I read with much interest a blog post on the Association for Project Management (APM) site by Teri Okoro, the chair of the Women in Project Management (WiPM) Specific Interest Group (SIG). The post was titled “Communicating for impact, influence and personal success”.
Teri states that “Communication forms a vital part of every project and can often make or break its success. We know that setting up and maintaining clear lines of communication is a critical role of a project manager. However, for those in leadership roles additional communication skills take on higher importance; the ability to speak confidently and present in front of large audiences being is also a key aspect. to those in a leadership role. This can often proves a stumbling block towards career progression.”
She attended a WiPM SIG event “Communicating for impact, influence and personal success” where Jean Gamester, of Semaphora Consulting, shared with the delegates her “own experiences in this area, and how she enhanced and increased her skills in this area through joining speakers’ club Toastmasters International to become an award-winning public speaker now helping others improve their own communication skills.”
Teri and Jean hit on a commonly underdeveloped area of most leaders. Irrespective of what role you have, whether project manager or programme director, communication is both fundamental and critical. Though all too often it is an area that is less mature than other more tangible project management skills and competencies. Never the less communications (or lack of effective communications) has the ability to disrupt people, teams, projects and programs. So it is imperative to practice and polish this essential skill.
Most project professionals fall into the trap of being comfortable with their level of communication skills. All too often their level of skill is enough to get by.
But as professionals we constantly seek and strive to refine our skills where ever possible. Embracing the learnings and publications from the likes of the APM and Project Management Institute (PMI). Spending our time wisely to ensure our more tangible project management skills are honed and up to date. So why don’t project professionals do the same for communications?
It may be that it requires stepping outside of one’s comfort zone in order to develop these skills. But often in life that is the only way to develop a skill further.
If you were to take up flying a glider; there would be only so much you could learn from books, or learn from a simulator; one day you will need to climb into the glider and (along with an instructor) take control and fly, the physical and mental experience enables you to reinforce learnings and gain hands on experience. One day you would have sufficiently honed skill to go solo. So I say do the same for communications!
I posted a response to Teri’s post describing how earlier in my career it was necessary for me to step outside of my comfort zone in order to develop these skills.
“Back in the second half of 1980’s I was a management trainee for NatWest Bank. Being on fast-track progression through numerous retail banking leadership roles meant that I needed to perfect my communication skills (regularly presenting in front of large (often unreceptive) audiences) especially with the broad range of ages, cultural backgrounds, etc.
My mentor (a senior manager with 30+ years business experience) suggested stepping outside of my comfort zone and developing these skills in non-work environments. I opted for two ways, through: 1) British Junior Chamber (“BJC”) (Junior Chamber International (“JCI”) these days) a volunteer organisation dedicated to creating positive change in local communities. 2) Banking Information Service (“BiS”) (part of the British Bankers Association). An education, information and careers service representing the whole banking industry.
Both organisations facilitated the development of individuals communications skills, the BJC had a highly evolved debating network and the BiS required numerous “seconded” staff to provide public speaking engagements.
The BiS sent me on an intensive two week communications skills course. All of the presentations where videoed and critiqued by a panel. Graduation required presenting to around 50 peers and guests in an auditorium. Despite the many decades that have passed I still recall the core learnings; 1) Know your audience, 2) Plan, 3) Structure accordingly, 4) Deliver your message, and 5) Monitor feedback to ensure your message is understood (from body language to paper feedback).
The BiS experience put me in good stead for my future BiS engagements. Fresh from my course, my first engagement was at a sixth form college in Yorkshire, supposedly an audience of twenty 16 year olds in a lecture room (I’d spoken to the school to confirm the logistics, audience, etc). I turned up to discover I was now to present in a tiered auditorium to over one-hundred 16 – 18 year old delegates. Un-phased (thanks to the rigorous training and extensive preparation) I adapted accordingly and presented for my assigned hour and took forty-five minutes of questions. Though there was an element of the audience that were less than receptive, I dealt with them extraordinarily effectively (according to the school’s lecturers who were impressed – probably as I was only a few years older than the audience).
Every subsequent speaking engagement for BiS was easy in comparison.”
In fact I don’t recall a tougher speaking engagement. Certainly not one that I can recall with such clarity (even after more than twenty years). Though there was a speaking engagement at an event for pensioners; they turned out more unruly than the teenagers!
I have frequently mentored people new to project management. Communications is so vital to what they will do that it is a key area that I have endeavoured to help them develop. Based on my earlier experiences I have suggested that they find their own avenues outside of the work environment (so non-threatening) to develop their skills. The majority who have followed this advice achieved remarkable improvements and dramatic increase in confidence.
What tips do you have for improving communications? Please share stories about how you have advanced your own communication skills. I would love to hear from you.
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