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Advising upwards:
managing the perceptions and expectations of senior management stakeholders

"Problems cannot be solved at the level of awareness that created them"

Albert Einstein

Keywords: Stakeholder management, relationships, maturity. 

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Advising upwards: managing the perceptions and expectations of senior management stakeholders
Original paper: From Commander to Sponsor: Managing Upwards in the Project Environment

Senior managers in an organisation have attained those positions by working through different levels of management and usually through learning and displaying aptitude in the laws of the corporate jungle. This aptitude includes the ability to recognise potential enemies and through preemptive strikes neutralise competition, and managing tasks and staff through the precepts of command and control. However, having reached the highest levels of an organisation the skills requirements change from command and control to motivation and sponsorship.  Many senior managers cannot change the habits of a working lifetime, and cannot easy make this transition.

Building on a previous paper describing this command and control behaviour and the existence of a ‘zone’ of uncertainty that does not feature in the senior stakeholder view of the world
[see: The Paradox of Project Control in a Matrix Organisation], further exploration is required to provide some guidance to PMs who encounter both the ‘zone’ and the behaviour.  

Stakeholder management methodologies identify the need to manage the expectations of stakeholders, the Stakeholder Circle® provides a 5 Steps process to identify, prioritise, visualise, engage and communicate, and finally monitor the effectiveness of that communication. This methodology also emphasises that there are different types of stakeholders – upwards (senior managers), downwards (the team), sidewards (peers of the PM) and outwards (outside the project); managing the expectations and gaining the support of each type of stakeholder depends on the influence that each type exerts on the project.

Expectations are never ‘fixed’; effective communication can help change perceptions and expectations to make them realistic and achievable. Conversely, ineffective communications can create the perception of failure in the mind of a stakeholder even when the project is ‘on time, on budget and delivering the specified scope’. Upwards stakeholders may think that project success equals ‘on time, on budget and delivering the specified scope’ and that the PM must deliver to these criteria, but the reality of successful project management is that senior stakeholders, particularly the sponsor must play as far more active and overtly supportive role to ensure project success. It is part of the PM’s role to not only understand this but also to do whatever is necessary to ensure that senior stakeholders understand and fulfil the requirements of this role. This is about creativity in relationship management: there is no template or checklist to follow; this is not the realm of the faint-hearted.

The experiences of the authors, in large organisations, in managing the expectations and the support of key senior stakeholders provides a foundation for exploration of the tasks needed to turn a Commander into a Sponsor, how to use the resources available in the form of influence networks, targeted communication and plain persistence. Results are not miraculous, small improvements must be celebrated, the possibility of failure contemplated.

Original PMI paper authors: Dr. Lynda Bourne & Ken Farnes (2008)

A shortened version presented to the PMI Melbourne Chapter, March 2009 as Managing Upwards in the Project Environment 

A significantly expanded and updated version of the orginal conference paper, Advising upwards: managing the perceptions and expectations of senior management stakeholders was accepted for publication by  Management Decision (submitted 2009, published 2011 - go to the Emerald Publication page). Author: Dr. Lynda Bourne

These papers form the underpinning ideas for: Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders, published by Gower (2011)

Originally presented at:
PMI North America 2008
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submitted to

Management Decision
Vol. 49 Iss: 6, pp.1001 - 1023

   Advising Upwards -  Book Sales

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