Four Ways to Hone Your Power Skills—and Advance Your Career

Headshot of Shahid Ali

It’s time for project professionals to power up. Amid a global talent crunch—the greatest shortage in 16 years, according to a ManpowerGroup report published in May—organizations are scrambling to fill leadership gaps. Aspiring project leaders can step up and fill the void in more ways than one by building and refine their power skills, part of PMI’s Talent Triangle®

Beyond advancing their careers, those who seek to continuously improve their power skills gain cutting-edge knowledge of what’s happening in the profession—and help their organizations achieve a strategic advantage amid nonstop disruption and the pursuit to create a better world for all. 

“With the fast-changing nature of technology and the overall business and project landscape these days, it is vital that every project professional keep updating themselves in their own field and acquire new skill sets to stay relevant,” says Shahid Ali, PMP, a former senior manager at C4 Advanced Solutions, Dubai.

Power skills are critical behaviors that enable project professionals to succeed—and strengthening them adds leadership muscle: 

  • Building collaborative leadership skills can help you strategically navigate complexity and—when necessary—manage up. 
  • Learning to embrace adaptability makes it easier to pivot amid uncertainty. 
  • Reinforcing an innovative mindset keeps you future-focused in the face of digital disruption. 
  • Fine tuning problem solving can reduce the impact of blockers and accelerate project progress.
  • Taking steps to improve communication can help you target messaging and become a more effective speaker and listener.  
  • And elevating empathy helps hone a people-centric ethos that ultimately helps teams deliver projects with true impact.  

Yet it’s worth noting that only 40 percent of companies are focused on upskilling, according to a PwC global report published in May. Individuals who put in the extra effort to sharpen their skills stand to gain a career development advantage. 

Here are four ways that project professionals are empowering themselves to ensure they are ready to seize leadership opportunities.

1. Shadow success
Seeing strong leadership in action helps project professionals channel their own power skills in ways that deliver true value and impact. Tapping into the knowledge of others—like someone whose innovative thinking helps quickly resolve challenges and raises the bar for collaboration—will help aspiring project leaders learn how to harness those skills. Whether it’s a dedicated mentor or someone from your professional network, people whose leadership you respect can give you a model to emulate. 

“The mentor has the experience over the years of managing different types of projects, stakeholders, risks; encountering various challenges, resolving them and learning lessons from each project,” says Ali. “Therefore, mentors can share their experiences, train and coach the project professionals to harness the power skills.” 

To find a power skills mentor, Ali recommends looking for someone whose responsibilities align with the type of roles you aspire to in the years ahead. For instance, a project manager should reach out to a senior project manager or program manager. Another option? Ask your direct supervisor or a leader within the project management office (PMO) to assign a mentor, Ali says. Or if you’re more comfortable seeking external help, turn to existing connections or join professional networking groups. 

For Ali, having a mentor to lean on helps ensure that, in the face of project challenges, his decision making is driven by strategy rather than impulse. For example, when a supplier was underperforming during a project, Ali considered holding the vendor accountable by taking punitive measures. But after turning to his mentor for advice, Ali realized that he needed to treat the vendor as a true partner. He worked to understand the vendor’s challenges and showed authentic appreciation for how they overcame obstacles. By rethinking the relationship with the vendor, Ali was able to elevate the vendor’s performance going forward. 

“I have used this principle as much as possible with my suppliers and vendors and have mostly been able to get the required job done on time and within scope as a result,” he says. 

2. Assess and correct
Project managers must continually evaluate their power skills gaps and seek out opportunities to learn and adapt, says Allison Cardenas Verde, PMP, program and project manager, Unilever, in Santiago. Conducting a self-audit will reveal which skills need the most work and help you target training pursuits—from courses to certifications to conferences.

Allison Cardenas Verde

“I never feel that I’ve become the best project manager I can be—that moment does not exist,” Verde says. “You always have to analyze yourself and identify the areas where you know you need to develop.” 

Verde’s self-assessments are holistic. She gathers feedback from supervisors, peers, people who she supervises, key stakeholders and clients. She also takes online leadership questionnaires that help to guide her professional development plans.

Each project is a chance to recharge power skills, too, she says. Verde’s project postmortems are designed to help reinforce her leadership strengths and identify how she can better serve the team. She mixes team feedback with self-reflection: If a project met all its strategic objectives, how did her leadership contribute to that? Or if an element of the project took extra time or resources to complete, which power skills will help her avoid making similar mistakes in the future?  

These insights provide a roadmap for Verde’s power skills training—and reinforce a commitment to learning that never stops. From books and magazine articles to formal training sessions and conferences, Verde seeks knowledge-boosting opportunities that can ultimately inspire her teams and motivate her to think strategically about her career.  

“This approach has led me to strengthen several skills, the most important being the development of a collaborative leadership style, the ability to adapt to changes and respond to them in the best way,” Verde says. “I now understand the importance of creating high-performance teams, treating them with respect, showing confidence in their contributions in their area of expertise and providing them a clear communication of what is expected of each one of them.”  

3. Test your skills
Not having a formal project leadership role shouldn’t stand in the way of applying new power skills. Are there opportunities to show more agility or empathy as part of your current responsibilities? Can you offer to support or even fill in for a project leader when they take time off? Seizing the moment will help you understand where you’re at on the learning curve—and make it clear that you have the desire to step up.

“Anytime I go for a training, I make sure I practice what I learned when I get back,” says Carol Ariyibi, head of corporate transformation, Asset and Resource Management Holding Co., Lagos.

Carol Ariyibi standing

Photo credit: Janet Orilua

For example, after she earned an agile scrum master certification where she learned about self-organizing teams, Ariyibi immediately tested her new skills with team members to empower their decision making. The benefits were instant. Whereas team members previously came straight to her to help solve challenges they faced, the team now learned how to think through ways to manage problems independently. 

Volunteering for projects at community groups or other nonprofits can provide leadership opportunities that stretch your power skills—and create opportunities to give back. For instance, PMI’s Hours for Impact encourages project professionals to share their knowledge and skills through volunteer initiatives that support the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals

For Ariyibi, volunteering as the co-facilitator of monthly meetings for a group of agile project professionals in Nigeria has improved her communication and presentation skills. A colleague following her career development, impressed by her skill set, offered her a job opportunity.

“Volunteering helps create visibility of what you’re doing and establishes you as an influencer,” she says.

It also has helped to embrace servant leadership. When volunteering as an internal coach at a previous organization, she became a more active listener. Now she’s able to more quickly identify when team members need help or feel uncomfortable with a particular assignment.

“I learned not just to listen for words, but the emotion behind the words—some of the things that are unsaid,” she explains. “It taught me to be more empathetic.” 

4. Share your knowledge
If you attend a conference or complete trainings targeting power skills, create a slide presentation or a video summary of your learnings that you can share with other team members or on social media. Such knowledge sharing can boost your reputation as a leader, but it also requires you to hone your communication skills. 

To share her power skills knowledge, Ariyibi writes social media posts and speaks at professional conferences. Taking the time to prioritize her thoughts and synthesize key information for posts and presentations has helped her become a more effective communicator. As a result, it has changed the way she leads and coordinates meetings.

“Before I go into any meeting, I think about what the objective of the meeting is. I try to read materials before I go to the meeting and think of the main points I want to emphasize,” she says.

Another lesson? Understanding that leading sometimes means facilitating—by encouraging and empowering everyone to become an active meeting participant.

“It’s allowing everyone to feel seen and heard, while bringing information together with an outcome that leaves them feeling they arrived at a win-win,” she says. 

Verde concurs. Sharing across multiple platforms forces her to tailor her communication style to meet unique needs—whether it’s a social media post or an in-person presentation. She has learned to apply this customized engagement with project stakeholders.  

“You need to understand how you can catch the attention of people, what you should highlight and how to communicate in different ways,” she says, adding that it’s equally important to listen carefully to how others respond. “This has been relevant especially when I led project teams located in multiple countries with different cultures and languages.”

No matter how you build power skills, finding ways to polish and reinforce them can not only put you on a project leadership track, but help ensure your existing project work delivers more value and impact.

“Once you refine power skills, you’re capable of doing anything,” Verde says.