Tuesday, 18 March 2008 03:39

Serving Up Soft Skills

Written by Chris Vandersluis
When I first got started in the project management software business, I knew that what people needed to be trained in to be a good project manager was the Critical Path Methodology calculation. If only someone knew this magic algorithm, they too could be a good project manager. I still have course materials that include exercise after exercise about how to do forward and backward passes of the CPM calculation.

How far we’ve come!

I’ve had the pleasure lately of working with some people at McGill University who are attending classes to learn more about being a project manager. It’s an advanced class so we’re not spending much of our time on learning how to manually calculate a project schedule. After all, there are many tools that can do it for us. Instead, most of our time is spent on the so-called soft skills that a project manager needs to survive.

I’ve often said that someone who wants to implement organizational project management (these days the most popular term for this is EPM or Enterprise Project Management) needs to be 50% technician, 50% therapist, 50% teacher, 50% mentor and 75% Guru. It’s no small challenge. The problem is that in almost all cases, people are swimming upstream when they want to deploy project management as a common process across the organization.

We’ve got three clients who’ve just hired someone to head up their new PMO and EPM deployment initiative. I’ve got great sympathy for the people doing the hiring. How do they find just the right person for this?

I’ve been thinking about what survival skills I’d go looking for in such a key person and I thought I’d share them this week here.

Presentation Skills

It’s amazing to me how many people in business are awful presenters. This is very much a nurture skill (as opposed to a nature skill that you got by virtue of your DNA). Virtually anyone can learn to present adequately and most people can learn to present very effectively. There are public speaking courses all over and we’ve often sent our staff to them. There are a few basics of presenting that are so simple that no one should be without them. Here are just a couple:

  1. For the love of God, please, please don’t read your PowerPoint slides. If you do what you’re silently saying to your audience is, “You must be illiterate. Thank goodness I’m here to read these for you!”
  2. Make sure people can see what you’re presenting and hear what you’re saying. That includes the volume of your voice, distractions such as outside light or noise, people talking etc. Never, never try to talk over someone else.
  3. Know who you’re presenting to. If you don’t know by the time you start. Use the first few minutes to make sure you know who’s in the room. If you don’t have any clue about your audience, it’s almost inevitable your comments will be off target.

Negotiation

This is key to any project manager’s job but it’s particularly critical if the person we’re talking about will be changing the organizational culture. I’ve never seen an EPM environment created because of pure authority or just at random. It inevitably comes through generating a consensus, and being able to negotiate is the central skill required for that.

Organization/Document Management

This may be one of the most important personal skills. I’ve seen people who are wonderful orators and fabulous hand-shaking people-people but they can’t find a single thing on their desk or on their laptop. If you want to be the person who will create a PMO, then you’ve got to be all about the process and that means being able to track the documents that are a part of what you’re creating.

Basic Technology

I can’t tell you how many people I meet who don’t know how to effectively use Word or any word processing software. The same goes for Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. The result is, that I find people writing emails, letters and other communications that are terribly formatted and very ineffective. Training for these tools is available from your nearest bookstore and that means there is little excuse to not have these skills. Using your basic desktop product skills is so fundamental. I don’t see how someone can advance without them.

Leadership

Ah, the most elusive of all! There are so many books, courses and conference sessions on leadership that you can feel swamped with too much advice on how to achieve it. I think this is partly because leadership is related to so many other skills and, in the end, is more a way of being than a particular skill. That being said, there’s plenty you can do to be a better leader. Being prepared, taking initiative, offering to be responsible for something all make a difference. People also have to have some desire to lead, as no amount of books will make a leader if there’s no desire. So I’ll have to put this into a category of personality traits rather than skills.

While we’re talking about personality traits, a desire to learn is critical. When we hire new technical people in our firm, we tell them a few things during the interview process. First, we let them know we only hire people who are ‘quick studies’; people who learn quickly. Then, we tell them that more important than that, is that they will never learn enough. Their training will never be over. The people who succeed in our line of work are reading constantly. After all, you’re reading this and have done for the last few minutes in order to get this far. I do the same. I’ve easily got an hour a day of reading in my industry which I need to just to keep up; to keep constant. People who are looking for the quick fix (can’t I just take the blue pill?) in training will have a much tougher time being successful in deploying organizational project management.

You’ll notice I’ve not mentioned any of the traditional technical skills in project management. Do you need to know about time management and scope management and change management and risk assessment and quality control and so on? Of course you do. If you’re going to be working in the project management domain then you need to be not only very knowledgeable about the building blocks of project data but also have experience with using them.

But, if you’re going to be a person who deploys project management not just for yourself but also for others and, in particular, if you’ve been given the job of deploying project management for an organization, then avoid your soft skills at your peril.


Chris Vandersluis is the founder and president of HMS Software based in Montreal, Canada. He has an economics degree from Montreal's McGill University and over 22 years experience in the automation of project control systems. He is a long-standing member of both the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the American Association of Cost Engineers (AACE) and is the founder of the Montreal Chapter of the Microsoft Project Association. Mr. Vandersluis has been published in numerous publications including Fortune Magazine, Heavy Construction News, the Ivey Business Journal, PMI's PMNetwork and Computing Canada. Mr. Vandersluis has been part of the Microsoft Enterprise Project Management Partner Advisory Council since 2003. He teaches Advanced Project Management at McGill University's Executive Institute. He can be reached at chrisv@hmssoftware.ca. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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