Leading With Expertise

A Project Management Article by By Michelle LaBrosse, CCPM, PMP®, and CEO of Cheetah Learning, LLC (PMI® -REP)

There once was a time when you could take management classes in school, become a manager, and move up in the leadership ranks of your company based on your ability to coordinate others’ knowledge and efforts to achieve strategic objectives. Those days are coming to an end.

The “Agile” mindset, along with cross-functional and self-organizing teams, has become more pervasive in organizations as businesses see the bottom-line benefits of these practices. This means that project teams no longer need a manager to tell them what to do; instead, they need a leader to inspire them and help them achieve their goals.

Now, more and more companies are finding their leaders among those who have a deep understanding and expertise in their field. Companies seek out someone who knows how to make decisions based on sound knowledge and collaborate with others, rather than being able to decipher a management report. Being able to talk the talk no longer cuts it in the leadership arena today – you need to walk the walk.

This is especially true in the government sector as Agile principles and practices have taken a more prominent role. In 2012, The U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO) released a report providing the best practices for Agile Development that included the practice of “empower[ing] small, cross-functional teams.” As the government sector becomes more Agile, the need for leaders with expertise in their chosen field will become greater. As we start the new year, it is a good time to take a step back and ask: how expert are you?

Being an Expert

So just how do you become an expert? A study titled “How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience and School,” issued by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, spelled it out in a way that really made sense to me. Among other findings, researchers John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cockling reported that people who are experts have a few distinct characteristics that coincide with the traits of a good project manager. Here are some of their findings below:

  • Experts are easily able to retrieve important aspects of their knowledge.  In your field, what subject area are you most competent in? Project managers in general are often seen as experts; when setting up systems to organize assets for any given project, they are able to easily retrieve information and know how to use it. You can use both your PM skills and subject matter expertise to be a competent leader.
  • Experts organize their knowledge better, and their organization of information reflects their deep understanding of the subject matter. Project managers create, as a matter of course, a “Lessons Learned” at the close of each project, which organizes intellectual capital.  Capturing and organizing institutional memory allows project managers to build on knowledge and experience instead of recreating the wheel each time.
  • Experts understand context. Novices make decisions or arrive at conclusions based on one or two isolated facts and a handful of assumptions. Experts have a wider field of experience and a more expansive context.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, experts notice patterns and features that beginners don’t. To see patterns, you have to recognize them. To recognize patterns, you have to see a lot of them. To see a lot of them, you need a lot of experience. Experts spend hours in their field of study – they are not only learning, but also applying concepts. This means that to learn effectively, textbook and classroom learning must be augmented by the application of lessons – connecting the material to real world scenarios in order to move beyond basic understanding to superior knowledge and, ultimately, to expertise.

Becoming an Expert Leader

Once you have achieved expert status in a particular domain, you are in a much better position to become a leader with real influence and power. Beyond just being an expert, being a leader means providing inspiration and motivation for team members. The biggest bang for your buck in improving your leadership is to improve the way you manage your projects and project teams. Follow these four C’s to help you become a better project manager and leader in 2014.

  1. Critical Thinking

    We live in confusing times, in which the possibilities to exploit new opportunities are endless and information regarding these possibilities is equally prevalent. Critical thinking comes to play in deciding if you should take advantage of an opportunity. Just because you can, should you?

    In their book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori and Rom Brafman examine the finding that more dissension creates better decision-making in leaders. With the plethora of data and information available, as a leader, you need everyone’s eyes and brains to decide on the critical information that should be used to make sound decision.

  2. Compassionate Communication

    Effective leaders are great communicators. Great communicators are, by their very nature, good at connecting with others. Being able to walk a mile in another’s shoes (i.e. being compassionate) is the simple formula for compassionate connection. The rule of thumb is that project managers spend 90% of their time communicating. Therefore, the best project managers are also the best communicators. It isn’t just project managers’ communication with others that is important - good leaders get everyone on their team communicating effectively with each other, as well.  

    Part of being a good communicator is in being cognizant of not only yours, but also of your fellow team members’ innate strengths and challenges. If you are not communicating in a way that makes sense to others, it doesn’t really matter how good of a point you have, or how thoroughly you’ve prepared your information. When it comes to communication, follow the “Platinum Rule” by treating people how they want to be treated. Do they process information better visually through an email, or are they audio learners and need a phone call to really get it? When you are able to accurately read others, you can better bring out the best in both yourself and them as well on capitalize on each individual's’ innate strengths.   Since 90% of the job of a project manager is communication, the ability to read people is crucial.   (Learn more about how you can master this technique to accomplish your goals FAST at www.cheetahcertifiedpm.com).

  3. Calm Focus

    Great leaders keep their project team members focused and functioning optimally. These days, this battle is doubly hard as a result of waning attention spans (due to technology overload) combined with anxiety over job security and career outlook.

    You can see the decline in attention span in examining your own experience - when was the last time you read a complete article in a newspaper from start to finish? Obviously, if you’ve read this far in the article, you might not have attention span issues - but for the US as a whole, distractions are a real issue. Businessweek reported that distractions cost US businesses $650 billion a year. These distractions – such as texts, Facebook and Twitter updates, and emails – are the antithesis of calm focus, and need to be reigned in by actions taken by you, the team leader.

    To focus the attention of your project team, concentrate on aligning each team member’s goals (long- and short-term) with their personal self-interest. When leaders help their team members recognize and address their own needs, they can better help match the work required to their actual interests and capabilities. Team members will also be more energized and engaged in producing their deliverables, as they will have an increased sense of meaning associated with their project tasks. Additional ways to keep your team members focused include:

    • Challenging them to push their own boundaries and capabilities. People are the happiest when in the aggressive pursuit of meaningful goals.
    • Managing the deliverables, not the work (this means letting people get the job done in their own way).
    • Being in the trenches with team members in getting tasks done when required.
    • Encouraging collaboration rather than isolation.
    • Investing in training and professional development. This provides an investment in the project team’s future, as well as showing your team members that you value them as individual contributors.

    While tweeting and texting might be a good way to communicate, make sure that the people who are doing that use it in a directed and focused manner related to the projects. Also, be conscious of how much time people spend communicating on multiple threads of emails and through instant message chat. Good leaders walk the talk on shared group standards of the use of communication technologies.

  4. Credibility - Lead with the Proper Credentials

    There are two primary roles of today’s leader. The first is to select the right projects to work on to meet their operation’s strategic objectives. The second is to make sure those projects are completed on-time and within the budget. Communication, critical thinking, and maintaining a calm focus improve your leadership effectiveness; the challenge comes in when you are up against other leaders who also have the credentials that set them apart as a certified Project Management Professional (PMP®). Yes, you know you can get the job done, but in an era when most people change their careers every seven years, how do you prove to others that you know what it takes to get the job done? Especially when, everywhere you turn, organizations are increasingly requiring leaders to be PMP® certified?

    Most employers either prefer or require a PMP® certification when hiring people to lead their projects because it speaks to the capability of an employee to hit the ground running in a new organization with minimal hand-holding.  

    The more credibility a leader has, the higher compensation they command. The salary of leaders who hold the PMP® credential depends on their experience and the type of job and employer, as well as their company’s size and annual gross sales. The career with the highest reported PMP® salary in the United States, according to PayScale, is IT Program Manager; people in this position make, on average, $148,381 annually. The average project manager (holding the PMP® credential) has a salary overall of roughly $100,000. The PMP® makes the difference, as many major countries report a $10,000 salary advantage over their non-PMP® counterparts. As an expert leader, remember that, while credentials drive credibility, credibility drives compensation.

Take time this year to become more knowledgeable about your chosen domain and to improve your PM skills so that you can lead with expertise in 2014.

About the Author

By Michelle LaBrosse, CCPM, PMP®, and CEO of Cheetah Learning, LLC (PMI® -REP)

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun and fast.  She is the founder of Cheetah Learning, the author of the Cheetah Success Series, and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring Project Management to the masses.

Cheetah Learning is a virtual company with 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide. To date, more than 30,000 people have become “Cheetahs” using Cheetah Learning’s innovative Project Management and accelerated learning techniques.  

Michelle LaBrosse

Recently honored by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), Cheetah Learning was named Professional Development Provider of the Year at the 2008 PMI® Global Congress. A dynamic keynote speaker and industry thought leader, Michelle was previously recognized by PMI as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the world.

Michelle’s articles have appeared in over 100 publications and web sites around the world. Her monthly column, the Know How Network is carried by over 400 publications.

She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Manager’s (OPM) program and also holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton.

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