Communicating With Executives When Your World's on Fire

Communicating With Executives When Your World’s on Fire

When your world’s on fire, and you’re working around the clock to survive, it feels like the last thing you have time for is formal updates. And of course, the bigger the fire, the more the senior team needs to know what’s going on. What’s the secret to communicating with executives efficiently so you can stay focused on critical operations?

Communicating With Executives: Lessons Learned

It was 2012 and  I was leading the outsourced call center channel at Verizon Wireless when we found ourselves in the middle of a literal firestorm.

The Waldo Canyon Fires were raging through Colorado Springs and were wreaking havoc on the Garden of the God’s adjacent to the call center which had 1100 human beings taking Verizon calls. Just across town, we had another call center which, with just a quick shift of the wind, would also be in the path of the fire. Most of the homes in the area had been evacuated and the firefighters had turned our call center parking lot into a base camp for fighting the fire.

First and foremost we had employee safety concerns. Was everyone accounted for? How could we best support those in distress? Who needed help? How would we communicate?

The next concern, of course,  was the massive operational impact of 20% of our team not able to get to work, and the growing wait times, frustrated customers, and the downward customer experience that comes from the cocktail of angry waiting customers and overloaded humans doing the best they can.

What’s our capacity at other centers? How fast could we cross-train the specialty functions that were handled from those centers? Could we bus employees to the nearest centers? How much overtime could we squeeze out, and for how long? What if the centers were destroyed? Could IT pull off a temporary center or a work at home strategy? How would we keep customer data safe in a scene like that? How should we modify our HR policies during this time? The list was long…and complicated.

We were doing the best we could, my team had been working around the clock. Everyone was completely exhausted.

The C-suite needed an update.

So I scrambled. I quickly pulled together all the details. I summarized our HR and cross-training strategies in an email. Sent another update on the IT concerns. Then another email with the real estate contingency plans.

My phone rang. It was the senior leader headed into the meeting for a C-level briefing.

“Karin, I’ve just searched my email for the name Karin Hurt. Oh, lots of emails here. Now guess what I’m doing now? Highlighting them all and hitting delete…yup now they’re all gone.”

She continued.

“I get that your world is literally on fire and what you and your team are doing is very important. I trust that you’ve got it handled. But I can’t handle all this info. I’ve got five other major issues to read out on and I’ve only got 20 minutes.

Send me a new email with five bullet points. Tell us how you’ve got this under control and what else you need.

5 Questions to Answer When Communicating With Executives in Times of Crises

I was crushed. We were working hard! I wanted the C-level team to understand the brilliance of our plan and to see how hard the team was working. But at a strategic level, what they needed most was to know: What happened?  So what? What’s next?

If you find yourself in the midst of a firestorm, here are 5 questions that can help you form your executive briefing.

  1. What happened?
    Consider this a newspaper headline. What happened and what’s the current and potential human and business impact?
  2. What have you done?
    Summarize key actions, timelines, and impact.
  3. What’s next?
    Outline next steps and timelines
  4. What’s in jeopardy?
    Ditch the Diaper Genie™ and be real with what’s at stake and what could go wrong, as well as the downstream impact on other projects and business priorities.
  5. What do you need?
    Where do you need help? What additional resources or support do you need?

Of course, you need to be prepared with all the details and to engage in deep discussion of why you chose your path and other options you considered. But a strong executive summary will save everyone time, get you the support you need, and and let you get back to what matters most– fighting the fire.

Your turn. What are your best practices for communicating with executives in times of crises?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons DIVDSHUB

Project Manager Tools: An Easy Communication Tool

How to Run a Better Project: A Communication Tool For Project Managers

Whether you’re a PMI certified project manager working to spearhead several large-scale projects, or a manager balancing a critical project while still doing your day job, you know the importance of communication. 

And yet, people typically don’t communicate well. Especially not about risk; about the myriad ways their best-laid plans could implode. And when their plans do implode, and negative emotions kick in? Their communication gets progressively worse.

What does this mean for you, as a project manager? It means that in your efforts to get a struggling project back on track, the deck is stacked against you. The very thing you need—open, fluid communication among your stakeholders—is likely to be the one thing you won’t get. Communication takes time to rebuild once it’s broken down. You know the schedule you’re always up against. You don’t have that kind of time.

57% OF PROJECTS FAIL DUE TO BREAKDOWNS IN COMMUNICATION. –IT Cortex

The best solution for you is to prevent your project from veering off track in the first place. To do that, you’ll need to consistently and ruthlessly seek out understanding of the risks your project faces.

An Easy Project Manager Communication Tool

A significant part of our work is supporting project leaders and teams to ‘own the ugly’ around what could prevent their teams from meeting project goals. Technology is progressing faster (and workplace culture is changing faster) than at any other point in human history. Your most important work as a project manager is to be aware of when you’re lagging behind, so you can take steps to immediately redirect and get your initiative’s efforts back on course.

To launch and guide candid, “ugly” conversations about the ways your project could be at risk, you can use the “Own the Ugly” Communication Tool inspired by our best-selling book Winning Well A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul:

Own the UglyU- What are we Underestimating?

Typically, the element of project management that’s most often underestimated is communication. You and your stakeholders understand the technical and operational risks to your project. You’ve taken steps to mitigate those risks. But you can understand risk and still underestimate the impact of failure on people.

When a project begins to veer off course—when deadlines are missed and deliverables don’t produce desired results — communication breaks down. Poor communication increases the risk of your project’s failure exponentially.

Consider, are you underestimating that?

Ask yourself how can you shore up your communication channels now, before your actual encounter with any of the dozens of elements that can take your project down. Where do you need to pay closer attention to how people talk to one another? The tone of your team’s day-to-day conversations is a good indicator of the strength of their relationships. People who are in strong relationships are more likely to keep communicating under pressure.

Create space for contributors to your project to dig in and identify exactly where communication will break down first—how, why, and between whom—if goals start to be missed. In having this conversation, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about your stakeholders. You’ll discover where they are already struggling to communicate effectively with one another and, possibly, with you.

G- What’s Got to Go?

As a project manager, you know better than anyone, to succeed, projects must be agile. Conditions change, and the things that you’re doing now may not make sense anymore.

Ask your team, “Which of our processes are more habit than value? What meetings are wasting your time? What’s simply gotta go for you to have the time, energy, and resources to focus on what matters most to this project’s desired outcomes?”

Ask these questions now. Be fierce about purging the policies and norms that are keeping your contributors in a holding pattern. Facilitating agility is more often about subtraction than addition.

L- Where are We Losing?

Mapping out a project management strategy and following through on your plans can be a monumental effort. But what happens when you and your contributors do everything ‘right’ and still fail to make strides in meeting your project’s initial goals?

Well, then it’s time for the gloves to come off—all the way off.

Ask, “Where are you under-performing despite your best efforts, and why? Who is doing it better, and how? And, most importantly, what systems and partnerships must evolve to support your effort?”

Leading projects within a rapidly shifting business environment isn’t easy. It’s hard. Be proactive in discovering why you’re not effective. Set yourself apart from other project teams that are waiting for change to happen to them, instead of because of them.

Y- Where are We Missing the Yes?

Beyond your project’s scope lies a universe of possibility. As project manager, you know this. That’s why you keep a sharp eye on scope creep. To meet your project’s budget, timeline, and promised outcomes, you must ensure promises don’t outstrip resources.

And yet. Is the mindset to prevent scope creep holding you back from effectively assessing creative options? Are there partnerships, research, or tangential efforts that, while not strictly within your project’s parameters, could deepen your team’s results?

Every now and then, remind yourself and your team that it’s okay to remove the blinders and explore counterintuitive options. Cultivate that curiosity. And, have the uncomfortable conversations about the ways curiosity isn’t cultivated within your project and the impact of that absence.

PMI EMEA Congress 2018 Karin Hurt and David Dye

Remember—you’re going to need innovative solutions should your project’s risks ever become reality.

Won’t you join us? Are you a Europe-based Project Manager? We would love to have you join us for our session at the PMI EMEA Congress in Berlin. Click here for more information.

Download this Project Article to Share with Your Project Manager Colleagues

Would you like a printable version of this article? Click here.

See Also: 6 Reasons Even the Best Project Managers Fail 

how to support your project managers

Six Reasons Even the Best Project Managers Fail

The project is mission critical, and complicated with lots of moving parts across departments. You’ve assigned your rock star, PMI certified project manager to shepherd the process and the project is way behind schedule. She’s frustrated, you’re one missed deadline away from frantic, and your boss wants to know what she can do to help. What next? How do you best support her and your team of project managers to ensure their success?

Six Reasons Even the Best-Run Projects Derail (and How to Help Your Project Managers Avoid These Traps)

When great project managers fail, which they sadly sometimes do, the root cause is almost never a breakdown in a technical expertise. More pressure on the PM won’t solve these issues; neither will more frequent readouts or points of escalation. When your great PMs fail, take a step back and check for these surefire project derailers.

1. Lack of Executive Alignment

Of course, every exec in the room was “all in” when their boss said, “Fix this now, we need all hands on deck.” But what exactly does that mean?

What exactly are we fixing now and how?

What does success look like?

Which departments are going to do what by when and how will we know? If this is not clear at the executive level, you’ll never foster true collaboration a level or three below.

How does this issue rank in priority to the other top 3 issues everyone is already working on night and day?

When your PM goes out looking for support and resources, where does this rank? Are you sure all are aligned?

2. It’s Not the MIT (Most Important Thing). 

Closely correlated to number 1, your project team members are attending your meetings, agreeing to next steps, and then going back to their “real” priorities and day jobs. If your project is not what’s top of mind for their boss, it’s unlikely any tasks will be on the top of their to-do list.

3. The Team’s Full of B-Players

I’m guilty as charged. Perhaps you are too. Have you ever been asked to commit resources to a project that you feel is a distraction from your MIT? All “headcount” is not the same. If your project is failing, you may have more than one leader giving you less than their A team.

4. They’re Too Stressed to Put People Before Projects

The pressure’s on and the team jumped right in, no wasted time. Teams take a minute to gain trust and to build collaboration. If the team is failing, a quick time out to focus on the people issues might be just the trick. Go slow to go fast.

5. No One Wants to Hear the Tough Stuff

If #3 doesn’t apply, you have the A-team, everyone’s aligned on MITs and expectations, but you’re telling the team to stop complaining and make it happen– you might be missing the most valuable insights for true project success. Be sure you and your team are taking time to channel challengers.

6. PMs Don’t Feel Empowered to Have the Tough Conversations

No project succeeds without clear expectations and accountability. But so many of the PMs we work with share how hard this is without the support they need to lead through influence.  Here’s our INSPIRE methodology applied to Project Managers.

I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Model for Project Managers

Your turn. When great project managers struggle, or when important projects derail, where do you look first?