Coaching Project Managers is great value

Business coaches are legion, executive coaches are everywhere, so why is almost no one coaching project managers, the people delivering the vision?

I’ve compiled some case studies of the work I’ve done with project managers in a wide range of industries and the huge benefits resulting.

I’ve done a comparative analysis of  traditional face-to-face training courses, e-learning and coaching:


Ah, I hear you think, coaching is much more expensive! Some of the executive coaches (and some of the business coaches) may be; I was shocked to hear the fees charges by one franchise.

It’s not the case for our offering, certainly – some project management courses are very expensive for the limited value they deliver.

It seems a no-brainer to me!

If I’ve got it wrong, please tell me.


Workload management – the 3 Ds

It’s a common saying that if you want something doing, give it to a busy person, but accepting work can quickly take you beyond your capacity for sustained performance, disappointing everyone and making you ill.

As we surge back into the whirlwind of work after the relative peace of the Christmas break, I thought it would be a good idea to recap on my disciplines for holding workload in control, the 3 Ds:

  1. Decline: the simplest, though not the easiest, is to say “No” to extra work. If you are not accountable for this work, and don’t have the best specialist skills, you should reject responsibility for it and recommend who it should go to
  2. Delegate: if the work naturally sits with your responsibilities, ask whether it needs your personal input, or whether it can be delegated (limiting your input to tasking and monitoring).  Teaching one of your team to do it may be the right strategic choice, but that is more time-consuming, so do that when you have the chance
  3. Defer: be effective in prioritising work – when does it really need to be done by? When can you realistically do it?  I worked in one organization where all IT work was prioritised “1” i.e. all top priority, so they introduced the “1*” priority – higher than “1”. Within a month, all requests were priority “1*”.  Work must be spread out over time when there are finite resources – push back those tasks that can be

Of course, this doesn’t mean what is left is always achievable, but if you don’t try, things go pear-shaped much quicker!

Clinging to the Greasy Pole

I just read an interesting post on great leaders knowing they are imperfect. It is mainly about people who are NOT great leaders, discussing the over-compensation that can result when people feel out of their depth.

I think the truth is that all of us know we have our weaknesses – the issue is whether we have the courage to forgive ourselves for having weaknesses, and having faith in our colleagues to recognize that our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses.

It is a characteristic of many heroes that they are flawed (and this is most clearly portrayed in comic book superheroes, which Hollywood is currently obsessed with). It is their flaws, paradoxically, that makes us love them as it allows us to empathise with them.

It is sad and worrying to see (highly-stressed) managers, having shinned up the greasy pole of promotion, trying not to delegate any responsibilities because any lack of control by them would be a sign of weakness. Once they reach their limits, this has a number of serious consequences:

  • Things get done slowly and badly, as that manager is a key pinch point on everything
  • Some things don’t get done at all
  • A defensive position means positive changes/opportunities are rejected
  • Staff have no opportunity to develop and grow, so the good ones leave
  • The staff that stays switches off their initiative and just turn the handle when they are told to
  • Everything falls apart when that manager gets sick or goes on holiday
  • Their defensiveness is fed by the cordial dislike of their staff

Of course, this manager goes around claiming to be a great hero – single-handedly coping with the inadequacies of their useless team and taking all the credit for any success. They may get promoted for it, but it cannot last forever, and it’s no fun for anyone.

The really great leaders are loved for their human failings, as well as their super-human strengths.

(I’d like to thank Video Arts’ video on coaching (Robert Lindsay, John Cleese and Jan Ravens) which I saw many years ago and which left an indelible impression on me!)

Performance versus reliability – a people issue too

I was just watching an old TV programme, in which the central character is highly-driven, very effective but is not promoted because his superiors don’t consider him reliable. They don’t trust him to ALWAYS do the right thing.

The concept of “a safe pair of hands” is familiar to most, and seems to be a vital element of career progression.

The analogy to quality in products and services suddenly became blindingly clear – a “quality” person is someone who meets requirements and is fit for purpose, not necessarily a high performer.

I was first introduced to the eternal trade-off between absolute performance and reliability by a senior manager from a manufacturer of razor blades, over 40 years ago – he explained that their blades were quite intentionally not as sharp as their competitors, but were more consistent.  He claimed that a good blade from their competitor would give a better shave, but a poor blade would create havoc with the skin. Sooner or later, every customer of their competitor’s would get a bad blade, and swap brand! This company’s strategy was to catch the others’ customers “on the rebound” and never lose them again through a bad experience.

Likewise, individuals are walking a tightrope in their career; they continue to progress so long as they are reliable, but once they lose that reputation for reliability, their only hopes for progression are if they have an indispensable speciality they out-perform everyone else in.

My motto in stakeholder management is “no nasty surprises” – ensuring that all stakeholders are fully aware of risks, mitigating actions and contingency plans from the earliest opportunity. This isn’t just a project management approach – it’s a personal integrity approach, and builds trust!

Public praising of those who perform – can you do too much?

According to this article by Gretchen Rubin on meeting behaviour, yes, it can make them feel patronized.

I shall have to watch myself, as in a nation full of people who give little or no praise for success, and plenty of vitriol for “under-performance”, I’m very happy to praise people who do well.

Perhaps the reason I’m enjoying my current assignment at The University of Manchester is that I’m working with several high-performing people and I have the chance to praise them quite sincerely. Plus, I’m getting praise back for the team’s progress.

So the bottom line is that praise (where sincere) is a good thing, but be careful not to overdo it!

A great project is like a swan…

From the distance, a smoothly running project should look like a swan – gliding over the surface, occasional flurries of activity as the head dips beneath the surface, or its feathers are preened. Of course, under the surface, the feet are busy paddling away.

Here’s an interesting article giving a slightly different breakdown of the key elements of successful change. The most interesting idea here is the “straw boss”, the person who is the feet of the swan. I’m horrified to think that that is the role I spend most of my time performing.

The other key point though, is the system model (not IT system though!). It is essential for success to think through to the end what the project must achieve and how it can do so. This is the bit that I get a buzz from doing, as it is a much rarer skill than being a good straw boss.