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Spencer Holmes

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Managing Director and Training Consultant

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The seven facets of leadership pt 5a: Communication

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In part 5 of a series, Spencer Holmes describes a new approach to the development of project managers to meet the current challenges of organisations in all sectors. This week: Communication.

Most project managers score highly on our psychometric teston the 'communicator' facet. So how come, whenever we go into any organisation and start poking around, by far the most common response to the question "so, what's wrong round here?" is "communication". In itself more than a little oxymoronic as a response to such a complex issue.

I can start to feel myself gaining momentum already, rant mark 5 and rising, so let's pause to consider the Project Leaders' definition of the term. We say that communication "refers to the extent to which the individual is able to communicate his/her ideas to a wide audience. Great communicators have high verbal ability and are able to express themselves clearly and effectively".

"Communication refers to the extent to which the individual is able to communicate his/her ideas to a wide audience. Great communicators have high verbal ability and are able to express themselves clearly and effectively."

On first impression this definition leans heavily upon verbal acuity so let me unpack the first part a little. When we say "able to communicate his/her ideas to a wide audience" we also ascribe high levels of importance to the ability to both listen and empathise, without which a wide audience will remain unreachable, no matter what the message.

In last weeks' musings on the 'stability' facet I mentioned that, as we work through these facets, it becomes apparent that they combine and interact. In psychometrics language they are normative, not ipsative. This means that being good in one facet does not result in 'losing points' in another. In other words, all facets can be developed and a strong project leader can score highly in all. This is rare however.

This week I interviewed Professor Victor Newman, head of knowledge and innovation management at the University of Greenwich. Professor Newman made a compelling case for the combination of creativity (article 2 in this series) and communication as the key challenge for project managers. He posits that they need sales training to lead projects in today's organisations. Trainers, does this sound like project management training to you? No, me neither.

Why make project managers into sales people? Well, weak communication in any project can lead to:

  • Poorly understood requirements leading to an infinite number of problems
  • Money, time, effort, quality all wasted / compromised
  • Professional reputation dented / destroyed
  • Confusion, frustration, stress
  • Morale and team working deflated

Actually, trace pretty much any project problem to its source and something about communication will at least be a contributor.

So, back to our fantasy project management (sales) course that requires me to think laterally and somehow also link that with communication. We know that all too often project managers have the responsibility without the authority. They are plucked from their cosy function and thrust into the labyrinth of project management, armed only with a paper thin (literally) process to fend off the mighty minotaur of mismanagement.

"Maybe sales training would be of greater benefit to the average project manager than regurgitating a set of processes they could just as easily assimilate from a well-written manual."

So our point here is that maybe sales training would be of greater benefit to the average project manager than regurgitating a set of processes they could just as easily assimilate from a well-written manual. This is, of course, if they aspire to be project 'leaders'.

What would they learn in a good sales course that would develop the communication facet to be able to deal better with a project?

Listening

I know it's pretty hackneyed now but the old saying "two ears, one mouth" so use them in that ratio still holds true, and I believe originates from sales training (I'm sure someone will tell me if that's wrong).

Asking questions and probing

There are institutional, inter and intrapersonal reasons why we clam up, but a great, consultative salesperson will find out as much as they can about the other party's needs and context before getting close to a solution. Good business analysts know this (check CATWOE and many other similar devices) for example. Experience will have shown them that, at best clients change their minds, sometimes they don't know their minds and at worst they apparently lose their minds altogether. Always, always, always ask questions.

Spotting hooks

Asking questions allows the project manager to control the conversation and means the other party provides the information. Consultant sales people may use this to identify opportunities for a juicier deal, project leaders use it to identify other factors that may influence the project that are not specified in the charter/PID etc. Simple throwaway stuff like "of course, Janet's moving to accounts" or "the lease is up pretty soon" can have pretty serious implications in real life.

Identifying pain

Selling pain killers to the afflicted is easy, sales people know this. Project leaders also should think about how does aligning this project to areas of discomfort guarantee it gets the attention and support it needs. Creating training programmes is a classic example. If the pain lies in getting people in a room, create training that doesn't require that.

To read part 4, click here

Spencer Holmes is the managing director of Global Project Leaders Ltd. He runs projects, trains and consults globally on the subject. His passion is for helping project managers develop the resilience required to thrive in an increasingly pressurised world. His company can be found at www.projectleaders.com

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Spencer Holmes

Managing Director and Training Consultant

Read more from Spencer Holmes
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