It was like someone dropped a grenade on the meeting. I had just called out a risk that was a surprise to the executive stakeholders in the room — and the meeting instantly disintegrated.

One executive jumped in to stop me talking. Another texted a manager who wasn’t in the room, apparently pleading for an intervention. I got a call from him two minutes after the meeting ended, asking what went down and why.

To me, the storm seemed completely disproportionate. The project risk wasn’t earth-shattering — but the executives’ reaction to the surprise certainly was.

That misstep diminished my credibility. My leash was shortened, and it was some time before I was allowed to provide unvetted updates.

I know now that executives should never be surprised in front of their peers. And in the time since, I’ve learned dozens of other vital lessons about communicating effectively with executives.

I’ve written before about how important communication is to project management. And that means communication with all stakeholders — including supervisors, leaders, and sponsors.

This upward communication is vital for your professional success (not to mention the success of your project) — but many project managers find it uncomfortable to communicate openly and frequently with executives and sponsors.

The result is that we sometimes avoid it… or we don’t think to update leadership when we ought to… or we don’t ask for what we need to be successful… or — as happened to me — we end up surprising executives with news that they weren’t expecting.

Lack of Upward Communication Jeopardizes Your Project… And Your Reputation

Poor communication within the project team risks project timelines, budgets, and completion — and creates a stressful environment and a dysfunctional team culture.

Poor upward communication makes all those risks 10 times worse.

Project sponsors and leaders who are left out of the loop often become disengaged and dissatisfied — which means they’re unlikely to provide your team and project with the support you’ll need for success.

But, like it or not, they’re all judging your performance as a team leader — and very often losing confidence. 

Say the project is doing well, running ahead of schedule and under budget. If your leaders don’t know this, they can’t give you and your team the credit you deserve. And if leaders aren’t apprised early on of risks, setbacks, and conflicting priorities, you’re likely to receive the blame when things go wrong.

Good communication can solve all that. Communication drives engagement which, in turn, drives alignment. And you need alignment and engagement from ALL stakeholders in your project, including (especially) leaders and sponsors.

12 Steps for Communicating Upward

If you’ve ever tried to give a status update to an impatient, dismissive, or disengaged leader… you know how stressful communicating upward can sometimes be. No wonder so many project leaders avoid it!

Fortunately, with the right approach, you can turn upward communication into an opportunity to build real partnerships with executive leaders, sponsors, and clients.  The key is learning to communicate in a way that gives them the information THEY need while still soliciting the support and feedback YOU need.

Here’s the approach I teach my project management students:

  1. Understand your audience and what motivates them. This enables you to give them what they want, in the format they want it in.
  2. Understand how your project fits into their overall strategy and worldview. This helps you better predict the kinds of information they’ll find useful — and helps you frame your updates and questions in a way they’ll find relevant.
  3. Ask yourself what they need to know AND what you need from them. Communication is a two-way street, so be sure you’re clear on what everyone needs from the conversation.
  4. Set context and get to the point quickly. Setting context is essential groundwork for helping someone understand the stakes of a conversation. But executives rarely want or need tons of detail: be as clear and concise as possible in your communication.
  5. Ask clarifying questions to understand the other perspective. This can feel intimidating — especially if the leader in question is abrupt, brusque, or seems unhappy — but you can’t address their concerns unless you understand where they’re coming from. In other words, you need context, too — and asking clarifying questions is how you’ll get it.
  6. Project confidence! Your delivery of the message is just as important as the message itself. When you seem confident, others are more likely to have confidence in you.
  7. Know your logic and options inside and out.  You earn your confidence by knowing your stuff — so be sure that you know your stuff. Leaders are likely to have probing questions about your recommendations, and you need to have answers. Be sure that you’ve thought through the available options, identified risks and rewards for each path, anticipated unintended consequences, and can justify your recommendations.  
  8. Avoid jargon and buzzwords. Jargon is specialist language, and you’re often talking to non-specialists. In these situations, jargon impedes understanding and causes your listeners to tune out.
  9. Be an advocate for yourself and your team. You know your team, your project, and your team’s capacity better than anyone — so don’t hesitate to stand up for what you need to be successful.
  10. Don’t be afraid to let leaders know how a decision may impact the team or outcomes. This is actually a key aspect of advocating for your team. Leaders, sponsors, and clients may control the final decision — but they’ll rely on your knowledge and expertise to inform them of how that decision might play out. Don’t be shy about highlighting impacts that they may not have considered. 
  11. Ask for what you need, and be open to suggestions and feedback. Sometimes project managers treat conversations with executives as a one-way interaction, where orders and directives are passed down for project teams to deal with. But the reality is that you, your executive leadership, sponsors, and clients are all partners with a common goal.
  12. So treat them like partners. Tell them what you’ll need in order to create the outcomes they desire… and remain open to changing your plans based on their feedback and ideas.

Learning to communicate upward more effectively brings an astonishing array of benefits to you, your projects, and your team. 

You’ll gain more influence over the decisions that affect your project, and co-create the circumstances you need to deliver successful outcomes that meet strategic goals. And as you gain skill in advocating for yourself and your team, you’ll be better positioned to create a team environment that minimizes stress and maximizes effectiveness and efficiency.

Just as importantly, you’ll position yourself as a trusted partner in the execution of your organization’s strategic objectives. When executives learn that they can rely on your honesty, transparency, and advice, they’ll be more likely to listen when you speak, consult with you in advance of making decisions, and entrust you with more responsibility.

That’s not only good for you and your team — it’s good for your career.

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