Project Management For Financial Executives

FEI Daily Managing Editor Olivia Berkman speaks with project management expert Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez regarding how financial executives can bring project management expertise to their skillset.

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“A project is like playing football or basketball. Everybody has a role to play. So, it's important they are team players by nature.”

In this episode, I’m joined by award-winning thought-leader in project management Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez. We talk about the difference between project managers and project leaders, the most important skills for executing a major project successfully, and the future of project leadership.

A transcript of the discussion appears below the podcast player.

FERF: Hi Antonio, thanks so much for joining me today.

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez: Hi Olivia, it's a pleasure to be on your podcast. Really an honor to share some thoughts.

FERF: Great. Your book “The Project Revolution: How to Succeed in a Project Driven World” explores how leaders and companies can thrive in what you call, the “Project Economy.” Why is this topic so important to you?

Nieto-Rodriguez: Well, it's a very personal topic because I struggle myself with projects. In my career, senior leaders didn't always understand the value of projects. I experienced some ups and downs in the area of projects and I decided to research to make sure that everybody knows leaders and managers but also anybody knows how to manage projects better. Now with what I call the “Project Economy” or the gig economy, everything seems to be more project based, careers, studies. 

FERF: Can you explain the difference between project managers and project leaders? How are the skills different for each?

Nieto-Rodriguez: Good question. It’s not black or white. I think there is a need for project managers and project leaders. However, I think that the biggest difference is about uncertainty and to speak of change and complexity. Maybe twenty years ago things were a bit more stable and you didn't need to think about constant change and projects had to be time-lined and in scope and, for those situations, you would expect a great project manager to take care. It's about defining the plan, defining what has to be done and then just follow through the execution. It’s really monitoring the implementation, that's what I would call the manager role, as opposed to today where I think what companies need are project leadership which means we are able to deal with uncertainty. Often we launch projects where we are not completely sure what's the purpose or the scope is defined and any particular one of the challenges is that people are so busy with their day to day job, plus different projects on top of that, that you need some sort of leadership skills to engage people who are not working for you, they are not reporting for you they're super busy and you need to still to make sure they contribute to your project to help you deliver that project that calls organization and this comes not just for the team members but it is also important for the leadership team.

As the project leader you need to engage your executives to help you with that transformation, expansion, new products. I think today you still need project managers but the big difference is where these projects are taking place and, because we are in such a volatile world, you need more leadership. 

FERF: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Where do you find that leaders stumble when it comes to leading a project?

Nieto-Rodriguez: I think the challenges with projects have always been there, since we do projects and modern project management exists in the early '80's. PMI was founded in 1969 but the first PM book, the guide for managing projects was just launched in the '80's, so it is about a forty years old profession. What you see occurring, Olivia, is that, first, we are launching projects too quickly. I always say when speaking to leaders or in conferences one of the most popular words in organizations and businesses, “kick off.” We all love kick off, we have a lot of kick offs during the week. We love to launch projects but then the second or third meeting people start to disappear from these meetings. I do believe that there's a moment before launching a project, which is crucial, to ask “is it the right timing? Is it a project already or it's just an idea that needs to be explored?” I think that's fundamental and it's a big pitfall in most of the companies.

Then you come to the part of defining what you want. We love ideas but then are we sure what we want to develop? Are we sure of the scope? The requirements? The functionality? If we are not, then we should be careful with the project. There are of course, agile methodologies for cases like IT development where you don't know exactly the scope, but for other projects the more vague the scope is, the higher the chances of wrong estimates and failure. 

Then another big issue for leadership is, we launch projects but, first, we don't know if it's a project. Second: do we have the capacity? Do we have the resources? Often not. Most of the time people are already 100% busy. Everybody's busy in an organization so how can you add yet another project? Having the resources and the right capabilities is a check that you so often miss. So, you engage in a project, you start committing resources but first they are not available, second they don't have the skills.

I think it's very, very important to do that check. I always say, if you want to start a project Mr. CEO then make sure that you have the capability to get resources available. It should be a painful, difficult process where you make tradeoffs when you want to start a project.

And then another big challenge is the engagement of the people. We are very excited when a project starts, but if that project struggles… and all projects go up and down that's always the case. But, if it goes forever, if it takes nine, ten months, twelve months, people start dragging, getting bored, they don't participate, they don't deliver. So how can you ensure that you develop a high performing team that is committed until the end? For me, part of high performing team, the culture, making it exciting and rewarding for the people to stay committed throughout the project.

And again, this is not just for the team but for the executives too.

FERF: Right. That's a great point. What would you identify as the most important leadership skill for executing a major project successfully?

Nieto-Rodriguez: That's a difficult question. If you follow the PMI research they talk about communication as the core competencies, one that you use about 80% when you're executing a project and communication doesn't mean just talking or presenting but it's about listening. Listening to the people, listening to the team, to your clients to see where there are issues and how to solve them together. So being present, being participant in the meetings, that's also part of the communication. 

I would say, for me, the communication linked to making a culture where people are not punished, where mistakes are not punished, individuals are not punished because they failed something. I think that would be the second link to the first one. You want the culture in your projects which is about bringing issues to the table. I had the pleasure to talk to Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford and Boeing and he was telling me, “Antonio, every time we were building a new plane, the 777, for example, an extremely successful project, every time there was an issue, we treated issues as a gem. We were excited about the issue, we would put the people around the table to solve it” and, to me, that resonated so much. Most of the time I see projects where people are afraid of saying, "Hey, we might have an issue here or we might not meet the deadline, so what can we do?" I think that’s partially communication, but that would be the second very important point. Make sure people are comfortable to speak up and to work as a team.

FERF: What about the skills that team members need to have?

Nieto-Rodriguez: That's another very, very key question. I think often you don't think about the skills of the team members. I think what happens is, according to my experiences, you will often have people in your team who are the list missives, they are available and they will assign them to me for your team, instead of the best resources which are already fully committed and overbooked. I think you can still succeed with team members. 

They need to have a technique of functional expertise, like a chair of compliance, that part of their competencies which are important for the project should be there. But the other parts which are relevant, they have to be team players. A project is like playing football or basketball. Everybody has a role to play. So, it's important they are team players by nature. I like when team members are open minded. You need to have able to listen to others. Diversity is very, very important to have in the team. So, open minded, listening, makings sure that they are also able to speak up. You don't want team members who are quiet all the time. They can be, but it needs important that they contribute, that they speak up. I think those are the major skills.

The one question that comes on the team is: do you want negative people who see always the risks and they will complain, saying, "I told you this would never happen". I think these people could be negative to the culture of that project but I do believe that they can add some value. We tend to be over optimistic in projects when we're estimating, when we see deadlines coming to us and I always like to have somebody who is quite realistic who would see that all these kind of things that could go wrong and break them up and address them. So I think, not all the team members, but it would be good to have one personality like that.

FERF: The last thing I want to ask you, Antonio, what does the future of project leadership look like?

Nieto-Rodriguez: I think this is a very important question. I do a lot of research on the topic and I'm trying to figure out what will this future look like for projects and project leadership. 

I think there is a bit of a shift from traditional project leadership and management which has been focused on the internal kitchen of the project. So milestones, the definition, that's what we’re used to reporting all the time. Are we on scope? On time? On budget? These are the most classic ones and what you see is there's a shift towards benefits and value creation. 

For example, The Sydney Opera House. That project was planned to take, I remember about seven years to be completed. The Sydney Opera House actually took seventeen years. Quite more than what expected. The budget was also much higher than planned. That project, according to traditional project management was a disaster. But yet, that project has delivered huge amounts of benefits for the city, revenues from tourists, so I think project leadership will morph into benefits and values.

Yes, the project might be late, the project might not yet be completed but we're delivering benefits. We're becoming a selling part of the product that we want to deliver, using parts of the hospital that we were planning to build. The leadership becomes more closer to entrepreneurship and management, leadership, execution. So, moving from internal kitchen to outside work and the benefits of the project, transmitting those to keep the engagement and keep people motivated and showing value for the company. I think that's where the future of project leadership will go. Let's see if that happens.

FERF: Absolutely. Antonio, thank you so much for your time today and for your insights on this very important topic.

Antonio: It's a pleasure Olivia. I really enjoyed the questions, they were quite tough, so thank you.

FERF: You're welcome.