One of the biggest challenges in moving from an Individual Contributor to a Project Manager is learning how to successfully communicate with both the team and the executive levels of the organization.
When you are in charge of a project, suddenly you find yourself in that dreaded “middle manager” position. A Project Manager typically doesn’t have the formal authority that comes with having direct reports. At the same time, you feel beholden to the demands of your Executive or Steering Committee.
In this post, we’ll talk about communicating “up”, because this is typically one of the biggest gaps in a new PM’s experience.
It can be intimidating to report to the executives of your organization for the first time. It’s easy to get caught up and start to overthink things. What do they want to see? What’s the right level of detail? Will they be angry if I tell them bad news? What if I mess up?
Communication is as much art as science and it takes some practice, as well as paying attention to how your stakeholders react and to the questions they ask.
Years ago, I heard an explanation of corporate levels that really stuck with me. Essentially, the higher up you are in an organization, the farther ahead you need to look. Individual Contributors focus on today or perhaps to the end of the week. Their managers are responsible to plan out to the end of the month, Directors the quarter, Vice Presidents the year and the President or CEO several years into the future.
The higher up in the organization the more one needs to look at trends rather than details. Executives focus on the impact of decisions and actions, not the particulars of the work being done. It’s fewer details and more vision. It’s knowing what’s coming up, being mindful of the past, and figuring out how all the pieces fit together.
So what do they need from you?
You can help both of you be more successful by understanding how your project fits into the company as a whole and by paying attention to the type of information that will either reduce risk or increase benefit in their area of responsibility.
Specifically, let’s talk about status reports, as these are one of the most common ways we are asked to communicate with our executives. At first glance, a status report seems so high level that it doesn’t really explain what’s going on in the project. Maybe it’s just a monthly traffic light system and if you’re “green” in budget, scope, and resources, they won’t pay much attention to these areas. They will only focus on items that are at risk or anything coming up which requires their time or participation.
Your Steering Committee isn’t supposed to focus on the underlying details – they trust you and your team to get it done. And that is also why you should never “water down” these reports. Executives don’t need to know the everything about the project – that’s why they hired you! But they do need to understand when a deliverable is at risk so they can take action to help you and your team.
A Different Point of View
They also may need to shift other elements in the organization based on your information. Just like you don’t give them the details on the project, they don’t tell you everything going on outside your project. Remember, the higher the title, the longer the view.
Approach each communication with your executives from their point of view, whether it’s in a status report, monthly meeting, or even answering an email. Ask yourself: what information can help them be confident the project is on track, understand the areas of risk, or know where the project needs their help?
Also, keep in mind that no one starts out as a VP. Everyone on your leadership team, at some point in their career, has been an individual contributor. Maybe they started in accounting or worked on the shop floor. Perhaps they were a Business Analyst. Even if their current position doesn’t warrant project details, they know how important those details are to get the job done.
A Two-Way Street
Finally, communication is a two-way street. You need data and feedback from management, too. If you have questions or need guidance, be willing to ask. Your Steering Committee wants the project to succeed and they’re trusting you to give them enough notice so they can help.