Advising Upwards

Your project will only be considered successful if its key stakeholders perceive the project’s outcome as a success. These perceptions of success or failure are heavily influenced by the effectiveness of the project’s communications, and relationships, with its stakeholder community, particularly senior managers. Communicating effectively is both a science and an art framed within a relationship.

The starting point if you wish to be taken seriously is to develop a reputation for credibility. Senior management need to recognise that if you say something, it is backed up by facts, and if you commit to something, it is delivered. Credibility is earned by performance, but there is no harm in quietly making sure your performance is noticed in the right places. Your reputation is a general underpinning to all internal organisational relationships. Developing a specific relationship needs a specific, culturally appropriate focus before you can expect to communicate effectively.

Also, the last few years have seen significant changes in people’s understanding of acceptable behaviours and have forced a re-evaluation of the way Project and Program managers need to communicate to influence their stakeholders; particularly when ‘advising upwards’ and dealing with difficult people. The first key to building any effective relationship is to avoid stereotyping. Upwardly mobile managers with a focus on being promoted, frequently have a different life focus to project managers. These differences are not uncommon in successful senior executives and need to be respected as a component in the relationship, not denigrated.

The second key is to recognise that in every relationship there is a power dimension. How a senior manager uses his or her power is to an extent a generational issue. As long as they understand their purpose, many younger managers would see nothing wrong in a more junior manager setting reasonable boundaries and procedures to the relationship and communication. Older managers used to operating in a command and control environment are likely to react negatively to a ‘junior’ pushing rules upwards.

The solution is mutuality. You need to understand what you need from the relationship (support, resources, backing) and also what the senior manager needs from the relationship. Then, work within the relationship to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes that meet both sets of requirements. It is by linking your needs to the achievement of the senior manager’s requirements; you can start to achieve real communication.

As already mentioned, crafting advice to senior management to achieve effective outcomes from the communication is as much an art as a science. Communicating for effect requires a clear understanding of the objective of the communication and the skills to create messages that are focused:

  • On the right people
  • At the right time and carry
  • The right information in the right format.

Mutuality and credibility are the two keys to advising upwards, but in the end, all relationships depend on the situation. If you are seen as a serious contributor to the organization’s success and can link your needs to the needs of senior management, there’s a high probability of achieving your desired outcome and benefiting the organization at the same time.

My next book, Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders, will be published by Gower in 2011. For more on the book see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Books.html#AdvisingUpwards

In the meantime, our popular workshop, The science and art of communicating effectively will be run in Sydney and Melbourne over the next few weeks. For more information see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Training-Comms.html

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