Have you ever had an executive sponsor desert you? What can you do about it? Are you stuck with a bad sponsor? Or, maybe it is not the sponsor at all, could it be you?
I recently had a great chat with one of projectmanagement.com's prolific contributors, Elizabeth Harrin, in her Project Management Cafe group and we talked about just this topic. Please watch because there are some great tips on leading your executives.
"I just want to be a project manager. I don't want all that responsibility." The room was silent, save a few exasperated sighs. Everyone looked around the room trying to figure out how we would handle the comment. No one addressed it. In fact though, there are many levels of project management maturity and only the highest levels require leadership and there is nothing wrong with this person's desire to wanting to stay out of the fray. In fact, the prominent US certification process—PMI's PMP®—has historically little to do with leadership. PMI is only recently catching up with the rest of us who have been preaching leadership and business for the last couple decades. So where do we learn about leadership and how can we improve our leadership skills?
Tips and Techniques
Leadership cannot be taught nor can you test for it. It is a set of traits we develop that are reflected in our core values and how we relate to others. Studying, learning, and mimicking various techniques are a start, but until they become part of our values and persona and are as natural as breathing, they are only superficial and we fall woefully short of being a leader.
Being a leader is a great aspiration, but requires more effort than that required to attain a simple certification. To understand what necessitates being a leader we can turn to the corporate world. In a Fast Company article by Heath Row, FedEx® specifically calls out nine traits to identify a person's leadership potential—charisma, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, courage, dependability, flexibility, integrity, judgment, and respect for others. Here, they are paraphrased and grouped into three main categories.
A leader is a role model for others in everything he or she does. They have charisma to instill faith, respect, and trust. They respect others opinions. Instead of berating, they carefully listen and excel as a coach and advisor. Using these skills, they have developed the ability to get others to think in new ways, identifying and questioning unsupported opinion and, in its place, use evidence and reasoning. This brings a fresh new approach to problem solving in the organization.
Leaders do not give in to popular views or demands and have the courage to withstand resistance against looking at ideas that are out of the mainstream—regardless of the personal cost. They are adaptive and effective in rapidly changing environments, with an ability to discern issues, simultaneously handling a variety of problems, and making course corrections as required.
Based on a strong sense of mission, leaders are dependable, keeping their commitments and taking responsibility for their actions and their mistakes. A foundation of internal integrity guides them through what is morally and ethically correct. Superior judgment allows a leader to evaluate multiple action plans objectively using logic, analysis, and comparison. They are pragmatic decision makers.
Leadership and Project Management
With all that is entailed in being a leader, it is easy to understand why someone would make the distinction that all they wanted to be was a project manager. Minding the scope, schedule, and budget sounds quiet and peaceful, even mundane. Taking a subordinate, individual contributor role managing team members to someone else's direction, is tranquil in comparison to a leader's responsibilities. One must remember, though, there are two paths in project management—successfully managing the most difficult of projects as a leader, or following a cookbook project management style as a coordinator. The demand will increase for the former, while the latter will be commoditized and relegated to any resource, remote or local. To advance the project management discipline, leadership qualities are essential.
Few would question that executives are responsible for ensuring projects are aligned with the corporate vision, goals, and strategy. Yet, everyone seems to forget that the business environment changes almost daily and initiatives must also to remain in line with these goals. To achieve this, executives (primarily the executive sponsor) have to be engaged with the project throughout its life cycle. This requires more than ensuring the project maintains its scope, schedule, and budget; projects must deliver value. Too many projects start with the inspirational support of upper management, but as the project (or company) drifts, the executives have long since disengaged from the project and are unable to straighten out the misalignment. This wastes company resources and hinders the company's ability to deliver.
The Shiny Ball Syndrome
Too often, project teams (both customers and suppliers), become enamored of numerous non-critical features, the shiny ball of new technology, or excessive process and drift from the strategic tenets of the project. The project executives (everyone from the portfolio managers, PMO directors, up to the CEO) need to monitor and guide projects to maintain their alignment, while the project manager shepherds the project within the approved scope, schedule, and budget.
Executives have the responsibility of maintaining focus on supplying value. Understanding the customer's business is critical to accomplish this. Rather than pedantically ensuring project charters, work breakdown structures, risk registers, and the like, are complete to some blanket standard, senior managers need to make certain the intent and content of these artifacts indicate the project's product is delivering the appropriate value. This goes far beyond the question "Is this document complete?" The question needs to be, "Does the document and its content add value?" If the document fails to do this, the project is heading the wrong direction. Project executives need to continually monitor value using all means available and realign projects that are not providing sufficient value or cancel them.
The Key is Value
There is no mathematical model for value. Like beauty, the eye of the beholder plays a significant role. It is not a ratio of what should have expended on the project compared to the expectations. A project can nicely meet those parameters and never meet the needs of the customer. Rather, value is the aggregate of the tangible and intangible, measurable and immeasurable benefits from its product. It includes how people feel about the project, the deliverable, ease of use, and the project is adopted.
One method to achieve this is enabling the project team to be involved with the customer earlier. Whether internal or external, early engagement with the customer points out subtle distinctions in their requests that can make the difference in providing value. In many cases, the limiting factor is the project team's managers. They are either too worried about the expense of such an endeavor or they are concerned about individuals stepping out of their roles and interacting with a customer.
In reality, executives do not need to be involved in every project—they need to be involved in any project where the impact of its failure is above the company's risk threshold. This is different for every company. For small companies that may mean involvement in every project and for multi-billion dollar corporations that may only be a select few. Top management is the group that has to agree to and sign-off on the risk. As risk attributes change, risks morph into issues, and new risks arise, they are the ones that need to re-assess the impact on the business. Without their continual, objective focus on the project's risk, mitigations will be missing, contingencies inadequate, and projects will fall into disrepair.
Executives cannot abdicate accountability. They are the ones who ultimately set direction, ensure that it is being followed, and commit resources to achieve it. They can delegate the actions and in doing so accept the consequences if their vision is not followed. This trust must, on occasion, be verified and validated against the changing winds of the business climate. Failure to do so will produce projects devoid of value.
And Your Experience?
How have executives supported you or, maybe even, let you down. Please, let's hear your thoughts.