Expert Interview Series: Colin D. Ellis of The Conscious Project Leader

Colin Ellis is the author of The Conscious Project Leader who helps organizations around the world transform their cultures to deliver projects successfully every single time. We had a chance to speak with Colin about how project managers should focus less on the project itself and more on the people tasked with completing it.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to focus your career on project management?

Like most people in the late 1990s I fell into project management by chance. I was working for my local newspaper in Liverpool, UK, and just happened to be good at creating great teams. The computer systems that the newspaper group used weren’t Year 2000 compliant, so I spent 4 years travelling around the UK and leading the first true digital transformation projects.

I’m organized and self-aware, and I love connecting people. I love to make the complex simple and the challenges that projects bring. I think I’m fortunate in that I excelled at leadership and culture in a time when we didn’t really know how important these elements were to delivering projects successfully. In the 20 years since my first day, I’ve never stopped looking for better and smarter ways to get things delivered.

Since your website says that companies must “accept that the world has changed and that the people that lead projects… need to change too,” could you tell us what you mean by that?

When I first started work in 1987, my Dad told me that it wasn’t important to be liked; it was important to be respected. The managers that I had over my initial 10 years in employment were by and large table-thumping men who exercised “authority” to get things done. I still see a lot of this behavior in our profession.

Project management is and always will be a people business. It relies on strong relationships and leadership by example to create the kinds of environments where people can be the best versions of themselves.

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, we as a world are no longer tolerant of old-fashioned values such as greed and power. We want greater equality, diversity, and empathy. We want understanding, flexibility, and the opportunity to work with people with strong values who are kind but also still uphold a vision of success. We have a global network to give us insights into smarter ways of working and technology to put this all at our fingertips.

The project managers who don’t succeed have not yet caught up. They don’t know the new language that is being spoken or the behaviors they need to continually demonstrate. Consistent project success doesn’t come through following a process. It comes as a result of consistently good behaviors. Some organizations are still struggling to see this.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that novice project managers make?

There are two types of project managers: academic and practical. Academic project managers learn about good practice methods, techniques, how to capture information, and how to communicate to people. Practical project managers just do it. They don’t care too much for process or planning, trust their instincts, learn as they go, and try to never repeat the same mistake twice.

The biggest mistake project managers make is sticking to what they know best. Our profession is awash with certified professionals who don’t know how to amend their communication style or manage upwards, or on-the-job project managers who don’t know how to plan, manage risk, or maintain a schedule. To be successful, you need to put the time and energy into doing both consistently well.

Why is emotional intelligence an important trait for a project manager to have?

Projects are all about people. If you’re not able to be the best version of yourself at all times, you’ll never create an environment in which every member of the team (including yourself) can do their best work.

Gaining the buy-in of the team doesn’t happen by telling them to follow a process. It happens by having vision, being empathetic, actively listening, showing gratitude, looking for better ways to do things, and by making mistakes and not repeating them!

As Anthony Mersino said in his book Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers, “Learning emotional intelligence often includes unlearning what we were taught and breaking unhealthy habits. Project managers who master emotional intelligence will set themselves apart from other PMs.”

Do you have any suggestions for project managers on how to motivate team members who are producing subpar work or missing deadlines?

Firstly, in order to be able to motivate or performance manage someone effectively, you need to ensure that you clearly set expectations face-to-face (not by email) to begin with. Without this, team members will never fully understand what’s required of them and the importance of it to the project.

Secondly, you have to understand which communication style works best with the individual and talk to them in their preference, not yours. If they’re introverted, be slow and deliberate and produce evidence to support your case. If they’re an extrovert, then be more animated and show passion for the improvements required.

Thirdly, confirm the conversation with an email that clearly sets out what is required and when, as well as what behaviors you would like to see. If the work is still subpar, then alternate action must be taken by utilizing members of the HR department. Tolerating poor performance will undermine the leadership qualities of a project manager.

Finish this sentence: “When students are taking a project management course, the most important takeaways they should bring with them to their workplace are…”

“…that without trying, failing, and then trying again, you will never master the art of project leadership.”

What are the skills and qualities that will be the most valued and sought-after in the project managers of the future?

Categorically, the ability to lead and create great cultures. According to the Deloitte Human Capital Trends survey in 2016, leadership and culture are the two biggest challenges that organizations around the world face.

The best projects are a result of the person that leads it (leadership) or the environment they create (culture). Get those things right and continually evolve them, and you’ll have a job for life!

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