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Topic 9.8: Managing up

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As a project manager, your immediate boss is inevitably your project’s sponsor; however, you also may be accountable to any number of high power / high interest stakeholders.

Unfortunately, some project managers only pay attention to managing either those they report to or those who report to them.

PMs who only manage up may come across as suck-ups or toadies; subordinates assume they don’t care about them and may withhold their respect or slack off in their work.

On the other hand, project managers who only manage down can’t advocate for their team or gain buy-in for the project’s endeavours from those further up the chain.

Successful managers pay attention to managing both directions, as well as communicating with their peers.

So how do you engage with and get the most out of your sponsor and senior stakeholders, especially (as is sometimes the case) if they have little understanding of their role?

SourceWayne Turk

First of all (and at the risk of repeating ourselves) communicate!

As we have already discussed, good communication skills are necessary to succeed in almost every situation. 

Some stakeholders are readers, meaning they prefer to receive information in written form; others are listeners, meaning they prefer to get their information verbally.

If you want your ideas to be heard, understood, and acted on, make it easy for your stakeholders by communicating in the manner with which they are most comfortable. 

But make sure that the communication is two-way – you have to understand each stakeholder’s wants and needs

Listen and ask questions if you aren’t sure; then feed the answers back to confirm that you heard them right.

Don’t surprise stakeholders – even 'good' surprises can backfire on you!

Many experienced project managers can cite examples of bringing a stakeholder what they thought was good news, only to be horribly disappointed. 

Regularly scheduled reports of progress should be supplemented by informal, exception driven updates.

There are going to be problems with your project – every project has them. 

But when you let your stakeholders know about those problems, give them your proposed solution(s)

That shows that you have thought the situations through.

Now there are stakeholders who seem to want to hear only good news; as they don’t want to hear about problems, they represent a particular challenge. 

It is up to you to help them face problems head on with courage and innovation

For the good of the project and the organisation, you must communicate problems and failures with the successes, but do so sensitively and appropriately. 

Understand, too, your stakeholders’ perspectives and agendas – that way, you can align your priorities with theirs. 

Put yourself in their shoes. 

While many people think that they have an understanding of their stakeholders' goals and pressures, they don’t always understand their strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and work styles, or the pressures and constraints on them. 

Exploring these will help you identify commonalities you never knew existed and gain a little insight on how to better interact effectively with them.

Understand your stakeholders’ preferences, and try to conform to them.

If they want a daily report on what has been accomplished, give it to them. If they want the big picture and not the details, give it to them that way. If they want something in a specific format, give it to them. 

That doesn’t mean that you can’t try to show them a better way, but remember to use tact and diplomacy

If you get offside with a stakeholder, even over something minor, you may never be able to undo the damage.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is to assume you know what your stakeholder expects. 

Many stakeholders don’t spell out their expectations, and the burden of discovery falls to you. 

If they don’t give you the information that you need, initiate one or a series of informal discussions on ‘our’ objectives. 

This can help your stakeholder clarify and communicate his or her ideas, plans, and needs to you; and it gives you the chance to communicate your own ideas as well.

Together, set realistic expectations that you both agree on. 

They include expectations on schedule, costs, and the final product. The emphasis is on realistic

Don’t set expectations too high or you will ruin your credibility when they are not met; but don’t intentionally set them low, either, as this may erode their confidence in you.

You need to determine each stakeholder's strengths

Whether those strengths are communication, seeing the big picture, resource management, new ideas, or something else, go to your stakeholder for their expertise

Remember, though, that time is a precious commodity for most – every request made of the stakeholder uses up his or her time and resources, so make sure your requests are necessary

Use their strengths, but if you can do it yourself, don’t waste their time.

Recognise your stakeholders’ weaknesses and compensate for them.

Your stakeholders are not going to be good at everything – it is up to you to figure out where they are weak and provide your support in those areas. 

You might just want to intentionally try doing something to make life easier for your stakeholder. 

Maybe you can build the slides for their briefings, track the finances, monitor the schedule, or provide the support that they need in some area. 

And perhaps your stakeholder will spend that extra time or effort that you saved them to advocate for your project’s needs.

Be aware of your stakeholders’ hot buttons and pet peeves

Is it being late to meetings or not contributing, sloppy memos or e-mails, swearing, a loud radio? 

Sounds obvious, but whatever they are, consider them landmines to be avoided.

Ignoring them (or not understanding them) can sour your relationship with the stakeholder. 

And that can mean an unsuccessful project because you didn’t get the support that you needed – or worst case, it can be career suicide for you.

Finally, request feedback – and learn to accept it. 

Request periodic feedback if you aren’t getting it – don’t wait for the end of project review to find out a stakeholder’s opinion of you and your work. 

If you get bad feedback, discuss your concerns, but do it on a mature level, not emotionally or confrontationally. 

As in a marriage, the best approach is non-adversarial

Listen to what they say and try to act on it.