Did you know that executive education programs include project management? Thanks to the work of David Barrett, one of Canada’s leading entrepreneurs in the project management industry, that’s a reality. He created the Master’s Certificate in Project Management at York University, now offered across Canada. He also started Project Times, Project World and other resources for the profession.
In this interview, David shares his perspective on the state of project management and how to engage with strategy effectively. Read on to learn about David’s books, his podcast and where he sees opportunities for continued leadership.
Introducing David Barrett
1) How did you find your way into the project management world?
Early in my career, I had a role at Symantec where I had the responsibility to sell a MS-DOS based scheduling tool. In order to understand the customer’s needs, I started to learn about project management. In the 1990s, I saw a great boom in the demand for project management education and tools. Many in the business world were upset about the very high failure rate for projects and hoped that better tools and training would address the problem.
I also played a central role in running project management websites and conferences including Project Times and Project World. The conferences I started in project management and business analysis have now expanded to locations across North America.
2) How did you become involved in project management education at York University?
In the mid-1990s, there was great demand for project management education in Canada. Many companies here were sending their staff to the United States to get trained. As soon as I understood this opportunity, I started to look for ways to address it.
The inspiration for the project management program for executives at York University came from Executive MBA (EMBAs) programs. These programs are designed around the schedule of busy professionals. I approached several institutions and York had the greatest interest. The first program had twenty two students; the program quickly expanded into other cities across Canada.
[Editor’s Note: The Master’s Certification in Project Management, an 18 day program, is currently offered in Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton. For further details on pricing and the program’s faculty members, visit the Centre of Excellence in Project Management).
3) What aspect of the project management field excites you the most?
The maturity of project management is exciting to me. We’ve laid the foundation so that means there are opportunities to do more. Once upon a time, the discipline of project management was unknown. Today, many organizations understand the value of project managers. That means we can move forward to deliver even better project results.
I’m also excited by the opportunity presented by retiring project managers. That’s why I started the PM People website. It connects experienced project managers with volunteer opportunities.
Growing Into Leadership
4) How can project managers grow their leadership skills?
It starts by getting hit with a board! There are still some project managers out there who don’t understand the importance of learning leadership skills. Fortunately, a few organizations are starting to understand that project managers are strong in execution and building teams – that’s a valuable quality in leaders. The upcoming Boomer retirements will create a leadership vacuum. Individuals and organizations need to address that reality.
5) Executive sponsor engagement in projects is widely considered vital. How can project managers better understand executives?
First, project managers need to understand what directors and executives do all day. It may come as a shock, but your $40 million project is not the only concern. Most executives are concerned with profit & loss, the share price and other metrics that impact the entire organization.
Executives and sponsors speak a different language. I call it CxO language. Executive life is a whole new ball game and a whole new way of thinking compared to other people in the organization. My workshops and some of my other work is designed to help project managers learn these skills.
Strategy for Project Manager
6) How can project managers engage with project sponsors strategically?
Project managers need to approach their sponsor relationships scientifically. All too often, project managers approach the relationship as an afterthought.
They need to ask, “what does the project sponsor consider to be success?” The only way to find the answer is to spend time, at the beginning, getting to know the project sponsor. Ask about their schedule, seek to build common ground and find out what else they have going on.
Tip: Acknowledging the relationship is important. You can use phrases such as “This relationship is new. Let’s start on the right foot.” to start the discussion.
7) Corporate strategy documents are sometimes difficult to understand and apply. How can project managers better align their daily project work with strategy?
This is a challenging question! Many organizations have a grey zone between the CEOs and CxOs propose in strategy and the reality of day to day work. Top management has significant responsibility to ensure that strategy is clearly communicated and understood throughout the organization.
I’m currently working on a book to further explore the question of strategy. To find out further details about the book when it is published, check my website.
8) What person or book did you learn strategy from?
Mona Mitchell, who teaches at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, and consults, has done excellent work on the intersection of culture and strategy.
9) What projects are you working on today?
As an entrepreneur, I’m constantly looking for opportunities and starting work on new ideas. In January 2014, I moved my focus to professional speaking which includes a lot of work with PMI Chapters. I’m also staying active in my role as Program Director at the Schulich Executive Education Centre.
In addition to the above projects, I continue to write books. I’m currently working two books: one on strategy and one for business analysts.
[Editor’s Note: Information on David’s two books can also be found on his website: The Keys to Our Success: Lessons Learned from 25 of our Best Project Manager (published April 2013) and
The Power of the Plan: Empowering the Leader in You (published Jan 2013).
10) For readers who want to get in touch with you, what’s the best place for them to go?
Past episodes of my podcast have included interviews with Linda Vella (a project management consultant) and Wendy Woods, who focuses on mindfulness at The Potential Project.
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