Presence,” whereas other project managers with exceptional skills are constantly in demand and often recruited by other functional teams. There is a surprising lack of effort geared toward building a diverse set of communication skills for project managers. Project management communication is a very broad topic. A few of the more critical aspects include listening to and understanding client's needs, communicating upward candidly and confidently, communicating to the project team members clearly and courageously, and systematic communications to stakeholders so that they see the incremental progress on a regular basis.
Transforming your communication skills will not only help your project management career, but can also lead you to many other opportunities, because great communication skills make a person fungible and are required in most management positions. David I. Cleland and Lewis R. Ireland stress in their Project Manager's Portable Handbook, 2nd Edition, that communications “May be the most important skill required of a project manager.” I believe that communications is the single most important skill required of a project manager based on my observations at five different companies where I was heavily involved with all types of projects and programs; I managed dozens of project managers and received feedback from all types of stakeholders about those project managers.
This paper will explore the communication skills that are required for project management success and why they are important. It will also offer you tips on how to target and polish specific areas of communication to strengthen your impact as a project manager and open career opportunities. Certain communication skills need to be honed systematically, and many people don't understand how they can do this. Some people are very good in certain areas of communication, but need to polish other areas. Project managers should seek feedback constantly and seek to improve their overall communication approaches so they can increase their visibility and impact.
The first step to improving aspects of your project communication is to be aware of the many components of communication, then assessing yourself against each area objectively. First we will look at four targeted areas of project communication, then look at ways to assess yourself, and tips on how to improve your impact in these areas if you choose to address them.
Understanding Client Requirements
Communication is a two-way street, and to really understand the client's desires, one must sharpen his or her active listening skills. As Stephen Covey's Habit 5 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People states: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Many times, project managers do not really take the time or use effective techniques to find out what their clients really want or need, but instead try to jump into a solution and tell the client what the project manager thinks they need. The seasoned project manager knows how to ask clarifying questions and uses techniques to probe at the real needs of the client. In Peter Block's Flawless Consulting, A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, he teaches consultants to repeat back to the client what the consultant's understanding was. For example: “Let me repeat back to you to make sure I understand. You would like to have the people that are transferring over to be moved into the payroll system July 1st, so that they immediately begin to accrue bonus pay?” This technique will help to refine the exact desires of the client. Many times clients say they want one thing, when in reality they want something else altogether. They themselves may have a hard time articulating the requirements. When they hear you repeat back your understanding, it can help them to think through and then rephrase and refine their requirements. The project manager should use clarifying questions whenever applicable as well, such as “Do you mean that the system should be cutover and fully in use by that date, or just up and operating?” Don't make assumptions, but instead clarify. By using these techniques, a project manager will not only come up with a much better understanding of the true requirements, but will also develop a much better rapport with his or her clients. Clients feel much better when they know that they are being heard, and these techniques will help validate that you really are listening to them and trying to understand what it is that they want. Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People has been around a long time, but the principles in it are timeless. He talks about ways to make people like you and says you will be successful if you become genuinely interested in other people, be a good listener, and encourage others to talk about themselves. Take the time to build your rapport with your client; it can make all the difference in the world. As a manager of project managers, I have had many clients come to me and complain that the assigned project manager is not listening to and hearing the client. On the flip side, the project managers who excel utilize the above principles regularly. Practice active listening and utilize feedback to the clients so that they know that you are listening and care about their needs — it will help to get clearer requirements and develop a much better rapport with your clients.
Project managers who want to get the high impact, highly visible projects must build a track record of success and show they are able to communicate upward to sponsors. Communication to directors, vice presidents, and above should be tailored. There are several key aspects to communicating with leadership that we will examine. First, executive communication absolutely should be concise. If they want more information, they will ask for it. Second, project managers must display confidence and display presence, also referred to as “senior voice.” And, third, project managers need to be candid with the sponsors, instead of dancing around the real issues and concerns. Bettina Gregory, a former ABC News Correspondent for 27 years teaches Executive Presence courses. She advises her clients to get to the point quickly. She advises that you should lead with the headline first, which is common in newspapers and newscasts. For example, “Project Gemini Ready to Crash and Burn” will pique sponsors’ curiosity and place them in listening mode. She also advises to “get to the point quickly.” Project briefings should be concise and to the point, rather than large data dumps that are designed to impress by showing all of the aspects of the project you are working on. The truth is that most leaders have way too much data coming in every day, and appreciate greatly if you are able to worry about the details and synthesize the big picture for them and tell them only what they need to know. It takes skill to process a large amount of data and get it down to a few bullet points, and leadership appreciates it and notices it when you are able to summarize and give them the condensed version. I myself have listened to too many project managers give me detailed data dumps with acronyms and facts from their projects that they assume I would know, without the awareness that I am trying to monitor the progress of over 50 projects and can't possibly get into the weeds of each of them. It is very useful if they start the conversation with the overall status, such as “It's going well, but we have a few normal issues with testing that we are working through and don't think will delay the launch.” That way, the client knows right away the 30,000 foot view context.
This is also very true with emails. Most directors and above receive a large amount of emails. If a project manager writes a three-paragraph email, it is more likely to get ignored than simply getting to the point with three bulleted points. You must also summarize quickly the status. If you say “We have delivered 10 of the training sessions,” the sponsor is not sure if that is good or bad. If you clarify, “We have delivered 10 of the 15 sessions on schedule and they have been received well,” then they understand that is good and that you are two thirds of the way through training.
To be taken seriously by sponsors, project managers must learn to display presence and confidence. Many project managers have a great handle on their projects, but are not trusted by their sponsors because they display a lack of confidence when giving briefings. If a project manager is nervous about presenting and displays a lack of confidence, the sponsors can misinterpret the reasons for it and assume that the project manager is hiding concerns from them or is worried about delivery of the project. To become a polished presenter, one must practice giving presentations and hone one's skills by getting candid feedback. One very good way to do this is to join a local Toastmasters club. Toastmasters International is an organization dedicated to improving public speaking skills. Many people have the wrong impression that Toastmasters is only for people who are afraid of public speaking. Although it is a good club for people with a fear of speaking in public, it is also excellent for people who are good speakers but who want to become great speakers. It is a safe way to practice getting a clear message across, and for getting constructive feedback about what you could do better. There is no better way to become a better speaker and build your confidence with presenting than getting in front of people and practicing regularly. Another practical way to improve is to seek candid feedback from people to whom you have presented. You must be ready to accept some constructive criticism if you are to improve. By asking someone whose opinion you respect and who was present at the meeting, what you did well and what you could have improved upon, you will start to get ideas of which areas to hone. It is best to ask for the feedback very soon after the presentation, while it is fresh in their minds, and even better to ask them before the presentation to take note of the areas you could have more impact on. You will not improve upon your speaking unless you get feedback from others as to your blind spots, and then you must find venues to practice honing these skills. The very best public speakers get coaching and feedback on a regular basis, and practice their presentations.
To build the sponsor's trust with you, you must learn to be candid and open with them. This is difficult for many project managers, who don't want to offend or highlight areas that are not going well. But to be a trusted adviser, you must be open and honest about the real issues and concerns that you have. You will have to be sensitive to others and the lay out the facts and try not to focus on placing blame on individuals. But, you will never be an effective project manager if you are overly concerned about keeping everyone happy. I have seen that the honest, straightforward approach is always the best, but there are different ways to deliver the news so that others don't feel that you are trying to make them look bad. To figure out how to best communicate issues and concerns, one recommended method is to work with a peer or a mentor. At Booz Allen, we encourage staff to seek mentors. Choosing a mentor should be very personal, you should pick someone you respect and who has skills you would like to acquire. If you choose a seasoned pro, then you can work with your mentor on how to deliver bad news that may implicate others who have dropped the ball or who are not cooperating. I use my mentors as sounding boards and sanity checks. Many people think that getting a mentor is a sign of weakness, when it is in reality a sign of strength to be able to get feedback from others without becoming offended. You don't always have to use the suggestions from the peer or mentor, but it is usually productive to get their feedback. Rehearsing and discussing the approach with them always help. Likewise, you can bounce an email off of them before you send it and get their feedback for improvements.
Communicating with Team Members
Project managers need to communicate well with all of the team members, including projects that have a very diverse set of people who operate in many different functions. This requires tailored communication styles. An introverted developer may prefer to communicate one way, an extroverted HR representative in a totally other fashion. Being a project manager requires emotional intelligence and business savvy. As with clients, the project manager must seek first to understand and use active listening skills. The project team needs the project manager to be able to listen to and hear the various points of view from the many subject matter experts (SMEs) who were assigned to the project. It can be a derailer if the project manager does not take the advice of the assigned staff or does not take their input as to the level of effort. The project manager should not utilize a dictator approach, but instead utilize the expertise from the team members applicably. The project manager has to make sure that the big picture and details are communicated well to a set of people who receive data in different ways.
The project team also looks to the project manager to control the team members who are inhibiting the success. Team members who consistently complain about the project, miss due dates, or threaten the success of the project in other ways must be dealt with quickly. This requires courageous conversations. Since a project manager typically has team members who matrix back to other teams, and many of the people on the team can be above the project manager in the organizational hierarchy, this can create angst for the project manager. Project managers must be able to speak with candor and courage when team members cause problems. The entire project team is constantly evaluating and will not respect a project manager who cannot address these types of issues. The best way to get better at being direct is to practice. One must keep his or her professionalism and use facts, and speak to the action(s) and the impact caused. For example, one may say “You mentioned several times in the project meeting today that this is a ridiculous project that is a big waste of time and money. That type of talk demoralizes the team. My role as a project manager is to make sure we do our best to meet the goals of this project. If you believe that this is a big waste of time and money, perhaps we should talk to your manager about getting someone else assigned.” Of course, the aforementioned discussion should probably be in private, but there will be many other times in the project meetings that you need to have a candid discussion openly. When team members consistently miss their critical path commitments, you need to delve into why, instead of just pushing the due dates out and just accepting it as fate. It's a good idea to meet with them privately and address it head on and ask what is going on. Sometimes the team member does not have the skills, and perhaps other resources are needed to support them. Many times, the team member just has too many competing priorities, and it requires a discussion with his or her manager to get your project moved up in priority, or alternate resources assigned. The project manager should discuss with the team member, and then carry out the discussions with others if alternate support or management intervention is required.
Equally important, a good project manager communicates the positive aspects of the project constantly, and points out the key team members who go above and beyond. People want to be assigned to exciting projects that have a good team and where their hard work will be recognized. Recognition goes a long way. Studies have shown that simple recognition can be as powerful as cash awards. Take the time to always show your appreciation for hard work and point out in group settings and to management when your team members do extraordinary things. Or find little ways to thank them – order a pizza when they are working late, give them a Starbucks certificate, or send a note to them. This will build loyalty and trust with your team members. People like when the project manager does not try to take all the credit for the team, but instead makes the team shine. This will help your career in other ways. When your team members like working with you, they will ask for you on future projects. When people come to me and repeatedly request a certain project manager, it leaves a strong impression on me. Some of my best project managers have even been pulled into other teams because they have left such a favorable impression with the functional teams they support. I hate to have them leave, but I understand and support that when it happens because I want to see my staff succeed and grow. Make the time to recognize the accomplishments instead of just having an attitude that they are doing what they are paid for. Most human beings crave simple recognition, and it goes a long way in building loyalty.
Many times project teams have members who can be very intimidating to talk to since they may be technical experts, higher ranking, or very popular figures at your company. Some are just plain aggressive and mean spirited. Project managers must remember that dealing with people is a key part of their role, and if one cannot have these discussions, they won't be taken seriously.
Remember to stay calm and don't take anything others say personal, even if it is a personal attack. Sometimes people just need to vent, and you can set the tone by staying professional. Remember that your role is to move the project forward, and keep the morale of the team high. The best way to get better at these discussions is practice. As Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Seasoned project managers have learned that one way to gain stakeholder trust is to make sure that they see regular progress. This may sound basic, but there are many project teams working hard and doing incredible things that nobody is aware of. The project manager must assume the marketing and communication role for the stakeholders. Many companies do not have good project reporting systems or templates. Below are some tricks of the trade that carry a lot of impact.
Project managers must be able to synthesize everything that is going on and simplify it so that others can ingest the overview. There are some basic things that people want to know with status reports, which when done correctly, should be thought of as progress reports. The very first thing that many project managers fail to do is to just a quick overall summary such as “Project is going well, with some minor technical issues that are being addressed.” Or it may be “Project is facing major delays due to vendor issues that have been escalated to the VP of Sourcing.” One shouldn't make the reader figure out what the conclusion is, the project manager should put that up front. I have viewed many project reports that leave me unable to conclude whether the project is going well or not. Since my team is typically managing over 50 projects, I want to know right away the overall summary, as do most of the stakeholders. The project manager must ensure that the summary matches the reality, and avoid politics when reporting. When issues are spun or hidden, this can threaten the credibility of the project manager forever.
A few years ago, I received agile and Scrum training. One of the key agile principles is to show incremental progress regularly. The thing is, one doesn't need to run a project using an agile methodology to use this concept.
Waterfall projects can show incremental progress if reported on correctly. Some waterfall methodology projects have long life cycles. Let me use a few examples. “November 2nd Status Update – Planning cycle underway, expected completion December 20th.” Those types of “black hole” updates confuse and worry stakeholders. They understand that planning is underway, but wonder what work is really occurring. “November 2nd Status Update – Working with Sourcing to determine final software vendor selection. Have screened four vendors and narrowed down to the top two. Systems Engineering team has prepared solutions design for both vendor approaches. Sponsors will make decision next week after final review of solutions and costs.” This shows that work is actually occurring and progress is taking place. The project manager must still be concise and not overwhelm stakeholders with too much detail, but they can do that by showing milestones. Below is a simple illustration that shows that progress is being made, milestones are being met, and tells a story about where the project is within the planning cycle.
|Milestone||Target Completion||Actual Completion|
|RFP sent to vendors||October 15||October 15|
|Vendor proposals screened||October 28||October 26|
|Engineering designs complete||November 2||November 2|
|Vendor selection||November 9|
|PO issued for chosen software||November 11|
Show regular milestones—don't just focus on life cycle milestones like the ones below. Three or four milestones a month is nice, so that most weekly reports show new progress. If they are spaced out too far like below, the audience doesn't really see progress.
|Milestone||Target Completion||Actual Completion|
|Initiation complete||September 15||September 15|
|Planning complete||December 20|
Besides showing the progress, the project manager must provide the clear action items that are open and their owners, and visibility as to whether they are hitting their dates. Besides the tasks on the project schedule, there are many ad-hoc action items that come up and the must be communicated out to keep the team on task. One technique that has remained successful for me is to show the overdue actions in red on the report, so that they stand out. This works if the reports are sent out to the larger stakeholder audience. Nobody likes to show up in red. It's not designed to punish or embarrass people. It is simply used to keep them accountable for their work. The project manager's role is to just tell it like it is.
Because most project managers have to follow some reporting requirements mandated by their organization, one must use his or her own judgment on how to incorporate the aspects mentioned above. But the project manager should find a way to communicate the overall summary up front so stakeholders don't have to judge for themselves, should be concise and to the point whenever possible, not provide large data dumps, should make clear the actions with owners and due dates, and should consistently show progress so that confidence is built and the team members gain enthusiasm. It is always useful to ping sponsors and mentors to find out if they find your reports clear.
It cannot be overstressed — communication is the number one key differentiator for project managers. Project managers should focus on the various aspects of communication, and honing each one. It is hard to improve without getting candid feedback, so try to solicit regular feedback from those you respect, take courses that focus on areas of presentation, sign up for a Toastmasters class, and start practicing the courageous, candid conversations. Take steps to increase your active listening, and take time to recognize team members for the contributions. Make communications your top focus, and watch your career and recognition grow!
Cleland, D. I., & Ireland, L.R. (2008). Project manager's portable handbook, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Covey, S.R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Block, P. (2000). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Carnegie, D. (1936). How to win friends and influence people. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Gregory, B. (2010). Executive presence. McLean, Virginia, USA. Booz Allen training course.
© 2012, Dave Montagne
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada