Made, Not Born
Becoming a World-Class Leader Takes Hard Work and a Willingness to Learn
BY SUSAN LADIKA ILLUSTRATION BY PJ LOUGHRAN
Even those at the top of the project management ladder can climb higher, both professionally and personally. Self-improvement in terms of specialized knowledge and technical expertise often can be obtained on the job, but help with people skills can be more elusive. The good news is, leadership training can provide much-needed guidance on issues such as motivating a team, balancing multiple priorities and handling conflict in the office.
Case in point: Mounir Ajam, PMP, CEO and chairman of the board of SUKAD, a professional management and project management services company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. For about a decade, Mr. Ajam has been taking courses to help him improve the way he manages his team. Earlier in his career, he honed his technical expertise in project management positions at Exxon Chemical and Saudi Aramco. However, as he advanced in his career, he realized that in order to handle his growing responsibilities, he needed more people skills training. “I started to shift my focus from being a technical engineer working on a project to a team leader,” he says. “I started to look at the big picture, rather than the details of an estimate or a cost report.”
Since then, Mr. Ajam has taken numerous leadership courses, such as “Power, Influence and Politics in Project Management” and “Leading with Accountability,” offered in conjunction with the PMI Global Congress 2003—North America in Baltimore, Md., USA. He also is a member of PMI's Leadership Institute Masters Class of May 2007. These classes have given him new insight into how he relates to others and helped him work on weak areas, he says, all of which have made him a stronger leader.
I STARTED TO SHIFT MY FOCUS FROM BEING A TECHNICAL ENGINEER WORKING ON A PROJECT TO A TEAM LEADER. I STARTED TO LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE, RATHER THAN THE DETAILS OF AN ESTIMATE OR A COST REPORT.
—MOUNIR AJAM, PMP, SUKAD, DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
TAKE A LOOK AT YOURSELF
While a good grasp of people skills can help project managers rise to the top, “you need to understand yourself first before you can expect to lead others,” says Sheilina Somani, PMP, head of the consultancy Positively Project Management in Harrow, U.K., and vice president of education of PMI's Diversity Specific Interest Group (SIG). Before selecting a course of study that appeals to you, you should first determine what you actually need. Often, personal growth can be uncomfortable, so don't expect the appealing courses to necessarily be the right ones.
To determine what kind of leadership skills you may need to work on, start with a self-assessment, says Joanne Gumaer, PMP, president of IlliniaQ Inc., a project management consulting and training firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and head of PMI's Education SIG. She recommends project managers take an honest look at who they are, where they want to go, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what skills they still need. Asking for honest input from supervisors, mentors, peers and even subordinates helps, too. “Most of us know, but there are always blind spots,” she says.
Consider hiring a coach to help conduct the assessment using formalized tools, or consult PMI's Project Manager Competency Development Framework to determine where you stand in your professional development. Your personal challenges and goals should be the biggest factor in determining what sort of training to pursue, says Jennifer Saarinen, global concept and development manager for Nokia Networks in Espoo, Finland. “[Your decision] all boils down to what you want to get out of your organization and out of your job.”
Before you seek training, get in touch with your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. This chart is based on the CPI 260™ assessment, developed by CPP Inc., a publisher of assessment material and provider of consulting services in Mountain View, Calif., USA.
Keep track of work situations where you could have used additional skills or knowledge—doing so also can help you map out potential areas for learning. “I consider that the lessons learned day by day are a great tool to evaluate which skills need some polishing,” says Carla Catalano, PMP, a project manager at telecommunications company Sun Microsystems, Caracas, Venezuela. She has taken several leadership and people skills courses, some through her company, others chosen independently. Leadership courses have helped her manage difficult team members, “deal with attitudes, analyze physical expressions and how to express myself,” she says.
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
Once you've identified leadership skills you wish to improve, the next step is finding the course that best meets that need. Ms. Somani suggests starting with an Internet search to get an idea of what kinds of programs are available, then examining the literature to determine deliverables and outcomes. A valuable resource is the database of Registered Education Providers (R.E.P.s), available on the R.E.P. section of www.pmi.org. Users can search for R.E.P.s by region, keyword, format and other specifications. Also contact PMI specific interest groups (SIGs) in relevant fields to see which organizations they would recommend for leadership training, Ms. Somani says.
PMI recently launched PMI Learn as part of its Leadership Institute program. Available as a benefit to volunteer leaders of PMI's chapters, specific interest groups (SIGs) and colleges, PMI Learn offers Internet-based access to virtual learning activities, such as online courses, seminars, documents and presentations.
The online activities are designed to tie into the Leadership Institute's curriculum with the added benefit of flexibility, so volunteer leaders can take part whenever convenient, regardless of time zones and travel schedules.
Users may take a Leadership Skills Inventory, which is designed to measure leadership skills as they relate to PMI's Leadership Institute curriculum.
“PMI's Leadership Institute program comes from the strategic plan by the board to make leadership a strategic competency,” says Judy Brennan, leadership program developer at PMI. “This helps develop skilled leaders for the future of the institute and a way to give back to the volunteers,” Ms. Brennan says.
For more information on PMI Learn, visit the Leadership Institute section of www.pmi.org.
Once the possibilities are narrowed down, compose a list of questions for the organizations that seem to offer suitable training, Ms. Somani says. Ask what skills they would like their students to come away with and what their follow-up methods are. If you want a closer look at their offerings, ask if you may sit in on an hour of training or see if you can contact someone who has been through the training course already.
The important thing is that the course offer practical advice applicable to your situation, says John Cable, PMP, director of the project management program, which offers leadership courses, at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., USA.
For leadership training, a classroom setting is usually more effective than an online format. Although an online course allows greater flexibility, many people skills involve issues such as body language and tone of voice, which are difficult to work on in theory alone. In a classroom, theory can easily be put into practice using role-playing and group interaction. Ms. Saarinen prefers classroom training because it forces her to leave her office, she says. “Without the ability to step away from work to truly focus on the course, individuals feel compelled to answer the phone, check their e-mail or step out of the virtual session to answer the person standing at the office door,” she says.
Also check the references of both the training provider and the teacher. “You should get training from people who have actually lived and breathed it,” says Lonnie Pacelli, president of Leading on the Edge International, Sammamish, Wash., USA. “The teacher should have a couple of failures under their belt. There's no better teacher than one having been through failure.”
Once you choose a course, you might be required to prepare by reading course materials or taking part in a teleconference. Even if you are not required to do advance work, prepare yourself by jotting down some situations or problems you've run into so you can bring them to the course, Mr. Pacelli advises. This can help you target solutions to those problems. “You should know in advance what you're looking for,” he says. “It makes it much easier to find [a solution] and apply it. Don't make training be prospecting for gold.”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
No matter how much you learn during leadership training, if you don't put the skills into practice, the knowledge will do you—and your team—little good. Once you've taken a course, apply what you've learned wherever and whenever possible. “We will encourage participants to find the opportunity—even the smallest one—to apply any tools and techniques that they have learned in the class in their work environ-ment,” says Cathryn Chee, PMP, general manager of the International Institute for Learning (IIL), Singapore, and vice chair of programs for the PMI Singapore Chapter.
When John Laverdure, PMP, a program manager at Hewlett-Packard, St. Louis, Mo., USA, recently took a people skills course, his initial reaction was, “It will tell me all kinds of nice, soft things, but there isn't going to be anything that will help me,” he says. However, the concrete examples of the course captured his interest, he says, and when he went back to work, he was eager to try them out in practice.
His opportunity came almost immediately, when he was assigned to a troubled project with rock-bottom team morale. Using knowledge he gained from the course, he motivated his team by celebrating each win and every positive accomplishment. By emphasizing the positive aspects, he improved team morale, thereby improving the effect the group itself was having on the project. “If you change some of the people dynamics in a project, you can turn around a project dramatically,” he says. “Practically all the skills have paid off.”
Besides implementing skills on the job, participants also can reinforce what they've learned by writing a paper analyzing the course, describing what was worthwhile and noting how they will use it to improve their own job performance, Mr. Cable says. Or the organization can hold a meeting so the participants can present what they have learned.
Even after your training, you will continue to learn as you put your new skills into practice. Remember that change takes time, especially when it means revising your habits. You might still be seeing changes anywhere from six months to two years down the line, Ms. Gumaer says.
Because behavior change takes time, consider performing a self-assessment every three to five years, Ms. Gumaer says. Also, just because you've taken one or two leadership courses doesn't mean you know everything there is to know about being a leader, Ms. Saarinen says. “The most important leadership course would be the one that teaches us those areas we have yet to improve.”
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