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Comms Principle #5: Engaging Senior Management

Having not blogged since early March (well over 4 months ago), I’d like to start by saying that this next post has been several months in the making.  That would imply that there’s going to be lots of good stuff in it.

Unfortunately, though I’d like to say it, I can’t.  I just got real busy starting a new job and the blog slipped off the radar for a few months.  Last week however, a colleague whose opinions I value said she’d enjoyed reading this and that I really should find time to continue.  She was right and so here I am, back at the keyboard on a Sunday morning.  (You know who you are – thank you).

So while I clearly haven’t been researching and writing this next post for months, I can however say that it has been many years in the making.  In fact, this particular post was prompted by a message I received from Project Management Hut in response to Principle #2, where I alluded to a previous experience that I will now describe in detail.

In the nearly two decades that I’ve been creating and giving communications and presentations to and for senior management, I’ve tried a few things that have failed, and a few that worked, and I like to think that the more I do it the better I know how to do it.

So let me say, first of all, that this post is not about how to engage properly with a group of senior stakeholders that your project needs to convince to follow a management-instituted program of change.  It is about engaging with the senior executive within your project, and allowing him or her to engage in a meaningful way with those whose permission he or she needs to run the project.  I feel that I’ve covered the former group in an earlier post.  The latter group are different beasts.

A number of years ago, I got the chance to work for a man who went on to become my personal business hero.  I’m not going to mention his name since that would be indiscreet, so for now let’s just call him Bob (and before anyone goes running to LinkedIn, he’s not one of my contacts).

Bob took over a project that had cost a small fortune to run, had produced next to nothing of value, and whose executive level sponsors were growing impatient.

One of his first tasks – we all knew this – was going to be to trim the project team.  I was absolutely certain that I would be in the firing line since Comms is always an easy sacrificial lamb and, if I’m honest, I had achieved nothing of value either.

However, as I went through the first couple of weeks and he pulled his plans together (barely speaking to me at all), I became impressed with his clarity of vision, his no bullshit attitude and his absolute focus on coming up with a recommendation that made sense, irrespective of who it annoyed, or indeed whose career it impacted.

Finally, he gathered his extended senior team (about 15 of us) together.  That team nominally included me, but ironically I’m damn certain he didn’t know my name.

He presented his goals, objectives and plans, with such simplicity of thought that the conclusion he led us all to was inescapable.  Then he went round the table, asking everyone in turn if they were happy.  Yes, yes, yes came the replies, one after another.

Knowing that the plan of the previous project leader had bogged down due to a lack of air-cover from senior management, I still had doubts.  But I’d heard good things about him, and I liked his vision so (figuring that I was going to be fired anyway), when he turned to me and said “Are you happy?”, I decided to simply put my cards on the table.

I told him that I wasn’t happy.  I said that I’d seen a lot of plans which made sense and that failed to deliver.  I informed him that even if this plan turned out to be better, the road ahead would still be long and hard, and the challenges were no less real with his leadership that they had been before.  The room went very quiet.

Your country needs you!

Your country needs you!

Then I added that I had asked colleagues whose opinions I respected for their views of him, and had heard that he never set an objective that he didn’t truly believe he could deliver and that his focus once an objective was established was intense.  I concluded that, while still being unable to proclaim myself happy, I was perhaps somewhat more optimistic.  I was painfully aware that I was the only person who had said they were not happy but, as my father used to say, faint heart never won fair lady.

Bob pointed his finger at me, and fired me.

Just kidding.  He banged his fist on the table and (literally) shouted “You are on my team”.

Four weeks later, the project team of nearly 100 had been cut to about 15 and over the next two years, this man became an inspiration to me.

Our first six months were essentially spent pulling together a recommendation for the Corporate Executive Board.  With so much money spent already, it was hard to do anything other than continue, rework the strategy, bring in fresh thinking/energy and charge at the brick wall again.

Bob had different ideas.  And as I spent hour after hour, week after week, working with him and pulling the essence of his proposal into a presentation (or in reality a series of them), I grew to understand the importance of engagement and syndication.

He took his ideas to each board member individually, and listened to their responses.  He edited the proposal.  He engaged with other key stakeholders, and edited it again (or rather I did).  He crunched masses of data, but only with a view of reducing everything to a simple expression.  He syndicated with the board again.

The proposal, in essence, was to kill the project.  And this proposal was going to be a shock since the amount spent was already – well – think of a really huge number and then double it.

Not only did the proposal recommend killing the project, it clearly articulated the reasons.

The reasons were varied and complex, but were expressed as simple, direct sentences.  And much as they pointed the finger at the project team, they were also very clearly about the failings of the senior executives, many of whom sat in that room.

I’m paraphrasing, but basically the recommendation ran as follows.

Protect your ground troops

Protect your ground troops

You guys keep asking us to spin gold out of straw.  While this is difficult, we all know that it is also possible.  Others know it’s possible too.  But it’s going to require a lot of change and a lot of people don’t like that.  The key issue is that you tell us to deliver it but you don’t share your direction with the rest of the organization, you don’t take ownership of the outcome, and you don’t stake your credibility on its success.  I therefore recommend we kill this right now, write the money off and let everyone go because until you are prepared to show commitment, your approval has no value.

He then went on to reveal that the pre-syndication of the presentation showed that half the board agreed with this position, and supported the recommendation, a fact that surprised the board but was entirely accurate.

The presentation was, of course, a double-bluff.  He knew they could not be seen to just chalk this up to experience and close it down, but he equally knew that without air cover the project was doomed to failure.  The repeated requests from some board members to “prove it” (as opposed to approve it or kill it) were a smokescreen for a lack of either understanding or courage.  He even produced an airline ticket, dated for the next day, to demonstrate that he fully expected to be fired as a result of having the temerity to point this out and was ready to fly home into retirement.

As he had hoped, the board than asked what he would ask of them.  What was the level of commitment needed?

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

He shared details of what would be required, what the benefits were, and what the huge challenges would be that needed to be addressed.  And then he told them the story of Alexander and the Gordian Knot, and said that great leaders with true sense of purpose will not shrink from enforcing the difficult decisions.

I’m sure you’ve found this little story fascinating.  Or maybe you haven’t.  But it was a story I thought was worth telling because I personally learned so much from it.  The lessons, which I find hold true to this day, break down into four simple but powerful requirements:

Air Cover – Your executive sponsors must be made to understand that if they make a decision, they have to stand by it, display visible commitment to it, and put their own credibility on the line.  Approving something and then abdicating responsibility for delivery is a copout and your change program is likely to crumble at the first sign of resistance because it has no foundation.

Enforcement – Every now and again you will meet a naysayer who is very senior, maybe even a board member.  Do what you can to find out their views, why they dispute your strategy, and try to convince them.  However, if it proves impossible, that is the time the head honchos earn their salaries.  Are the objections reasonable?  If so they must be considered carefully.  If not, the principals of the company need to be prepared to use Alexander’s solution to sever that which cannot be unravelled.

Incentives – There is no clearer way of displaying commitment to something than by tying your bonus to its delivery.  It takes a very brave person to suggest this to a senior executive team (as Bob did) and it takes an even braver executive to agree, but no signal can be sent that is more impactful.

Syndication – Until I met Bob, I had always believed that keeping your powder dry was the best way to ensure maximum effect.  And it is.  But it is not a way of ensuring maximum consensus.  By soliciting responses, you not only understand what the objections are,  you also develop a map of who supports you and why.  This knowledge is invaluable if you know you are going to need to make some direct comments.

Bob has been retired for several years now.  I still hear from him every couple of years.  But I will never forget the 24 months I worked for him.  He taught me more about listening than anyone I have ever known.

Listening is the key to any successful change program.  Many people think that listening is an entirely passive activity, but they couldn’t be more wrong.  Listening is the single most proactive step you can take towards understanding.  It is therefore a particular shame that so many senior managers mistake listening for inactivity.  In my entire career, I have never been busier than the first six months Bob and I spent listening, adjusting, and listening again.

Sometime in hopefully the near future, I will get around to the next post, which will be the last in this series about Communications Principles.

 

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Comms Principle #2: It’s Stakeholder, not Steakholder

Melanie Griffith in 'Working Girl'. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Melanie Griffith in ‘Working Girl’. Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the 1988 movie ‘Working Girl’, Alec Baldwin delivers an ultimatum to Melanie Griffith, to which he receives the response “I am not steak – you can’t just order me.”

I’m sure the line was never meant to be relevant to corporate communications, but I’ve never found one that better sums up the manner in which some communications strategies rely on beating their audience into submission.

In the past (and I mean the long distant past), leadership styles were significantly more authoritarian than they are today.  Raising issues with management direction could have been a career decision.  And in some companies this can still be the case, although thankfully it is now the exception rather than the rule.

Today’s Management Boards have recognized that simply mandating a change does not ensure its successful delivery.  While everyone may pay lip-service to the objective the fact remains that people are, in general, very resistant to change.

Daniel Burrus

Daniel Burrus – Collaboration vs. Cooperation

When proposing a program of strategic change, one of the first things that needs to be appreciated is the fact that dragging people towards an objective is not nearly as effective as having them gravitate towards it.

One of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Burrus, wrote an interesting piece on LinkedIn a few weeks ago that clearly articulated the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and pointed out that people confuse the two. The key distinction he makes is worth repeating here:

“Cooperation is based on a scarcity mindset; it’s about protecting and defending your piece of the pie.  Collaboration is based on an abundance mindset, working together to create a bigger pie for all”.

Change means uncertainty - people don't like uncertainty

Change means uncertainty –
and people don’t like uncertainty

Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But where Change Management activities are concerned, it’s one of those key distinctions that tend to fall by the wayside in the headlong rush to build consensus and move forward. The problem of course is that if you settle merely for stakeholder cooperation, everything you build thereafter will be less stable and the consensus is liable to develop cracks.  If you want to build on a solid foundation, you need your stakeholders to want what you want.  In order to do this they have to share your vision, not just execute it.

And that, when all is said and done, is the tough bit.  How do you get a group of stakeholders not just to move in the same direction, but to want to move in the same direction and to encourage others to come with them?

Your new strategic direction may promise inescapable benefits for the organization, but it may also have a dramatic impact of a vast number of careers.  It may require employees to learn new skills, or new ways of working.  It may require changes in their reporting lines or the manner in which they are remunerated.  Suppliers or customers may be required to work with you in new ways (which can be tricky to enforce with suppliers, and next to impossible with customers).  It may also mean that some existing roles become redundant, in which case having your stakeholders believe that as one door closes several others will open is of critical importance.

There will undoubtedly be personal issues that shape the opinions of stakeholders both inside and outside your organization, and you will need to understand them (something I’ll come back to in a future post), but your first priority should be to understand where everyone fits, both in terms of how they can impact the project and how they are impacted by it.  This is the essence of Stakeholder Segmentation.

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A large group of stakeholders can be segmented in a number of ways, but the key requirements are to understand where they fit in terms of reporting and role, to understand their level of seniority or influence, and to understand the likely impact of the project on their day job or, for external stakeholders, their business.

Getting the names of all these stakeholders, their responsibilities and other key information is not a difficult task, but it is time consuming and unfortunately there is no way around it.

Existing org charts will take you some of the way there, as will mailing lists, but the remainder will largely be grunt work – talking to colleagues, making phone calls, sharing iterations of the list and seeking feedback until such time as you can be sure it is broadly complete. There will always be one or two that you miss, but they will become apparent as soon as the comms flow starts.

With the list in place, you can start to determine what kind of communications detail will be required for each audience.  Your IT stakeholders will likely require very different information that that required by your marketers, or by HR, or your suppliers, and while you may be able to use some of the communications materials across all stakeholder groups, each group should feel that the materials you develop have something in it for them.  Remember, the more information that does not apply specifically to a particular stakeholder, the less likely that stakeholder is to read it.  Management may have mandated the change, but getting the stakeholders to pay attention, understand and actively engage will be on you.

Prince2 Project Management structure

Prince2 Project Management structure

If you need to go to the length of producing modular communications material, which is entirely possible, you will need to start building relationships with the experts in your project team and project board.

The Project Manager is always a good place to start, and he/she will be able to describe the skill sets available to help you develop the detail that the communication may require.  In addition, your project’s Senior User or Senior Supplier will be able to help you be aware of some of the key challenges that exist, both in terms of the benefits that are expected and the challenges of implementation. I should probably point out here that I am using Prince2 project management structure, since that is what I was trained in, but other Project Management methodologies encompass similar roles.

This will be the point at which some sensitivities exist, as you will also have to segment your stakeholders based on perceived level of support and influence.  Those who support the activity may be able to become active in influencing others, but you will need their support to be on message because not only do you want them to communicate correctly and not start any unnecessary rumors in motion, but also you want them to bring you feedback so that any level of resistance apparent in initial discussions can be addressed while it is still just a risk, rather than waiting until it becomes an issue.

There will invariably be certain key stakeholders who are skeptical or hostile.  It is particularly important to highlight who they are at an early stage, particularly if they have a level of seniority that could delay or undermine the project, or if they have expertise that is held in high regard by other stakeholders.  A bit of extra time or effort spent on syndicating objectives with this group of individuals, and sounding them out for objections or concerns will pay dividends in the long term.

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

In order to be certain of their views and to encourage their positive engagement, you may need to use “man defense” rather than relying on “zone defense”, meaning they will need to be approached on an individual basis, ideally by someone within or close to the project, and with whom they have a good relationship.

This ‘relationship owner’ takes responsibility for representing the details correctly, engaging frequently to secure feedback, and reporting the substance of any resistance back to the center.

This is unfortunately quite a labor intensive way of engaging (to ensure just one individual is in possession of all the facts, and that his or her opinions are accurately recorded), but in a small number of cases you may find there is no substitute for it, and even that it can be more efficient.

Finally, while it is important to know what your stakeholders think, it is just as important that they know you know and that they have confidence that their concerns are being taken seriously.

There is only one thing worse than being confronted with a change you don’t agree with, or not knowing who to talk to and how to raise concerns, and that is to talk to someone and raise concerns and never hear anything about it again.  If this happens, you’ve taken a key step towards getting your stakeholders engaged and then dropped the ball by not letting them know that you’ve heard their concerns, that you’ve shared them with the relevant people and that an answer is being developed.  In short, you’ve given the impression that their views are irrelevant.

If you don’t have an answer, don’t bullshit them.  They will almost certainly find out and when they do you will have gone 90% of the way towards losing their trust forever.  Tell them you don’t know, then go and find out what the answer is.  Unless you’re dealing with a stakeholder who has a particularly poisonous agenda (and they do exist), you will gain points for honesty and collaboration far more often than you will lose them for being “unprepared”.

Is this all there is to stakeholder management?  Of course not but this is a blog not a book, and following these basic steps will at very least move you in the right direction.

I’ll cover more on the subject of establishing a dialogue with your stakeholders in Comms Principle #3.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Change Management, Communications

 

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