Although it isn’t possible to provide one single definition of what a good project manager looks like, certain traits, skills and attributes seem to be advantageous for a person who is to lead a project.
Essentially, the job of a project manager is to take on a customer’s big picture vision and to turn that vision into reality within certain time, budget and quality constraints. To do that, the project manager needs to spend a considerable amount of time and effort liaising with the customer, understanding the vision and planning the project in collaboration with the team. The project manager must keep scope, quality, risks, issues and cost under control whilst liaising with stakeholders and providing leadership and direction to the team. All of this requires thoughtful consideration and a great deal of skill.
The project manager is the central point of coordination and communication, one minute focusing on detailed tasks, the next liaising with the customer and providing inspiration and a big picture vision for the team to follow. He or she must be a proficient communicator and have a natural ability for organising events, building relationships and making things happen. He must have attention to detail and also have the ability to lead and focus the team. That’s quite a diverse skillset.
A good project manager is proactive rather than reactive and will seek to uncover risks before they turn into issues. He will never assume, but constantly ask if he has proof that something is working well. For instance, how do I know that my team is motivated and fully embraces the objectives of the project? How do I know that what we are developing is what the users want and need? How do I know that risks are being effectively identified and mitigated?
A great project manager is honest and approachable and focuses on people as much as on tasks. She knows that she cannot manage a project from behind her desk. Instead she works closely with team members and is not afraid of getting her hands dirty. She knows when to support and guide others, and when to challenge and hold them to account. In addition, she is able to manage her own state of mind and has sufficient self-discipline and personal insight to set an excellent example for others to follow.
In other words, a good project manger is so much more than a person who has the knowledge and ability to make effective use of tools and processes. It is someone who has the right amount of drive, attitude and confidence to mobilise others to get the project over the finishing line.
STEP 1 - Determine what kind of project manager you need Every situation and every project is different, and the type of project manager required for each project will vary accordingly. Nor surprisingly, successful project managers come in many guises. Some projects need a manager who is technical or who knows a lot about the client’s business area. Others require a manager who is good at organising a large undertaking and implementing generic systems and controls.
The key to finding the right project manager for any department or project is to first and foremost understand what your needs are and what the company is looking for. To get started, visualise the type of project that needs to be managed and imagine the project manager doing their daily job. What is the project manager doing and how is he or she behaving towards the team and the stakeholders? How is the project manager dealing with risks and issues and with interpersonal conflict? Write down what you see, feel and hear.
To help you narrow down your requirements further, ask yourself the following questions:
Is this a smaller technical project or a large complex business project?
Does the project have few or many difficult stakeholders to manage?
Is the project’s domain straightforward or does it require specific knowledge?
How important is the ability to manage tasks as opposed to people?
Is the project team already in place or would the project manager need to build it from scratch?
Has the project already been kicked off or would the project manager need to define and plan it?
Does the role require the project manager to have line management responsibilities?
Is a Project Management Office (PMO) in place to support the project manager with best practices and financial reporting or does the project manager need to be able to define the project management standards?
Which type of personality does the project manager need to be in order to best complement the existing team and company culture?
How important is the project manager’s ability to lead and motivate others?
STEP 2 – Determine knowledge, skills and attributesrequired Once you have a broad understanding of the kind of project manager you need to hire, the next step is to narrow down the description by creating a benchmark of the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to have. Although one candidate may not tick all the boxes, the likelihood of finding and outstanding project manager is much greater the clearer you are about what you are looking for.
Read through each of the abilities below and determine the capability level that you would like the candidate to have. Allocate a desired score between 1 and 10 to each capability.
A project is a unique undertaking that’s full of risk and uncertainty, because it has never been done before in that exact way. Project management, as a discipline, is a response to this ambiguity. It’s a way to control the unknown. Just consider the most important techniques we use as project managers: we define scope, analyse requirements, plan and estimate work, add contingency, manage risks, track changes and check the quality. These techniques are designed to control uncertainty and plan for the things that could go wrong. We also analyse our stakeholders and draw up a communication plan that will help us gain their buy-in and support. If we don't take time to apply these project management tools, we may jeopardise the success of the project. As Murphy’s Law reminds us, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And when it goes wrong it may be the worst possible moment.
Let the following three examples remind us of how bad it can go. These projects have served the public in amazing ways after they became fully operational. But let’s not forget that they started off as failures.
Heathrow Terminal 5
Heathrow Terminal 5 was built to handle a yearly capacity of up to 35 million passengers. It was 19 years in the making with the construction phase spanning 6 of those years. It consisted of 16 individual projects and involved over 60 contractors. In other words, it was a HUGE project.
At the time of opening in March 2008, only 85% of project deliverables had been completed. As construction work was running late, IT testing and staff training had also been delayed. In spite of the delays, it was decided to go ahead with the original opening date without deferring it. Terminal 5 was a big deal and moving the opening date would have been a big deal too. As a result of the delay there was less time available for hands-on training, dress rehearsals and fixing any problems arising from testing. Cutting short the testing and simulation activities had severe consequences.
On the opening day itself, staff had difficulties parking, moving around the terminal and operating the systems. But worst of all was the failing baggage handling system. On the first day 15,000 bags were lost and 35 flights were cancelled as the airport struggled to clear the baggage backlog. By 5pm passengers were told to travel without luggage if they still wanted to fly.
In the first week 500 flights were cancelled, 23,000 bags had been misplaced and hundreds of passengers had been left stranded. MPs described the opening as a national humiliation.
Although Terminal 5 was a much bigger project than most of us will ever get involved in, we can still learn from its lessons. Making a project operationally ready should never be underestimated or compromised. Testing, training, dry runs and handovers are essential activities on most projects.
The Millennium Bridge
London’s Millennium Bridge was the first pedestrian bridge over the Thames in 100 years. Proclaimed as an engineering feat in its slender profile, the 320 metres suspension bridge was built in 2000. It was constructed using lateral suspension, an engineering innovation allowing suspension bridges to be built without tall supporting columns. But two days after its initial opening it was forced to close due to safety reasons. It was swaying – or wobbling – so much that people had to hold the handrails in order to stay safe.
The bridge had been hit by a phenomenon called synchronous lateral excitation caused by the movement of the thousands of people who crossed the bridge by foot on its opening day. Whereas lateral excitation was a known phenomenon, the engineers had failed to understand that even when people walk randomly, a certain percentage is bound to “match step” and thereby cause lateral motion in the bridge.
As a result of this oversight the bridge was closed to the public just two days after its initial opening. Engineers spent 19 months reinforcing the structure with 91 dampers designed to reduce the movement. When the bridge was reopened in 2002 it had cost an additional £5million ponds.
Although the Millennium Bridge is a beautiful piece of architecture, let’s remind ourselves of the importance of proper risk management. Some risks are highly unlikely but if they were to happen the impact would be severe. It’s the team’s responsibility to respond appropriately to these risks. In the case of the Millennium Bridge it seems the risk of lateral excitation had been identified, but not appropriately addressed.
Sydney Opera House
As Australia’s most distinctive brand, Sydney Opera House attracts tourists from all over the world and adds almost $800 million to the Australian economy every year. But although the Opera House is a national symbol and has been recognised as an incredible feat of architecture, it’s one of the best-known case studies of a failed infrastructure project.
The architect, Jørn Utzon was appointed in 1957 with the construction of the Opera House starting in 1959. The goal was to complete the building in four years with a budget of AUS $7 million. But the project took a very different turn. It ended up taking 14 years to complete and cost a whopping AUS $102 million. A number of things went wrong that could be classified as project management failures:
There was no detailed plan in place when the project started and there was no project manager
The project was deliberately underestimated by its proponents to get the project approved and started
The design of the building was not completed by the time construction got underway. Utzon protested but for political reasons the government was pushing for the construction to start.
Major changes to the requirements were approved after construction had started, moving from two to four theatres. This meant that the designs, which were already challenging for the construction team to build, had to be modified on the go.
The Danish architect resigned from the project mid way through as he felt his creative freedom was restricted. The government had started to withhold payments as it felt costs were spiralling out of control.
Redesigns, underestimates and cost overruns continued until Queen Elizabeth II finally inaugurated the Opera House in 1973.
Human ingenuity is not enough to make projects happen. We need proper project management to control the unknown elements. We also need excellent leadership to create a unified team of designers, engineers, clients and stakeholders, who act from a place of trust and honesty and who do what’s in the project’s best interest. Thankfully the world of project management has evolved since the 60ties and 70ties and is now a recognised practice. But we need to keep reminding ourselves of the failures of the past so that they are not repeated.
I have previously written about stress and I have also shared my own story about how I managed to free myself from stress. I know from the feedback I have received, and the work I do with project managers, that feeling confident and at ease is an on-going challenge. We work in hectic environments and are at times just getting by – trying to keep the client happy, staying on top of our inbox and avoiding conflict. Wellbeing is not the word that springs to mind when we think of project management. Wellbeing is something we may focus on in our spare time to recover and get back to balance.
But what would it take if we really wanted to feel better whilst working on our projects? Scientists claim that wellbeing is a skill we can all learn and that the effects can be observed in the mind. All it takes is practice. The more we practice the more we will strengthen those circuits in the brain that promote higher levels of wellbeing.
Let’s examine the four ingredients that lead to wellbeing.
Resilience The first ingredient, resilience, is the ability to bounce back and recover from stress and adversity. In other words, it’s the speed at which we recover from unexpected changes and difficult situations. Some people recover slowly and other people recover more quickly. It turns out that scientists can measure the time it takes for our brain to bounce back and that this time span is critical for understanding resilience. Individuals who show a more rapid recovery have higher levels of wellbeing. They are in many ways protected from stress and the many unexpected events that happen on a project.
To strengthen your resilience, train yourself to see the opportunities in every situation. Projects are dynamic with risks and issues popping up on a daily basis. The more you resist and fight against them the more prolonged your stress response will be. Instead, accept that changes and problems are inevitable, even with the best risk management approach. When a problem occurs, do what you can to resolve it without getting caught up in a negative emotional spiral. Reframe the situation and see the positive angles. There are always opportunities to grow and learn from adversity, we just need to train ourselves to see it. Some of my biggest personal transformations came from the biggest challenges on my project.
To bounce back and recover from an unpleasant piece of news, first become aware of the physical impact on your body. Your heart rate will increase and your palms may get sweaty. At this moment, don’t panic or start to give orders. Instead, pause and take a deep breath. In fact, take three deep breaths and let go of the negativity and the urge to react. From that place not only will you feel better, you will also be in a better position to make rational and intelligent choices about how to resolve the situation.
Positive outlook The second ingredient that leads to higher levels of wellbeing is to have a positive outlook. In this context a positive outlook is the ability to see the positive in other people. It’s the ability to acknowledge team members as human beings and to recognise that they have qualities of innate basic goodness. People who suffer from depression show very little activity in this part of the brain. The good news is that with just two weeks of loving-kindness meditation this part of the brain will get stronger. All it takes is 30 minutes of daily practice where you meditate on feeling love and compassion towards others.
To get started, download a meditation app that can guide you through a loving-kindness meditation. This type of meditation is one where you send kind feelings towards people around you. Initially spend just 5 or 10 minutes focusing on feeling love and kindness towards family members and friends who you hold dear. As the days pass expand the mediation to 20 or 30 minutes and begin to incorporate people within your project environment. Focus on your team members, clients and stakeholders. Take them into your heart and send them loving kindness too. This is a very powerful exercise, which not only will bring you more wellbeing but also help transform your interpersonal relationship and the atmosphere on your project.
Attention The third element, attention, is about being mindful of the work you are doing and to not let your mind wander. A wondering mind is an unhappy mind. Scientists claim that on average 47% of an adult’s waking time is spent not paying attention to what they are doing. In a project environment you can work with this element by being present and by simply showing up. If you’re in a meeting, be present and pay attention to what other people are saying. Don’t check your phone or drift off. If you’re on a conference call, be fully present and decide not to check your emails whilst you’re on the phone. When a team member speaks to you, give them your full attention and deeply listen to what they are saying. When you eat lunch or walk through the building be mindful of your surrounding and the food you're eating.
To get started, examine your diary and your upcoming week. Make a note of the meetings you need to attend and the most important tasks you need to complete. Block out time in your diary for these important tasks so that you can dedicate your full attention to them. On a busy project you need to be available to support your team and won’t be able to block out the entire day. Your best bet is to set 90 minutes aside in the beginning of the day where you can work single-mindedly on your most important and difficult tasks. Tell your colleagues that you would like to not get interrupted during this time or find a quiet meeting room. If your mind wanders, bring it back and remind yourself that the more attention you give to this present moment the higher your level of wellbeing.
Generosity The fourth ingredient that leads to higher levels of wellbeing is generosity. The more you engage in generous and altruistic behaviour the more you will activate circuits in the brain that are key to wellbeing. Luckily there are many things you can do on your project to be generous: Lend a helping hand to a colleague who is struggling with a challenging task, treat a team member to a coffee, mentor or coach a younger member of staff, give well-deserved compliments to your colleagues, volunteer to organise the next team event, or give back to the project management community by sharing your knowledge. Make a decision to nurture your working relationships by carrying out just one random act of kindness every day. Just imagine the positive effect you would have on your project.
In summary, wellbeing is a skill that can be learnt and that we should all take responsibility for. Make an effort to be more present and mindful on your project. Cultivate a positive outlook by seeing opportunities in every situation. Be more generous and send loving kindness to your team members and stakeholders.
I recently listened to one of Andy Kaufman’s podcasts about influencing techniques, and two thoughts in particular captured my attention in relation to how we interact with people on our projects. The first thought is that every interaction with others is an opportunity to either increase the connection with them or to break the connection. The second thought is that people become difficult when their needs are not being met.
Every time you interact with a team member or a stakeholder it’s an opportunity to either deepen your connection with them or to diminish it. When the mood is good and you have positive news or a new exciting task to give to someone it might be easier to strengthen your connection with them. But when you need to chase a team member for a task, draw their attention to a mistake, or discuss a topic that you disagree on, it’s easy to see how that encounter can end up hurting the relationship.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to have a difficult conversation with someone and at the same time strengthen the relationship. Not long ago I had a challenging discussion with a colleague of mine, which ended up being a beautiful conversation. We had been co-delivering some workshops and felt that there were misunderstandings and friction between us at times. And so we decided to explore it. On the call we each explained what the situations were that triggered us, why that was and how it made us feel. We listened to each other with respect and without judgment. Our goal was to get to know each other better and to change our behaviour so that we would ultimately have a better working relationship. After thirty minutes on the call we were both filled with gratitude because we each felt understood.
When you’re about to interact with another person, and you would like to maintain or strengthen the connection between you, first come clear on your purpose for communicating with them. If you’re out to get them they will sense it and get hostile. You might not consciously want to blame a stakeholder who hasn't signed off on a document, but perhaps unconsciously you hold a grudge against them. They will sense that. So when you approach somebody make sure that your message is genuinely beneficial for the other person and that you are interested in the best outcome for both of you.
But there is more to it. Because even if you don’t in any way want to blame the stakeholder or the team member, you could still damage the relationship if you aren’t sensitive enough to their needs and their point of view. When you walk up to somebody, their brain will automatically judge you and assess if you are a threat to them or not. To maintain or strengthen the connection you need to be seen as a friend who they know, like and trust. Engage in an open conversation and choose your words carefully. It’s not what you say that matters but how they perceive your message. Show genuine interest for their needs and deeply listen to their side of the story. In fact you should listen so well, that you are able to express their needs and concerns just as well as they are. You don’t have to agree with the other person, but try to understand them.
Also bear in mind that people become difficult when their needs aren’t met. On a project, this could be a need for power, control, validation or perhaps certainty. If somebody appears negative, ask yourself what the underlying cause might be. There could be a very valid reason for their feelings. If you’re in doubt about somebody, assume that their need is to feel listened to, accepted and appreciated. That thought alone can transform your professional relationships.
Connecting with negative people If you’re dealing with a negative stakeholder who is shooting down a good idea, make sure you ask them questions rather than bombarding them with statements. So instead of stating that you’re disappointed about their response and the consequences, ask them how they expect you to deal with a potential fallout. Also ask them how they would like you to explain the decision to the team and other impacted parties. In this way you are creating an imaginary scenario in their brain, which can be very powerful. Likewise, if a team member hasn’t completed their work on time, ask them how they suggest you explain that to the client. You can reinforce this by asking them how they think it feels to be in your situation. Allow the other person to step into your shoes. What you’re doing is that you are transferring your emotion to them and making yourself a human being in their eyes. But remember that you have to do it without blaming them or accusing them in order to maintain the connection between you.
Now, if a stakeholder or a team member is continually negative, try to use the black hat thinking technique where you deliberately ask them to come forward with their concerns. Say that what you need right now is for everybody to shoot wholes in the idea you have put forward. This technique will address the fact that some people just need to be heard. If they mention something terribly negative, thank them and ask “what else?” You don’t want them to go down a rabbit whole of negativity. You’re simply creating a list of concerns. In a similar vein you can invite people to write down 10 reasons why a certain idea will fail. The really negative person probably won’t be able to come up with that many reasons.
There were a few other tips about to create connection that I picked up from the podcast. The first one is to look into people’s left eye, and to avoid important conversations just before lunch when people are hungry. If you’re communicating via email, finish it with the magic phrase “thanks in advance”. You can even include a smiley face after that. Apparently, it grabs people’s attention and will increase the likelihood of a positive and timely response.
If you’re leading a project or a team you will know first hand that some people are easily motivated and committed to the work they do, whilst others are much harder to get through to. They ask lots of critical questions and resist any kind of control. If you are to overcome this kind of challenge and influence even the rebels on your team, you may have to change your approach.
It turns out that there is a relatively simple way to analyse and categorise people, which helps us understand how we respond differently to assignments, rules, habits and expectations. According to Gretchen Rubin, the best selling author of the Happiness Project, people fall into one of four categories when it comes to motivating themselves to getting work done. The four different categories that she talks about are Obligers, Questioners, Upholders and Rebels. According to her experience, the majority of people are obligers and questioners.
Understanding the category that each of your team members fall into will help you to better motivate and influence them to contribute constructively to your project. At a personal level it’s also useful to know which type you are, as it will help you to follow through with your commitments to yourself and others.
The way that Rubin categorises us is by looking at how likely we are to respond to a rule. In her terminology a rule can either be external or internal. An example of an external rule would be a deadline or a request from your manager. An example of an internal rule would be a personal goal you’d like to achieve or a new year’s resolution. No one asked you to do it. It stems from your own internal desire.
1. Obliger An obliger is someone who responds well to external demands and rules set by others. They do however struggle to keep the rules they set themselves and carry through with private goals. In other words, they are motivated by structures, accountability and deadlines imposed by others. They hate letting other people down and are motivated by doing what’s expected of them. In a team they are super reliable because they like to please. On the flipside they are not good at self-starting because no one is checking on them. They can also be prone to burnout and have difficulties saying no.
If you have an obliger on your team you probably don’t need to do much more than create some outer accountability, for instance by giving them clear deadlines. But don’t put too much pressure on them, as it will cause them to overwork and get stressed. If they feel that you are exploiting them they may end up walking away.
If through reading this you realise that you are an obliger yourself, you’ll need to create some external accountability to help meet your inner goals. If you want to exercise more for instance, sign up with a personal trainer or work out with a friend who can serve as an accountability buddy. For other types of goals you can also work with a coach who will help you stay accountable to yourself.
2. Questioner The questioner is someone who queries everything. They will only follow a rule or a request if it makes sense to them. They are motivated by sound reasons and good arguments – not by random requests or policies. Their favourite question is why something needs to get done and what the purpose is. On the plus side they can be very healthy for an organisation or a project because of their no-nonsense approach. If they agree that something needs to get done, they’ll be highly engaged. If not they won’t deliver what you expect. The drawback is their constant need to question things, which can be exhausting to everyone around.
If you work with a questioner always come prepared. Give them as much information as you have and let them know why the work you are asking them to do is important. If they don’t speak up, ask them what questions and concerns they have. It’s best to get their worries out in the open so that you can address them and also explain what happens if the work isn’t done.
It could also be that you are a questioner and that you struggle to get the things done that are important to you. If so, do sufficient research and get clarity on why you’re pursuing a certain aim in a certain way. Reassure yourself that the approach you’re leaning towards makes the most sense. If you find that you’re holding yourself back because you’re waiting for perfect information, remember that not all information is required to take the first step. To get the benefit from something you do need to get started.
3. Upholder The upholder is someone who respects inner rules and expectations as well as outer rules. They are motivated by fulfilment and by that nice feeling of getting stuff done and achieving something. On the plus side they are self-starters, reliable and don’t need a lot of supervision or accountability. They typically wake up and thinking “what’s on my to-do list today?” On the negative side they need clear rules to be able to operate and avoid letting anyone down. They don’t like to deviate from rules and get frustrated – paralyzed even – when rules are ambiguous or lacking. To others they can come across as rigid or cold. At times they can even make others feel bad because of their high levels of productivity
If you work with an upholder on your project, always give clear directions. Brief them on what you expect and by when you expect it. Also discuss how often you will check in with each other so that you both have full clarity.
If you are personally an upholder (like I am) then it’s probably easy for you to get work done and to achieve the things you want. On the flipside, be aware of how rigid you might appear to others. Be able to let go of your strict rules, and when things change, don’t freak out. Take a deep breath!
4. Rebel The rebel is someone who resists all rules – outer as well as inner. They want to do as they please and are motivated by their present desire. If you ask them to do something, not only will they not do it, they are very likely to want to do the opposite. They resist all control, even self-control. They act from a sense of freedom and don’t give themselves rules. They begin their day by asking “What do I want to do today?” Rebels aren’t constrained by rules and love to not have any. On a positive note it means that they will sometimes be fine to do what others won’t do as they may not be bound by social etiquette or worry about how others see them. On the negative side they can be frustrating to work with because of their nonconforming manner.
If you work with a rebel the best thing you can do is probably to challenge them. They do like a good challenge as long as it comes with buckets of freedom. Like with a rebellious child, say that you bet they can’t do it, e.g. produce a winning slogan. They’ll likely think “I’ll show you!” Be playful and give them freedom to rise to the challenge. You can also get through to them by demonstrating what happens if they don’t show up and take part in an activity. But don't nudge them. Let them arrive at the conclusion themselves.
If you are a rebel yourself, you might find your own resistance and lack of self-control difficult. Set yourself clear challenges and try out the rocking chair exercise. Imagine you are eighty years old and sitting on the porch in your rocking chair, looking into a peaceful garden. In that state imagine that you spent your entire life rebelling and didn’t achieve the things you really wanted. Take time to feel how awful that would feel. So challenge yourself to make your dreams come true!
As we enter 2018 many of us naturally consider what we would like the New Year to bring and what we would like to do and achieve. For me it will be no different. But for the first time in many years I will have more mind-set-related and behavioural goals than external achievement goals. In recent years my goals have been related to writing project leadership books, starting my business, attracting clients and travelling to new exotic locations. These types of goals are not about refining my behaviour, improving my thought patterns or cultivating personal attributes within myself. They are related to achieving things in the physical world. I sense that 2018 will be different as I’m trying to put less emphasis on external achievement goals. Instead I will trust that as long as I do the right things, I will attract the right experiences into my life.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with setting physical goals. We all have a need to feel that we are progressing and that we are moving forward in work and in life. We can feel a strong sense of accomplishment from obtaining a certain qualification, finishing a particular project or landing that dream job. Setting SMART goals and acting on them, definitely help us achieve our objectives. But we also need to allow ourselves to just be. We often put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by feeling that we need to be in a certain job position by a certain age or by constantly having to prove ourselves. We may feed our ego by accomplishing a lot, but we don’t necessarily feed our spirit.
I always tell my coaching clients that the real work is the internal work. If we spend time looking inwards, acquiring the right mind-set, then the rest will follow. I coach a lot of people who have low self-esteem and who tend to compensate by holding on to physical things, frameworks or achievements. But that will never create true fulfilment. The real work is to strengthen our self-belief and to challenge our perceptions until we feel a warm glow of self-love inside.
In a similar vein I often come across individuals who experience a high degree of conflict with people around them. There is always something wrong with their boss, their clients or team members. But instead of wanting to swap projects or organisations, the solution is to look inwards and review our attitudes and behaviours. If we acquire the belief that everyone has something valuable to contribute to every situation, then we will take a greater interest in others and give them more space. The result is better relationships in all areas of life. It is by looking at how we can think and act differently that we can create the greatest transformation in our personal and professional life.
I’m self-employed and at the back of my mind there is often a little fear that perhaps I won’t be as busy this year as I’ve been in the past. But I’ve always been fine, and each year has in fact been more rewarding than the last. I need to get my mind-set right and take my own medicine! As I go into 2018 I don’t want to be steered by this fear and I don’t want to numb it by setting lots of external goals to make my ego feel better. Instead, I will look inwards and concentrate on acquiring the right mind-set. I will appreciate each moment and the opportunities that it brings. When I find myself in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation I will try to take a step back and objectively evaluate it. From that vantage point it will be easier to consciously decide how I want to respond.
What kind of mind-set do you need to acquire in 2018 to become more fulfilled? And in which ways do you need to refine your behaviour? Perhaps you can find inspiration in the three P’s below: Purpose, Presence and Pause. They form the basis of my own goals for 2018.
PURPOSE – In order to attract the right things into your life, you need to start each day feeling connected with yourself and your purpose. With the right mind-set, every day can become a great day. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, but you need some kind of morning ritual that connects you with the essence of who you are and what you want to bring to the day. Some people meditate whilst others go for a brisk walk. Personally I like to start the day with a few yoga exercises that wake up my body and my mind. In 2018 I will become even more mindful during my yoga practice and be reminded of my purpose, which is to use my talent to contribute to the world around me.
PRESENCE – One of the biggest gifts you can give someone is your time and your attention. But it’s also one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself because it has the potential to transform all of your relationships. When you are fully present with another person, listening to them and trying to walk in their shoes, they will feel that you understand them. I’m convinced that there will be far fewer conflicts and misunderstandings in our personal and professional life if we take the time to listen to and understand each other. In 2018 I aim to be more present in my interactions. I will fully listen to and engage people who I cross and make them feel understood.
PAUSE – On your project or in your private life you may at times snap at someone or disengage because of a challenging situation that triggers you. Whenever you feel uncomfortable, irritated or upset in the New Year, press your pause button and just breathe. Let the emotion wash over you without acting on it. These strong emotions can distort your sense of judgement and make you do and say things that don’t serve you. Instead, step outside of the situation for a couple of minutes and evaluate what is going on. What are your beliefs about the stressful events and why is it affecting you? When you’re able to you see the situation clearly you will be much better able to choose how to respond. This is something we can all get better at – including myself.
I hope you’ll have a wonderful 2018 full of purpose, presence and mindful pauses.
Many project managers work with me one-on-one because they would like to become better coaches. They don’t have aspirations to become an executive coach like myself, but would simply like to get better at coaching their team members. I’m thrilled about this interest as it's likely that coaching will also make them better people and leaders. That’s because as coaches we learn to engage others and to be more present during a conversation. We are better able to listen and empathise and to understand what’s important to the person we’re speaking with. I would say that coaching is a life skill, which helps us build better relationships in a working environment and life in general.
Most of us love to give advice Many project managers – and especially those with a technical background – are experts in their field and tend to give advice more than they coach. When we give advice we go into problem-solving mode and come up with instructions and ideas for how the other person can move forward. It makes us feel great to pass on our knowledge and to help someone progress a task in an effective way.
But when we give advice we don’t empower people to grow and to find their own answers. We are effectively imposing our solution to their problem, which isn’t an effective way to get the other person to take ownership. Telling others what to do is appropriate when we’re talking about a straightforward task. For instance, if a team member asks you where the latest status report is, tell them! The same applies during a crisis. If the building is burning, tell people to get out! But if a team member is looking for guidance on how to conduct a meeting, how to approach a stakeholder or what their next career move should be, it’s an opportunity to enter into a coaching conversation.
Ask open questions If coaching isn’t about giving advice, then what is it? It’s about helping the person in front of you to see a given situation in a clearer light so that they feel empowered to take the next steps. This means that the person you’re coaching gains a better understanding of what the real problem is, what the options are for solving the problem and what action they can take to overcome it. The way in which you can help a team member gain this insight is to ask lots of open questions:
Could you tell me more about the issue? What do you feel is wrong? What would you like to achieve? What have you already tried? What else? What worked? What didn’t work? What steps can we take to change this? Which option would be fastest/easiest? What will you do right now?
As you can see you effectively switch mode from telling to asking and listening. The listening part is important, as it enables you to really grasp the situation and see it from the other person’s point of view.
Let’s imagine that your team member asks you how to run a working group meeting. Instead of telling him how you would do it, bounce back the question by asking: What would you like the outcome of this meeting to be? What was discussed at the last meeting? What ideas do you have? What else? The conversation may last a bit longer than if you had simply given the team member instructions, but the outcome is likely to be far more rewarding and effective for both of you.
Begin to practice every day The best way to become a better coach is to practice as often as you can. Coaching isn’t just a tool you should use for the big conversations. It’s a way of life – a leadership style, which you can use in most situations. When people ask you for advice see it as a coaching opportunity and resist the temptation of telling them what to do. Give people your full attention. Listen at the highest possible level and ask open questions that shed light on the topic. Can you explain the situation in more detail? What’s the real challenge for you here? How can I help? Ask “how” and “what” questions and avoid asking “why”. Why often makes people feel defensive, which defeats the purpose of a coaching conversation.
If you have a tendency to interrupt people, try to put your tongue “on pause”. You do this by drawing you tongue backwards so that it neither touches the upper part, nor the lower part of your mouth. Try it now! Let your tongue hover in the middle of your mouth. What you’ll find is that you’ll be less likely to speak as your tongue is now in a neutral position.
Years ago my mind and my body were full of stress. I was running a large business-critical programme and I was petrified of failing. I had never run a project with almost 50 people on it before and a project that had so much attention from senior management. Of course I was also acutely aware that the three project managers that had preceded me had all been fired!
After two years of hard work the programme was delivered successfully and luckily I didn’t get fired! On the contrary! I was proud of our achievements and happy that I’d made some good friends in the process too. But my determination to work hard and to deliver all the benefits to the business had taken its toll. I had difficulties sleeping and my body was infested with stress. It all became very real when I had to use a walking stick to ease the pressure on my left foot. I had put too much pressure on it during my dancing lessons and it was badly inflamed. I was forced to give up dancing and could barely walk. I was devastated and felt debilitated at an age of 35! I didn't like it and I didn't understand why it had happened. After all I was a good person trying to do good: delivering important projects and having some fun with my dancing.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a blessing in disguise this was. My inflamed foot forced me to slow down and make some very important changes to the way I lived my life. My journey back to full health and vitality didn’t happen overnight as it required more than simply changing a few habits. It was only by changing some of my underlying beliefs that I could make profound and long lasting changes. A decade later I can honestly say that I lead a much more rewarding and balanced life.
I started leaving the office at 6pm One of the beliefs that I had at the time was that in order to be a good project manager I had to work as hard as possible. When I worked late I achieved a lot and it made me feel good that I had given everything I could. But by giving so much of my energy to my project I slowly depleted my batteries. My new belief was that good project managers work smarter, not harder. They make good use of their team and don’t spend their evenings in the office. It was initially difficult for me to get up and leave at 6pm, but over time it became easier.
I got better at asking for help Before my near-burn-out I was proud of doing as much of the work as possible on my own. I felt I ought to. But on a large project there’s a lot to keep track of and it’s near impossible to do without assistance. I did eventually ask for help – initially reluctantly – and a brilliant project administrator got allocated to my project. What a difference that made! She helped keep track of the many work-streams and stayed on top of the financials. This freed me up to keep an eye on the bigger picture and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders. It also meant that it got easier to leave at 6pm.
I took a mini sabbatical Taking a sabbatical had a transformational effect on me. After the delivery of the business-critical project I decided to take three months off and travel through India. As my sabbatical came closer, the financial crisis of 2008 hit and I shortened my break to six weeks. I was afraid that I’d make myself redundant by being out of sight for too long. Luckily six weeks was still long enough that I could take a step back and give my body a chance to recover. I had a lot of fun in India travelling from south to the north in one epic train journey. I also spent time in an ashram where I met people who later became some of my closest friends. Going to India was something I did for myself – not something I felt I should do or was expected to. It was liberating and I came back feeling rejuvenated and determined to lead my life and my projects in a way that would give me energy rather than drain me.
I trained as a coach Inspired by a personal coaching session that had a profound effect on me I decided to train as a coach myself. I studied whilst working as a project manager and I began to use my newfound skills in my working environment. At the time I had no ambition to work as a professional coach. I simply felt that coaching was a magical skill that I wanted to master. Through my studies I learnt a lot about human behaviour and the beliefs that control the things we do and say. I also learnt to truly listen and to ask questions that help people reframe their problems. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that all project managers should train as coaches. But I would say that understanding human behaviour is essential for anyone who would like to get better at building relationships at work and leading a team.
I started doing yoga Long before I had my first yoga class I intuitively knew that I would enjoy it. But for several years I listened to my friends' positive experiences without taking any action myself. When I finally attended a class I was hooked and didn’t have to force myself to go. Yoga helped me to be more mindful, to be more present in my body and to breathe properly. It’s the perfect antidote to stress. You simply cannot rush a yoga class. You have to focus on your breath and the poses. As soon as you think about to-do-lists or work you loose the ability to balance and follow the class.
I began to do more of what gives me energy Around the same time I came across a little book called Energize! by Jo Salter. One of Jo’s exercises had a particular big effect on me. I had to list all the activities that I did during a day or a week and indicate whether they gave me energy or drained me from energy. Through this simple exercise I learnt that my most draining activity was to read through all outstanding emails at the end of my working day. I also became more aware of what I needed to do to reenergize outside of work. Apart from yoga I began to nourish my soul, for instance by visiting art galleries, going for walks and visiting places that I found stimulating. All in all it meant that I would start work on a Monday morning feeling happy and energized.
I began to pay more attention to what I eat Although I was always mindful about what I ate, I wasn't as healthy as my body needed me to be. I would eat white bread, poor quality sandwiches, skip meals and have sugary snacks in the afternoon. Not to mention alcohol and the occasional cigarette. Today I give my body what it needs so that it can better withstand periods of intense activity. I have organic vegetables delivered from a farm, I have a healthy breakfast (oats, fruit and green tea), I no longer smoke or drink and I avoid coffee, sugary foods and excessive fat. Of course there’s no denying a good piece of dark chocolate! Our brain needs the good fats from nuts, seeds and oily fish, so that’s what I try to give it.
I learned to control my mental state I also began to focus intently on controlling my thoughts and my mental state. I decided that I would no longer think about work once I left the office. Boy did I fail! 30 seconds after I left the office I would think about work. I then gently reminded myself that I had decided to leave work behind. 30 seconds later I thought about work again – and so the battle continued! And we battled on for several weeks until my disciplined mind finally won this crucial victory. I further sharpened my mind by starting my day with a power meditation. During this meditation I would read out my vision and mission statement and focus on the mental state that I wanted to adopt for the day. Today, if I have a bad day I acknowledge it and then do my best to put it away. In other words, I choose what I want to focus on.
Pick up on the signals that your body gives you Like other jobs, project management can be a very stressful profession. I have felt it on my own body and I feel it through many of the people who I personally train and coach.
If you’re in a state of stress your body will show you signs of tension that you need to pick up on. If you overlook them and continue to deplete your batteries you could face burnout. That’s a serious condition. Fortunately it didn't happen to me, but it happened to one of my closest friends. She clearly saw the signs when her own brother went down with stress several years before she did, but she didn’t take her own symptoms seriously. She had a fever for several weeks but told herself that it would probably pass. It didn’t pass and she was signed off work with severe stress for several months. Don’t let that happen to you.
Be honest with yourself! Give your body and soul what it needs in order to be fit and healthy in the long term. Visiting India, getting into coaching and practicing yoga may not be your path. What’s important is that you do whatever feels right for you. Deep down you know what you need to do. You just need to take it seriously.
Giving accurate, constructive and regular feedback is essential if you want to build a well-functioning team. We all need to know what we’re doing well and what we could improve on in order to progress. But it’s not always easy to get it right. If you’re too blunt you discourage and demotivate the receiver. If, on the other hand, you’re too forgiving, nothing will change and the team member won’t get the opportunity to improve. Perhaps that’s why so many project managers and leaders are worried about giving feedback and end up not doing it. The trick is to say what needs to be said in a way that’s both constructive and well meaning – and to do it immediately.
Use self-directed feedback My first tip is to use self-directed feedback, which means that you ask the team member to first evaluate their own performance. You can for instance say: "Can we have a conversation about the client meeting we just had? I think it’s important that we’re aligned. What did you notice about your performance in the meeting? What did you like about what you did? If you could do it again, what would you do differently?" Asking these questions gives the team member a chance to reflect on their behaviour and it opens up the conversation. As most of us are our own worst critic, the team member is likely to highlight the very behaviour you wanted to address, which saves you from doing it. After the team member’s response, you will get the opportunity to express your own view at a time when the team member is ready to listen to it.
Give layered feedback My next tip is to give “sandwiched” feedback, so that any negative comments are mixed in with something positive. If you only focus on the negatives you can easily demotivate the team member. You have to build up people’s self esteem as it gives them energy and confidence to change. When you give sandwiched – or layered – feedback you first emphasize something the person is doing really well. Secondly you talk about an element they can improve on, and thirdly you finish off with a positive point. We all like to know what we’re doing well. But your praise must be honest and well deserved. If you just add a few superficial positive comments to tone down the negative feedback, they will have no effect at all. You can layer your message this way: "What I liked was... Can I suggest something you might do differently?.. You are always so good at ..."
Be specific and give examples When you give your feedback, be specific about what you think the team member is doing well and what you would like to see changed. If you’re too generic, for instance by saying, “That was great” or “That didn’t really work for me”, the team member won’t know how to improve. If they knew, they would have already done it. It would be more helpful if you said “Your report gives some good facts and figures on page three. I think it would benefit from being more succinct, especially in section one. Perhaps you could do that by adding a few graphs and charts.”
As you talk about specific situations, be as constructive as possible and emphasize what behaviours the recipient can change going forward. It can be unhelpful to say: “You have to stop saying yes to the client all the time." In its place say: "Can I suggest that instead of saying yes when the client asks for a change, you carry out an impact analysis and propose 3 options in your response.”
Create an open dialogue Another tip is that you should always give the team member the chance to express their views and react to your comments. In order for your feedback to be taken on board you have to manage the emotional side and create a safe space for them to speak their mind. Giving sandwiched feedback will help, but also ask them: “What do you feel about what I just said? What else are you thinking?” Remember that the purpose of your feedback should always be to help the team member improve rather than just criticizing them.
On that note, feedback doesn’t have to have a negative angle at all. You can keep your team members motivated by acknowledging all the things they are doing well. Give positive feedback as often as you can and immediately after you have observed something great. Remember that your comments must be well deserved as otherwise they will lose their importance.
Project kick offs are often talked about as a single event – or meeting – where the project manager introduces the team to the project, walks them through the project background and ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations, deliverables and responsibilities. But that’s a very limited way of thinking about kick-offs.
Unless the project is very small, the kick off could consist of a series of one-2-one meetings and group workshops, which address the “harder” as well as the “softer” aspects of the project. The harder aspects – what we’re supposed to deliver and by when – are what most project managers focus on. Not many put emphasis on team building and on giving the team members an opportunity to define how they would like to work together.
Defining the project vs. defining the team When we define the project we look at the purpose of the project, its background and what it’s ultimately trying to achieve. We examine who the sponsors and clients are and what success looks like to them. We also seek to understand what the high level requirements and constraints are in terms of quality expectations, timeframes, budget and desired solutions. These aspects are normally captured in the project charter or the definition document and should involve the team as much as possible.
We all know that defining the project is an essential starting point for running a successful project. It's simply not possible to plan, manage and deliver something, which we don’t know enough about. We also know that the project definition should be created with the team members for maximum buy-in as opposed to just presenting it to them. But there is more to it. We need to bring in the softer aspects too. Individuals are complex beings who have different ways of approaching situations and different ways of dealing with problems. It takes time for team members to get to know each other and to build up the kind of trust that’s needed for them to gel and deliver a great project. When project members don't invest time in each other, there is a risk that they will act like individuals in a group more than a cohesive team. That can lead to dysfunction, missed deadlines, misunderstandings and poor quality.
To create the best possible kick off and the best conditions for the team to deliver, the project manager needs to assist the team in finding its feet and agreeing how its members will work together. That’s a process which will take time, and which needs to be initiated right at the beginning when the team is formed. The project manager can kick-start the process in a few different ways:
Icebreakers – Icebreakers are great for making team members loosen up and get to know each other better. E.g. tell us something surprising about yourself. What would you say is a hidden talent of yours? What would make you go to work even if you didn’t get a salary for it?
Share a story – Ask each team member to share a story of a good or bad team experience they have had, and why that was. On that basis you can get a conversation going about the kind of team experience they would like to have on this project and what it would take.
Ground rules – Bring a stack of post-it notes and ask each team member to write down anything that’s important to them - one item per post-it note. One person might write that it’s important for team members to show respect and listen to each other when a comment, concern or question is raised. Another person might write that team members should socialize outside of work at least once every month. All of these items (or post-its) are potential ground rules that the team agrees to work to. Ground rules should not be set by the project manager but collectively by the team.
Team charter – During a project, tough decisions will need to be made and difficult situations overcome. For that to happen the team must build the habit of speaking openly to each other and expressing their concerns, hopes and fears. A great way to practice that is to ask it to produce a team charter. The charter clarifies the make-up and direction of the team and establishes boundaries. It is developed with contributions from all team members and should answer the following questions:
What is our purpose? Why does the team exist?
Which decisions and activities are inside the scope of our team?
What are the measurable outcomes that we will be held accountable to?
How will we treat each other? Which ground rules are important to us?
How will we make decisions, resolve conflict and communicate?
Which strengths and skills do we have?
What are our weaknesses?
What is each team member’s role? How will they contribute?
How will we celebrate our successes?
How can we summarize our ethos and purpose in a sentence or phrase?
Personality profiling – If you’re working with team members who are relatively open minded and mature, you can make use of personality profiling tools to increase self-awareness and knowledge about the team’s strengths and weaknesses. There are several tools on the market, including StrengthsFinder, DISC and Insights. It’s best to get a qualified coach to help you run these tools and explain the outcomes. The awareness generated by these tools has the potential to take the team to a completely new level. But the results can also be a real eye opener to people, so it’s important that an experienced coach is available to help them clarify any doubts or uncertainties.
Conclusion Kicking off a project isn’t just a one-off meeting where the team is briefed about objectives, deliverables and timelines that have been set by the PM or Sponsor. Good kick-offs engage the team and draw it into the definition and planning process. Not least should team members be given the time and space to define their values and how they will approach decisions, communicate with each other and resolve conflict. The project manager can kick off this process by use of icebreakers, ground rules, team charters and personality profiling tools.