By Conrado Morlan
For most of us, good isn’t good enough — we want to be the best at what we do.
Becoming an elite project management professional requires focus, drive and a willingness to learn from our role models, whether they are bosses, team members or co-workers performing very different functions in the organization.
You may not possess all of their abilities, but some of the traits you admire in them are within you. Becoming an elite practitioner is partly about tapping into your hidden inner potential. I believe that a crucial part of professional development is developing a mindset that will unlock your abilities.
To that end, I adapted the following mental strategies from The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremow. Based on high-performance psychology research, these strategies will help you learn how to think, feel and act like one of the best.
1) See Success
Imagine yourself at the end of the project, when the product or service has been delivered and the organization has achieved its strategic goals. Visualize the ideal scenario: a satisfied project team, optimized processes, and satisfied internal and external customers.
This will help you define the optimal project execution and “turn on” success in your mindset.
2) Stay Positive
You may be assigned to a project in an area in which you lack experience. Identify your deficiencies at the beginning of the project and define a strategy on how to address them — bring an expert to your project team, identify a mentor or train yourself.
3) Do Not Panic
Projects are not a bed of roses. You will have to deal with changes in scope and risks, difficult teammates and resource constraints. Resilience is an important trait for project managers. Focus on the solution, not the problem. Dogged determination will help you reach your professional goals.
4) Be Confident
When meeting the project board, what is your body language saying? Are you smiling? Research shows that “power posing” can positively affect the brain and might even have an impact on your chances for success. Adopt the pose of a powerful project management professional!
5) Evaluate Progress
Assess yourself: How well are you emulating the behaviors of your role models? What did you do that was good? In which areas do you need to improve? What changes do you need to implement? This evaluation will give you perspective on how close or far you are from your goals.
What are your strategies for taking your performance to the next level? What do you think sets the very best project management professionals apart from the rest?
As we move toward the end of the year and prepare our personal and professional goals for 2015, I’ve been thinking about how someone can go from being just a manager to being a leader.
Years ago, a big project I was working on with American Express and one of its partners ran into trouble. A lot of factors probably led to that, but one still stands out to me: I was succeeding as a manager but failing as a leader. And that was the project’s ultimate downfall.
Over the years, I’ve been able to reflect and grow from that experience. Here are three ways you can use my experience to help you become more of a leader in 2015.
1. Focus on the vision. Managers are, by their nature, implementers. We get tasked with projects that we may not have had a great deal of input into. But just because we’re helping our sponsors reach their goals doesn’t mean we can’t apply our vision as well. To focus on vision in your management and leadership, start by formulating what this project means to you, the organization, the team and the end users. Then, most importantly, personalize those aspects that are likely to inspire your team.
2. Focus on important conversations.I once read that a project manager spends 90 percent of his or her time communicating. To become a better leader, focus on the most important of these conversations: ones with your sponsor and your team. They are the people who are going to be able to inform you about changes in circumstances, troubles in a project or resource challenges. While there are lots of important people to talk with, the most important are the ones who have the most direct impact on the project’s success or failure — so prioritize those.
3. Look at the long-term.This advice ties into having a vision for your project and having conversations with your important team members and sponsors. But thinking long-term also means you need to infuse your vision and conversations with a future orientation. This might mean that you talk with your sponsor about how a project fits into a long-term strategic plan for the organization. Or, it might mean that you spend time during conversations with your team members asking about their goals and values. This can allow you to shift your actions and assignments in a way that delivers on the promise of the current project. At the same time, you will have built a stronger understanding and real relationship with your sponsors and teams that will transcend your current project and have lasting benefits for projects and years to come.
What are some of the ways you’ve helped make yourself a stronger leader, rather than solely a manager?
As much as we wish these things didn’t occur, we sometimes find ourselves having to leave a project early or terminate a business engagement. This is always difficult to do, and how you do it can help you maintain your integrity and credibility throughout the transition.
Recently, I had to terminate a business relationship myself. Here are a few lessons that I learned that you can apply the next time you are in a similar situation.
1. Place the blame on yourself. I know you wouldn’t be leaving a project or quitting a business relationship if it were all your fault, but the key thing here is that you need to buck up and take responsibility for the business arrangement ending. There are several ways you can frame it to take the emphasis for the decision away from the other party. For example: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the ability to deliver the work to you in a manner that you have grown accustomed to” or “I find myself at a point where I don’t feel my presence best serves the project, and I think a new set of eyes is going to be helpful to getting things back on track.” Or, you can come up with your own. The point is that you take a little of the emphasis off the party that you are ending the relationship with and place it on yourself. This will lessen any bad blood or negativity from the decision. It is important to note that you must cast the decision in terms of your inability to continue to serve the client in a manner that he or she deserves.
2. If possible, present options for replacements.If you find yourself at a point of no return and need out of a business relationship, you can soften the blow even more if you provide alternatives. The question you are probably asking yourself is, “If I can’t work with this person or on this project, why would I refer them to someone else?” But the truth is, we are all in different businesses and at different stages of our career — and while your threshold for some clients may be zero, someone just starting out or looking to find a different focus may be more than willing to accept a challenge that you consider unnecessary. This goes back to the first point: If you can’t serve the client in the way that he or she deserves, you are doing the client a favor by removing yourself from the project and helping him or her find someone who can do better.
3. Be prepared for blowback.Even when these things go great, there will be some sort of blowback or negative impact. You might have spelled everything out with as much tact as a veteran diplomat, but you are still leaving the business relationship with a jilted partner who may lash out to other members of your organization or other potential business partners. In this instance, you can try to contain any negative feedback or impact on you and your career by preparing a standard statement that you give to everyone that explains your role in the dissolution of the relationship. It should cast a bad situation in the most favorable light for you. One I have used is: “I am sorry the project didn’t work out, but I made a series of unwise choices that made my effectiveness impossible, and to best serve the project, I felt it was best for me to step away.” That’s it — it isn’t perfect, but neither is the situation you find yourself in.
How have you found success in ending business relationships?
Join meon December 4, 2014, in my upcoming seminar on leadership in project management.
Every so often, I hear theories from team members on how their project manager became effective at leading projects. Sometimes they say something like, "She was born to be a project manager."
This got me to thinking whether some people are naturally predisposed to be project managers, or if they have a specific set of experiences that shapes them to become project managers. It's almost a question of anthropological proportions: Are good project managers born or made?
To help answer it, let us look at some key competencies of project managers and see if these skills are innate or developed over time.
So coming back to the question of whether project managers are born or made, I think both are true. While nobody has yet found a project manager gene, we all seem to be born into a journey that leads us to being a project manager. This journey starts with the skills and behaviors we're born with, and continues with the functional knowledge, technical expertise and professional training we accumulate over time. This essential mix of what we are as well as how we grow is key to becoming an effective project manager.
Do you think you were born to be a project manager or became one over time?
Four years ago, I transformed from weekend warrior to running enthusiast. First, I started running short-distance races, a 5K here and a 10K there. Then I tried my first half marathon in 2009 and my first marathon in 2010. After those great experiences, running became part of my lifestyle.
People always ask me, Why do you run marathons? Are you a masochist? You really need to run the race and experience the challenge and pain -- as well as the indescribable sense of achievement when crossing the finish line -- to understand why I run marathons. The feeling is actually similar to when a project manager finally completes and delivers a project. And after running six marathons in less than four years, I have some lessons learned that apply to project management:
Hills happen. Up your strategy.
Hills complement the race and make them more interesting and challenging. At first sight, they impact the runner's state of mind and even consume his or her energy before the uphill trek. But I like to view hills as an opportunity to slow my pace and save energy that will be required in the final miles of the race.
As a project manager, you may face "hills" (i.e., project challenges). You may want to attack them, but I would recommend slowing your pace and regrouping with your team to define a new or enhanced strategy to address the hardship.
Stick to the numbers.
Marathon runners use gadgets to track time and distance. Sometimes the distance reported by the gadget exceeds the 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) marathon distance, which may be confusing, especially for first timers. But keep in mind that major marathons in the United States are certified by USA Track & Field, the sanctioning body that makes it an official race. The course distance is accurately measured and is the shortest route of the course.
Project managers should not attempt to create metrics or rules that may not be aligned with the sanctioning body. Follow the rules that are already in place and do not jeopardize your project.
Having run a marathon a couple of times doesn't make you an expert. Even when the course may not change, there are many external factors that can make it a very different race. I have run the Austin, Texas, USA marathon for three consecutive years, and every race has been a different experience.
As a project manager, you may have implemented the same enterprise resource planning or tool several times, but every project has its own twist. Do not be arrogant or a know-it-all, and take that new project as an opportunity to learn something.
Stop and smell the roses.
A personal record, the number of marathons run in a particular year or participation in a prestigious race -- these are all factors that motivate marathon runners. Whatever the purpose, these stakes tend to increase the runner's stress during the race. While running, I take some time to enjoy the scenery, high-five and greet spectators, say thanks to the volunteers at hydration stations or help a fellow runner in pain. All those things help me enjoy the race.
When managing a project, it is important to meet stakeholders' expectations. But it is also important to have the right work-life balance. Simple actions -- such as taking that training that you've postponed several times or simply going to the gym -- will recharge you and give you new ideas to tackle project challenges.
As both a marathon runner and project manager, I could say that the reason I run is to be able to combine my experiences in races and projects to strive for excellence. And that would be one of the reasons. But just between us, the top reason I run marathons is because I like to be cheered by people.
What hobby has provided you with valuable lessons that you have applied to project management?