People skills pay off

In a previous job as a consultant at Cap Gemini America LLC, John Reaves went through a comprehensive project management boot-camp program that among other things, involved learning all about critical paths, Gantt charts and business processes.

In a subsequent job as an engagement manager at General Electric Co., he received training in Six Sigma quality processes and the corporate giant’s own renowned project management methods and metrics.

But Reaves, now a senior IT project manager at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., says he honed his most valuable project management skills — navigating tricky politics and relationships and communications — on the job, not in the classroom.

“The project manager is that individual who the CIO beats up on, the business manager beats up on and the team beats up on. What I learned in the trenches is to manage all of those respective relationships. You have to go in with a thick skin,” Reaves says.

An ability to quickly read and resolve emotionally charged situations and to take calculated risks are also high on his list of skills fine-tuned on the job. Reaves recalls one particular horror story in which he was brought onto a project that was late, US$1 million over budget and with a client who was ready to sue Reaves’ employer.

The first thing he did was carefully read the project contract, combing it for rhetoric that could be used as leverage to buy more time. He then reviewed all the deliverables with the client and began negotiating new delivery dates for specific pieces of the project.

Three months later, the one-year project, which was renewable for five years, was back on track, and the client renewed with Reaves’ company for each of the contract’s subsequent years.

“I looked at the contract, saw some deliverables that weren’t due immediately so I could shift resources to work on the stuff that was due,” Reaves explains. “It was a calculated risk. Today, I continue to take so many calculated risks that I wonder if I’ll be employed tomorrow. But that all comes with the territory.”

How to choose and groom great project managers:

– Look for experience, which trumps education and certifications.

– Seek out calculated risk-takers.

– Exchange project management war stories with peers.

– Create a library of real-life project management problems and their solutions.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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