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G. Michael Campbell: Never Surprise Sponsors in Managing up

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Journalist: Spring  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2018.11.26



Introduction to the Interviewee:

G. Michael Campbell, PMP (Austin, Texas, USA), is adjunct professor of business communications and management at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is President of MCA International in Austin, Texas (www.mcaintl.com). MCA specializes in helping clients successfully meet their business needs by applying practical project management methodologies. MCA also offers training in project management and business communications. He has managed many large, global projects involving senior executives for over 30 years. He has written seven books including Succeeding with Senior Management: Getting the Right Support at the Right Time for Your Project, Communication Skills for Project Managers, and Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management. In addition, he has also written numerous industry publications. 

Interview: 


Importance of Communication

Q1: You’ve written a book titled “Communications Skills for Project Managers”. So in the disruptive times with digital transformation, what are your tips on communications for project managers?
G. Michael Campbell: Even a project that is completed on time and on budget can be considered a failure if those outside a project team haven’t been kept informed and engaged. According to the Project Management Institute, over 80% of a project manager’s job is communication—yet most project management books hardly discuss it. Communications Skills for Project Managers provides practical advice and strategies for ensuring success, even in the face of shifting organizational priorities, constantly evolving expectations, and leadership turnover. 

One of the keys to excellent communication is to use the charter as a communication document. In my projects, I begin with the proposal, business case and any other relevant documents and draft a charter. After finishing the draft charter, I review it carefully with my executive sponsor. I complete the draft first because an executive will not want to spend the time drafting one from scratch. However, the sponsor will spend the time reviewing a draft charter and will correct any misconceptions I have as reflected in the charter. One key area of discussion is around scope. I have found that my sponsor rarely corrects the charter on what is in scope, but often there are activities that I believe are out-of-scope that my sponsor believes is in scope. For example, most of my projects are systems implementations. Training is a part of scope. However, there are times when I have stated that customized training is out-of-scope in the charter and my sponsor believes that customized training is in scope. That is quite helpful because training comes near the end of the project and if I did not discover the disconnection between me and my sponsor until the end, there is a good chance that the project could have been adversely impacted. 

A second communication consideration flows from the stakeholder analysis. In crafting a communication plan, understand that it is very important to think about who needs to deliver certain messages – not all messages should come from the project manager. Consider the power source appropriate to delivering the message. There are two common sources of power: 1) Technical expertise; 2) Authority. 

Generally, technical expertise is more persuasive than authority. Therefore, if I am attempting to persuade people to believe the new work process being designed by the project team is better, I would want someone who is recognized as a technical expert to deliver that message. It will be far better. If I need the stakeholders to know that the new work process must be followed, that message must come from someone with authority. 

Finally, the importance of communication can’t be overstated. When I was implementing a new framework for project managers across the globe, I interviewed dozens of project managers. I was trying to find out the best way to ensure a successful project. As I started, I assumed that I would hear things like a good contract, Statement of Work, or charter. In fact, the overwhelming majority told me it was good communications. If there were good communications between the project and the stakeholders, and there was good communication within the project team, these project managers could almost always predict a successful project. 

Tips on Managing up
Q2: PMI Impulse of Profession indicated that executive support is the top driver of project success. As far as you are concerned, what are the major challenges in managing up? 
G. Michael Campbell: I believe part of the answer lies in the nature of project management itself. Project managers think, as the name implies, like managers as they manage their Work Breakdown Structure, schedule, and budget. Senior management generally think more strategically and is really not interested in the details of the projects they sponsor. One executive told me that the status report from his project manager was like “death by details”. For example, the leadership team of the company ponders long and hard over whether a project should be undertaken and whether the reward is worth the investment. From their strategic perspective, the capital being invested in any given project could have been used in other ways to make the company money. Once they have sifted through all the options and have made the decision to go ahead, and so they placed their bet. They determined that a particular project was the right move, and for the most part, they believe their work is largely done. They assign the project to a project manager and expect that person to return when the project is completed—with occasional reports submitted along the way. The only senior manager who is still interested in the project, even though it is often a remote interest, is the executive named as the sponsor. 


Project managers, however, are persons whose predisposition is to view a project as a tactical implementation. Therefore, they are often not well equipped to engage with senior management since they tend to focus on tasks and activities and not on the strategic business outcomes that are the focus of senior management. In that respect, they are very similar to middle managers who suffer from the same lack of ability to communicate and engage with their senior executives.


One of the first questions a project manager should ask a sponsor is how much detail they want in a status report. Another important question is how much detail the sponsor requires when a problem or issue arises. That will give you a clue as to the level of details to include. However, always be ready to provide more information if necessary, particularly during a one-on-one meeting with the sponsor. 

Another important tip is to set up a regular time to brief the sponsor on the project. I have found that the best time is early in the day over breakfast. My experience has been that once the day begins, the executive’s time is not their own. If they are traveling, learn the time zone where they are and attempt to keep the same breakfast schedule, in their time zone, and you will find your meetings will be more likely to happen regularly.


Q3: As you’ve written a book on this topic titled “Succeeding with Senior Management”, would you please share with us how to get support from senior management? 
G. Michael Campbell: The most important principle for any project manager to remember is never surprise your executive sponsor. Some project managers avoid discussing possible issues or risks because they hope they can fix things before bad things happen. That is the opposite of what a project manager should do. One of the best strategies I have used is to utilize a simple three-step escalation process for problems. At the very beginning of the project, I discuss this with my executive sponsor and I say:


1)  I will let you know if there seems to be a problem.

2) We are working on a solution to solve the problem.
3) We need your support as we work on the solution.

The reason why these steps are so important has something to do with the politics at the highest levels in the company. Perception of strength and weakness is very important at this level. An executive must appear in control or there will be a negative perception and there will be a political price to pay. Therefore, an executive will begin to distance themselves from the project. The best way to protect your sponsor, and your project, is to never let them be surprised. If another executive approaches them and says something like “I hear there is a problem with your project”, the sponsor can truthfully say, “Yes, I know there is a problem and my team is working on a solution. Would you like me to inform you when we have resolved the issue?” Again, protecting your sponsor is the best way to protect your project and gain support when you need it. 

In a similar vein, sometimes problems are cross-functional in nature. In those situations, you will need to brief your sponsor on the potential solutions from each stakeholder’s perspective. Given that situation, you will often need your sponsor to get involved because you will not have the organizational authority to bring the parties to the table to negotiate a solution. Only your sponsor will have that authority. The only other caveat is that if a solution/decision is time-sensitive, let your sponsor know. Often these negotiations take time and may create delays in the project delivery. However, if your sponsor knows that in advance, they can give you political cover if others complain about the impact on the schedule. 


Q4: In the rapidly-changing era, what are the responsibilities of leaders?
G. Michael Campbell: Every leader has two simultaneous responsibilities to the company. One is to deliver the goods and services to the customers at the best price to produce profits. That is simply running the day-to-day business. However, there is a second important responsibility and that is preparing the company for the future. Since there is constant pressure from customers and competitors to reduce prices and improve quality, that may mean leading initiatives to reduce costs and do more with less. The second responsibility is to understand the products and services the customers will need in the future and preparing the company, in advance, so the company can deliver when the customers are ready to buy. For both of these responsibilities, being a leader of change is critical to success.

Principles of Managing Change
Q5: You’ve written an article “Basic Principles of Managing Change”, so would you please talk about those principles in brief? 
G. Michael Campbell: Every leader has been tasked at one time or another with delivering a major initiative for the company. These opportunities can lead to promotions and exciting new challenges or to misfires that can set you back. In the political environment at the senior levels, a leader cannot afford to fail at delivering on the initiative. The common element in these step-change initiatives is the significant changes that will occur within the company. Then reality sets in and the leader realizes that he must get hundreds of people to move in the same direction for this initiative to succeed. Frankly, that means that change management is a fact of life in business today. And change is happening at an accelerating rate. The obvious conclusion is that executives must embrace that fact and learn to manage change.


In my article, I point out four major requirements that all leaders must address successfully if they want the initiative to produce the desired results. 


1) The first is to build a communication strategy that clearly explains why the company needs to make this change. That strategy must include more than just the occasional email. There must be town hall meetings, lunch-and-learns and regular demonstrations of support from the mid-level managers who actually supervise most of the work that is done. 


2) People need to understand the changes that are coming as a result of this initiative. How radical is the change? This also ties to the communication plan in explaining what their work will look like when the initiative is completed. 


3) The third requirement is the preparation that people will receive to be able to do their jobs after the change. For example, what kind of training will they receive? How does that training fit into the changes in work process? The basic reason why people will resist a change is a fear that they will not appear competent after the changes are implemented. They must be convinced they are well-prepared.


4) Finally, people need to see a realistic plan and timetable for the change. This requirement is related to the fact that businesses are basically structures designed for stability. Changes destabilize the organization. However, people will feel more confident if they recognize “what” will happen and “when”.  


Q6: Your book “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management” has been republished many times. What kind of book is it?
G. Michael Campbell: In the early editions, the target audience for the book was new project managers who needed a practical guide for managing a project. Too many of the books were long on theory, but short on practical ideas that a new project manager could implement. The last two editions re-focused on more experienced line managers who found themselves assigned to lead a project or initiative and really had no idea where to start. For example, I eliminated topics such as “management by walking around” because those would be covered in training designed for new managers. Instead, I focused later editions on the importance of communication with stakeholders in delivering a successful initiative. However, all of the examples and content were designed to be practical so a manager could apply them to the project they were responsible to deliver. 

Impression on PM in China
Q7: One of your books has been translated and published in China. What’s your impression on project management in China? 
G. Michael Campbell: I have been to China and was very impressed with how dedicated the project managers are. They are extremely interested in improving their knowledge and skills for managing complex projects. Many of the project managers I met were young, so I believe China will have a strong cadre of project managers for many years. 

 

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