Project managers: how to have effective conversations with senior management

Project managers sit in the middle of an organization with staff below for whom they are responsible and those above to whom they answer. Depending on the size of your company, there may be as many as six or seven layers above you on the organization chart, each with progressively more responsibility and distance from the work your project performs.

Successful project managers are able to accomplish objectives through interactions above and below their position. In the skill quiver of an effective PM must be the ability to communicate effectively with those above who control resource allocation, tasking, and assessment.

How to communicate with senior management
One fact to keep in mind about senior managers—they are primarily interested in money. That is: money coming in and money going out. They are focused on the bottom line. That interest is not to the exclusion of everything else of course. Senior managers and organization leaders are interested in the vision, mission, and even their legacy. But the context of their interest is money. That means that when a project manager is talking with or presenting to this group, the impact to the bottom line should be addressed early and often.

Another fact of senior manager’s lives: Senior managers are busy people—time is their most valuable asset. So, when presenting to them, use a reverse pyramid to order your presentation. As a project manager and a logical/process thinker, it may be tempting to begin at the beginning: identify the problem, work through the options and trade studies and lead purposefully toward the conclusion. Resist this temptation.

Rather than beginning with details and process moving through a chronological or logical flow, begin with your conclusion. “We need more system engineers.” Then back up your conclusion with facts, data, numbers, impact analysis, risks, and cost/benefit analysis. This recommendation holds whether you are doing a stand-up or communicating in writing.

Do not get tied up in tech-speak. Many valuable and interesting discussions happen among peers debating design options, development methods, and support tools. However that discussion is way too far in the weeds for senior managers. Leave technical jargon out of your presentation. If you are not sure you can do this because your life is so embedded in the technical world, have a non-techie review your presentation and help identify words and concepts that will not be generally understood.

Use pictures and graphs. Many people find the importance of data graphed on trend lines or pie charts is easier to grasp quickly that bullet lists or worse—paragraphs of text. Don’t forget the “action caption” that tells the audience what they are seeing and what it means e.g. Overtime hours have increased at the average rate of 5% per month over the last six months without concurrent productivity increases.

Prepare for your presentation by thinking about the questions you may get from the senior managers. It helps to practice your presentation and to task your guinea pigs to ask questions. Remember: focus on money, not technology. If you are asked a question to which you do not know the answer, promise to get it and get back to them—preferably the same day. It is okay to bring notes with you to refer to for details to supplement your answers.

Final advice:

  • Try to relax.
  • Smile.
  • Look them in the eyes.
  • DO NOT be defensive even if it feels like you are under attack
  • Watch their body language. Be prepared to move more quickly, reiterate, or explain more depending on their informal communications.
  • Know what you would like to be the end result and try to consistently move in that direction.

Share your thoughts and experiences communicating with senior staff.


One Response to “Project managers: how to have effective conversations with senior management”

  1. Advice to Project Managers – When the Client Comes to Visit « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] in July, I talked about How to have Effective Conversations with Senior Management. I think the content from that post is applicable for presenting to clients, also. Do not forget to […]

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