Selected by PMI as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World, Michelle LaBrosse is only one of two women selected from the training and education industry.
Michelle LaBrosse, Founder and CEO of Cheetah Learning is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program and also holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton. In October 2008, The Project Management Institute (PMI), recognized Cheetah as the Professional Development Provider of the Year. She is the author of Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, and Cheetah Know How
In a wide-ranging interview with Carla Fair-Wright, Michelle LaBrosse shares lessons on project management, business, and life.
[Fair-Wright] What inspired you to go into project management?
[LaBrosse] I was working as a Research Scientist in Aerospace Engineering for a large multi-national company in Connecticut. We had 150 Research Scientists and Engineers, with 250 different ways of managing projects. Every project took far longer to do, and most did not achieve their intended results. It seemed like such a waste of human potential. One of my side projects was improving how we developed and delivered skills-based education to the staff. I worked with several research labs at Stanford University and MIT who were working on innovative ways of quickly educating adults in fast-changing environments. I was also taking courses to develop accelerated learning programs at the same time. I realized that if we could create more effective ways of managing projects using accelerated learning, we could make a huge difference in not just productivity, but also with personal achievement as well. I set out to test out my ideas with the scientists and engineers with this one day approach to learn how to do a very effective method for managing projects (It’s now called Cheetah Project Management). After a year, I was teaching this program for several of the corporations under the umbrella of this large multinational. The Research Division though didn’t like that this training course was getting well known and wanted to maintain their reputation in research. They offered me a position back doing research in my core specialty or I was welcome to take what I had created and go out on my own. We all know which choice I made.
[LaBrosse] After I left the Research Center, I wrote a book about the Project Management methodology I had created using accelerated learning techniques. The book is called Cheetah Project Management. I knew to be taken seriously in the PM field, I needed to become a PMP. I looked at the current methods of preparing people to pass the PMP - most people were spending from six months to 2 years preparing and 40% were failing. It seemed like a lot of time based on the concepts and structure of the PMBOK (which is actually organized quite well for an accelerated learning application). I had devised a number of test taking strategies becoming an Aerospace Engineer that I knew we could use these combined with accelerated learning to significantly reduce people’s prep time and improve the passing rate. I tested these ideas out and they proved to be quite effective for others besides just for me to pass my Aerospace Engineering exams. To date, we’ve helped close to 80,000 people get and keep their PMP certification.
[Fair-Wright] Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career?
[LaBrosse] I raised my children alone – as a single mom. When I got divorced, I moved across the country to be closer to my parents – it was tough enough juggling my career and being a single parent. I became great friends with my parents. So many times we take these very significant family relationships for granted. My parents are gone now and my children are grown. While I did very much appreciate my family, I put a tremendous amount of time and focus on growing Cheetah Learning. If I could do anything over in my career, I would put more boundaries around spending time with my family. I allowed the urgent business of the day and the needs of Cheetah staff to take precedent more often than I care to remember over spending time with my family. I’m older and wiser and that is one piece of advice I’d give to working parents – never apologize or compromise time with your children or your family. If your employer or employees make it difficult for you to be there for your family – find a new employer or employees.
[Fair-Wright] Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?
[LaBrosse] Yes, I primarily experience advantages. I can run a company that allows people to have a work-life balance. As a woman, I don’t feel as constrained by the conventions of doing business. I went to Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managed (OPM) program and it was shocking to me how my classmates constrained their day to day operations based on conventional thinking for being in business. I find people are far more productive when they are allowed a more flexible working situation. Everyone benefits. Since I am also an Air Force Veteran and an Aerospace Engineer, I don’t feel I have as many disadvantages as other women in business – I have strong credentials that help me stay above the fray of standard women and minority challenges.
[Fair-Wright] What is one leadership lesson you've learned in your career?
[LaBrosse] Take the hard courses, keep learning, and create the life you want to live on your terms, not others.
The Resonant Project Manager
YouTube: The Resonant Project Manager
As project managers, we are taught to focus on scope, schedule, and budget. However, studies have shown the main reasons for project failure is almost never purely technical. When we dig deeper into the common sources of project failure, we find it’s rarely a shortfall in technical expertise, but rather a shortcoming in the project leadership’s interpersonal, communication, and self-management behaviors.
Leadership is the key to project success and the path to effective and sustainable leadership is through resonance. Resonance can be defined as the transfer of a positive emotional state from one person to another. Dissonance is the transference of a negative state. Cognitive research has shown that positive emotions increase productivity and boast the immune system. It generates more creative thinking and improves performance.
The attributes of a successful project manager consists of both hard skills and soft skills. The term “soft skills” is a holdover from the Tayloristic approach to management that has permeated organizations for close to one hundred years. In this model, only technical, easily measurable skills and IQ are valued, while technical skills and intellect are important, the research is conclusive: emotional intelligence competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management are at the heart of leadership effectiveness— and business success.
Hard skills are technical and specific abilities such as organizing and managing project staff, creating and maintaining the project budgets, developing work plans and schedules, defining project scope, tracking milestones and deliverable deadlines, addressing and handling project risks and issues. These types of skills can be taught and are easy to quantify. Soft skills are subjective and difficult to define. Soft skills are relationship based and focus on interactions with people such as conflict resolution, communication, listening, and motivating. As managers, we spend about 90 percent of our time on communication.
Importance of Soft Skills
Tips for Effective Communications for Project Managers - Interview with Brent Boynton
Great interview with Emmy-nominated television journalist Brent Boynton on effective communications for project managers. Brent will be the featured speaker at PMI Northern Nevada Chapter's September Meeting. (Sep 2016)