I recently called a friend and colleague, and a terrific project manager, to talk about a project she was running. I was hoping that I could cover her experiences in this blog. But, she threw me a curve ball by announcing that she was retiring in a couple of months. So, I thought why not examine her legacy by asking her current and past colleagues to describe her strengths, weaknesses and capabilities as a project manager over the years. She said OK. The result is this post, The Infallible Project Manager.
Below you will find the insights and comments from her colleagues. They included business and technology executives, client executives, project managers, software developers, technology infrastructure staff and business and application subject matter experts. And me. She ran a couple of projects for me, one a successful rescue. The results were astoundingly uniform in their emphasis, and praise. That’s why I’m calling this post The Infallible Project Manager. Fortunately, unlike Konrad Adenauer’s quote above, my friend never allowed herself to be devoured by a tiger, or a sponsor, or a project team, or a client. And she was still deemed infallible by her colleagues!
Some background. My friend, I’ll call her Begum, her middle name, spent many years as a project manager, working at large organizations, largely in the technology arena and in financial services. She also spent a number of years working for small consulting firms and as an independent contractor.
Over that time she managed perhaps 50 to 60 sizeable projects, up to $130 million in size, with anywhere from 50 to 250 staff. Many were also geographically disbursed. When I asked her how many of the projects were successful, she replied “All of them”. As she explained, “The stakeholders were always happy, the costs and time were well managed to business needs and quality was always to plan or better.” To reinforce that fact, according to her bosses, she was always the first one requested by clients.
So, how did Begum achieve such an amazing record of success? According to the feedback from her colleagues, there were eight traits that she demonstrated consistently over the course of her career.
- Rapport – Begum took an interest in everyone she worked with, not in a nosy way, just empathetically. She was interested in their families, their roles and activities at work and outside, their strengths, likes, dislikes, skills, aspirations and passions. She believed it helped her build more engaged and productive teams and more satisfied colleagues. And besides, that’s just who she was.
One project she managed was very dependent on a talented technology architect. He was skilled at the conceptual, building diagrams and models to pave the way. Unfortunately, he hated documentation. So Begum paired the architect with a business analyst who was great at probing and questioning and loved presenting findings in words and pictures. The two, working together, were an amazing success.
- Inclusive leadership – Begum was an inclusive leader. She believed the whole had to be greater than the sum of the parts. She was always searching for the matches and combinations that would multiply performance. She made sure to recognize and celebrate individual and team successes. She applied situational leadership, respecting individual skills and capabilities and providing support based on need. She managed with cultural sensitivity.
- Practice the science of project management, leverage the art – Begum applied project management fundamentals as a matter of course. Estimating, scheduling, tracking, reporting, issue, change and risk management were ever present core practices. However, she recognized they were necessary but not sufficient for overall success.
She also focused on the art of project management. She made sure that her projects were a source of individual and collective enjoyment and growth. She encouraged everyone to have fun, in team forums and one on one. She’d often say “Congratulations! That is worth 3 tangerines” and hand out the tasty fruit for individual or collective achievements. Most often she’d hand out healthy tokens but occasionally she’d use jelly beans. Interestingly, her teams would adopt the practice, with her and with each other.
- Stakeholder relationships – Begum worked with the key project decision makers based on a shared commitment to the goal and a shared understanding of how that would be achieved. The big picture was always front and center.
On one occasion, a young whippersnapper was brought in, replacing a seasoned executive with whom she had a great relationship, to “shake things up” from a business standpoint. Initially, the new executive wouldn’t give Begum the time of day. Fortunately, she found some common ground at a corporate event shortly after his arrival. Apparently, his niece was an opera singer. She knew opera. He loved sports. She knew about his favorite sport. “Go through my admin” became “Here’s my cell number. Call me directly whenever you need to chat”. That relationship proved to be especially productive.
- A role model – Begum’s mantra was “together we succeed”. She was always focused on walking the talk. If she asked people to go above and beyond, she tried to be there with them, if not in body, at least in spirit. If she asked people to work evenings or weekends or holidays, she tried to be there as well, at least for a portion. She always followed up on progress and results with a phone call, email or text. And she always offered thanks for their help and sacrifice.
- Emotionally intelligent – The feedback from Begum’s colleagues universally praised attributes that could be described as emotional intelligence. She was always self-aware. She was highly motivated and goal oriented. She fostered healthy relationships. She was empathetic. She was adaptable. She was open to suggestions, praise and criticism. She was knowledgeable on a wide range of topics and a passionate learner. She worked with trust and integrity. She was always positive. When a problem or challenge arose, instead of placing blame, she would find a solution and help everyone learn from the experience.
- Intelligent communication – Begum recognized that effective communication was the foundation for a successful project. She made sure her messages were precisely targeted and timely, at the level required. She communicated verbally, in writing, through social media and on technical platforms, as the needs dictated. She made sure her body language reinforced her message. She always tried to be inspiring, to be open, honest and transparent, and with humour when appropriate, often self-deprecating.
- Discipline – Finally, Begum’s colleagues noted how tenacious and disciplined she was in her personal and leadership lives. She was relentless in her pursuit of lean, mean project performance. Her attitude was always how can we do this better, faster, cheaper, with less risk, with greater return. However, far from being a burden, her teams rose to the occasion. They thrived. They loved the challenge, the pursuit of better ways.
She ran tight meetings, with meeting goals, a focused agenda and tight schedule. If she thought she could get the job done in fifteen minutes, that’s what she booked and that’s invariably what it took. Latecomers had to “bring the donuts” to the next meeting or “donate a quarter to the kitty”.
She had a questioning mindset. She encouraged her staff and colleagues to explore best practices, to try them out if they looked promising, to adapt them if needed and incorporate them if appropriate. She was always using the Five Why’s, a Six Sigma tool, to gain collective insight.
No doubt you’ve noticed how easy things look when they’re done by an expert. Tennis looks so simple when you’re watching Roger Federer. Golf looks like a lovely walk in the park when you’re following the leaders. Project management is similar. A great PM makes things look so intuitive, so easy. That’s the legacy left by Begum – a smiling, quietly engaging, supremely confident and talented professional who is leaving a broad swath of success in her wake. The net result was the emergence and evolution of a project culture that emulated and embraced Begum’s style and delivered excellence. What a wonderful legacy for the infallible project manager!
So, as you proceed through your career journey, consider these points as you build your project and change management capability. I hope you too can be an infallible project manager. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.