Executive Coaching – What’s in it For a Project Manager?

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I’ve been in various IT leadership roles since I started my career over 20 years ago and there is nothing quite as challenging, or as rewarding, as being a Project Manager. As well as all the very important technical skills a Project Manager needs such as the ability to build a schedule and budget and track to them, understand the delivery lifecycle, and report status, a Project Manager needs to be a negotiator, a team builder, a collaborator, an influencer, and an innovator. These roles require leadership skills of the highest caliber. It is this combination of technical management and leadership ability that makes the role so challenging.

So why is this? The problem is that it’s rarely the case that the Project Manager has a clear scope, a team that he manages directly, no issues, and no-one external to the project with whom he needs to influence or negotiate. Project Managers are typically required to operate in a matrix environment, where they have little or no control over resources, timelines, or deliverables. They are likely to spend a considerable amount of time negotiating for more resources, trying to influence stakeholders to nail down the scope and deliverables, and trying to find innovative ways to deliver according to a tight, often time-boxed, schedule. In the midst of all this, they need to be role models to keep the team members engaged and leaders who can effectively navigate different types of people from the variety of organizations with which they must interact. This is no small feat for a Project Manager of a small project, let alone a larger multi-million dollar IT project that is typical of today.

How, then, can Project Managers find help and support on their career journeys, ones that often turns into journeys of self discovery and self growth? There are many courses to teach specific techniques for managing a project, and there is the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. There are also many Project Management leadership courses with topics such as team building, collaboration, and negotiation. Though these courses are invaluable to developing technical and leadership skills, Executive Coaching is also invaluable to Project Managers as they find themselves in increasingly complex and stressful environments, and as they strive to institutionalize new learnings.

So how can Executive Coaching help? The Executive Coach (who may be either hired directly by the individual or by the Project Manager’s employer) will start by understanding the client’s goals. This will form the basis of the Coaching Agenda – the key goals that will be worked on over a period of time, including guiding the Project Manager to define what ‘success’ will look like. For the purposes of this article I am going to assume that the Coaching Agenda is based on the goal of improving a Project Manager’s leadership skills, in the following four areas:

* Increased level of self awareness

* Improved ability to negotiate and collaborate with stakeholders

* Increased courage and confidence to challenge and innovate

* Improved ability to manage conflict

The Executive Coach will take the Project Manager through a journey of self discovery and development, in order to improve their overall leadership skills, and enhance their effectiveness.

Self Awareness

One of the first things an Executive Coach can do is help their clients identify and increase their level of self awareness. Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) in the 1980s and 1990s, one critical component of which is self awareness. There are many assessment tools that can be used to help Project Managers understand their level of emotional intelligence and self awareness. Such an assessment provides opportunities for one to achieve a greater level of self understanding, an enhanced ability to self regulate, an understanding of motivation, and an increased level of empathy and social skills. This can help Project Managers obtain an accurate picture of the phase of leadership development they are in, as well as identify areas that need to be addressed. Executive Coaches will help facilitate and interpret Emotional Intelligence assessments so that the information can be assimilated and action plans put into place to support the overall goal.

Negotiation and Collaboration

Having established a starting point of self understanding, another critical skill for a Project Manager to strive for is the ability to obtain positive results from different people, in a variety of teams, with potentially very different styles. I had a boss that called this ‘style width’, meaning the ability to understand the style and motivation of the person you are dealing with, and to modify your own style in accordance with that, to get a more positive outcome for everyone. Using the foundation from the EI assessment, an Executive Coach can take the Project Manager further in understanding his or her own ability to stretch their style in negotiating with others.

Another way to improve the Project Manager’s ability to negotiate is through tools such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Not only does this deepen our understanding of our own styles, but also about enhances our ability to recognize different styles in others. I once attended a Project Management class on negotiation with a team of Project Managers that I led, during which an MBTI assessment for each person was performed. It was enlightening for us to see the various types in the group and effective in helping us use the results of the assessment to find different methods and language in working with others in the organization. The net result was that all of us improved our ability to negotiate and collaborate with other people and groups.

The data gathered in such tools can form the basis of a personal development plan to enhance negotiation and collaboration skills. Executive Coaches operate as Thought Partners to talk through ideas and approaches, help identify obstacles and blind spots and provide support and feedback while the client tests and refines techniques over an extended period. In some circumstances an Executive Coach may have the opportunity to observe the client in action as the client puts the new techniques into practice in the work place. The Coach will then provide constructive feedback in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, safe environment. This process will allow the client to move from the starting point of self understanding, through increased self development and improvement in his or her leadership skills.

Courage and Confidence

Two important characteristics of being a successful leader are courage and confidence. This can be illustrated in numerous forms… risking an innovative approach in order to meet a tight deadline, pushing back assertively and appropriately when a Business Sponsor attempts to increase project scope, negotiating with another possibly difficult part of the organization in order to obtain resources and tools that the project needs. An Executive Coach will assume the role of Trusted Advisor and Thought Partner as the Project Manager continues to develop these characteristics, and guide the Project Manager as he or she tries various new techniques.

One technique that can be particularly helpful is Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI can be used at either the organizational or individual level and is the process of carrying strengths and positive experiences from the past into the present and future in order to bring about positive transformational change. This reminds me of the ‘Lessons Learned’ process that Project Managers implement with the very crucial exception that the sole focus of AI is on what worked well, how we can do more of that in the future, and how we can implement a more positive culture moving forward.

An Executive Coach helps Project Managers apply this process to themselves, using a series of visualization exercises to identify peak experiences from the past. As part of this, the Project Manager will identify the strengths that were used in those peak experiences, and how they might be used in the present and future. This focus on strengths results in a significant increase in a client’s confidence. It can also be combined with another assessment tool, ‘Strengthsfinder’, based on the book by Tom Rath. The premise is that it is much easier to do more of our strengths than it is to ‘fix’ our weaknesses, and so a person’s top 5 strengths are identified out of a possible 34. Combined with AI, this is a very powerful technique in building a Project Manager’s courage and confidence. An Executive Coach will guide the Project Manager through the process, helping define action plans for designing and sustaining change for the future. An Executive Coach will work with the Project Manager to tie these techniques into the established coaching agenda and support them as they use them to meet their development and project goals.

Managing Conflict

Managing conflict is another challenge for Project Managers. Matrix projects can result in conflict just by the very nature of the organization structure. Add to that the natural tendency of any team to experience conflict at some point, and skill in conflict management becomes critical to a Project Manager’s success. Strengths Deployment Inventory (SDI) is a particularly helpful assessment tool in that one aspect of it looks at how people operate under conflict. This can be invaluable in identifying not only our own style under conflict, but also the styles of others. An Executive Coach can then help a client understand the effective use of different language or behavior in order to navigate through conflict to obtain a more positive outcome. In another project management class that my Project Managers and I attended, this tool was used to help us identify our three stage ‘conflict sequence’, i.e., the stages in which we react to conflict. It is much easier to resolve conflict when a) we can resolve it in the initial stage before the conflict becomes too deep and b) when we understand the conflict sequence of the people we are dealing with. Some of us predicted our conflict sequences; others were surprised. All of us learned a new way to communicate under conflict, and all of us achieved better resolutions as a result.

So in summary, what is in it for a Project Manager who works with an Executive Coach? The relationship between Executive Coach and Project Manager is lasting, and so the Coach can help a Project Manager use the training that they have been through, and the data gathered by using assessment tools, to bring about sustainable changes to meet their goals. The Coach can empower a Project Manager to grow from someone who has the technical skills to manage a schedule and budget, to a strong leader who delivers successful projects not only using technical skills, but also their newly honed collaboration, negotiation, influencing skills, with a confidence that allows others to recognize him or her as a true leader. The Executive Coach will keep the client aligned with the overall coaching agenda, as well as support the client in institutionalizing the changes over time. As the learning becomes sustained, the challenges of project management lessen and the rewards increase.

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