The communication quarterback

May 22, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

Calling the ideal plays will only work for you if your team understands the role that they each play in executing.

What is it about Aaron Rodgers that makes him such an effective quarterback? He has a cannon for an arm, throws well from the pocket and on the move, and is elusive. All of these are essential qualities, but his decision-making ability is what makes him so effective. More specifically, he can identify the situation he is in, quickly query his available options, and make a good decision. The decision is only effective because he can communicate concisely and clearly to get everyone on the team on the same page before initiating the action. It all happens so quickly that those of us watching at home barely notice, but it is his superpower.

When working with project managers, I often hear that communication is among the most sought-after areas of development, and for a good reason. Professionals across the industry report communication as a challenge within their organization. Multiple studies have found that workplace managers are generally dissatisfied with more junior staff’s communication and teamwork skills. The impact of poor communication is considerable. Consider that, on average, 7.5 percent of revenue is lost on each project due to poor communication. When you look at a $10 million firm, recapturing just 25 percent of that lost revenue as additional profit would add nearly $200,000 to your bottom line. Sounds great, but how can you do it? It starts by shifting your approach to communication.

When working with project managers, I often ask, “What is the most effective form of communication?” The answer is overwhelmingly text, either via email, chat, or text message. Why is that? When pressed, project managers indicate that text is preferred because it allows refining language, “wordsmithing,” and laser-focusing on choosing the right words to communicate their intent. The challenge with this line of thinking is that it is purely one-directional. This approach makes the underlying false assumption that good communication is about delivering information only and that communication efficacy is limited only by the language skills of the communicator.

Excellent communication is about understanding and being understood, not only declaring your viewpoint on a topic. The first step to being a better communicator is to consider that your communication is only good if it is understood. Good communicators constantly evaluate the uptake of information by inviting the other party into the discussion to confirm understanding. This starts with asking questions and demonstrating an authentic desire to make sure that you understand their viewpoint and that your perspective is understood by them. That is pretty difficult to do with email.

This commonly comes into play for project managers when assigning tasks to team members. The project manager gives a long, deliberate explanation of a task, and then asks, “Got it?” or, “Any questions?” Chances are good that you will not get any questions with that style of communication. When working with project managers, we encourage asking questions that will invite reflection to evaluate understanding. Instead of those questions above, try, “How will you approach tackling this task?” or, “What is the first thing you will do to execute?” This will allow your counterpart to demonstrate understanding of your message by laying out how they will approach it. Suppose you are talking about designing floor framing. The person says the first thing they will do is open a foundation design program. In that case, you might have an understanding gap.

Similar to how Aaron Rodgers makes a call at the line and looks across to his receiver for a nod of affirmation, be the project quarterback that makes sure your calls are understood by your team. This will limit miscommunication on your projects and, hopefully, recapture some of that 7.5 percent of your project revenue that is leaking out. A good decision is only as good as it is communicated. Calling the ideal plays will only work for you if your team understands the role that they each play in executing. As a project leader, ensuring your team understands expectations within the project environment is your responsibility. It all hinges on your ability to make good decisions and make sure everyone on the field has the same understanding of the play you are calling. Be more like Aaron, and let the onlookers scratch their heads and ask, “How do they do it? It looks so easy.” 

Justin Smith is a principal at Start 2 Rise, LLC, Zweig Group’s strategic training and advisory partner in project management and leadership development. He can be reached at

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