7 Tips for Communicating with Executive Sponsors and Stakeholders

For many project management professionals, nothing strikes a more paralyzing fear than being asked to present in front of an audience of executive-level sponsors and/or stakeholders.  For a myriad of reasons, communicating at the senior level of the organization can be viewed as a daunting task.   Sometimes the fear can be based in reality, such as a past negative experience or the existence of a leader with a well-known irascible demeanor.  Most of the time, however, it is instead based on urban myth (or corporate lore), unfounded internal fears and erroneous assumptions.

Whether presenting a project status briefing, requesting approval to proceed at a funding gate or providing an update on a particular project risk, these occasions are a regular part of a project manager’s life.  Rather than focusing on the negative and being apprehensive about presenting to organizational leaders, project management professionals should instead view these events as opportunities to make a significant, positive impression with key leadership, perhaps even boosting career and advancement opportunities.   Of course, to make that kind of impact, you’ll need to make sure you are both well prepared and have a solid understanding of your audience and their unique perspectives.

These seven (7) tips for communicating with executive sponsors and stakeholders should improve your confidence and help you look forward to, rather than lament, the opportunity to engage with the key leaders of the organization.

  1. Start with the understanding that presenting information at the senior leadership level is not the same as providing regular project status updates.
    • Think about the status reports that you draft and review at weekly project team meetings. Are they loaded with jargon specific to the technology or business process that your project is addressing?  Do they take a very tactical view of tasks, resource allocations and technical issues?  Quite frankly, executive-level folks don’t care about that level of operational project detail.  Well okay, yes they do, but not directly.  The truth is, the executive leadership team doesn’t have time to focus on the minutia of how to execute the project, build the deliverables or resolve the day-to-day challenges the team may be facing.  Instead, their interest lies in how close the project is operating to the original scope, budget and schedule, validating that the return on investment still applies and determining how soon the projected benefits will begin.
    • HOW: Ask your project leadership team, your line of business leader and/or your peers in the PMO for suggestions on how to best communicate project-related information with the current executive team.  You aren’t the first to take this journey, so learn from those who have “been there and done that.”
  2. Focus specifically on why you are there.  Don’t prepare or bring up anything you haven’t been asked to provide or present.
    • Executive calendars are insane. They would not have asked you to make an appearance just because they are trying to fill some empty time.  You are there to present specific information needed to make a decision, take some kind of action, validate progress or share with other audiences.  Find out why you are there and then focus your presentation only on that information.
    • HOW: This one should be easy.  Typically, executive leaders requesting your presence will give you a reason or purpose for being there.  If not, try to tap your project leadership network for news that may have precipitated the request.  If you are making regularly scheduled visits that make up the project approval and gating process, you’ll have the advantage of knowing exactly what you need to deliver.
  3. Find out their preferred communication style(s) before the meeting.  This isn’t about how you prefer to deliver information; it’s about how they prefer to receive information.
    • Does the CEO like (or hate) bulleted-slide decks? Does the CFO require that any proposal or change come with a return on investment calculation?  Does the CIO like to see the detail behind the topic, or will a graphic work better?  Does the Executive Team have any favorite (or hated) buzz words?  Remember, the more you speak in their language, and equally important, the less you speak in your language, the easier it will be for your audience to understand and retain the information you are presenting.
    • HOW: Again, tap into your project leadership network or PMO peers.  Most of the time someone on your project leadership team is a direct report, or not too far down the food chain, to someone from the C-suite.  They should be able to provide some guidance.  Failing good advice from those channels, make friendly contact with the administrative assistants for the C-level team and inquire about likes and dislikes.  Over the years, I’ve found admins to be an invaluable source of information and establishing a good relationship with them is critical to your success!
  4. Executives have short attention spans and hate drama, so don’t have a presentation that slowly builds up to a big reveal or conclusion.  Get straight to the point!
    • Nothing will annoy an executive audience more than a presentation that either starts with a lengthy overview, covers material already provided in other forms or doesn’t get straight to the point.  Executive leaders got to where they are because of their ability to make quick, confident decisions based on available information and data.  Skip the background and get right to the findings, performance metrics and/or recommendations.  Believe me, if they have any questions, or express interest regarding where the supporting data came from or need any foundational information, they will ask!
    • HOW: Once you know the purpose behind why you are there (see #2 above), design your presentation to give your audience exactly what they want and need.  Assume they know the basics about the project and why it exists.  Don’t feel the need to share every single project performance metric just because the data exists.  Focus on what was requested and get right to it.  Doing this will ensure that there will be enough time in the agenda time box carved out for your project to allow the executives to ask questions and gather any additional detail needed by the team.
  5. Be prepared!  Be prepared to be taken off course or to suddenly be dropped from the agenda.  Be prepared for seemingly random questions and for scrutiny of figures and data.
    • First and foremost, know your material and practice your pitch.  Make sure your presentation addresses their need, in their language and is communicated crisply and clearly.  Practice your delivery with yourself first until you have it nailed cold.  Then, give your presentation to your project leadership team and ask them to provide you with feedback.  Secondly, be prepared for anything!  Bring printed copies in case the technology fails.  Thought you had 15 minutes to make your case?  What happens if that is cut down to 5 minutes?  Are you prepared to defend your data sources?  Have you triple-checked your calculations?  If you have intimate knowledge of your project, you will be prepared for even the most random of questions.  Finally, if you’re asked something that you don’t know, DO NOT attempt to bullshit them!  They will see right through it, call you on it and make your visit rather unpleasant.  Sadly, you will also have limited your career prospects.  Instead, tell them you’ll take note of that request and get back to them before the end of the day.
    • HOW: Practice makes perfect, so follow the advice above on giving your presentation to a number of test audiences.  Also, sit down and make a list of any questions you can think of that the executives might ask and develop responses to each.  Review your data sources, check your formulas and even bring project metric detail with you in case you need to refer to it during the meeting to properly address a question.
  6. Unless you are asked to prepare something from a template, limit the amount of material you provide to the executive team.  Focus more on visual summaries and less on verbal or numerical detail.
    • No one likes to suffer through a “death by PowerPoint” experience.  Reading bullet points as you lead the group through your presentation doesn’t work.  Showing them a Gantt chart is just asking for trouble.  Instead, communicate using a dashboard, infographic, road map of deliverables or any number of other data visualization tools that condense the information in a way that facilitates immediate understanding and provides clarity surrounding complex project data.  Also, try to avoid providing all of the material at once, or even in advance of the presentation, if possible.  This will prevent the audience from reading ahead, which will limit their attention and focus on the points you are trying to make via your presentation.  Executives are used to being provided with dashboards and executive summaries of material.
    • HOW: Learn about and leverage data visualization tools for communicating project status or for representing complex project details.
  7. Respect their time.  Don’t be the reason that someone else on the agenda had to limit their remarks to fit in a smaller time slot.
    • The average day of an executive is planned and managed right down to the minute.  In many instances, the executive has little to no control over their calendar.  They are also unable to prepare much in advance for the meetings that appear on their calendar, so the quicker you can get them up to speed and oriented to your project the better.  If you are given a 15 minute time slot in a meeting, make very, very sure that your presentation not only fits in that slot, but also allows for some brief Q&A.  If the leadership team gives you more time, great…but taking more time than allowed is a big no-no!  If the meeting is all about your project, try as much as possible to end the meeting early.  Nothing will make you more of a hero to the executive team than to give them precious time back in their day!
    • HOW: Practice, practice, practice!  Similar to the advice provided above in being prepared, make sure you are able to deliver what needs to be delivered within the time allowed.
  8. BONUS TIP!  Executive leaders are just regular people.  They aren’t monsters and they don’t have super powers.  They aren’t looking to purposefully give you a hard time.  In fact, they want you to do well.  At the end of the day, they are just regular people, tasked with doing a job, just like you.  Don’t be intimidated.  Be confident in your skills. Deliver the facts, open and honestly.  Do what you do so well that they find respect in you and trust what you have to say.

Finally, understand that executive and senior-level leaders are tasked with the responsibility of creating the strategic direction and delivering profitable operational performance for the entire organization.  Based on that strategic plan, they have invested valuable organizational resources in the project you have been assigned to manage in order to receive whatever benefit it was the project promised to deliver.  Remember that their focus is not in the tactics, but in the strategy, and in the delivery of a product, service or feature that addresses that strategy or market/customer need.  Take these opportunities very seriously.  You have a rare chance to showcase your talent, capability and professionalism.  If you prepare appropriately and deliver an effective and efficient presentation, it will absolutely help your career advancement!


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