Episode 2 : We Are Multilingual Communicators
As project leaders, we have to adapt and speak to a variety of people at many levels in organizations about a wide-range of topics. It’s a tough gig. But when you work hard to digest information and communicate effectively with your team and multiple layers of stakeholders, you can find the path to building trust, great relationships, and eventually project success.
In this episode, Brett and Greg share their experiences with pushing nerves aside to make projects and teams work well together.
Some topics that are touched on in this episode include:
- Digging in to understand confusing language and company-speak
- Figuring out what unwritten expectations exist in projects
- Establishing trust and using it as your superpower
- Speaking up just enough as a DPM
- Setting expectations for what the DPM’s role is on projects
- Feeling empowered as a junior DPM
- The DPM’s role as the the undeputized enforcer of accountability
Links Mentioned in This Episode
Transcript: Episode 2 — We Are Multilingual Communicators
Announcer: Welcome to Sprint and Milestones, a podcast where Brett Harned and Greg Storey share war stories, tips, tactics, and anecdotes on navigating the sometimes rough waters of getting digital projects done. If you're leading projects and want some help and reassurance that you're doing the right things, you've downloaded the right podcast. Enjoy the show.
Brett Harned: This episode is sponsored by TeamGantt, a company I've been lucky enough to collaborate with for some time now. TeamGantt is an online project management platform that helps you to create intuitive and beautiful project plans. For more information and a free account, visit TeamGantt.com. On with the show.
On the last episode, we talked about how digital project managers handle chaos. On this episode, we're going to talk about the next principle, which is we are multi-lingual communicators. I'm going to read an excerpt from the book to give you a sense for what this one means. "We speak to management, finance, legal, IT, marketing, UX, design, code, content strategy and more, across a wide variety of industries and verticals. We have a broad range of skills and knowledge, and are confident in linking up different perspectives from different specialties, using our base communication skills. We work hard to understand the motivations of our teams, stakeholders and users. We translate tech speak to the uninitiated, discuss design without imposing an opinion, and drive conversation to important decisions that will guide our projects to success."
That's kind of what I mean by multi-lingual communicators. We do a lot. We have to translate from one person to the next in a way that is not overly technical, not overly design focused, but really is focused on project goals and goals of completing a project, and making sure that people are communicating.
Greg, I know that you've been in situations where you've been a multi-lingual communicator. Can you share a story with us?
Greg: Oh, I have many. I'd like to also point out too it just occurred to me, acronyms.
Brett: Oh gosh.
Greg: Not only do you have to understand marketing speak, compliance speak, legal, tech, all that kind of stuff, but especially working for larger companies, there's going to be a lot of acronyms used, and you have to understand what they are, otherwise you're not part of the team, right?
Brett: Yeah, and you have to stop people and ask them what they mean, if you don't understand what they are. I've been on projects where everything is an acronym with an organization, and I've made base camp posts that are dictionaries of client terms, just so that people can not have to interrupt all the time, but at least have some kind of level of baseline information.
Greg: Yeah, that's a good idea. Well, so okay, stories about multi-lingual communicators. I can think of a real peach of a project in particular where we were, my company at the time was, I want to say 10 folks, and I hired some contractors to help us complete this project. It was larger than anything we had never worked on. Like I said, we were a company of 10. The client was a company of, I want to say, I think it was like 20 to 30,000, just, you know, big.
Brett: Wow. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Greg: At kickoff, at the first warning of how difficult this was going to be, and how many languages we were going to have to speak, at kickoff, they brought 50 stakeholders. Some of that was every, across the entire business and lines of business, there were representatives there to ensure that they all had some kind of understanding as to the work that we were going to do. At that kickoff, we then had to reprioritize who we needed to speak to.
We then threw in an extra round of research just to, once we got to see some of these folks and talk to them, we immediately knew that we needed to know more, right? We needed to know what's important to compliance and how they talk about things, what's important to marketing and how they talk about things, learn their acronyms. As I recall, we spent two full days speaking to these people, and taking notes about what's their language and what's important.
Then at that point, you become the keeper of all that knowledge, right? Even though we were the outsider coming in, there were people who, within the company, weren't speaking to the folks to the left or the right. Just because all these folks worked for our client or worked for the company, didn't meant that they were even communicating back and forth, so we became that connector. Because of that, we had to know how to speak all of those different languages, which just makes it more complicated. It's a lot more work.
I think too, once you've been able to demonstrate that you know how to speak all these different languages, I think the unwritten expectation is that, well now that you know us, it's up to you to make sure that nothing goes wrong.
Greg: Which, how many times have you been put in that situation, right? Where you're the contractor, you're the ones coming from the outside, you have the different perspective, the new perspective, the non-cynical perspective, so the companies look to the outsider, and oftentimes look to the person running the project to understand everybody-
Greg: ... and kind of read minds. So the more effort that you put into getting to know all these folks, and knowing not just what they say and how they speak, but even when's the best time to reach these folks versus those folks, and the larger the company, the larger the client, whatever, the team that you're working on, the more chaotic that gets, the more you're having to manage, right?
Brett: Yeah. I even think the scarier part of that is they start to expect you to be the one to align them-
Brett: ... because you're the one who's hearing all of the different perspectives, and you can point out all of those different perspectives and disparate conversations. They expect you to be the one to say, "This is how you're going to align around it," which is really tough. There are ways of doing it, and I know I've been in situations with you where we have done that, but to me, it's fun, but it's also kind of the scary part of things, because you never know, as the outsider, that you're doing the right thing for an organization or by them.
Greg: Right. You understand how to communicate, you understand the language, but you don't necessarily understand, well, there's always unsaid, unwritten expectations, always. To your point, you don't know what the priorities are in the business. You don't know what the history is. You kind of look back at the cross of the table and say, "Are you kidding? You want me to make a decision on something like this or help guide you, because I'm here for a project, I'm not here to run the business."
Greg: To your point, it'd be like the United Nations looking to an interpreter and saying, "Please fix the world."
Brett: We need that role right now.
Greg: Yeah. It's a tough situation to be in, and unfortunately there's no way to skirt around it. You just have to dive in and likely keep going.
Greg: Like dive deeper until you're able to align some folks, and I think be able to speak their speak, which then affords you a certain amount of trust. You probably just don't want too much trust.
Greg: Because the more trust you get, the more responsibility they're going to put on you.
Brett: Right, like the higher the expectation goes.
Brett: I think for me too, even as a consultant now, my clients are often internal teams and agencies. I'll do a lot of fact finding and interviews to understand what challenges are, and then four weeks passes after I've spoken to everyone and clients, and then come back to the table and say, "These are the challenges you're experiencing." Then I find out about another set of conversations where people are already trying to make changes to fix those things. I think that happens so often, right? You just have to go with it, and know what your goals are, and what you can fix and change and address, and what you can't.
I think what I'm a little more interested in is in those situations, in the story that you were talking about, with a large corporate entity, I imagine lots of suits at a table with very stern faces, and a design agency coming in all smiles and sticky notes ready to do exercises and have some fun. You see things going in a wrong direction. You want to interject to get people back on the right track, or to even try to complete some tasks or even align them, but as an outsider, how do you interject? How do you make sure that you have that seat at the table, and that voice that they all trust?
Greg: Well, yeah, that's probably one of the more difficult aspects of managing a project and, to some degree even managing people, right?
Greg: I have learned many tough lessons. I want to point out, I've learned many tough lessons by not speaking up, by not interjecting. In the past, I only got to that point when it felt like all hope was lost. The ship is taking on water, but everybody's still playing shuffleboard. After a while, you just got to step forward and say something.
In the case of that particular client, what also made it more difficult is, even though they entrusted us to come into their house and help them fix some things, help them create some new experiences, they're still a very large company, multi-billion dollar company, compared to my somewhat small couple of million dollar a year company. Even though I may have had the title of president or principal or whatever it was back then, that doesn't mean that I'm on the same level or playing field as even the VP of Marketing or Associate VP. That also just even makes it, for me anyway, even more unnerving is feeling that gap of, how to put it, the gap of the level of where the people that I had to interact with were professionally to where I was within my company.
Brett: Yeah, I think that's a really human aspect of this job and the conversation that we're having. It's really easy to feel inferior when you're working with clients, right? "Ooh, the powerful people are coming into the room." You get nervous. I think for a PM it's even more real. That feeling is very real, because in many cases, you think about PMs in organizations and agencies, a lot of times they're viewed as the low man on the totem pole. Put them in a room with a lot of C level executives, people who are powerful in an organizations, and very quickly, you start to feel like, "Well, I know all of this information, but when is the right time for me to speak up about this thing, and make sure that people understand that I have a voice here, and that I'm kind of leading this thing?"
I think it's hard to set the expectation or build your reputation quickly with a team like that. Have you ever been in situations where you've had to deal with that?
Greg: Oh for sure. I want to go back to something you said about feeling like the low man on the totem pole, and you feel like you're outclassed, right?
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Greg: To some degree, I imagine it's very much like being in a fight, and you're in a different weight class, right?
Greg: But at the same time, while people may look at you as, "Well, you're the project manager," they're also putting a huge amount of trust in that position, that you're the one who's going to make sure that this ship's on time and that we're making the right thing. It's a lot of pressure that's put on the project manager, the project leader, because to some degree, I can tell you from sitting on both sides of the table, I even, when I had my own project manager, I would kind of chill out a little bit, just think, "Okay, I don't have to worry about this as much, because that person's got it." Right?
Greg: That person will tell us, no matter what, that something is wrong, or we need to stop and reassess or whatever. But you know, being in that position, that's not always easy to speak up or to raise your hand, because it's that human feeling of, "This better be important. If I'm going to make this move, I better have something worthwhile to say, otherwise I'm going to get crushed, and if I get crushed, that these people will never listen to me again," which is also very real, right?
I've had project managers who didn't have a problem speaking up per se, but they also didn't have something worthwhile to contribute every time. So in that situation, a lot of I would say trust and respect was lost amongst our clients and our stakeholders, just because they knew that, okay, here they are speaking again, this time is it going to be actually, are they saying something worthwhile there? Are they actually contributing to the project?
Brett: Right. I think part of that too is setting a solid expectation for what a project manager does on a project. Whether you're working in an agency or in a large corporate team, what is the value of having that person at the table? What do they do and how can they help the rest of the team? I think that helps to set the expectation and puts the mind of the project manager at ease a bit, boost them up to know that everyone at the table understands why they're there. I think honestly that is kind of part of the problem with project management in our industry is that not everyone understands the purpose of the PM, and some people see them getting in the way. I think that that plays a little bit into that conversation. If I'm entering that situation where I'm in a meeting with 50 suits, and I know that they understand why I'm there and the job that I'm there to do, then I'm feeling more confident about interjecting.
Let's talk for a minute, though, about being a junior PM. I know that I've been there. Early in my career, being the more junior person in the room can certainly be intimidating. What are the types of things that you might recommend a more junior person do to assert themselves in that kind of situation, to make sure their points are made?
Greg: One, even if you're junior ... I want to go back to that situation where here I am, owner of my company, but I'm having to deal with C suite people. I can tell you, even though I'd been in the business, at that point, about 20 years, I felt like I had just gotten out of college, right? For me, when you say junior, I don't take that to mean just somebody who might be younger.
Greg: But someone who, even maybe someone who's not even new to project management. Sometimes I think of if you perceive that gap between levels of where you are in your career, you can feel that way. I think that being a good PM, you got to keep your eyes wide. Going back to where we kicked off this episode, you got to learn the language quiz quickly as possible, because once you do that, you will start to pick up inconsistencies between people in the room, right?
Greg: You'll have one guy say one thing, and a guy or a person across the room agree, but how many times have you been in the situation where you know these two people are talking to each other and it seems like they're having a productive conversation, it seems like they're aligning, but you know, because of the language that's being used, that these people are passing each other like ships in the night. They're just talking past each other.
So one, I think when you're a junior, when you feel like you're not empowered as much as you want to, one is that I think you just need to try to get that situational awareness, right? That enables you to know this is not a productive conversation, or I've had two stakeholders just agree to deliver the same thing, or even worse, I had two stakeholders agree to deliver just the exact opposite. You just have to speak up. I have been in situations, it felt very scary to even clear my throat, because I did not want attention put back on me, but that's your role. It's what you signed up for. I think you just have to put your foot forward and know, well have an understanding, likely no one's going to ... You're not going to be killed in the line of duty.
Brett: Hopefully not.
Greg: Right? No one's going to walk across the room and slap you upside the head. It feels like it, right? It feels like this is going to be paralyzed, but I think the worst that can happen is someone can say, "You don't know what you're talking about."
Greg: Which again goes back to the subject that we're talking about today, which is you got to know their language so that you can come back to them and retort, and say, "Listen. This person over here said this, and this person over here said the opposite." Right?
Greg: I've been in those situations enough times to know that miscommunication like that happens a lot. It's usually the PM who catches that happening. If you don't speak up, what happens? The project starts going off track. Whether that's wrong deliverables, and worse, sometimes, well, not sometimes, a lot of times you'll have stakeholders who are checking their email while you're trying to present a thing, and they'll just nod and say, "Yes, yes. Good. Yes." Then you think you nailed it, and then two days later, you get a terse email saying, "Hey, I just had time to review this stuff," right? The very thing that you were presenting to them in the first place. "We're going in the wrong direction."
Brett: The worst.
Brett: Seriously, the worst. So obnoxious, and that people do that, and it happens too often.
Greg: Yeah, so that all this kind of boils down to the project manager is the undeputized enforcer of accountability.
Brett: Yes. That's true. Yeah, and it's about knowing that role and knowing that as a part of that role, you are there to be the enforcer, no matter what level you're in or what levels of people that you're working with.
That's a really good segue into the next episode, which is going to focus on how project managers have to be lovable hard asses. The people who are liked and respected. I have lots of thoughts on that, so I'm really looking forward to talking about that in our next episode. But this has been a great conversation. I think we can probably go all day, but I think we need to end it there. Thanks for your story today.
Brett: That's a good segue into our next episode, which is going to focus on how digital project managers have to be lovable hard asses. I love that title, those are the people who are liked and respected, and it's hard to get to that point.
To read a little bit more about what we discussed today, check out chapter seven of the book. It's called Communicate Like a Pro, and it touches on how you can earn trust through communications, setting expectations on how you'll communicate with teams and clients, collaboration, a little bit about body language, and there's some quick, simple tactics to communicate well on projects, because it's not always what you do, but how you do it. You have to remember that communicating consistently is important when you are the lead of a team.
Greg: Oh man, this is so important. I got to say, this is probably my favorite chapter.
Greg: Yeah, if I could double down on anything, and especially as it applies to everyone on a team, doesn't matter what you're doing, chapter seven is for everybody.
Brett: Great. All right, that's all we have for this episode. Thanks, Greg.
Announcer: You've sprinted to the end of this episode. Milestone complete. Thank you for listening. If you're looking for more resources on digital project management, check out Project Management for Humans, by Brett Harned, which is available on amazon.com or through Rosenfeld Media. And of course, don't forget to subscribe on iTunes. And check out our show notes and more at sprintsandmilestones.com.