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Spencer Holmes


Managing Director and Training Consultant

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The seven facets of leadership pt 5b: Communication


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.

Spotting timewasters and walking away

This is a real challenge for the project manager who, in theory, often has no choice as to whether or not they run the project. Walking away it seems is just not an option, even if the project is evidently a dog with fleas from 100 paces. (just remind me why we're funding that tram project in Edinburgh?). However, at times, by linking this with the pain-spotting talent we can make an assertive case for shooting the project at a humane moment. Is it possible to highlight the issues for your seniors should the project end in failure? Can you simultaneously provide a great idea for what else could be done with the same resources? (I tell you what, let's can the tram and eradicate World poverty instead with the same budget?)


When you buy from a great salesperson you never regret it, well nearly never. They have built a relationship with you, and the foundation of that is trust. It happened to me today. I spent £80 in a triathalon shop because the person selling the stuff I bought also spent nearly 2 hours with me, understanding my issues (injury), trying things out and, ultimately recommending a course of action that was effective and much cheaper than the other options. I was hooked. If they're being honest, most project managers do not spend enough time in purely relationship-building activity. When I mention 'politics' they wince. We must get used to it, projects are human ant farms, understand how they work or run headlong into others for ever.
"If they're being honest, most project managers do not spend enough time in purely relationship-building activity."


At the right moment, a good sales person will need to ensure you have made a deal. Again, inexperienced project managers will often assume this has been done too soon and with too little evidence the buyer has bought. My experience of working with off-shore teams proves this. This simple vignette illustrates:
(picture the scene, you are at the end of a lengthy conference call having thrashed through a number of technical issues with your counterpart in Mumbai...)
PM(UK): So, that's the end of the snagging list, does that all make sense? (closed question)
Mumbai: Yes, that's fine ('fine' being a word that should be banned due to its vagueness)
PM: Great, deadline OK? (closed and assumptive)
Mumbai: Erm, yep, fine (unsure and vague)
PM: Great, any questions? (having not picked up on Mumbai's uncertainty then firing in another closed question at the end of an exhausting conference call)
Mumbai: No, everything's fine (meaning "thanks for not asking me to illustrate that I actually only really understood about 30% of what you’ve been saying but at least now I can get out of here and hopefully you'll forget large chunks of what we just agreed to, after all it is 9pm here now")
PM: Great, see you next week (too tired, lazy, intimidated, stressed, rushed to pick up on what he really, in his gut, knows is a shaky deal that's just gone down)
Project managers, whether it be with contractors or just with peers and especially superiors, need to get much better at being sure that deal everyone thinks they're signing up for is the thing they are going to go away and build. This requires patience, political nous and personality in order to get very different animals to see the world in the same way.


Again, possibly getting worn out as a phrase but project managers need to plan their stakeholder map carefully in any complex project and think tactically about 'what's in it' for everyone on that map, especially those who lie in the 'high influence / anti-project' quadrant. Communication style, format and message must be tailored to fit the customer.


A bad sales person will blast you with features in the hope it will either impress or intimidate the money from your wallet; in reality, most times it makes you psychologically or physically walk away. Inexperienced project managers sometimes do the same, wrapping themselves in the Emperor's wardrobe of Gantt this and Critical that. We must be bold enough to use real words that everyone understands – maybe someone could develop a project manager translator app?

Authentic chameleon

Good sales people suit the pitch to the person whilst the product doesn't change. Project managers need to get better at thinking about 'what style will suit this situation'. All too often there is a one-size-fits-all approach and in the worst examples project managers seem to scorn those in the project landscape who do not technically speak the same language as them.
"Good sales people suit the pitch to the person whilst the product doesn't change. Project managers need to get better at thinking about 'what style will suit this situation'."



Who spends the most money researching the wants, drives, preferences and peculiarities of their stakeholders? Supermarkets and the brands therein that they sell. The most successful ones do this the most – simple. Project managers need to reflect on that, how much do we invest in really understanding our customers? The investment is directly proportional to the likelihood of selling our message.

Getting to the point

I'm wary that for every point I write here, three more spring to mind and whoever's reading this may be wondering if it'll ever end. So let's end with the next statement.
Communication is complex, multi-faceted, fascinating and ever in need of improvement. It represents the core of all our training. There are legion tools in the PM handbag to help streamline communication from matrices to maps, charts to charters. But it really boils down to the tenacity of the project manager in committing themselves to two things:
  1. I will see every communication on this project as an opportunity
  2. I will never issue communication without checking it has genuinely been understood
To read part 5a, 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

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Spencer Holmes

Managing Director and Training Consultant

Read more from Spencer Holmes

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