Ready, Set, Stretch
The Next Step up on the Career Ladder Might Be Just outside Your Comfort Zone
BY ASHLEY BISHEL
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE MURRAY
A static skill set can guarantee a static career. But for project professionals eager to be recognized, get promoted or take on more ambitious and complex projects, an expansive skill set is a hot commodity in today's job market.
More than 1 in 3 CEOs report that the availability of key skills is a top threat to business growth in 2019, according to PwC's Global CEO Survey. The skills dearth is a major concern, and only regulation and policy uncertainty are keeping more top executives up at night.
What an organization wants—and what will help a project or program manager make the next career leap—is hardly universal, says Sagarika Basak, PMP, IT project manager consultant, Alshaya Enterprises, London, England. Spotting an organizational deficit around a certain skill may require talking to a manager or consulting the project management office. Recognizing a personal skills gap, on the other hand, is often as straightforward as leaning into the most challenging part of the current role.
Challenge: Strong organizational skills and technical know-how have enabled Cecilia Jalmasco, PMP, to thrive as a project manager. But, “I'm a born introvert,” she says. “Communicating my thoughts has always been a challenge.”
When leading in-person meetings, she'd tend to focus more on keeping the minutes brief than making sure the message was perfectly clear. And even the idea of presenting to senior co-workers could kickstart her nerves, says Ms. Jalmasco, project manager, NDU White Cup Nestle R&D Center, Singapore.
More than once, she realized her aversion to detailed meetings and presentations caused a team miscommunication—even threatening a project's timeline. To step up her career, she decided, she'd have to push past her presentation nerves.
Action plan: First, Ms. Jalmasco looked for colleagues who were communication whizzes and asked to sit in on a few of their presentations. The marketing department had an abundance of strong presenters who were all too happy to have a silent observer at team meetings.
“I closely observed people who were influential and how they tailored their messaging depending on the crowd,” she says. She also watched presentation videos on LinkedIn, jotting down tips “from any credible source I could find.” Ms. Jalmasco then made an effort to apply the same strategies to her own team meetings.
—Cecilia Jalmasco, PMP, NDU White Cup Nestle R&D Center, Singapore
Payoff: With practice, she's found it easier to distill technical jargon into layman's terms or translate a complicated contingency budget breakdown into a few key sound bites that a project sponsor can engage with. She also made a point of asking for feedback after certain meetings and gracefully accepting input from her line manager. “I also gauge growth by how well the team performs,” Ms. Jalmasco says. If the team's actions align with her asks, she knows her presentation style wasn't an impediment to the project's success.
Challenge: With a project background that spans from sustainable development in mining to financial sector regulation, Nerago Ndoroma, PMP, is no stranger to diverse challenges. But this breadth of experience means she's also learned that identifying—and filling—any sector-specific skills gaps is crucial at the project's outset.
“Adaptability for me is key, as more often than not, any project I embark on will contain some sort of industry-specific stretch factor,” says Ms. Ndoroma, project manager consultant and lecturer at the Namibian University of Science and Technology, Windhoek, Namibia. “There is always an element of, ‘Hmm…how do I go about this?’ at the start, and then I set about identifying what knowledge or skills I need to acquire to fulfill that particular assignment.”
—Nerago Ndoroma, PMP, Namibian University of Science and Technology, Windhoek, Namibia
When overseeing large-scale change initiatives, for instance, there often isn't much time to devote to industry background research. “Sometimes I literally need to learn as I execute the project plan,” she says.
Action plan: Ms. Ndoroma often takes a two-pronged approach to accelerated skills acquisition. For one, she identifies mentors who are experts in the field to answer targeted questions. She also casts a wide net for lessons learned, studying how others have completed similar projects. For multiyear projects, she'll even make in-person visits to regulators, for instance, to learn about the processes they followed and use information about any challenges they faced to further hone her action plan and personal skills plan.
Payoff: Being able to rapidly dive deep on an industry-specific project is a skill Ms. Ndoroma credits with advancing her career. “More and more, I am being called to join project teams as a change management practitioner, as well as to teach about my experiences, which would not have happened without stretching my skill set,” she says.
Challenge: From providing more clarity in communication to receiving less pushback, there are many situations in which assertive behavior can benefit project professionals, says Ms. Basak. But assertive behavior comes more naturally to some than others, and professional women often feel pressure to conform to gender stereotypes that pin them into agreeable positions. That reality hit home for her during a mundane moment of emailing.
“I was responding to an email jointly with a male colleague, and I saw we had completely different approaches,” she says. That disparity spanned everything from the bluntness of stating a task deadline to the solicitation for feedback. “As a professional, I realized that if I want to make progress in my career, I needed to be more assertive and challenge stereotypes.”
Action plan: While general leadership courses are available through academic institutions and professional associations, Ms. Basak sought to strengthen a very particular sub-skill: commanding authority on project-related emails. To that end, she reached out to trusted mentors for advice and identified female colleagues who had strong communication styles in the hopes of following in their footsteps.
She enlisted another colleague to review and revise her emails as she put practice into action. Ms. Basak began by making small changes, such as adding statements of fact in place of gentle suggestions. “It was very difficult in the initial stages, as I had to change my behavior,” she says. “But people began to realize that I'm not a person who will behave like a doormat.”
—Sagarika Basak, PMP, Alshaya Enterprises, London, England
Payoff: Ms. Basak's manager soon noticed her more assertive communications and complimented her management skills. Ms. Basak believes she was offered a lucrative project—developing a website for a leading retail brand—because of her decision to grow her assertive style. “The effort was very rewarding,” she says.
Power of Persuasion
Challenge: As an engineering student, Christopher Burner assumed soft skills took a back seat to the technical. “I believed I just needed to know how to design whatever it was that I would be designing,” he says. But that technical-trumps-all mentality didn't work in the workforce—where even the most impressive work breakdown structures and risk registers could fall flat without the right soft skills to get stakeholders on board.
“I quickly learned how important it was to have good persuasive writing skills,” says Mr. Burner, chief project officer, Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, Monrovia, California, USA.
When the contract manager abruptly left, for instance, he had to take on those responsibilities overnight—including writing numerous letters to external stakeholders presenting the organization's position in a compelling way. “For the project to succeed, I had no other choice but to work at it—and fast,” he says.
Action plan: Mr. Burner approached the skills stretch much like a project, mining the organization's knowledge library for past examples of persuasive writing. He also leaned on his manager, who provided both hands-on guidance and ample encouragement.
Payoff: As his persuasion skills improved, Mr. Burner noticed the responses the team received from external stakeholders improved as well. Still, strengthening his skills wasn't limited to that one project. He estimates that it was a full 18 months before he was confident in his newfound skill set. But “without these skills, I would definitely not have the position I have,” he says. PM
—Christopher Burner, Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, Monrovia, California, USA
Here are two ways project professionals can make skills improvement a priority:
STUDY THE SMALL STUFF
Don't wait around for a formal performance review to consider any skills gaps—and how to close them. Instead, soak up even the smallest tips and insights from all sorts of sources, says Cecilia Jalmasco, PMP, project manager, NDU White Cup Nestle R&D Center, Singapore. “Books, webcasts, podcasts, anecdotes—anything can be helpful” when someone's in a stretch mindset, she says.
EMBRACE THE EFFORT
Skills-building, like exercise, isn't always easy. But knowing upfront that growth can sometimes be uncomfortable or frustrating can make the process easier to weather, says Nerago Ndoroma, PMP, project manager consultant and lecturer at the Namibian University of Science and Technology, Windhoek, Namibia. “Never shy away from embarking on a project that is outside of your comfort zone. We learn through experience, and the only way experience is gained is by pushing your own boundaries.”
With a potential economic recession on the horizon, CEOs are worried about finding or developing people with the right skill set—stat.
What happens when critical skills are missing from in-house teams? CEOs weigh in.
How executives plan to bridge the skills gap—and how receptive they might be to in-house training programs and continuing education credits—depends, in part, on where the organization is located. CEOs report the following are important:
Source: 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey, PwC, 2019