Communicating projects with the C-Suite
by Tayyab Jamil
Projects are the main vehicles used to execute a company’s objectives. However, at the level of most senior executives – the C-Suite – they can be crudely seen as investments that must deliver a financial return.
Those of us who have delivered major projects can sympathise with fellow project managers, because they are required to cope with not only the complexity of planning, budgeting and organising, but also setting a direction and motivating people. On the other hand, those responsible for a portfolio of projects, such as a head of projects or a central project management office function, will be concerned with organisational good practice in order to harness process efficiencies and effectiveness.
Your CEO and other board members, however, are primarily interested in four key things:
1. RUNNING THE BUSINESS
Of foremost importance to the board is ensuring that the business is stable and money is coming through the door. Although these are essentially business as usual activities, there are times when projects are put in place to ensure the company can stay in business – eg regulatory compliance initiatives. UK retail banks categorise these projects as ‘keep the show on the road’ to signify their critical importance to the organisation at all levels.
2. IMPROVING THE BUSINESS
To remain competitive, the C-suite is always interested in improving the condition of the business. This can include introducing new products and services, improving customer experience and ever-present cost-reduction initiatives. Typically, these change initiatives are supported by business cases, with cost v benefit analysis to prove their worth. This realisation of benefits is what your CEO is specifically interested in, as long as it does not affect priority number one: running the business.
3. PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
A management board must always keep one eye on the horizon. Good companies do this regularly and methodically, but some strategic initiatives can be highly ambiguous at first, with conflicting priorities, especially when working in new territories. In these situations, your C-suite would benefit hugely from project experts who could help them navigate the risk and complexities, and ensure the organisation has the capability to proceed with the project.
"YOUR MAIN OBJECTIVE IN ENGAGING WITH SENIOR STAKEHOLDERS IS TO PROVIDE THEM WITH CONFIDENCE THAT THEIR INVESTMENT IS IN GOOD HANDS"
4. PERSONAL PRIORITIES
Each person in the C-suite has their own personal drivers, motivations and aspirations – and it is important to recognise this. Of course, on major projects, certain executives are likely to be acting as sponsor or the senior responsible owner – but it is not uncommon to hear that a particular executive has a vested interest in a peripheral project that personally impacts them.
HOW SHOULD YOU ENGAGE WITH THE C - SUITE ?
Your main objective as a project manager engaging with senior stakeholders is to provide them with confidence that their investment is in good hands, will deliver the desired benefits and involve minimal disruption to business as usual.
FIVE PRINCIPLES TO ADOPT WHEN ENGAGING WITH THE C-SUITE
A meeting with senior executives can go in all sorts of directions, and you are likely to have only 10-15 minutes to get your message across. Preparation is vital. Find out what they are most interested in and try to meet them ahead of any board meetings so that they already feel heard and up to speed before you provide a formal update. Issuing a clear and concise report ahead of a meeting is a great way to make use of face-to-face time to focus on key items. However, be ready to drill down into deeper analysis when requested – know your stuff.
Keep it short and sweet. It may be tempting to sound smart and present a lot of information, but it is best to sound straightforward. A logical structure for communicating success, risks and opportunities will also make it easier for the C-suite to digest. Plain English and highly visual metrics will further help generate positive discussion and swift decision-making.
3. USE THEM TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Lead the discussion with what you need from them. There are two important reasons why you need to make best use of the C-suite’s time. First, they can unblock issues that you cannot, so do not bore them with your risk register and earned value analysis. Second, they are likely to stray from what you have alreadyprepared. So, unless the discussion can help you with a decision or blocker, guide them back to what is critical so that they can help you succeed.
4. ACTION ORIENTED
It is great to share stories of project success and evaluate lessons learned, but your C-Suite is not interested in that. Come with actions about the ‘what next’. More specifically, make it clear what action is needed from the C-Suite members themselves and how this impacts your project. A lot of projects slip or fail due to poor decision-making at all levels of an organisation. Do not let this be an excuse by clearly highlighting what needs to be agreed, and by when, to keep driving the project forward.
5. STAY PRESENT
Follow up any actions for the C-suite immediately and remain visible. Executives can have short memories and multiple priorities to juggle. Following up swiftly, and being visible to them, reduces the risk of another project’s issue taking priority over yours, and helps build trust and confidence, because executives know where to find you when they need something.
HOW PROJECT MANAGERS CAN PROGRESS TOWARDS THE C - SUITE
Successful and experienced project managers will have developed a set of desirable skills required for any senior management position. They are results-focused, time-conscious, team players and multitaskers, and have a know-how for getting things done.
These skills are becoming increasingly important as organisations globally are investing trillions of pounds in project work annually. Project management is therefore likely to rise in prominence at the executive level, but additional skill sets are required.
START THINKING STRATEGICALLY
It is easy for project managers to get caught up in the day-to-day of delivery and have a one-track mind regarding their own project. But you need to start thinking about how your project, as well as others, fits into the big picture. This means stepping out of a functional domain and understanding what is going on at the levels above. Being able to have a strategic dialogue with your peers and members of the C-suite shows that you can assess wider considerations and, therefore, adjust your approach to increase the likelihood of success for the organisation overall.
NETWORK AND COLLABORATE
Project managers looking to become future C-suite members need to put their honed stakeholder management skills to good use by being able to network and have conversations with senior colleagues from finance, marketing and sales, operations, IT, and HR. This is because, whether an executive-level conversation is about running the business, changing the business or strategising, your CEO would expect you to weigh in with ideas and actions on how you can work together to establish projects that take the company forward.