The six essential skills that define project, program and portfolio leaders


Joseph Czarnecki, MSP, SCPM, PMP

You're a Project Management Professional® (PMP)® with some experience under your belt. Maybe you have led a major project and applied some leadership skills to your assignments. But something tells you there is more out there than just the mechanics of your job. You have ideas worth spreading that require a certain set of skills that you have yet to master.

Do you want to move beyond the technical inner workings of your profession to be able to see, understand, and innovate within the bigger picture? These six essential strategic business skills will take you from being a tactical mechanic to a leader in project, program or portfolio management (PPPM).

The essential element to becoming a leader is the capacity to see and activate the links that align strategy and execution. To succeed, you need to zoom in your perspective, in order to focus on the details—and zoom out, in order to keep an eye on the bigger picture. The key lies in perfecting the technique and implementing a higher-order approach that considers project-based work within the context of the overall business.

The strategic execution framework (SEF) (see Exhibit 1), developed by Dr. Raymond Levitt of Stanford University's School of Engineering and IPS Learning, was designed to help companies and individuals stay on track, aligning projects with key initiatives to achieve desired outcomes. The SEF is based on the concept that executing your strategy is done through projects, programs, and portfolios—or what we call project-based work.

Achieving alignment and maximizing performance of project-based work is critical to successfully executing the strategy and key initiatives that your company has identified. But if your company is like most, and has invested in training to ensure managers have the skills to balance scope, time, cost, quality, and risk, why do barriers to successful execution still exist? The SEF will help envision a future that considers project-based work within the context of the organization, and the skills to bring that vision to reality.

1. Managing Alignment – Everything you do needs to be aligned with your organizational culture, strategy, structure, and internal politics. Managing alignment requires understanding how to move your project, team, products, and organization in concert. While knowing that not everything will be aligned at all times, it is important to discern how and when to realign. For example, an IT systems-implementation project requires a change in behavior by both the end user and management. The advanced leader knows that to drive the alignment from the start of the project, he or she must assess the bigger picture.

In the business sense, managing alignment includes knowing the company's strategy and how your project or program directly supports that strategy. It usually means developing a strategy for yourself and for how you intend to accomplish that work. It also involves sharing the plan with your team, communicating the corporate strategy, and articulating how that fits into the work you are doing collectively.

2. Becoming an Interpreter – Like a simultaneous language interpreter, the advanced leader has the ability to read between the lines, pick up on the nuances of the situation, and interpret the data within the proper context. “Interpreting” requires the ability to pull disparate pieces of information from various sources, and use the context of the broader organization's ecosystem to accurately comprehend the whole situation. Generally, a project status report contains subjective data based on the team's perspective. The advanced leader should interpret the subjective data by acknowledging all the perspectives. It is important to consider the frame of reference when receiving information since you may have to re-interpret it in order to pass along the correct meaning to someone else with a different point of view.

3. Learning to Innovate – It might be easy to be innovative when you work for a start-up company, but most organizations are more “mature” and therefore process-oriented—making it harder to be innovative. The advanced leader knows when and how to bend the rules to pursue an innovative idea. Consider a headphone manufacturer that decides to test its products on celebrity musicians instead of using the traditional scientific approach. As a result, the company not only receives celebrity endorsements but also develops a great product that is based on real-life experience. The advanced leader knows when to go out on a limb—while managing risks—to achieve better business results. Innovation does not always mean radical change. It means looking at the old ways with a very different manner of thinking, and creating a new idea or innovation that moves the organization forward. This skill is focused around human values—embracing a more collaborative and often radical approach to strategy execution.

4. Thinking Ahead – Any chess master will tell you that you must always think several moves ahead of your opponent. Anticipating trends and how they might impact the business is a crucial skill for any leader. Like the linens manufacturer who identifies the negative impact of rising cotton prices in China and finds alternative sources months before the situation affects the business, the advanced leader will closely monitor the market and organization to anticipate challenges and minimize collateral damage. It is about envisaging the future with strategic thinking, and knowing the more tactical approaches needed to get there, while maintaining the power balance of analyzing all your options. Thinking ahead requires the skillful blending of the other techniques to really allow you to think ahead, without being encumbered with the minutiae of the present. It goes beyond just seeing the big picture, and involves looking at all the interactions, connections, and interfaces that the future may bring into play.

5. Leveraging Networks – Effective networking and communication is an obvious skill set for any manager. The advanced leader needs to learn how to leverage the networks he or she has already built. For example, a veteran nurse is assigned to implement a new medical billing system at the hospital where she works. Because she has spent years building rapport and trust with the entire team of doctors, she is able to leverage her network to successfully introduce the new system within a few weeks. The advanced leader knows how to use his or her networks to lead change from the middle.

The real core of what project, program, and portfolio leaders manage are people and relationships—the larger your network, the more connections you have throughout the organization. Leveraging your network means knowing and trusting your team and the colleagues who may be able to help you, thinking for others at many different levels of the organization, planning responses to multiple viewpoints, navigating the various politics in a situation, and all the while keeping your eye on the end goal, moving forward, responding to changes, and getting things done.

6. Making the Right Decisions – Business is about making money. If you do not understand the market drivers, you cannot make smart business decisions. The advanced leader understands how to take action based on a deep understanding of both local and global financial trends. This skill assimilates all five of the previously mentioned skills. The advanced leader makes informed, innovative decisions that are aligned with the business strategy, interpreted for the appropriate audience, based on anticipated trends, and executed through the right channels. For example, a major technology component company needed to engage with a younger generation and made the decision to acquire a hip headphone manufacturer rather than creating the next best thing.

Mastering the six essential skills will give you control over the levers that run the PPPM engine so that you can continually monitor and fine-tune your performance, regardless of the circumstance. The advanced leader should always work to identify the alignment between the organization and the project; interpret the market trend for both the short and long term in order to validate the purpose of the project; innovate to adopt the “best way,” rather than stagnate or simply create for the sake of creating; leverage his or her networks to include the right people; and have the courage to make the right business decisions.


Exhibit 1: Strategic execution framework (SEF).


The strategic execution framework (SEF) was developed by the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, a partnership between IPS Learning and the Stanford Center for Professional Development. The SEF is described in detail in the book Executing Your Strategy: How to Break It Down and Get It Done (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

© 2015 IPS Learning. All rights reserved.

© 2015, IPS Learning, LLC. All rights reserved.
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



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