Attributes of Great Project Managers

Delivering successful projects is a key need for all businesses and IT groups alike. But as we all know, many projects fail or are only partially successful. Projects represent a large proportion of a business’s budget, so when projects don’t succeed a lot of money is wasted. Improving the chance that a project succeeds should be a goal of CIOs. Having the ‘right’ project or program manager (PM) increases the chances of successful project delivery. But how do you find the ‘right’ PM? And what attributes should the  ‘right’ PM have?

I came across a study from the CIO Executive Board that identified what differentiates good from average PMs. Here are some of the Board’s findings:

Skills and Experience

The first selection criteria many organisations use for candidates for PM positions is project management certification. The Board’s study found that mere certification does not predict PM effectiveness.  The results also revealed that PMs with a strong technology background do not necessarily make good PMs.  This is because, PMs with diverse experience across both technology and business areas are typically more effective. Similarly, the study found that PMs that have ability in a broad range of technology or other domains were more effective than specialist PMs with ability in only one field. The implications from these results are that organisations should look to hire PMs that have diverse sets of experience in business and technology, and not rely too heavily on certifications alone.

Knowledge of the Business

Effective PMs understand not only ‘how’ but also ‘why’. They know the goals of their projects and know how these goals fit within the overall goals of the organisation. Effective PMs understand the organisational context within which the project operates. We all have seen too many PMs, who are so focused on their own project goals and success that they ignore everything else. In these cases, even if the project meets its goals, the project fails to deliver the benefits expected.

Understanding the organisation’s goals and strategies enables PMs to broker consensus from the conflicting agendas of the various stakeholders. If PMs lack this organisational knowledge, providing them with a mentor, who has the right organisational knowledge can help increase PM effectiveness.

Managing Stakeholders

High performing PMs become ‘business partners’ and not just ‘order-takers’. Order-takers typically focus on delivering what is specified even if it is incorrect or even if the circumstances change. On the other hand, ‘business partners’ improve their own credibility and gain the trust of the project sponsor, due to their understanding of a variety of project scenarios. As a result, ‘business partners’ are able to tailor their communications and frame their problems to overcome difficulties or  find the correct way forward.

Effective PMs develop relationships across the organisation so that they understand organisational dynamics, conflicting agendas, and the different personalities of key stakeholders within the organisation. This enables these PMs to consistently avoid barriers and successfully steer through complex issues.

Smart PMs tailor their communications to suit the needs of the key project stakeholders. Technology projects have both technical and business stakeholders with quite different needs and knowledge. Good PMs can convey the project’s progress and challenges with the right level of jargon and detail to different audiences, while at the same time maintaining their engagement with the project. Technical PMs typically use language that is foreign to business people. When key decisions are not understood or endorsed by key stakeholders, this can lead to costly consequences.

Team Leadership Ability

The importance of team leadership skills is often underestimated when businesses select PMs. Effective PMs understand what the team needs and tailor their communications with the team to drive the team’s performance. These PMs correctly assess and leverage team members’ skills, and are able to gain the trust of their team members.

Poor PMs, or ‘bullies’, run the team into the ground while the project is delivered. Although PMs with a poor track record of team leadership may make some short-term visible gains, these PMs often constrain the long-term success of the project. Team morale is a good indicator of a PM’s effectiveness. Good PMs not only deliver the project outcomes, but build a team’s capabilities throughout the project.

Ownership and Commitment

According to the study, two of the top three drivers of PM effectiveness are “passion to succeed”, and an “ability to meet internal deadlines”. When selecting PMs, leaders should seek potential candidates, who show these attributes.

Good PMs understand and help define the project success criteria. These PMs then become internal project champions by demonstrating passion in delivering the project and holding themselves accountable for the project’s success. Good PMs don’t find excuses for non delivery, rather, they strive to deliver the best outcomes.

Effective PMs follow the standard project processes, but look for ways to improve these process to remove bottleneck, time-consuming step, and other inefficiencies. CIOs should support and allow effective PMs to suggest process improvements where right.

Managing Project Risks

Effective PMs are skilled in anticipating the risks that will come up throughout the project life-cycle. These PMs not only identify risks, but are also effective in developing strategies to mitigate these risks. Effective PMs also communicate these risks to other stakeholders, to gain support for the mitigation of these risks.

The study found that there was a large difference in the ability to anticipate and manage risks between the top and bottom performers. So it would be advisable to use this as a filter in selecting PMs for critical projects.

Grace under Fire

Projects are stressful; a smooth running project is a rarity. Good PMs can maintain their cool and stay level-headed in times of crisis. They maintain composure and guide their teams through the myriad of crises and challenges that projects encounter.

Problems Solving and Quick Learning

The best PMs are experts at solving the problems that a project encounters. These PMs deal with insufficient or ambiguous information and are quick learners who rapidly draw lessons from unfamiliar situations and concepts. The best PMS are able to modify their own behaviour based on these lessons learnt.

Driven to Success

Good PMs are ambitious and success oriented. Organisations need to recognise this and create development pathways for PMs to progress to more senior roles. If organisations fail to look after good PMs, they will find challenges and opportunities elsewhere.

Summary

Project success depends on having the right project managers in place. I hope this article has given you useful guidance on the attributes of successful PMs that you can use in the PM selection and development process.

What other attributes you have found that characterise good PMs? Please let me know.

IT Leaders Guide for Making Effective Board Presentations

For any company executive, fronting up to a board meeting and presenting is a daunting challenge. You work hard all year but the board sees you only a couple of times during that time. You have to package everything you do in a brief presentation. CIOs have an additional challenge. Boards are rarely interested in technology. They don’t understand the jargon.

If you don’t present well or fail to engage the board, it does not matter how efficient you are or how good your proposal is. Worse, a poor impression may even derail a career. In such an environment engaging effectively with boards, making good impressions and getting that funding request approved can be a major challenge.
Over my career, I had to present to the boards several times in different companies. This article, based on my experience and that of colleagues, aims to offer guidance to CIOs and other IT executives who want to win the board game.

Role of the board of directors

Before starting to put together a board presentation, it is important to understand the role of company board of directors. The board chooses the chief executive and approves the appointment of senior executives. The board’s role is to direct and control the company. The board must understand how proposed actions will impact the company’s performance.  Direction setting includes overseeing strategic planning and major decisions. The control function requires that the board watch the company activities, systematically managing risks and compliance.

In short, the board is focused strategic planning, major decisions, performance monitoring, risk management and senior management capability.  Typically, the boards don’t get involved in the details of execution, which is the responsibility of the CEO. Hence the board has to be satisfied with the ability of the CEO and his leadership team.
Every interaction with the board is an opportunity to show that you are a capable business leader; they can trust your judgement and have confidence in your ability to lead and execute. If the board trusts your business judgement, you will have greater influence and your recommendations will be viewed favorably  It’s an opportunity to shine but there is also the real risk of revealing your weaknesses. This just emphasises the importance of the interaction. The challenge becomes even more acute as a typical IT executive may only get one or two opportunities to get in front of the board. Typically board presentations are only 15 to 30 minutes or less. As a result, it is vitally important to get it right.
Board presentations fall into three categories.

  1. First is the ‘state-of-the-union’. Here an executive is giving an annual update for the business unit.
  2. Second is a ‘request for approval’ for a new project or initiative.
  3. Third is the ‘please explain’. The board wants more information on an issue / risk or event that could impact on business performance.

Board members are generally not technology literate. For technology investments, the CIO needs to show how the technology would improve business performance e.g. customer service, profits, revenues, compliance etc. They want to know if the benefits from the new initiative exceed the technology and implementation risks. The CIO has to satisfy the board that the risks are understood and effectively controlled.

Winning tips

Preparation

Now that we understand the board’s role and focus, it is time to begin the preparation.  It is a mistake to underestimate the preparation time. I remember planning a preparation 3 – 4 months before the scheduled board meeting and this is not unusual. Status updates and proposals are scheduled to give presenters ample time to prepare, while the ‘please explain’ request can arise with a short notice.

  1. Understand the board submission process – Companies have well-defined processes and protocols to be followed for board submissions. Take time to understand the process, what is the accepted format (text document or PowerPoint, cover sheet), what are the pre-submission approval processes (e.g. CEO sign-off, leadership team run-through), what are the deadlines for submission. Getting these wrong can derail your presentations before the starting gate. Talk to others, get copies of the previous submissions. The company secretary is an authentic source and is also responsible for the board agenda.
  2. Understand what is on the board agenda – Make sure you understand what is on the full agenda. Research the current business priorities and challenges and talk to the other presenters to understand their proposals. If proper, coordinate your message with that of the others. This will avoid repetition (or worse contradictions) and help the team express a consistent message.
  3. Research board members – Try and understand more about the board members, their background, special interest or expertise and technology knowledge. Find out who are more active or influential around the board table and their focus areas. Try to understand their capacity to understand technical information.

Content

Whether you are an IT leader or Marketing leader the board looks upon you as a member of the senior leadership team. Always keep this in mind for the board interactions.

  1. Align the message to the board’s interest and needs – Align your message to themes like company strategic goals, effective governance and risk control, business growth and efficiency, customer service etc. These will resonate better than release upgrades, infrastructure investments, virtualization and service-oriented architecture, etc.
  2. Eliminate jargon and use business language – Use of jargon is the quickest way to lose the board’s interest. What is obvious to the technology literate younger generation may be incomprehensible to many board members. Talk about how IT (or the current proposal) is supporting or enabling business, helping improve customer experience, reducing time to market. Better still get the business sponsor to co-present business proposals. Talk about how you are addressing risks via compliance, disaster planning and governance.
  3. Sell opportunities at the executive table first – If you have new ideas or approaches discuss these with the CEO and business executives first. You may have to do significant groundwork to get them on board with new opportunities. If they agree, it is quite likely the CEO will discuss it informally with the Chairman or other board members. One has to defend ideas at the board table, not raise new ones.
  4. Keep at high level but prepare for a deep-dive – The board presentations are brief. 15 -30 minutes is what is on the agenda. In reality, it could be shorter. Keep the message at the strategic level but be ready with facts and figures to back it up. Board members tend to ask lot of questions, so prepare for these. Get help from CEO and CFO to find out what questions to expect.
  5. Research the company history– Board members can have long memories. Check if this idea/ proposal has been tried before, and, if so, was it successful? Did the projects deliver? Why not? How will it be different this time? Failure to research and address these questions may mean a lack of approval or a delay.

Get ready to deliver

  1. Rehearse and rehearse again – With time short and pressure high don’t leave anything to chance. Make sure you are on top of all the presentation material and the facts. Try a dry run with your team and the executive team if necessary. Get their opinion and revise.
  2. Write down questions and answers – It is easy to forget answers when under pressure. Write down the questions and answers and keep them at hand. Practice Q & A with your team.
  3. Prepare a two-minute version – Board meetings can be unpredictable. Presentation time can be cut drastically. State your purpose clearly and be ready to succinctly summarise your report / proposal. Seek to gain support for one key point that moves the board in the desired direction.
  4. Get ready for interruptions – Questions can start as soon as you stand up. They have read your submission. Don’t let these questions derail your presentation. Pause, breathe and smile before answering each question. Turn negative questions into positive answers. At all costs avoid blaming anyone. Stick to the facts.

Follow these tips and you are on your way to winning the board game. All the best for your next presentation! For a further discussion on how you can effectively engage with the board, please contact author.

Secrets of Climbing the Career Ladder!

Many people I meet ask me how to get ahead in their job. They ask me, what is the secret to career success?  Why it is that out of two people with similar skills and experience in an organisation one moves ahead, while the other stays behind? In this article I shall share what I have learnt from my own career experiences and what I have observed from others.

Bring the Right Attitude to the Job

If you have the right attitude to the job your colleagues and bosses will notice you. Managers will prefer to choose employees to work with who are positive, rather than those who complain all the time or criticise others for their perceived failings.

However, bringing the right attitude to the job is not just about being positive. Many people don’t make the effort to understand what their role is or what the job is meant to achieve. You should ask yourself, how does my job fit within the service delivery or the value creation process? For example, if you are an analyst is your job just gathering requirements or it is about understanding needs and devising alternative solutions to meet these needs? If you are a service desk person, is your job answering calls or it is about proving service so that other people can get on doing their job with minimum delay? Understanding the job means understanding what is valued by your customers, managers, and colleagues; not just reading the job description.

If you understand your job, stay positive, and show initiative, you are more likely to move ahead.

Get Things Done

Doing the job well is important, however as many employees do not properly understand the tasks assigned to them, the quality of their work suffers.  In order to avoid this situation, make sure you understand the task assigned to you. Sometimes your manager may assume that you understand what is expected from you, even though you do not. You should consult manager or other colleagues to clarify what is expected of you and then make sure you meet your commitments. Don’t over-promise and under deliver. Instead, get better at prioritising work; not everything that is urgent is important. Find time to get the important, but non urgent, items done.

However, don’t spring surprises on your manager or your colleagues. If you are running behind in your tasks or you encounter unexpected difficulties, inform your manager first. If you spring surprises up on your manager, you will lose the trust of both your manager and your colleagues, . If the manager cannot rely on you to get the job done, this will give them less reason to promote you.

Take Ownership

If you are on a stalled project, do you wait for someone to take the initiative to fix a problem and get things moving along? Leaders don’t wait for others to act, assume blame, or take charge. Instead, leaders take responsibility for the problem, even when it is not their fault. Taking ownership empowers you to achieve results. In most places I have worked, those who are most likely to succeed are proactive in finding and solving problems and act with increasing autonomy. Every job has several problems that are waiting to be fixed.  Find the problems, which you can fix, and go the extra mile by taking ownership of these problems. Taking on extra responsibilities will make you stronger and more action-oriented.

Improve Yourself

Self-improvement is a key to professional success. There are many different skills required for managerial roles, some of these you may have others you may not. Always look for ways to improve your skills. For many technology professionals, technical skills can only take you so far. To succeed, you must have an understanding of how the business operates. If you are aware of how areas, such as customer service, sales process, accounting, marketing and credit, work, you will better be able to relate to the business executives. This will improve your communication skills within the organisation and enable you to provide better solutions to problems.

Keep an eye on new developments in your profession. In the fast moving technology arena, new technologies, new methodologies, and new techniques are changing the way work gets done. If you stay abreast of developments in your area of interest, this will help you to identify the skills or knowledge you will need to improve your work and achieve success.

Be open to feedback from others. Feedback will tell you where you need to improve. If you fail to accept mistakes  or become defensive, your colleagues will stop giving you feedback.

Take the opportunity to participate in structured development programs with job rotations, if your organisation offers these. Otherwise, volunteer for assignments that will help you broaden your role or skill base. From my experience, opportunities that take you into completely new areas can often be the most rewarding. Experience different functional roles or participate on cross functional teams. Major projects or transformation activities open up a number of new opportunities that may not otherwise be available. Make use of these opportunities to gain new skills.

Ultimately, the best way to check if you are improving is to take the ‘resume test’. If at the end of the year you can honestly add 1-3 new achievements or capabilities to your resume, you are doing well.

Understand Your Manager’s Job

Managers do not consider employees for promotion solely on the basis of how well they do their current job. Managers will also assess how well you are likely to perform at the next higher level/s. Employees are promoted when they are seen to be ready to the job at the next level. Jobs at higher levels require different capabilities to what are needed to succeed at current level. If you understand what your manager’s role is and what skills or knowledge is required at their level, you can aim to acquire these skills and demonstrate them in your current role. When your manager is absent, you could volunteer to act in their role, or you could take on assignments that let you further develop the skills required for managerial positions.

Develop Relationships

In order to achieve success, you need to build relationships with a wide range of people in your organisation. Relationships with people both within and outside your own department can help you develop a better perspective about your role and the business. As a result, you will hear about opportunities and problems earlier than you normally would. Building positive relationships with your colleagues will also better enable you to balance different agendas and priorities.

Get Noticed!

Let your network know about your team’s success. There is a balance between sharing your team’s success story and bragging, so don’t overdo it. Let your successes speak for themselves (with a little bit of assistance from you).

Promotions don’t usually take place based on one person’s opinion, your manager, your peers, and other executives all influence the decision. In order to get ahead, you need to do more than what is expected from you. If you are seen as one who takes ownership and gets things done, you will be noticed.

Good luck! Remember, successful people shape their own luck!

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How to Turn Your Strategy into Execution?

Most companies and many IT organisations have a head of strategy development or they hire consultants to help develop the strategy. However, once a strategy is developed many leaders are not clear of their own role in executing the strategy. Often, the execution of the strategy is delegated to the head of strategy. At other times, the leader expects that once the strategy has been agreed upon the direct reports would pick it up and run with it or integrate it into their operation. Continue reading “How to Turn Your Strategy into Execution?”

10 Barriers to Transformation

Over 60% of Transformations Fail

Large technology projects are often described as transformation projects. These projects significantly change the way organisations conduct their business and how work gets done. Unfortunately, the reality is that the success rate of transformations is less than 40%. Why do so many transformations fail? There are many common barriers to success. Many organisations have learnt to overcome these barriers and improve their success rates. In this article we discuss the top ten barriers to transformation and strategies organisations have used to overcome them.

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Finding and demonstrating IT value

Some commonly heard complaints about IT are ‘we are spending too much on IT’, or ‘IT is a black-hole’. While IT aspires to become a strategic business partner, business folks complain about the lack of trust between IT and business or the lack of a common language between the two. Business does not know if IT is doing a good job and many IT leaders cannot communicate how they are creating value for the business.

A book by Hunter and Westerman, “Real Business of IT” provides a four step process for finding and communicating IT value. I thought I would share their key ideas. Continue reading “Finding and demonstrating IT value”