Frequently, we see leaders within an organization who mean well, but who simply don’t have the skills to be able to carry out their roles on projects. They might be senior managers who have a lot of experience, but who have never been in the role of project sponsor before. They might be board members who want to make the right strategic decisions but don’t know what information to ask for from the PMO. Whatever the reason, sometimes we need to upskill the people at the very top of the organizational hierarchy.
Hands up who wants to tell the CEO that she is due for mandatory project sponsor training?
Yes, we get it! That’s a difficult conversation to have. However, PMO leaders can’t avoid having these discussions if they want to improve project delivery and success rates. We all know that executive leadership support is crucial for the successful delivery of projects. And many of your executives will know that too. So why is it so difficult to launch PMO training for executives?
The Training Challenge
There are two main reasons why people are reluctant to set up a training program for executives.
First, there’s the belief that executives know it all already. They have reached their position in the organization because they have great leadership skills and they know their subject matter. That all might be true – we don’t doubt that your top leaders are great people – but many of them won’t have first-hand experience of sponsoring a business critical change project, precisely because that level of project is only sponsored by someone at the very top of the business. They won’t have first-hand experience because they couldn’t have got it at earlier points in their careers.
Added to that, many leaders don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t have the answers.
Second, executives are busy people. When was the last time you saw your managers going on a training course? Of course, some organizations do invest in top management training programs from business schools, or executive mentorship programs. But project-related training doesn’t always feel like it fits into that category.
Ironically, PMO leaders have far fewer difficulties in organizing training programs for project delivery staff and other managers at team leader level across a business. There’s genuine belief and acceptance that adequately training staff who work on projects is a given. We need people who understand change management and have good people skills, as well as the technical knowledge to drive project management tools like Primavera and use advanced risk management techniques.
Let’s look at how we can break down the barriers to executive level project training.
Make Training Personal
Think about the kind of training you can offer senior leaders in the business. Classroom based training is always one of the options considered, but is it most effective for engaging your executive population? Maybe not. Think about mentoring programs, or personal coaching. This kind of training feels less exposed and your executives can ask questions in a safe space. Providing a personal training environment can have better results and encourage managers to actually take part.
On the job training, offered by the PMO team to the relevant managers, can be done and can be your only option in smaller organizations. However, be sensitive in how it is delivered so that you don’t inadvertently make executives feel as if they are going back to school. The PMO is perfectly placed to do this, because you can approach the training from a position of support for the sponsor in their new role.
Get a Mandate
The fastest way to getting buy in for executive level training is to get a mandate from above that makes it compulsory. If your CEO specifies that everyone sponsoring a project needs to attend a half-day training course or meet with a dedicated coach, then there is no excuse for non-compliance, and no one feels that they are being singled out for “development”.
Make Expectations Clear
This works even if you don’t have the budget, mandate or time to offer individual training. Create a guide for project sponsors, setting out what is expected of them. This can highlight, for example:
- The impact of slow decision making
- What they should expect from a project manager
- What kinds of questions they can use to challenge project managers
- How to interpret project data, and common glossary terms
- What they should be doing at project kick off
- The rationale for strategic alignment and the link between project sponsor engagement and successful delivery
- How the PMO can support
And so on. A sponsor induction pack can be a way to disseminate high level training to everyone, especially if it also includes contact details for the PMO and how they can get further information.
Get an External Agency to Suggest Training
It’s often easier to have the difficult conversations as an external consultancy. Somehow it feels less personal for the people on the receiving end, if the discussion comes as part of an enterprise analysis of training needs analysis, for example.
When you are really struggling to improve the skills of the people above you, it might be time to call in an impartial person who can help you have those discussions with senior managers. You might be pleasantly surprised at how willing your executives are to take on project sponsor training, for example, if someone external to the organization suggests it would have a dramatic impact on project success rates.
However you go about improving the skills of your executive and project sponsor community, you should definitely have a conversation with those who need support. The risk of not doing so is that your projects suffer delays, poor decision making, low morale in the team, and maybe even premature closure due to lack of prioritization and resourcing. Even reluctant business leaders will be able to see that is not a good position for any organization to be in.