The Power of Leadership Emotions



Hi everyone, welcome to PMI’s Center Stage podcast. Today we will be engaging in an exciting discussion on the leadership of emotions and the critical role of power skills for organizations that are now driving that project economy. 

We are joined here today by Dr. Rodolfo De Acutis to help navigate these waters. Dr. De Acutis serves as an Executive Leader for Nestlé in Research and Development.  He is responsible for implementing the Project Management Office, or the PMO, and all the proper change-oriented mindsets across Nestlé R&D. Rodolfo was chosen by Nestlé and PMI to serve as an executive member of the Global Executive Council. 

Rodolfo is a leader of highly scientific projects and teams and he has leadership interests in emotional intelligence, design thinking and managing for risk. So we will touch on some of those today. Additionally, Dr. De Acutis serves as a visiting professor at the University of Leeds where he lectures on project management to graduate students.

So, Dr. Rodolfo De Acutis, welcome to Center Stage.


Thank you very much, thank you for having me. 


It’s my pleasure. I really want to dig in deep with you on some of these topics today. And just want to start off, I mean I already mentioned the words “leadership emotions,” and as a leader at Nestlé and leading that PMO at such a large organization, you’ve told me you place a great deal of importance on leadership emotions. Can you describe and discuss the importance of emotions in the workplace from your experience and help us out understanding the importance of that?


Yes, thank you for the question. Often a project manager is facing situations where emotion can come alive. And usually there is a very simple sequence of events - there is a trigger and there is an act. In between the trigger and the act, often there is an emotion. 
So let me give you an example. If there is feedback - positive or negative - if there is a comment or if there is a conflict, this is a trigger that will create an emotion. And if we go from the emotion to the act directly, that could be not necessarily the best way of reacting to an emotion. So if in between the emotion and the act we have a moment of choice... If we, for example, pause, step back, reflect, shift perspective, create option, then we will be more in a situation of choosing wisely what will be the act to do.

So if I have to give an example, I often do receive an email that will trigger certain type of emotions, and often we might have answered this straight away with all of our emotions and put down everything that we felt. And then said okay, you know what, I’m not going to send it now, I’ll send it in one hour’s time. In this time, that’s the pause where we step back, we reflect, and we might change dramatically the tone of that email.

So emotions are happening all the time. And the most difficult thing, and that’s where the emotional intelligence comes along, is to recognize first of all our own emotions. 


This recognition really does help with the communication and collaboration, I mean, it must really enhance it.


Definitely. And especially more than ever today we live in a VUCA world where the uncertainty, ambiguity, increased stress level. Every time there is a stress level, then the emotions will come even more evident and that is when then emotional intelligence becomes a power skill that would improve the quality of our decision making. 

And if you want to improve your emotional intelligence, there is a certain journey that we all need to go through. And the journey goes from the unconscious incompetence of our emotions to the conscious competence of our emotions. And between these two steps, the first step is to be able to recognize our emotions, our responses to different situations. 

The second step is to ask and receive feedback and reflect and have a deep understanding on the feedback. Then, spend the time about… how much time we spend in preparing not only for the what but also for the how, so, about our behaviors and how we actually interact with others. And that’s how we start maximizing our strengths, we start being honest about what we need to improve and that is when we become more willing to move from awareness to competence, and that’s when we know much better what our emotion will be.


It’s interesting, these are things that you don’t learn in business school, at least when I went to business school. Let me understand. Does Nestlé actually prepare its leaders with regard to emotional intelligence? Is there a program there? It sounds critically important to leading, not only at the project level but at the company level.


Yeah. I think in many large corporations and organizations there is more emphasis on the emotional intelligence and not only in understanding our emotions but also in relationship with others and having also this social awareness and how to manage the relationship with others. 

And you know that when you run a project, the interaction with others is extremely high. And having the ability of understanding the mood of the room is extremely important. When you go into a room and you have a steering committee meeting or just a project meeting it is very important that you can pick up what are the emotions already in the room, if there is an emotion of excitement or if there is an emotion of maybe de-motivation. And that’s when the empathy, the flexibility of the style of the project manager or the leader there, that you can flex the style or responding to the emotion appropriately, is extremely important. 

And to do that, you need to create an environment of trust. And to build the trust is always a combination of factors. So there is the team need to feel that the leader of the project manager is credible, reliable, has got that connection on empathy. And on the other side, that it is not just about the leader agenda but is about the agenda of everybody. So there is not a hidden agenda about something. That’s when the trust becomes very high and when the trust goes higher than the commitment of the team is higher, the accountability and the ownership, desire. And then at the end of the day the results will come. 

Because at the end of the day what you want to get is the results. Everybody wants to have the results. Everybody is very excited when they can see the product on the shelf because they feel proud of their... They can see the results there. They can see that all the efforts, all the sacrifices are actually taking place.


So talking about emotional intelligence, it makes me think about IQ. So tell us a little about the balance between IQ and EQ in the context of this discussion.


That is a very interesting point. The intelligence quotient and the emotional quotations are very separate and they shouldn’t be really. We always say that actually talent is equal to the sum of the two, the sum of the IQ plus the EQ. In the past, and not necessarily the far past, the hiring of people was based on high IQ. But I always say that there is a potential that we hire the people with the high IQ and then there is a potential that we fire people because of the very low EQ. The two things need to go together. 

And the other important factor is that we can all grow in our emotional intelligence. So and it’s a matter of following... it’s to be aware and also a little bit of will power to want to do that. 


You stress quite a bit the importance of asking why. You indicate project leaders must be really comfortable in asking the question “why?” day to day. So let me ask you - why is this important? 


As I said, when we are in a situation we can help the project manager to know all the skills, all the techniques, all the tools. Even if a project manager has got all that in their bags or a leader has got all that in their bags, it doesn’t mean necessarily that that will be a successful individual because the engagement with people, the empowerment, being able to create in a team that don’t necessarily report to you is extremely important. And explaining the why is the foundation of all of this. 

How often do we have a situation where in a project something changes and we need to ask something that wasn’t planned? You can call it the last-minute request and we go to our team and we say can you please do. And how much justification we give to these requests? Do we explain why all at once we need to do something very urgent for somebody else? And this can create high frustration to people. 
If I can give you a very simple example. Because we produce product - food - and sometimes we need to provide samples, it can happen that we go to our project team and we say can you please just do another 50 samples for the head office? Now the explanation of the why here is on giving the sample to the office. That actually doesn’t motivate or encourage a team to really do it. 

So, could we do better than that? Could we explain the why in a more compelling way? So from a rational point of view, what if - for example - we explain exactly what we will do with the samples? So, what if we say, look, it would be great if we could have these 50 samples made as soon as possible because we are meeting with the trades, meeting with the markets, and if we have these 50 samples we might have this project that will add much more presence in every market and it could become one of our priority projects. 

If we give this type of rationale, very likely the team that is working on the 50 samples will feel much more engaged, much more motivated of doing it. But this is not necessarily enough. What if then we give also something that is more individual and that we actually interact with their emotions? 

What if we say, look, I know that you are busy on the other projects but you don’t have to worry because I will speak with your manager and I will make sure that we will cover that so you can focus on this. There is no problem, I will cover for you and I will help you, anything you need from me. And by the way, I am asking you because I know that you delivered for me in the past and I know that your job is always pristine. 

You see how if we explain the why in a much more compelling way with the rational and emotional and individual aspect, then there is much more of a potential for the success, for the team to be engaged and empowered to do the job, being motivated, being accountable, own it. 


Yes, getting that internal commitment is critical. And by going through this exercise of providing the why you can really, actually with very, very little effort, really get a lot more out of your team and the engagement, right? It’s pretty amazing because when you’re rushing around and everybody feels rushed, they don’t stop to do this. But as you have just described, it’s not something that’s that time consuming and you can get a lot, lot more benefit as a result. Thank you for that insight.

So are there any tools that our audience can use that will encourage the use of this “why” thinking?


Well, one of the things that we could do is to actually explain it to our team when we do it, recognize it, call it out. So, call it out when we receive it, to thank the person that gave us the why, or giving the feedback to people that usually don’t give us the why, and we say, would you mind to explain the why? So the more we talk about it, the more it will become part of the culture.


Understood, okay. So let’s talk a little bit about the global nature of your operations. Nestlé is a huge global organization. How do you optimize your projects in a global basis while you have to take into account all the cultural differences across countries and cultures? Can you just explain some of that to us, to understand how you balance that? If you do it right, you can really optimize your projects, right? If you ignore it, you take a risk.


Yes. I have to say that there isn’t really a silver bullet for this because it depends on the project that you have and the markets or the country you are relating to. There’s often wide differences between behaviors and cultures that you need to be aware. I think the most important thing is be aware of it and try to use initially a neutral position. 

So I am Italian, we are very direct. But this being direct not necessarily work very well for other cultures. So you need to first understand and engage what is the best way to get engagement and results. And this comes with experience and it comes with a little bit of, as I said, being neutral in the beginning and then trying to find your way.


Absolutely. Since we’re on the topic of the global nature of Nestlé and your operations, let’s talk about what you do as the executive for the Project Management Office, or the PMO. What are the primary responsibilities for your function so that the audience understands?


Yes, so in the role that I cover, it is very important that the growth of the talent and the competencies for all the PMs in every product category. Because talent and competencies then will give what we need from the project management perspective, that is the tangible effect of project execution. So the excellence in project execution is a must and to fulfill this we need to have the right people with the right talent, with the right competencies. 

And when I talk about competencies, I talk about the combination of tangible skills and intangible skills. So if I am to explain it, so we differentiate about three parts of a project manager. We have the project management hard skills and what we ask is the mastership of that. 

And when I talk about the project management hard skills, it’s not talking just about the conventional tools, for example, the time plan or the risk assessment. I am talking about the ability of a project manager to choose the optimal approach for a project when they face a new project. So what is the best approach? Is it a traditional waterfall, is it an agile or is it a hybrid? It is very important that a project manager has got the skill to be able to choose the most appropriate approach for every project because we don’t want to have a one size fits all, but we want to have the right size for the project that we are running at any given time. 

And then the other tools, for example, the risk assessment, could help us to actually identify which one would be the best approach, if we want to go fast, if there is a need of going very fast, for example. So this is the first of the skills. 

The second one is the entwined project manager ownership. And this is quite a delicate topic when we talk with the project managers, because project managers always have a special hard skill. So they could be coming from a technical background, from a financial background, from a commercial background. And there is a natural instinct to focus more on the topic that we know better. 

So if, for example, we come from a technical background, we will give much more emphasis to make sure that the technical part is done to perfection. And we maybe lose a little bit of the focus on the commercial side, the consumer centricity or the financial side of the project. 
So what we are asking to the project manager is to say - well, actually we are not asking to a project manager to have the expertise for any of these, but they do have the accountability to deliver on all three fields. And that means that that’s when the soft skills come along because they need to be able to engage and empower the experts in each of the fields - technical, commercial and financial - to then deliver flawlessly their parts for the success of the project. 

The third part is actually the project manager leadership skills. And in these leadership skills we talk mainly about engagement, empowerment, coaching, but within that there is also the emotional intelligence. Consider that the emotional intelligence is very much related also to resilience. How do we make sure that the resilience of the team is not eroded over the course of the project? And that is where the project manager needs to focus on that.

So in a nutshell, what my role is, is to make sure that in every R&D that we have, we can build these competencies so that we can deliver better and faster to the consumer.


Yeah and those leadership skills are critical because usually the project, when you originally plan it, it changes along the way so you have to be able to be there for the team to keep that resilience up, to your point. 

Rodolfo, let me ask you a little bit about what changes you have had to make at Nestlé as a result of Covid-19 and the pandemic. And then, looking forward a little bit, what do you think the PMO is going to look like in the next couple of years?


Yeah, of course with the pandemic we have been in a situation where in many countries we’ve been in lockdown for a long period of time and the working from home has become more of a must for everybody. I think the good news is that we didn’t procrastinate the need of getting results despite the fact that we were not seeing each other at the workplace.

But when the pandemic will finish, and this is only my personal opinion, I think that yes, we will go back to the workplace. The workplace will... because we need it, we need to have the human contact. However, I think that we will be much more critical especially on the travel because today we are very focused on saying we travel only when it’s business critical. 

And I can see that this question will remain in the future. And the fact that… the question, do you think that people will work from home more or less? I think that there will be more flexibility on working from home and also I think in many organizations we are moving out from relying on presence to judge performance. And the judgment on performance will be more on goal achievements rather than the presence in the building.


It does require new ways of measuring or more enhanced ways of how things were measured in the past as well. So it’s a challenge. I think we are all faced with that challenge.

Let me ask you a little bit about risk management and lean. You have a background in both risk management and lean engineering. Can you tell the audience, how do these disciplines play a role in your projects at Nestlé?


Yeah, I think that both risk management and lean techniques or continuous improvement in project management are extremely important. And it is a hard skill that in my opinion needs to be part of the tool kit of the PM because it will help us to take decisions, especially when we take the example of the risk management. 

The risk management allows us to take decisions based on the tradeoff. Every time we go in front of our stakeholders, if there is a change of scope or a necessity of going faster, that will imply a certain number of risks that need to be evaluated, mitigated or having a contingency plan on them. And the project manager needs to create the right analysis based on the risk assessment and the results of this analysis needs to become a number of options with recommendations that then go to the stakeholders for a final decision. 

This is a typical example of, we call it a “fork in the road situation.” So when you are at the point in the project where you need to take a decision that could be irreversible, meaning that once you take the decision you cannot go back to where you were before. And that’s why, when you get to the point of irreversibility, the project manager has got an incredible impact on stakeholders. And that is why the project manager and the understanding of risk management is paramount for their job. 

And what I like to see in a project manager is not only that they create the view of the different options but also to have that ownership and accountability of saying I think this is the preferred option. If it was my business, I will go for this option. I like to see their commitment, I like to see their ownership, I like to see their entrepreneurial spirit to say that’s what I would do if this was my business.


Yeah, I have always found that that perspective, if this was your own business, I think it really does change people’s mindsets and how they behave and make decisions and engage with others. Thank you for that answer. 

I just wanted to close out by asking you more of a future-oriented question. I want to ask you what your dreams and ambitions and aspirations are for contributing to the future of work. You have talked quite a bit about, quite extensively, about all the different aspects of work and how things get done, whether there’s technical skills or emotional skills and leadership skills. How do you view yourself in contributing to what this is going to look like in the future? It seems like you have a very strong point of view.


I am quite a positive person. I like to nourish my passions. And it is very important, I think, for each of us to know our passions. And my passion is knowledge, is learning. I love to learn new things. I love to learn or even deepening some topics that I already know and know even more and being exposed to things that I have never seen before. In today’s environment, when we have all these, as you call it, the future of work and society, sometimes it’s great to be exposed to that. 

So I can give you the example of one of my recent experiences of being involved in a project of changing the packaging of our product from plastic wrappers to paper wrappers. The fact that in this project we could contribute to the planet made all of us extremely strong and engaged. And when we saw the product on the shelf, I could see the joy and the pride of everybody involved in the project because you could see it on the shelves, you could see, okay, I am doing something for the planet. 

And for me, it made me not only very happy but motivated and also inspired by them when I see them so engaged in doing something for the planet. And I think, it doesn’t matter how old you are, everybody at this moment in time wants to do something for the planet and for the society.


You are very much on topic on the trends that are out there. Everybody is really committed and focused on social good, sustainability. Certainly here at PMI we have a large focus in our new strategy explicitly focused on sustainable development goals at the U.N.  These things are always involved in projects. When you are trying to solve for large global problems there is always a project in between that problem and that solution. So I think our audience should see that and see how critical their roles are in doing that. So I agree.

So, talking to Rodolfo De Acutis. Thank you so much for your time and insight here today. We have learned a ton. We have learned a lot about emotions, the importance of focusing on emotions to really enhance our communication and collaboration on projects. We spoke a bit about trust. These are all very human-oriented topics that you are telling us are hypercritical for success, right, in addition to technical skills. 

You made it clear that talent is equal to EQ plus IQ. You can’t have just one, you have to have both. We touched on cultural differences, the functions of your PMO, how you choose the optimal way of working, the end-to-end project manager, as you discussed, that they have to deliver all the components of the project, therefore they have to have that awareness. Maybe not the expertise in every area but awareness and ability to have people work together and collaborate. 

And probably most importantly is that PM leadership skills, we talked about that as well, which is heavily reliant on EQ, focused on emotions and building the resilience of the team. We talked about Covid. And I think another theme was there was a lot of emphasis on the multi-disciplinary aspects of project management. It is not a one way to do things. Because it touches… projects touch every industry and every problem around the world. 

So I think your personal passion is a great example of what other project managers and other professionals, quite frankly, should emulate from you because their success will come from that type of passion for continuous learning. So thank you again today, Rodolfo.