The Mediterranean project manager: Learning from masters of thought and action

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Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI Fellow

Managing Partner, BUCERO PM Consulting

Walter Ginevri, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, PMI-ACP

Managing Partner, PM for Complexity

If you want to be successful as a project manager, or to make a positive impact on your projects, you need to develop your ability to learn. In fact, every project is a learning process for every project manager. We all know history is an unlimited and indispensable source, not only to comprehend the current world, but also to capitalize on its lessons in our private and professional life. Starting from this awareness, we decided to reflect upon the distinctive skills of the 21st century project manager. The purpose of this paper is to emphasize that if you want to learn as a project manager, you need to observe. We can learn from what our masters did over the years through detailed observation about their lives, acts, and achievements, and also from their mistakes.

Introduction

On the basis of our past experiences, we shared the following convictions: First of all, we think that project management is not a single technical discipline, but a universal language of doing things through collaboration and communication— the meeting point between scientific and humanistic knowledge. Second, being born in Spain and Italy respectively, we look at the area of the Mediterranean Sea as a great source of inspiration, in fact it has been the meeting point between western and eastern culture. Last but not least, we believe that leading by example is the best roadmap for those project managers who aim at leading their teams within uncertain and continuously changing contexts. Through our personal selection of the masters of thought and action who lived around the “Mare Nostrum,” we have depicted the profile of the “Mediterranean Project Manager.”

The Project Manager as a Special Breed of People

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, and techniques to execute projects efficiently and effectively. Project management is all about people. Project managers are a special breed of people who need to deal with complex situations in projects. Each day brings new challenges and risks. So every project manager needs to develop the right set of skills to do their job in the most efficient way. In order to do that, we strongly believe that every project manager needs to be an observer and learn from the masters. Over the years we have observed repeatable behaviors in leaders from whom we can learn. It takes time, passion, persistence, and patience, but every project manager can do it. It is possible and worthy.

Our Mediterranean Masters

I (Bucero) defend that everybody could be your teacher. I have talked to my colleague Walter several times regarding how we would be able to learn from our masters. Both of us love history and philosophy; we had the opportunity to work together as PMI volunteers over the years. We discovered our chemistry works very well. Then we talked in New Orleans (at the PMI Congress last year) about “Why not to write a book together about those common experiences”? (Bucero). Perhaps it may be better to collect those experiences first in order to share them with the global community of project managers in a PMI Congress (Walter). Then we decided to meet in Milan one weekend last April to work on those ideas, and we discovered that we had many stories to tell to the project management audience (Ginevri). In fact we dedicated a full evening to review the characteristics of our “Masters.” It was very interesting to see how the skills they developed in their lives were so valid to learn as a project manager. The mix between people, organization, and integration skills that defines “The Complete Project Manager” (Englund & Bucero, 2012) is a process that never ends in the project management career development. I (Bucero) verified, one more time, that as experienced project managers we need to be good “behavior observers.” When reading the biographies from the masters below, we told each other: “we can learn a lot from them, let’s do it.” We identified sixteen masters, but the list may be longer:

The Masters of thought and action

Exhibit 1 – The Masters of thought and action

That masters’ identification is not only possible in the Mediterranean culture; we would like to encourage professional project managers to do the same in their different regions and cultures. The project manager learning process never ends. We all are human beings with fantastic learning possibilities that should not be lost. We will do it establishing by a dialogue among us.

What Can We Learn from Dante Alighieri?

Walter, why talk about Dante (Bucero)? Dante provided us with the idea of taking responsibility. I can mention that Dante in his Divine Comedy explains that he put miserable people outside of hell, just at the door. He believed they did not deserve to be inside because they never were responsible for their actions (either bad or good). So the project managers need to take responsibility for their actions when managing projects (Walter). I managed a project in the north of Spain when I worked for Hewlett Packard in Spain, and after the project started my father became very ill. My father encouraged me to continue managing the project because it was far away from home and I was the project manager. I needed to make a decision between giving up the project and staying with my father, but finally I continued managing the project and I was with my father during the weekends. It was hard personally, but on the other hand I had the responsibility of making this project successful, and it was. The most important thing is not to lie yourself, be honest, and not hypocritical. Applying the ethics of responsibility mainly depends upon what we omit to do. Within this context, hypocrisy is one of the most serious and inexcusable sins.

What Can We Learn from Socrates?

What about to come back to the Greek culture (Alfonso)? Great, I’m thinking about Socrates, who was a great philosopher (Walter). Okay, but what is the alignment between a philosopher and a project manager (Alfonso)? Well, in my opinion there is a strong connection because a project manager needs to explore uncertainty when managing projects and a philosopher needs to explore the uncertainty for managing life (Walter). I fully agree, in fact our life is a project that needs to be managed (Alfonso). One of the most well-known statements from Socrates is: “I know that I know nothing” (Walter). Great sentence: the project manager needs to be aware of the “knowns and unknowns” all the time during the project life cycle. I (Bucero) can remember when managing my first project in the IT industry counting on a team of seven people who were older and more experienced than I. I did not have enough experience to manage that project, but I was humble and recognized that I did not know how to do it, so I asked them for help. After some months I knew more and more in some fields and I did not know many things in other aspects. It is also part of the learning process.

Establishing a trusted relationship with the team implies two self-commitments: knowing ourselves and starting from our doubts in order to build our certainties. Socrates was also the father of the oratory. Every project manager can learn from Socrates. Communication, speaking in front of the public, is a key skill to be developed by any complete project manager.

What Can We Learn from Francis of Assisi?

Saint Francis of Assissi was characterized by his humility. He lived in poverty most of his life. He loved all kinds of people in a humble way. People said that when walking with his colleagues, he asked them to stop to talk with the birds (Walter). I (Bucero) believe that practicing humility as a distinctive skill of a true leader, because it is the foundation of all other virtues. The project manager needs to serve his or her team members and stakeholders showing them that he or she cares for them. The sentence from the Elvis Presley song: I want you, I need you, and I love you is part of my philosophy as a project manager. Francis of Assisi lived in poverty all his life and had the purpose of serving and loving people. We strongly believe that project managers need to practice humility in front of their project stakeholders.

What Can We Learn from Christopher Columbus?

Can Columbus be considered a master (Walter)? Yes, of course, he conquered a sponsor, not only through an individual endeavor, but as result of a patient construction of relationships with key stakeholders. Christopher Columbus (born in Genoa) tried to get funded for his project (discovering a new world) several times from Portugal, but was refused because of lack of credibility (Walter). He used his persistence and patience and he continued looking for his project sponsor. After four years of negotiation and using better and better arguments, he got Isabel and Fernando from Spain to be his sponsors. He combined his political experience with good technical arguments as a navigator and got his sponsors’ buy-in. Getting sponsorship takes a lot of time, patience, and persistence (Bucero). Let’s learn patience and persistence from Columbus’s example. Get prepared to negotiate with your sponsors and believe in your project were the main lessons learned from Columbus.

What Can We Learn from Emperor Trajan?

Trajan used his abilities, not only by carrying out challenging projects, but also by contributing to the social good. Trajan was a great leader who cared of people. He started several projects for social good (Walter). I know; he was worried about providing citizens by social benefits. He ordered the construction of great public buildings to the benefit of the citizens. He treated his citizens in his empire as he wanted to be treated. It is one of his most well-known sentences (Bucero). His work has been recognized worldwide during more than two thousand years. He was also a conqueror, a dreamer, and most of times converted his vision into a reality. It is amazing how we, as project managers, can learn from Trajan about dealing with people (respect, love and caring, social good, and a better future). He was an example of leadership and people caring.

What Can We Learn from Leonardo da Vinci?

We can learn about making every effort to apply systemic thinking, verifying the knowledge through experience, and learning from mistakes from Leonardo da Vinci (Walter). Leonardo was one of the most well-known geniuses in history. He passed his life dreaming, creating, testing, and validating his ideas. He was an authentic master from we all can learn. He was able to combine hard and soft skills from very early in his life. Using the left and right brain is a good skill to be developed by a complete project manager (Bucero). Creativity is another skill that we may learn from Leonardo. A complete project manager needs to execute his or her creativity in order to manage projects and people effectively and efficiently (Walter). Everybody can be our teacher; we need to learn in every project.

What Can We Learn from Ulysses?

Every project is an uncertain adventure that needs to be planned. When studying Greek history we can see that Ulysses considered the project as a human adventure, thanks to which we can keep in touch with diversity and build our own identity and knowledge (Walter). The twenty-first century project manager needs to manage locally but act globally. More and more we need to work with other cultures, understand other patterns, behaviors, and perceptions; we need to speak at least two languages. We need to understand people to lead them better. I (Bucero) consider myself a lucky man because I’m delivering project management service worldwide. That circumstance allows me to meet different people from different cultures very frequently. Having different feedback, input, and ideas is the richest asset you can have in life as a project professional. Reflect upon if you are ready to do it. We guess your answer will be yes.

What can we learn from Jeanne of Arc?

I (Walter) believed that Jeanne of Arc was a courageous leader who believed in her cause. She defended her country and its freedom; she looked for justice during war times over the years. She overcame any lack of technical knowledge through the ability of addressing people’s behaviors toward an ambitious goal. She continuously used her persistence and passion to achieve her goals. She found a lot of difficulties in her life; she was politically savvy dealing with kings and politicians. She was able to influence people to achieve her objectives. The project manager could take this example and learn about the “willing to” dedication and service from Jeanne of Arc.

What Can We Learn from Don Quixote?

But Don Quixote is an imaginary character, isn’t he (Walter)? Yes, but he is an example of the power of imagination and dreaming. He had a clear mission: “to find the ideal wife.” His life was an adventure; in fact, it was a great project to manage with a small team but with several stakeholders to influence, where obstacles, issues, problems and uncertainties were happening throughout (Bucero). Don Quixote had a mission and a purpose to achieve and converted that into reality. We can learn a lot from the story of Don Quixotes. We, as project managers, need to dream and use our imagination in order to achieve great objectives and influence people positively. Every project is a quest. Acting a little bit like Don Quixote is a challenge in order to achieve great things.

What Can We Learn from Pablo Picasso?

Pablo Picasso was a painter. He was an artist. Do you believe that a project manager is an artist (Bucero)? I believe that any project manager needs to be an innovator, and Pablo Picasso may be considered the king of the innovation. He transformed his paintings using another framework to represent the reality. He is an example about thinking outside of the box (Walter). Okay, it is interesting because the project manager needs to put the other people’s shoes, in order to understand the feelings of his team members, customers and other stakeholders. We strongly believe that all of us can learn about innovation from Pablo Picasso (Bucero).

What Can We Learn from Henry VIII?

Is Henry VIII a good example to use from the project manager perspective (Walter)? Henry VIII managed several change management projects. But he did not come from the Mediterranean (Alfonso). Yes, you’re right, but he married several ladies who came from France, Portugal, and Spain (Walter). He changed some government rules; he dealt with political alliances and coalitions in order to ensure his succession. He knew how to deal with politics for project success. I (Bucero) believe that he knew how to use his power and authority, but also he was a good political influencer and strategist. He got married six times to look for his succession. Change management skills are one of the key skills a project manager needs to develop. Politics are part of any project and we could learn from Henry VIII the importance of dealing with politics, and preparing a political plan, taking time to analyze in a detailed way all of our stakeholders.

What Can We Learn from Napoleon?

Napoleon was a great leader, strategist—a passionate and hard working person (Bucero). But Napoleon was a general— nothing related to project management (Bucero). Napoleon inserted the ideas of fraternity, freedom, and equality in all the countries he conquered. He knew how to motivate his troops. People respected and believed in him. He took care of his followers all the time; he knew the name from many of his soldiers (Walter). I (Bucero) believe that we can learn from him about managing team members and stakeholders properly. Managing people is showing them truth, care, love, and respect. Those are key virtues for great leaders. We need to serve people; we need to give them the benefit of the doubt, and following that principle, I got great results when managing projects in organizations.

What Can We Learn from Philip II of Spain?

Philip II of Spain is shown as a very hard working, intelligent, religious, somewhat paranoid ruler whose prime concern is his country but who had no understanding of the English, despite his former co-monarchy there. Even in countries that remained Catholic, primarily France and the Italian states, fear and envy of Spanish success and domination created a wide receptiveness for the worst possible descriptions of Philip II (Bucero). Although some efforts have been made to separate legend from reality, that task has been proven to be extremely hard, since many prejudices are rooted in the cultural heritage of European countries. Was it Philip II of Spain who ordered the construction of a monastery (Walter)? Yes, indeed, he ordered the construction of the monastery: “El Escorial,” in the city of El Escorial. It took 21 years to be built, but the patience and persistence of Philip II was amazing. He dealt with political obstacles and wars, but he achieved his goal. We, as project managers may learn the need of studying other languages because we need to manage projects worldwide, but also we need to cultivate our patience and persistence managing projects.

What Can We Learn from Attila?

Attila is known as the power of command (Bucero). But Attila was a warrior, wasn’t he (Walter)? Yes, Attila was known as a cruel and generous person at the same time by his allies. He was able to create some guided coalitions, but as a great leader had some followers and some enemies. The characteristics of determination and generosity gave him a great empire (Bucero). We may learn from Attila, not the cruel part, but the generous part that can help the project manager to develop his or her influence skills by the power of giving and taking. The generous principle consists of giving and taking. And it is one of the keys to influence people in project management.

What Can We Learn from Charles III?

Charles III of Spain provided intelligent leadership. He was able to choose the right ministers to produce social benefits and results. He was known as the Major’s King (Bucero). You told me that he managed a lot of construction projects to the benefit of society (Walter). Yes he did, and he also promoted investigation and research activities, encouraging citizens to participate. We may learn leadership, generosity, and willingness from him. He was an amazing king (Bucero). I believe that we, as project managers, not only need to manage successful projects, but we must also contribute to social good. It is part of our professional responsibility.

What Can We Learn from Cleopatra?

Cleopatra was a queen who was able to speak several languages; she was very intelligent and pretty at the same time. Why are you mentioning Cleopatra as one of our masters (Walter)? Cleopatra was not only a queen; one of her characteristics was to be politically savvy. In fact, through her political skills, she avoided conflicts between the Roman and Egyptian empires. She lived with Marco Antonio and had a son with him. She was very good in international relations. She cultivated her relations with the Roman Empire, and she achieved very good results and some territory concessions. We, as project managers need to develop our skills in international relations; we are becoming more and more international project managers. There are no borders for the project manager. Attending PMI Congresses is one of the first steps we suggest you to follow, but it is a never ending process.

Lessons Learned Process

Are you ready to learn? Never is late. You need to develop your soft skills more and more over the years. Do not lose your time and start right now. The process we followed consists of several steps that we suggest to you, but perhaps you can add some more:

  1. Read historical biographies about whom you believe may be a Master for you
  2. Analyze his or her skills
  3. Try to match those skills with the standard profile a project manager needs to have
  4. Ask for feedback and input to your peers

Any project manager can learn from history, regardless the area of the world you live in. You can learn, so you need to move forward. Today is a good day to start. Please move forward, follow this process and try to improve it.

Summary

  • Building a whole set of soft skills is difficult, but not impossible. You need to use time to analyze where you are in your process of development as a project manager, and then you need to prepare your plan to improve.
  • Observe your masters and try to figure out what their main skills were.
  • Analyze and try to match the master skills with your skills in order to be able to fill the gap.
  • Ask for feedback to your managers and peers, and listen to them.
  • Take action; everybody can manage projects better, so can you.
  • Your development career never ends; spend some time preparing your action plans to improve.
  • Observe, observe, and observe; anybody may be your teacher.
  • It’s never too late; take action now.

Bucero, A. (2013 May). You will influence better if you understand people. Project Connections Blog. Retrieved from www.projectconnections.com

Englund, R. L., & Bucero, A. (2012). The complete project manager: Integrating people, organizational, and technical skills. Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press.

Graham, R. J., & Englund, R. L. (2004). Creating an environment for successful projects. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Alfonso Bucero
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA

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