Bridge your skills gap
To advance up the career ladder, project professionals must identify their weaknesses—then eliminate them.
BY MATT ALDERTON
PHOTOS BY ZED NELSON
Moyra Wright, PMP, Hemsley Fraser Group, Saltash, England
PICTURE A CLOGGED KITCHEN SINK.
If you overestimate your abilities and insist on fixing the problem yourself, rather than calling a plumber, that clog can eat up major time and money—and still turn your kitchen floor into a sea of water.
This home improvement nightmare is a cautionary tale for project professionals: Without the ability to recognize the skills you lack and those you possess, a project easily can spin down the drain. Your career is no different. Poor self-awareness can keep you from developing the skills you need to move up the ladder.
“It's absolutely key that you know yourself,” says Moyra Wright, PMP, senior consultant and head of project management training services at Hemsley Fraser Group, Saltash, England.
Indeed, a growing talent gap means project professionals with the right skills are in high demand. Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of respondents to PwC's 2012 Global CEO Survey said they delayed or canceled a key strategic initiative due to talent constraints; 29 percent said those constraints prevented the organization from pursuing a market opportunity. And a Career-Builder survey found that 31 percent of U.S. employers currently have jobs for which they can't find qualified employees.
“Project managers who are not identifying and improving their weaknesses won't survive,” says Robert Francki, global managing director of the Project Delivery Group at Hatch Ltd., a global consulting, engineering, and project and construction management firm based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
Which Skills Matter Most?
Before improving technical skills, project managers should focus on developing people skills such as communication, negotiation, leadership and conflict resolution, says Paul Dolman-Darrall, Emergn, London, England.
If you're bad at budgeting, for example, you likely have a teammate who's good at it and who can help fill the skills gap. But if you're a poor communicator, the entire team suffers.
Still, don't neglect technical development, especially if you work on long-term projects. “Normally, most projects must stick with the toolkits that were loaded onto the system at the beginning of the project,” says Robert Francki, Hatch, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. “If a project manager has been working on a major project from anywhere from three to six years, there's a fair chance that he or she will need to be refreshed on the latest set of systems before the next assignment.”
For project managers, therefore, it stands to reason: Opportunities are plentiful for candidates who take the initiative to proactively find—and then fix—their flaws.
Plato's ancient aphorism still resonates today as valuable advice for project professionals.
“Only by knowing our imperfections can we actually take steps to address them,” says Ms. Wright.
The problem is, people rarely see their own flaws. “Self-assessment is always hard. It's sort of like trying to see the back of your head,” says Stephen Granade, PMP, director of projects at Advanced Optical Systems Inc. in Huntsville, Alabama, USA.
These three strategies can make the self-assessment process objective and informative:
1. Use a self-evaluation form. The easiest way to assess your skills is with a written self-evaluation, either downloaded from the Internet or created based on your job description, says Yodchai Apisitpisarn, PMP, general manager of PSI Solutions Co. Ltd., a Bangkok, Thailand-based project management training and consulting firm. A sample question might be, “Do I know how to analyze risk probability and impact?”
But because true self-assessment is difficult, a self-evaluation should be used as a jumping-off point for the next two steps.
2. Evaluate your projects. Mr. Francki recommends self-assessments that focus on competencies within a given project rather than overall skill sets. “To me, self-assessment has to be connected to what actually happened on a project,” he says. “If you're really trying to improve your skills, you have to ask yourself what parts of a project didn't go according to plan and how those can be traced back to your actions as a project manager.”
Construction project manager Casey Sledge, president and CEO of Sledge Engineering LLC, Austin, Texas, USA, recommends involving project stakeholders in this step. “Do your best to find out if your projects are perceived as successful,” he says. “Would the stakeholders go out of their way to have you as a project manager again? Would they recommend you to others? If the answers are less than desired, try to determine the reasons.”
3. Have peers ask tough questions. Peer evaluations can be more effective than self-assessments, says Paul Dolman-Darrall, executive vice president of global delivery and strategy in the London, England office of Emergn, a global professional services firm. They can be formal, written or electronic surveys, or informal, face-to-face conversations between meetings.
“Reach out to the different people with whom you work—senior managers, day-to-day stakeholders, other project managers—and ask them hard questions like, ‘Does my relationship with you work?’ and ‘How do you think I manage issues?’” he says.
SPINNING STRAW INTO GOLD
If you don't take the next step and use your newfound self-awareness to actually improve your skills, you'll quickly fall behind the curve. “Failure to improve is a failure to adapt, and a failure to adapt will end up in very negative consequences for your projects, yourself and your company,” Mr. Dolman-Darrall says.
Proactively address your weaknesses by approaching them the same way you'd approach a project, complete with milestones, deliverables and deadlines.
While a self-improvement plan can include any number of action items, some of the most effective are:
Take a class. Some people like e-learning because they can get just-in-time training at their convenience, Ms. Wright says. However, keep in mind that the interaction and peer-group learning experiences that come with face-to-face learning may be more effective in the long run.
Get credentialed. “The biggest gut check for me was preparing for and taking the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential exam,” Mr. Granade says. “That showed me where I was strong and where I was weak.” When scores from the exam revealed he was weakest in risk management, he made plans to spend the next year improving his understanding and application of those skills.
Find a mentor: Mentors and coaches can offer personalized instruction and immediate, real-time feedback, Ms. Wright says. The best mentors, Mr. Francki adds, are typically former project managers who are now senior executives. They understand where project managers are coming from, where they want to go and what it takes to get there.
How Organizations Can Help
In 2011, global management consultancy Accenture surveyed 1,088 U.S. workers and found that 55 percent felt pressure to develop new skills to be successful in their current and future jobs. Yet only 21 percent said they've acquired new skills through company-provided formal training during the past five years.
Similarly, 68 percent of respondents believed it is primarily their own responsibility to update their skills. Furthermore, only 53 percent of unemployed workers say they understand the skills likely to be in demand in the next five years.
The bottom line: Employers should not assume workers have the resources or knowledge to acquire needed skills. They can help by implementing enterprise-level evaluation and training efforts, such as:
• Training libraries: To continually engage its project managers in self-assessment and development, engineering and construction firm Hatch has spent years assembling an on-demand collection of online training courses and programs, known as the Hatch Corporate Learning Center, says Robert Francki, Hatch, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
• Team-wide assessments: Companies can conduct a team-wide appraisal of their project managers by asking a series of standardized questions that allow employers to establish and address strengths and weaknesses at both the individual and organizational levels, says Peter Schmidt, PMP, ESI International, Arlington, Virginia, USA.
• Education events: Mr. Schmidt suggests organizing a “brown bag” club: Once a month, employees bring a bag lunch and discuss education topics or listen to a guest speaker to inspire them to think about their own competencies and goals, as well as evolving trends in the field.
Job rotation and job shadowing programs can be good alternatives to mentorships, Mr. Apisitpisarn says. You could even conduct a structured interview with an expert in order to borrow from their knowledge of a needed skill or subject.
Practice new skills. Mr. Dolman-Darrall suggests looking for everyday opportunities to strengthen your weaknesses. If you want to get better at public speaking, for example, ask for the opportunity to lead more meetings or offer to give a toast at the company's next social event. Let your colleagues in on your plan, too; if they know up front that you're trying to improve a weakness, they'll be more likely to support, rather than lament, your performance.
Whatever your self-improvement plan looks like, make sure it's tailored to your individual learning style—whether you're a visual, verbal, aural or physical learner, and whether you do better alone or in a group, Mr. Granade says.
No matter what type of learner you are, remember: No one is perfect, but that shouldn't stop you from pursuing perfection. “We all have imperfections,” Ms. Wright says. “We can't thoroughly rid ourselves of them, but as project managers, we must address and manage them.” PM
“Only by knowing our imperfections can we actually take steps to address them.”
—Moyra Wright, PMP, Hemsley Fraser Group, Saltash, England
PM NETWORK AUGUST 2012 WWW.PMI.ORG
AUGUST 2012 PM NETWORK