Traits of a PMO Leader

Congratulations! You’re a PMO Leader! Welcome to a challenging, dynamic world where you get to delivery strategic value all while having a target on your back. Good times!

Being a PMO leader has been one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my career. Thankfully, I’ve had some really good mentors along the way who showed me being a PMO leader and a project manager are two very different things.

Let me start with a somewhat unpopular opinion amongst folks; you do not have to be a project manager before taking the role of a PMO leader. The PMO leader needs to understand project management and have a passion for projects. However, this role is in reality a business leader and a strategic partner. The PMO leader looks after the business for the executive team and helps drive strategy. If you’re a project management professional that moved into the PMO leadership role, that’s awesome, but not a requirement.

So, what are the traits of a PMO leader? Well, it’s a balance between a strategist, nurse, psychologist, analyst, fire fighter, negotiator, and boxing referee all rolled into one. Feel free to add more (I’m sure there’s some colorful metaphors you can sprinkle in). Here are traits I’ve been taught and learned along the way.

Is Clear About the PMO’s Purpose. PMO leaders will talk to a lot of people. When they do, they’ll be crystal clear on why the PMO exists and the value it will bring to the organization. A leader, any leader, should be clear on their department’s purpose.

Strategic Mindset and Executive Advisor. When I’ve asked senior leaders what they wish project staff knew more about at their companies, quite often the answer revolves around knowing more about the corporate strategy. As a PMO leader, strive to be “at the table”, in the room, or close to someone at the table so you have a direct line of sight into strategic goals. Then, keep those goals front and center. Report on progress against them. If you see something going off the track, be the strategic advisor who brings it to the forefront and offers solutions. If you become the go-to person to help solve problems and keep strategy moving, your PMO will thrive.

Focused on Outcomes. Projects and the project managers who lead them are focused on delivering scope. The PMO leader needs to understand the scope to be delivered, but the focus is on the project Outcomes, or the benefits/value it derives. For example, if you build a highway on time and budget, you’ve delivered the agreed-upon scope. If no one drives on it, there’s not much benefit to having an expensive road no one uses. If the PMO leader doesn’t see the benefits, raise the flag and start asking questions.

Financial Acumen. No, you don’t need to be a financial analyst. But you should be able to read and understand financial statements and be an effective budgeter. One CFO gave me a shirt that said “Have You Hugged Your CFO Today?” because I talked to her all the time. She mentored me on being a better financial steward and how financial metrics drove decisions. Learn the language of finance.

Communication Skills. You’re probably saying “No sh!t Sherlock”, but communications is more than just sending a status report. It’s sending the right communication, at the right time, to the right audience, with the right message/information. If I send a detailed status update to an exec, it won’t get read and they’ll wonder what I’m doing. A one page dashboard gets a look. If I bring up an issue without recommended resolutions, I’m essentially dumping my problems at their feet. If I say I need two minutes of someone’s time, make it two minutes, not 10. Communication is a must, but the right communication is required.

Learn to Speak Multiple Languages. I’m talking about adjusting your conversation between multiple stakeholder groups. One minute you’re talking scope and risk and mitigations with a PM. The next you’re talking strategy and outcomes with an exec. The next, budget and estimate to complete with finance. Maybe the next listening to someone’s personal problem and how it effects their work. A PMO leader doesn’t talk PM all the time, so learn other “languages” of the business.

Proactive. I sometimes struggle here. I can get caught up in something, put my head down and dive in. Then I forget to look up. A PMO leader needs to continually look up and out. They see changes or issues on the horizon and takes steps to mitigate them before the proverbial mole hill becomes a mountain.

People Skills. The PMO leader understands projects are an investment in people’s lives and treats that investment wisely. They value interpersonal relationships, create a psychologically safe environment for PM’s to work in, and promotes a culture of recognition. Honesty and transparency are at the forefront with the PM team and all stakeholders the PMO leader works with. Take time to understand and enhance your EQ. It pays dividends.

Empowering. What’s the best way to trust someone? Empower them to do their work, then trust them to do it. PMO leaders should trust team members to make the right decisions. Give them tools and let them decide how best to use them. I do have a “trust but verify” mentality, though. I trust you’ll do the work, but want verification it’s on track and am a resource to help you if need it.

Negotiation (Fair and Strong). As a PMO leader, you must be willing to have tough negotiation conversations to get the PMO support it needs. Negotiation of people, money, time, and other resources can be tough, so learn tactics early and refresh often.

Flexibility. There are a couple things here. First, the needs of the business change, so too must the PMO’s priorities to support. Take COVID for example. A PMO may go from leading projects to leading the effort of getting hundreds of people ready to work from home for the foreseeable future. Second, we sometimes love our processes too much, even if they’re not the most efficient. If processes are deemed to be ineffective, quickly remove or change them so as not to be burdensome.

Self-Managed. We’re all busy. Ensure your time is spent on value-add activities as much as possible. The “do you have a minute” syndrome can suck a full day away quickly. Don’t let people drop their problems on you and walk away! Delegate when possible. Fight fires when needed. Remember, it’s OK to say NO to work not in support of the bigger picture.

Change Agent. Change will be constant, so be a champion for change. NOTE: don’t have so much change that “Change Fatigue” happens with stakeholders. Be intentional about the change you introduce. I’m not an Org Change Mgmt. (OCM) person, so bring in someone with that expertise if needed.

Hiring. Since we’re talking about bringing people in, let’s talk the dreaded hiring process. First, have triggers that dictate when someone should be hired. For example, every $2M in capex projects requires 1 FTE. Have metrics to justify spend. I believe in hiring for fit and skill, so have your team part of the interview process also. Hire complementary skills (i.e., an OCM person vs. me fumbling through it).

Keeps Ego in Check. I have a theory where a baseball player can go to the Hall of Fame for batting .300, or getting on base 30% of their at bats. So if I’m right 50% of the time, I’m having a good day. For the rest, I have to put any ego aside and do what’s best for the company and team. Remember, what worked at one company won’t work at all of them. Different cultures, people, and success factors. Keep a Day 1 mindset. “I don’t know” is a perfectly good answer and be sure to get help from others.

Understands PMO Buy-In is a Marathon. But, also knows when to sprint to take advantage of quick wins. Not everyone will be a PMO fan. You can’t control that. I had people that didn’t like the idea of centralized project management for over a year until they saw repeated results. Celebrate the incremental wins, and do so loudly. Your haters may still hate, but at least your successes speak for themselves.

Is Decisive. A PMO leader will make a decision based on the information available and can adjust later as knowledge is gained. The don’t take a long time to make decisions or wait until things are “perfect.” Sometimes good enough will do.

Have Fun. I’m a FunGi, not an algae. OK, total dad joke. Here’s the thing; you and your team are going to work hard. Find opportunities to have fun and celebrate as a team. Make it a recurring calendar item. Bring in treats if everyone is in the office (or build delicious cakes). Send $5 Starbucks gift cards and do virtual coffee. Find time to connect and have a little fun!

Congratulations PMO Leader! You’ve obviously made a big impact to get to this stage, so don’t blow it. What other traits would you add?

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Why Do PMO’s Fail?

PMO Failure.

We hear about PMO’s failing all the time. Some fail to deliver expected results but somehow tend to linger on in a semi-effective state. Others suck so bad they just get shut down and disbanded. Stats on PMO failure rates are all over the map based on your definition of “failure.” But one thing is for sure, it happens enough where people in the project management profession talk quite a bit about it.

What follows is a list of reasons PMO’s fail from my experience and what I’ve gathered from others. This is not a comprehensive list as I’m sure PMO’s have failed for reasons many of us can’t fathom. If you have one of those stories, please let me know!

Lack of Strategic Alignment. I have a book idea. It’s written by an executive and it’s called “My Company Has A Strategy But No One Knows What It Is And We Don’t Deliver On It.” Catchy! According to PMI, about 41% of organizations with an enterprise-wide project management office (EPMO) report that it is highly aligned to the organization’s strategy. That also means 59% are NOT. Sure, PMO leaders can blame sr. management and say strategy can’t be realized if execs don’t share what it is. Let me tell you; it’s your job to ask, and re-ask, and ask again! Projects need to align with strategy, and PMO’s need to ensure that happens. Not doing so can lead to failure. Someone will be happy to share strategy with you (probably because their bonus depends on it), so keep asking!

Too Much Focus on the Tactical & Not Enough on Strategic. And since we’re talking strategy, if you’re not focusing on it because you’re spending too much time on tactics, you’ll do the wrong thing really well! That’s still a failure. I have seen PMO’s spend the majority of time perfecting processes and artifacts while executing “pet projects” that don’t add value. PMO leaders must focus on business outcomes. Processes are important, but should not require 100% focus. Again, know the strategy!

Lack of Senior Executive Commitment to the PMO. One of my favorites! The “I think a PMO is a good idea but I’ll just let everyone else take care of it” executive. Sure, they’ve probably heard of this PMO thing and wanted to keep up with the Jones’. But, they’re not fully committed to its lasting success or there to help promote change to the greater organization. They also don’t influence other execs to work with the PMO leader on building its capabilities. Strong exec sponsorship is a must!

PMO Metrics Don’t Show Visible Value. Per the recent PMO Squad report from ’22, 78% of PMO’s don’t have a formal process in place to measure PMO value. So if a company is going to invest a lot of dollars and time into a PMO, shouldn’t it show some kind of ROI? Understand what metrics are important to the company and report on those. Have your own, too. PMO’s that don’t show value eventually won’t be around.

PMO Reporting Level is Too Low. Expanding on the reporting of value, there is another reporting issue I’ve seen; too low level in the organization. Even if this is a rockstar PMO getting projects done, if you’re reporting too low in the organization, those with influence won’t see the value you’re creating. Report high enough up the chain so leaders see the value you’re bringing.

PMO and PMO Leader Unable to Pivot. There are two things here:

  • What worked at one company should work at the next, so follow the playbook. That answer is False! Every company, culture, team, structure, and more is different, so be ready to adjust the PMO approach to the company, not the company to your playbook. Stay nimble.
  • The needs of the business and the market can quickly change. PMO’s that can be at the frontlines of change will be a value-add department. Those that hear of change and say no thanks can be replaced. Don’t stay stuck in current state…it may disappear.

Heavy on Following the Rules Precisely Philosophy & Bureaucracy. If the PMO creates processes and then says “follow them or else!”, you’ll have a problem. PMO’s that are heavy on governance and managing to strict practices make for grumpy project managers, who then turn stakeholders grumpy. If a PMO is also too bureaucratic, it can lead to non-value add overhead, delays, and frustration. I like to think in terms of rules and guidelines. For example, the rule is to have a project schedule. The guideline is make it as simple or complex as the team feels necessary. Not every project needs a 100 line schedule. Also, go easy on the documentation. Some industries require it, some don’t. Find the right level without being burdensome.

Lack of Impact on Project Success. This should be a no-brainer, but a PMO was created to positively impact project success. If that quantifiably doesn’t happen, it’s on the wrong track. Figure out what the issue is and fix it! It’s quite possible the PMO is doing good, but lack of perception the PMO is having visible impact on projects can also lead it down the wrong path.

No Marketing Plan. I learned from one of my earliest mentors to have a PMO Marketing Plan. To keep the PMO relevant, it needs to highlight the wins to a broad audience. If you’re not the type of person who can promote the PMO in the organization, get help! Ask someone in marketing or communications to lend a hand. If the PMO is doing great work, have a marketing strategy to communicate that.

PMO Leaders Over Their Heads. Want to make an exec mad? When they ask “How are you going to do ______?” and you just answer with um’s and ah’s. If you’re new to the PMO game, it’s OK (and encouraged) to get help. You’re going to need support when starting this journey. There’s a healthy mix of tactical, strategic, political, psychologist, fire fighter, and negotiation skills needed in this role. If you take the approach of figuring it out as you go along and hope for the best, good luck. Leadership is critical, so make it a priority.

Underperforming Staff. So you have some project managers working for you. Great! But they’re struggling with their projects and pissing stakeholders off. Not great! The PMO has to train the project managers and provide coaching. Hire experienced PM’s. Fight for a training budget. Making stakeholders mad and underperforming projects don’t make for a lasting impact.

No Concept of Capacity/Resource Management. When a leader asks “What are your people/those people working on? Why can’t we do this [what THIS is] too?”, you need to be ready to answer. Understanding capacity and your finger on resource management helps with those more strategic priority discussions.

No “Customer Service” Mindset. Who are your “customers?” Understand your customer’s (internal and external) expectations and then meeting or exceeding those expectations. Actively listen to your customer’s problems or opportunities. If you don’t have a customer service mindset, your customers will get upset with you!

PMO’s fail for a number of reasons. Again, the list I’ve created isn’t comprehensive but I hope I’ve covered the big ones. If you have a story, please share it!

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What’s Your Risk Tolerance?

I grew up in a bit of a risk-adverse home. One parent was an engineer who had been with the same company since graduating school.  The other was an administrative assistant who worked for the same school for many years.  Both believed you find a job, stay with that job, try not to rock the boat, and retire. I thought this was the way it was done. That is, until I graduated college and started out on my own.

When I graduated from college, my intention was to go into HR. I interned and then went to work for a staffing agency. After six months, I knew the staffing agency life wasn’t for me. So, I took a contract job at a tech company we staffed for. Four months later, that contracted ended and went to another company. My dad pulled me aside one day and said after three jobs, I had to stay put. No one would ever want me if taking more than that. Don’t take the risk!

Then, I wanted to bike in a race with a friend. We signed up. I pulled my old Cannondale out of storage, dusted it off and hit the road. A family member caught wind of my race and said don’t do it! I could crash or even get hit by a car. Play it safe! Don’t take the risk.

Since those conversations, I’ve taken several risks in my career and in my personal life. My resume has a wealth of experiences from consulting across a variety of industries. My personal resume has a number of ultra-endurance races. I’ve written articles that were broadly published and scrutinized. I’ve given presentations to different groups, and admittedly bombed a couple. Each one of these required me taking a risk. Whether putting my livelihood, physical well-being, or reputation at risk, each was calculated and never done on a whim.

Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, and I’m not here to change that. As with everything, personal risk tolerances can change with experience. What I hope is my approach will get you to see risk a little different.

There are four criteria I have when it comes to taking risks in my life. These criteria are for those “bigger” pursuits (i.e. new job, asking for a promotion, publishing a book, big race, etc). Everyone’s definition of risk can be different, so you’ll need to understand what a “bigger” risk is for you.

Throttling up to V1 – Taking Small Steps to Taking Off for Big Things. Ever watch a YouTube video of airline pilots taking off? Or, have you been behind the flight controls yourself? There is a critical point during the take off process called V1. V1 is the max speed you can safely reject the takeoff. It is also the minimum speed you can take off following an engine failure. But once you go past V1, the only option you have is to “rotate”, and take off.

Here’s the thing about V1; there are a lot of small steps that must be taken before you hit that speed. Plane prepped. Checklists followed. Run-ups on the engines done. Lots of throttle to get you moving down the runway before V1 speed is achieved. You don’t just get in and go. There are opportunities to abort early on. If you’re going to ask if I’m a pilot, the answer is no. I have flown in a few single-engine aircraft and helped with the checklists and have taken off a few times.

When taking a risk in your career or personal life, think of it like taking off in a plane. Start by doing little things. Want a new job? Update your resume. Share it with a friend. Talk to the friend. Talk to the friend’s boss. Interview. Get an offer. Accept. Quit old; start new. Even early on during those initial, smaller steps, you could abort. But as things continue, momentum builds until you hit V1. Evaluate your risks by starting small and throttling up as success is seen.

If I Need a Plan B, My Plan A Probably Sucked. In 2009, I signed an employment agreement with a consulting company. I had never officially consulted before (I was brought in to help other depts. from time to time). After giving my two week notice, a co-worker heard I was leaving. We talked and he told me I probably wouldn’t make it in the consulting world and wanted to know what my Plan B was.

At first, I thought the guy was an asshole. I may have even called him that. But in hindsight years later (yeah, it’s stuck with me), his comment made sense. When you’re looking at a risk and making a plan, is that plan thorough enough given the information you have, and can you pivot when the inevitable punch in the face happens? If I need to make a Plan B before I even start Plan A, Plan A wasn’t solid enough. Take the time to understand the risk, make a plan to conquer understanding you don’t have all the information now, and get ready to pivot when necessary.

Is This a TED Talk-Worthy Story, Even if the Outcome Isn’t What I Want? I like TED Talks. They’re short, informative, and concrete. They can be inspirational, emotional, and thought provoking. I listen to TED podcasts and watch them frequently.

If I’m taking a risk, I ask myself; could I give a TED Talk on this? Is this story worth standing in front of others and telling it, even if it doesn’t go the way I imagined? If yes, it’s probably worth pursuing. If no, is it really important to me?

Every risk we take has a story and a purpose behind it. Ask yourself; is this risk worth explaining why I took it in the first place? If it’s worthy of presenting it in a TED Talk format, you can also talk about it with family, friends, and peers. Chances are you won’t give a TED Talk about the risk you undertook, but starting there makes the conversation with a smaller group easier.

Could I Die Despite All My Preparation? This is a legit question I ask myself! Could I die doing this? Or, could I have lasting, life-altering injuries?

Let me explain. I love ultra running and ultra cycling. These events span multiple hours, even up to a full day (I haven’t done a 24+ hour event…yet). But during these events, there are risks involved ranging from cliffs to cars, wildlife to weather, and lots of risks in between. Yes, I’ve nearly mountain biked off a cliff at dusk and have run in the open during a lightning storm. Your day can end badly!

Try as hard as we do to train and prepare for events such as these, you can’t mitigate all risks. Is the risk worth the reward? Do I want to risk a rattlesnake bite in the Badlands of South Dakota or come across a bear on the north shore of Lake Superior? So far, yes I have. Before I hit the “Submit Payment” button to commit, though, I do ask myself if I could die.

Everyone’s risk tolerance will be different. It may start low and go higher over time. Others start high and stay high, or start low and stay low. It’s up to you to define what level of risk you’re comfortable with. I suggest having criteria to help. If you don’t have any, take mine! Or, create your own. But in the end, good luck with all risks you take on.

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Don’t Punish Your Teammates for Being Honest

“Please tell me what you’re thinking. I promise I won’t be upset!”

She looked nervous. She was smart, forward thinking, and I could tell from her body language she didn’t agree with me. But, given the last project manager wasn’t open to feedback and often got upset when he received it, she didn’t want to repeat scoldings that were given in the past.

I have this baseball analogy I frequently tell people. A baseball player hitting .300 could make the hall of fame. That means for every 10 at bats, they get a hit 3 of them. Thinking in those terms, a professional baseball player getting it right 30% is awesome. Therefore, if I’m right 50% of the time, I’m having a really good day!!

For the other 50%, I need help. Therefore, I need those smarter people to essentially take me by the shoulders, point me in the right direction, and say “Go that way.”

In this scenario, we were looking at an overall delivery process. I thought it was pretty solid and told the team that. However, this project manager found an inefficiency with the deployment method. She knew there would be issues and wanted to mitigate them before projects got to that point. I didn’t see it, but as she dove deeper, the issue started coming to light. Yep, this was a problem I didn’t see. I was happy for the feedback.

If you’re in a leadership position, you will likely be giving your team members feedback. But what about feedback to you? Your best employees tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. Honest feedback can be a gift, so when you get it, don’t get upset with the messenger. Here are some tips for accepting feedback from others.

Put your ego aside and actually listen. This one’s not easy and a lesson I was fortunate enough to learn early. Our self-esteem and self-importance is tied to ego, and to have it threatened with feedback is tough. When you do receive feedback, try to put your ego aside and listen intently. Ask for clarification and thank the person giving you feedback. They showed courage bringing it up.

Loyal criticism is a blessing. Your best team members, those who want to see you succeed, will point out blind spots. Chances are, you didn’t even know these existed, but were there. Take this feedback as a blessing! You wouldn’t have seen them otherwise.

The best teams are built on honesty and trust. Honesty and trust are two words not used enough in business. Teams who practice psychological safety where they are honest with each other and value feedback, develop trust that delivers results for the organization. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create an environment where feedback is encouraged.

Feedback are gems, not stepping stones. We all want to advance our careers. We go along thinking we’re doing a great job and then BAM!, passed over for a promotion. When we ask, blind spots are identified that we didn’t even know existed. However, if we were open to feedback, they may be identified. These little gems of information could help us move up in the organization.

If you’re not ready to take feedback from employees, you’re not ready to lead them. If you’re a supposed leader, then you give feedback to employees frequently. Why shouldn’t it be a two-way street? You should get feedback from more than just your boss. If you’re ready to lead people, you need to be ready to receive feedback from them, also.

Feedback is critical to our growth. As leaders, we provide feedback to those who report to us. But as leaders, we must also accept feedback from those we lead. It helps us identify what we may not see and grow. Remember, when receiving feedback, consider it a gift, and don’t punish your team for being honest.

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