Guide to Skillful Communication

March 3, 2009

Successful Product Manager's Handbook

Being able to effectively communicate is a crucial part of a product manager's job, especially in pharma. Here are some tips on how to do it

Product managers are hubs of communication. Research shows that out of 50 competencies for the product manager, verbal communication is among the top five, and listening among the top ten.

At first glance, communication may seem elementary—we send and receive messages all the time. And yet we are misunderstood all the time, too. The truth is: Effective communication, especially on the job, is multifaceted and requires a skill set all its own. Studies have shown that successful communicators are:

  • Emotionally intelligent

  • Sensitive to body language

  • Skilled in working with different styles of communication.

Pharma product managers are further challenged by the myriad organizational structures companies employ—but especially the increasingly popular matrix.

Communicating in the Matrix

The matrix management structure is designed to allow team members to share information across task boundaries. Members reside within their department with like specialists, but their day-to-day activities involve working on teams with diverse specialists.

For example, in the matrix, project managers live within the project management department, where they are part of a hierarchy of project managers. Each project manager, however, spends the majority of his or her time working with a team made up of subject-matter experts from Regulatory Affairs, Manufacturing, Commercial, and so forth.

One challenge of matrix organizations is that team members are accountable to their line management, as well as to the team. This accountability to disparate entities creates fertile ground for misalignment because the department's objectives will often differ from the team's.

To perform well in a matrix structure, product managers need a complete set of communication skills. Active listening, an appreciation for nonverbal cues, and emotional intelligence can help the project manager stay aware of team concerns and organizational interests. And excellent written and verbal communication skills, combined with flexibility and good interpersonal skills, enable the product manager to disseminate information successfully and in a manner that will be well received by its intended audience.

Emotional Intelligence In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman defines emotional intelligence (EQ) as emotional self-awareness—an ability to manage emotions and handle relationships well. Emotional control, he adds, cannot exist without self-awareness.

Emotionally intelligent product managers are therefore sensitive, agile, and empathic. They can change their communication approach should the need arise and tune into levels of communication that may be more telling and important than what's conveyed by words alone.

Body Language In-person communication includes three fundamental building blocks—words, tone, and body language. Body language describes a valuable and often overlooked manner of communicating through nonverbal cues—gestures, facial expressions, and open/closed body positions.

According to Albert Mehrabianan, an expert on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages, a listener derives far less meaning from a person's words (7 percent) than from tone (38 percent) and body language (55 percent).

Successful product managers know how to pick up on another person's gestures and facial expressions. When body language is at odds with what is being said, it is a bold indicator that the message is not being understood, which gives the product manager an opportunity to clarify.

In turn, product managers, who often function as the voice of the team, need to be careful they're not giving out mixed messages themselves. To ensure clarity, they need to make sure their words, tone, and body language are in sync.

Flexible Communication Style

Flexibility is key to successful communication. To be flexible, you need to be aware of your own traits. Are you analytical, driving, amiable, or expressive? If you don't know, tools are available to help you discover your natural emotional tendencies. The Tracom Group, a workplace performance company, developed a program that can assess your emotional self. Knowledge of your own emotional style can help avoid communication pitfalls. For a self-assessment, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I like to communicate?

  • What modes of communication do I prefer?

  • How do I like others to communicate with me?

  • How do I approach one-on-one meetings with team members?

  • How would I describe my communication style in front of large groups?

Self-awareness naturally leads to an awareness of others. This allows product managers to identify the communication style of their team members and other key stakeholders. By understanding someone else's style, product managers can adapt their own communication style to match the other person's. This allows for comfortable interactions and an understanding of the other person's needs.

Large Company Challenges

If you played "Telephone" when you were a child, you already know why it's difficult to communicate in a large organization: The greater the number of people involved in the communication, the greater the likelihood a message will become distorted. What's more, large companies develop bureaucracy and red tape that can hamper even high-performance teams. This is where project managers can use their communication skills to their advantage.

When faced with a business process that could keep the team from working nimbly, a skilled project manager is able to leverage relationships—liaising with senior management, arranging face time with appropriate decision makers, and clearly communicating the predicament of the team. During meetings, the project manager can use emotional intelligence skills to gauge the decision maker's receptiveness to the team's situation. The product manager can then determine how flexible the organization is to modifications in its processes.

Change Management

Change is a constant for large companies. If not well managed, significant changes can have a devastating impact on teams.

As the central hub of information, the project manager is perfectly positioned to help the team cope with change in a constructive manner. By framing information honestly yet appropriately, a product manager with excellent communication skills can tremendously influence messaging throughout the organization.

For instance, on finding out there's a change to a project's priority level, a skilled project manager would:

  • Ensure he or she had a clear understanding of the change

  • Make sure key stakeholders were aligned with this understanding

  • Collaborate to assess the impact of the change on the project, program, and portfolio

  • Communicate the change and its impact to appropriate stakeholders, making sure the information is framed appropriately.

Decision Making

Teams frequently make decisions only to have them overturned down the line. By leveraging communication skills, project managers can play a key role in fortifying the resilience of a decision.

For example, when a team is tasked with making a decision, the project manager should ensure that the team has a clear strategic context for the decision.

In other words, a team should understand why the decision needs to be made and is of value to the organization at large. This facilitates the important work of outlining the decision-making process—setting timelines; coming to agreements on the roles and responsibilities of the parties involved; and identifying the final decision maker.

Effectively managing a team through a decision-making process is tedious work. It requires the project manager to communicate repeatedly with key stakeholders, and to manage the flow of crucial data informing a decision (as well as the expectations). Again, this requires a full set of communications skills, including active listening.

Listening Exceptional communicators know when to actively listen.

Active listening requires an ability to assess the speaker's nonverbal cues. It also requires empathy—the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others, and to listen to them from their point of view.

Exceptional communicators are trained, not born. And it does not happen overnight. Project managers have an opportunity to hone their communication skills as they work within the team system. Successful teams enjoy working with a project manager who is a skilled communicator. It makes their job easier.

And skilled product managers soon discover the joy of accomplishing their work by being able to influence others over whom they have no direct authority.

Melanie Ebojo is a Senior Project Manager at Genentech, Inc. She can be reached at

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