Michel Dion on Project Leadership [Interview]

There has been a bit of a leadership theme going on in my writing this year. It’s not a coincidence that it’s becoming more important at work, and it’s also one of the hot topics in PM at the moment. I think project managers are wising up to the fact that following a methodology is no longer good enough – I’ve long been aware that it’s essential to show business value and a link to organizational strategy.

The bigger picture seems to be that the collective C-suite has realized that the delivery of strategy is as important as the strategy, and who does that? Project managers.

Today I’m interviewing an expert on leadership on projects. Michel Dion is the author of Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: achieve better results in a dynamic world, and well aware of the strategic importance to projects and careers of good leadership skills.

Let’s say hello.

Hello Michel. When did you identify as a project manager?

I am one of those who became an accidental project leader. I am first a CPA, a professional accountant in Canada. I worked on projects since July 2000, taking on a management role from 2001. I have been an executive since 2007 in charge of a portfolio of projects.

I started my website on project management in July 2012 and obtained my PMP in early 2014. I value the project management certification. I like the balance and complete model: we need specific expertise, management skills, and leadership.

In your book you talk about technical project management not being enough. At what point do you think project concepts stop helping project managers advance their careers and leadership becomes an essential?

That is a good question. In a sense, the evolution of a career in project management follows any other career. Your focus initially starts with performing the tasks you have to do. And the more you excel at this, the more likely you will get more complex tasks, responsibilities, and even promotions.

As you get promotions and work on more complex projects, you have to learn new skills. At first, you have to learn to manage a set of tasks and supervise others. This includes the classic challenge of learning delegation, which is not unique to project management.

For a while, this path can work with only acquiring more technical expertise: becoming a better accountant, a better software programmer, etc. But not all issues can be solved with how-to knowledge. At some point, you face more complex issues, with no clear cut answers, which cannot be simplified by a set of procedures, tools and techniques. You need to find a different solution, add to your toolbox a new set of skills to continue to evolve professionally.

You mention delegating there. Why is delegating important for project managers?

Delegation is an interesting topic. Delegation is often viewed as “you versus them”: who will do the tasks. Is it you or them? It is much better to focus on the optimization of team performance. The goal is to achieve more as a team, and as a project manager you are also part of the team.

Project management is used for projects of different size. For epic projects, you will need a large project management team dedicated to management, communication and coordination activities. For small projects, the project manager will contribute significantly to the completion of tasks.

Delegation should be adapted to the size of the project and optimize the contribution of all members of the project. The focus must be on results, not on micro-management. You bring leadership by aligning people around a vision and enhancing strategic thinking and decision-making. Let your team members contribute to their full expertise.

Delegation is also not about abdication. You can still collaborate with your team members, coach them, collaborate, resolve problems as a team, etc. The project manager should add value to the project. She should not just be an expensive mailbox, sending tasks to others and receiving updates.

OK, let’s get back to leadership. How do you define leadership?

The definition of leadership could be a full-time research project! In project management, leadership is often used with the definition of motivating team members. At the executive level, including in leadership development program, leadership is often focused at the strategic thinking level: the ability to create a vision, create strategies, make decisions, influence others, resolve problems to achieve an objective successfully.

My book is designed on the executive definition of leadership. I think defining leadership as only team motivation is very narrow and insufficient. Often, the problems that the project team will face are not related to lack of motivation. They require vision, strategic thinking, decision-making, horizontal analysis, relationship management. The team is looking for a leader to assist them, support them and guide them to success.

I don’t think team members in 2015 will be much impressed by a project manager who can only provide cheers and motivation for the team.

Complex strategic projects require a leader.

Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers
Michel Dion’s book, Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers

You mention making decisions as part of the role of a leader. How can project managers develop good decision making skills? Is it really something you can practice?

It is essential to learn decision-making. Lack of timely decisions is one of the major cause of project failure. Improving our ability to make decisions will enhance our success. It will also help us obtain decisions from others (clients, sponsor, governance bodies) when they are the ones who should make the final decisions.

Making decisions is not a mystery concept. We make decisions constantly in our lives. Some are simple, some are more complex. In some cases, there is one good option. Often, you have many good alternatives. And in other cases, we will never really know and have to decide anyway.

In our career as project managers, it is the same.

Decisions can relate to expertise, management or leadership. The expert decisions tend to be easier, even if very complex. At the strategic level, it requires more courage. There are many unknowns and grey zones. But a leader cannot be indecisive. People will only follow and trust a leader if they trust her vision, judgment and ability to make decisions.

It is important to ensure timely decisions are made: by us, the team, the sponsor, stakeholders or governance body. This role of making or facilitating decision-making is strategic and essential.

Finally, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing project managers today?

The biggest challenge is identified in the subtitle of my book: “Achieve better results in a dynamic world”. The pace of change is faster than ever before. We can observe this with the pace of discoveries in science and technology, economic and social changes.

We used to be able to obtain a degree and make a living with the knowledge for a full career. The knowledge acquired by new students would be about the same as ours. Now we see transformational changes more frequently.

As such, we have to develop personal agility: an ability to adapt, learn, and success in a complex and fast-changing world.

I invite project managers to add leadership skills to their expertise and project management skills. It will help them achieve better results in a dynamic world. It will also help them enhance the value they bring to clients and stakeholders on projects.

Leadership development is a personal journey and a lifelong journey. But it is also a journey that opens the door to numerous opportunities.

Thank you, Michel.

About my interviewee: Michel Dion is a CPA and PMP, living in Ottawa, Canada. He is also the founder of a website on project management, Project-Aria. The name of the site is a mix of his interests for both project management and music.

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