It’s common knowledge that being able to communicate effectively is a critical skill in today’s job market, particularly for project managers. The more you advance in your career, the more important it becomes to be able to communicate effectively with a particular audience: executives. Oftentimes, an executive serves as your project sponsor and is therefore integral to the success of your endeavor. Notwithstanding their impacts on project success, an executive’s good opinion is also beneficial to your career progression. For the good of the project (and, selfishly, for your own good), you don’t want your project sponsor to hear about project developments from an outside source or to be caught unawares of updates to your project’s risk profile. Here are ten tips for project managers to communicate effectively with executives:
Anticipate concerns. As I alluded to above, you should be giving your project sponsor periodic updates about project progress. Setting a regular frequency for providing these updates helps assuage any doubts they may have about how the project is going or when they will hear from you next. Bottom line: if the executive has to ask you for an update, it means you’re not doing your job.
Figure out how they like to communicate. I’ve worked with executives who tell me that I should text them if they want a response to an email I sent. Others would balk at the intimacy of this type of communication and may prefer a formal briefing instead. When you first begin working with this person, ask about their communication preferences and then tailor your approach to how they like to do things.
Get decisions or approvals in writing. That being said, you still need to CYA (cover your ass.) Even if the executive would rather provide approval in person or over the phone, request critical project decisions or approvals in writing. A written signature or email approval is ideal, but even an IM or text message is better than simply having verbal approval. In the event that something goes off the rails, you’re protecting them, yourself, and the project by pushing for written signoff.
Don’t sugarcoat. It’s human nature to want to put your best foot forward and conceal any potential shortcomings or points of tension. Keep in mind, however, that the sponsor is ultimately responsible for this project. They are here to advise you on how to deal with emerging project risks. Failing to communicate those risks can cause you big problems later on, both in terms of project success and, potentially, your career trajectory. Avoid surprises.
Suggest potential solutions. For every risk you cite, offer a mitigation plan. I don’t find it helpful when someone comes to me with a problem when it’s clear they haven’t spent any time developing a solution. It doesn’t have to be a fully baked plan—you simply need to go beyond the venting stage and spend upwards of 30 seconds identifying 1-2 potential paths forward and their pros and cons.
Call (out) their BLUF. BLUF stands for bottom line, upfront. Executives are strapped for time and have many competing demands on their attention. To communicate effectively, you must be clear and concise. Your message to them should clearly articulate within the first 1-2 sentences why they should care about what you have to say.
Provide context. At the same time, simply telling the executive what the request is (e.g., sign this document that has to go to Congress) without reminding them of the context is also not going to go over well. You’ll waste your precious time with the sponsor on pointless back and forth that could have been avoided by sharing background in the first place. I always assume that whoever I’m speaking to has no recollection of any previous conversations we’ve had on this subject. This doesn’t mean you think they’re dumb. It shows that you are respectful of their many competing “priorities.”
Shorten your message so it appears in a single phone screen. Most executives operate on the go and may be reading your update while commuting between meetings or when boarding a plane. If they have to scroll to understand what you want, they may quickly become distracted by an incoming phone call or text message. To achieve comprehension, first state your BLUF, in case that’s all they have the time or desire to read. If they don’t remember the particulars and want to refresh themselves, they can scroll past your summary to see the underlying details.
Identify what you’re asking them for. The BLUF and your email subject (if you’re writing an email) should make it clear what you would like from the executive. Do you need them to make a business decision? Sign something? Their job is to grease the wheels to keep the business moving forward, so don’t worry if this feels callous. They won’t be offended. On the contrary, they’ll appreciate you spelling out what they are supposed to do. It’s more efficient.
Delineate your next steps. Once you get the input you need, what are you going to do next? I like to include this information to demonstrate that I’m thinking ahead. That way, the executive knows they won’t have to think about this project again until they receive your next communication. Not being on an executive’s mind is a good place to be.