I’m a big believer that when it comes to facilitating project meetings project managers benefit from being the one in the room that talks the least. Especially when those project meetings are with the end customer or a project sponsor.
Conversationally, I love to talk. And I’m definitely an extrovert. I can also give my opinion very decidedly, in an Elizabeth Bennet kind of way. Which only emphasizes the importance I put on being silent and listening, at key times.
It’s something I learned from observing senior sales account managers. Then, I learned to emulate it myself in meetings. It is both a coaching skill and a negotiation skill. Certainly, a leadership skill.
Status should be a “brief”
When you hold project meetings with executive sponsors – internal or external – rarely is the status unknown. One thing I’ve learnt about senior managers is that they don’t like surprises. If there is something critical happening, there are ways to bubble that up in real time. It’s part of expectation setting.
The real purpose of a project status meeting is more often to have a discussion on what to do about the status. To propose solutions. To ask for direction and/or decisions.
I liken it to the old fashion word brief. You are giving them the key highlights and summary. Being brief opens up decision. Going into a long tale about how we got here often closes it.
Sure, as PM, it’s your responsibility to provide updates on progress – that can be done with reports and graphs. Being brief in being visual. Then listen to the response.
It’s a path to discovery
I find the best way to get information on what the customer’s priorities really are, as well as what they think, receive real feedback, and uncover real deadlines… is to pose an open question and then listen.
You often learn the priorities are different than you assumed. Focused narrowly on the view from my project, what has felt like a major drama to me and my team, may in the wider scheme of things be not as important. And I’ve seen time open up in what was thought of as critical deadlines when something is important enough to be attended to. There is usually more flex and give at a strategic level that you are aware of.
You may also find that executives have been schooled in the same communication tactics. Their responses may be equally brief. And their questions direct and thoughtful. Then it becomes a back-and-forth discussion that gets to a conclusion. With less meaningless tangents. And often quicker than if one side was doing all the talking.
Incidentally, it’s also a good way to handle yourself in an interview. Or in a discovery call. Or with an unruly relative.
It makes your team look bigger and stronger
Another twist on the PM not talking, is to give space for key members of your team to talk. Interestingly, it builds credibility when you share power with your team. It makes your team look larger when there is a set of diverse voices talking. Not just yours.
Sometimes there is more suited to regular project meetings with customer peers, rather than an executive briefing. It can be useful at both if there is room in the agenda.
I learnt this tactic when managing project delivery to Fortune 500 level customers, while working at much smaller technology vendors. It only needed 2 or 3 voices, including mine. I would set the conversation, then open it up to the subject matter experts to say more. We looked bigger and stronger. And that we were dealing with whatever was going on. It also conveyed to my team that I trusted them.
Again, there could be no surprises. As the PM it is important to make sure ahead of time that the team is on the same page. To agree a shared response to the customer. If the team is working well together, it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort or overhead. It means shorter more regular conversation within the team before you communicate out to the customer.
It takes confidence and creates trust
In yourself. And in your team.
I think the reason some PMs take over the customer meeting because they lack confidence. In the outcomes. In the team. Or that the customer trusts them to do the job. It takes confidence to sit back and say less, and still know you are being acknowledge for your worth.
Granted there are those toxic environments where not speaking up means you are overlooked. And it can come up in places where diversity is not valued. If anything, knowing this tactic can help you to spot those environments. They will attract the conference table hogs. They will hold meetings with too many people and yet only a few senior people talk.
Hopefully if you see it, you can move on to better projects. Or start to plan your exit.
From watching them, you would think that some Project Managers think that credibility comes from speaking the most. They take over project meetings and are often the only one talking.
I find you appear most credible when you speak deliberately and listen more. You learn more about the customer’s priorities. And what is expected of your team.
The added benefit is that when you do speak – calmly and clearly – what you say is more likely to be heard.
It’s not only a way to build credibility, it’s a way to cultivate trust and confidence.