By Wanda Curlee
Do you ever wonder where project management could take you? Believe it or not, being a project manager is excellent preparation for becoming a chief operating officer (COO).
After serving in the U.S. Navy on active duty for more than five years, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I stumbled into a project management role. I am lucky I did, because it prepared me for many different business roles. I am now on my journey from project manager to COO. The road is not simple, and there have been setbacks, but the goal remains close at hand.
To see how project management can help prepare you for a COO role, take a look at this job description. OK, finished reading? Let’s break down the large parts of the description and how they relate to project management.
Lots of similarities
A COO has “overall strategic and operational responsibility.” As a project manager, you drive the project toward the end goal and keep it on track. But you also drive the strategy of the project and oversee its operational aspects. Granted, you are not doing these tasks at the executive level, but you are the COO for the project.
The COO also develops, implements and manages the operational aspects of the annual budget. As a project manager you do all of this—at a project level.
And depending on the size of the project, you may be managing a budget that is far greater than an organization’s. Think about construction of an oil rig, building a high rise, outsourcing an IT department—all of these projects could have a budget larger than an entire company.
Chief operating officers also have to know management operations. Fortunately, this is what you do day in and day out as a project manager. A COO just does operations on a larger scale. But with practice, understanding, and leading larger projects and programs, you will excel at the same skills required to be an effective COO.
Although the job description may not spell it out, many of the soft skills you’ve honed in project management—networking, communicating, leadership, mentorship/coaching and learning from failure—are also required to be a successful COO.
In addition, tangible skills like planning a budget, implementing training, overseeing the project budget and reporting to leadership will serve you well in the C-suite.
A little help from your mentors
As you prepare for a COO role, I’d also recommend finding mentors. Mentors were necessary for my advancement. I suggest finding three of them: one in your chain of command, the second in your organization but outside the chain of command, and the third outside of your organization.
Choose your mentors carefully. Mentors—especially those outside the chain of command and the company—can help you stretch your limits. A mentor can provide suggestions on how to handle difficult situations.
He or she can also provide insight into politics within the organization or how to handle a political situation. Finally, a mentor can provide advice on the next project or program to tackle to put you on the track to becoming a COO.
By Bernadine Douglas
Every team member brings a unique skill set to a project. It’s easy enough for observant project managers to take note of individuals’ varying backgrounds and skills. What’s harder is using different team member talents strategically to aid a project when the going gets tough.
Here are a few tips for practitioners looking to maximize their team’s talents to keep a project on track.
The How. The first step is to get to know your team members. On many fast-paced projects, it may not be easy to find time to have general conversations with people. But if small time slots arise, be sure to take advantage of them. The payoff could be quick: Even during a casual conversation, a team member may share an insight for getting a task done in an innovative way or information about a skill you didn’t realize he or she had.
The What. It’s important to map your team’s skills while keeping potential resource shortages in mind. You want to make sure that one aspect of the project can continue if the point person for that area on your team becomes unavailable. Ideally, you’ll be able to identify a backup on the team with the right skills to step in if necessary. If that proves impossible, you may have to get approval from another project manager in the organization to bring in someone from another project to meet a tight deadline. (This has happened to me.)
The When. Don’t be afraid of being flexible. In a budget-constrained situation, I have had to quickly train a team member on a skill so a project could continue. The key is finding a team member with the availability and willingness to learn on the fly.
Have you mapped your team’s varied skill sets? Have you thought about whom you’d turn to if a highly valuable team member were suddenly unavailable? I’d love to hear your project contingency plans.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere right now, you may be dealing with inclement winter weather. That in turn means your local public officials are dealing with how to communicate during a crisis. Project practitioners can learn from them.
Late last month in New York, New Jersey and the New England region in the United States, officials were tasked with preparing citizens for a snowstorm called “historic” before it arrived—but which ultimately spared New York City and neighboring New Jersey. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had to defend the decisionto shut down the city’s subway system due to snow for the first time in its 110-year history.
Similarly, project managers must be aware of the downsides involved with communicating risks on fast-changing projects to stakeholders. If flagged risks don’t materialize, we might find ourselves unable to gain cooperation at a later date.
Here are three communication rules of thumb, each corresponding to a project stage, to keep in mind when you have imperfect information about a project with constantly changing variables—but still must address stakeholders.
1. Plan ahead: One of the first rules of crisis management is to be fully prepared for a crisis.In New York City last month, we saw de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo get out early and explain that the forecast indicated the storm could be the largest in the city’s history. Only 6 inches of snow ended up falling, but the city’s leadership did have a good plan and did effectively prepare the population for the storm.
What can practitioners take away from this? Depending on the type of project you are running, take a few moments to think about how you are going to communicate with your team in case of a problem or uncontrollable event occurring, even if it’s just laying out the steps you need to take on the back of an envelope.
2. Have a clear message:When you are communicating in a variable or crisis situation for your project, you need to have a consistent message, even if you are delivering imperfect or changing information.
Think about how the U.S. National Weather Service issues “advisories,” “warnings” and “watches.” Although some people can be confused by these terms, the service’s definitions of them are distinct.
As a project manager, you may want to put your stakeholder messages into three categories: best case, worst case and most likely case, for example. Choose whichever categories work for your project and clearly define them. Bottom line: Confidently communicate what you know and how it will impact the project and your stakeholders.
3. Review and adapt: Like all good project managers, you likely review best practices at the end of your project. If the project involved communicating in crisis—whether related to weather or a different kind of variable circumstance—it’s especially important to take a few moments at the end to review what worked and what didn’t.
Like the planning and messaging stages noted above, the review doesn’t need to be highly complex. These questions can elicit communications lessons learned:
• How well did my plan allow me to begin communicating early in the crisis?
• Was my message easy for all stakeholders to understand?
• What about my communication delivery methods worked? What didn’t work?
• Did stakeholders respond to my message in the way that I wanted?
These are just three approaches crisis communications. How have you overcome communication challenges driven by project crises or adverse situations in your organization?
Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
Human Aspects of PM,
PM & the Economy,
PM Think About It,
Categories: Best Practices, Change Management, Communication, Complexity, Ethics, Generational PM, Government, Human Aspects of PM, Leadership, Lessons Learned, PM & the Economy, PM Think About It, Program Management, Project Delivery, Project Failure, Project Planning, Social Responsibility, Stakeholder, Strategy, Teams
One of the biggest public works projects in the United States right now has some major problems. It’s a more than $3 billion effort in Seattle, Washington to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an aging elevated highway on the city’s waterfront, with a 2-mile-long tunnel. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the project, you know that the tunnel-boring machine (dubbed “Bertha”) broke down more than a year ago, creating various challenges and overruns. Public outcry is mounting.
Now, if you’re like me and believe in the power of communication to ensure that projects run more smoothly, the tunnel project has highlighted the need for more openness, better stakeholder management and speaking to your audience in understandable ways, instead of falling into buzzwords or corporate speak.
If I were working on the project right now, here are three things I would look at to regain the public’s trust and help everyone in Seattle and the state of Washington understand exactly where the project is.
1. Be willing to convey incomplete information. The project’s big challenge is that the machine built specifically for drilling the tunnel encountered a setback when it struck a metal pipe during the excavation process. Unfortunately, it took project leaders over a week to convey the extent of Bertha’s problem, the course of action and any sort of timeline to get things back on track. Since Bertha stopped working in December 2013, information has trickled out to stakeholders.
The project’s leaders could have set a much different tone early on by stating what they know and what it means to the project—along with an acknowledgement that they really aren’t 100 percent sure what the solution is, and a clear statement that they will work to provide status updates to all stakeholders as often as possible.
Instead, it’s been “hard to get straight answers,” as the Seattle radio station KUOW put it.
2. Be honest. This really goes hand in hand with the first point about having the confidence to convey information that is accurate, even if it is incomplete. The public has begun to doubt that project leaders are being honest about the tunnel’s current status and future. This is partly because when the city’s department of transportation (DOT) or the state government has updated the community about the project, they have given information that seems farfetched and is tough to believe in light of Bertha’s lack of progress.
Case in point: A DOT official recently toldSeattle’s City Council that the project was “70-percent complete.” That claim was met with a great deal of skepticism by journalists and members of the community.
The lesson for project managers is: Don’t fudge information to avoid blowback. In the long run, you are putting your project at a strategic disadvantage because you may lose funding or you may come under heavier oversight…or worse. So just explain things in an honest and forthcoming manner.
3. Be consistent in the delivery of information. A lack of consistent communications has been one of the big failings for the Seattle project team. And when there’s an information void, it will usually be filled by something you aren’t going to like. In this instance, the lack of communications has led to a real breakdown of trust.
That’s why you need to make a plan for communicating consistently with stakeholders. It should include the best ways to communicate with specific stakeholder groups, and a plan for gathering accurate, up-to-date information from the project team. To ensure timely gathering, build the consistent delivery of information into day-to-day project activities. Set a schedule of when you want your team members to communicate information to you, and hold them accountable.
In turn, you need to inform key stakeholders of when and how you’ll communicate information to them, and then stick to that plan.
In most cases, communications comes down to recognizing the importance of clarity in effective project leadership. In Seattle, you can see what a lack of a clear process can do to the trust between stakeholders and the project team. I’m confident that most unsuccessful projects began to unravel when communications stopped being clear and consistent.
What do you think?
By Vivek Prakash
While high-performing team members are assets for us as project practitioners, we struggle with underperformers. Generally, we have two options with underperformers — get rid of them or help them become better performers. The first option is easy, while the second requires hard work, patience and persistence.
However, the unavailability of skilled employees nowadays can make even thefirst option difficult. So helping the team member improve is often preferable. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are great: We not only convert a underperforming asset into a performing asset but also gain power and respect.
I believe that underperformance is more a perception than a reality, more an expectation mismatch than an incapability. For example, a software company might recruit team members mainly based on technical skills like programming. But all software engineers do not work alike, because their background, behavior, style and beliefs differ.
Imagine giving two different but equally capable team members, A and B, the same task. You believe A is more of a planner, while B is action-oriented. Neither approach is wrong. Employee A will create a meticulous plan before starting, while B will work with a broader plan. A’s action will start later, while B will make a couple of course corrections during the work.
If you are a planning person, you might like A, but if you are an action-oriented person, you prefer B. For urgent work, B is suitable; for quality work, however, A might be better. Based on the type of work, urgency, expected outcome and your own nature, you would pick A or B.
So if a team member is not performing well, the reason may not be his or her incapability. What if your expectations were not correctly explained to the employee? What if the employee has no motivation to complete the task?
To improve someone’s performance, I suggest changing your role from that of a boss to mentor. Why? Because a boss gives further challenges, while a mentor provides support. A boss applies pressure while a mentor tries to find a solution.
People often cannot understand their own underperformance. Providing constructive feedback with a helping hand is the first step. If the employee did not understand expectations well, clarify them. Suggest a reward for improved performance. Money is the lowest award, and you can offer it to anyone. Instead, if possible, create milestones and praise the person for reaching them.
Always try to understand the employee’s natural inclinations. Perhaps the job doesn’t align with his or her natural abilities. Consider another assignment, offer some alternatives and do not ignore the person’s own suggestions.
One more tip: Beware of labeling a person as having a negative attitude. A negative attitude is often created by the environment, an objective mismatch or employee concerns. As soon as the environment improves, objectives align or concerns are addressed, a team member’s attitude will often become positive.
You may have faced a similar challenge in your projects. What was your experience? How did you resolve it?