Jun 7, 2016

"The Art of the Possible": An Interview with Dr. Al Zeitoun, PMP

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin in Culture & Change Management, Project & Program Management, Governance, Human Capital, Site News, Strategy Execution | 1 Comment

Our consultants are “transformation leaders.” They show us the potential of the discipline.

If you’ve been following PM Solutions this past month, you already know that we’ve gained a new President. Al Zeitoun, PhD, PMP has taken on one of the roles previously carried out by our founder and CEO J. Kent Crawford.  We’ve welcomed him with a fresh round of strategic planning, which has now moved through three iterations, incorporating input from consultants, trainers, administrative staff and executives. Dr. Zeitoun has a distinctly different leadership style, and I think most of us – being project and strategy junkies, anyway – are energized by the whiff of transformative change in the air.

To further introduce him to our clients, friends and readers, I caught up with him by phone for a brief interview. To prepare, I watched a couple of Business Education Institute interviews on leadership and project managers that he had done previously while travelling for PMI, an organization with which he has long been involved as a volunteer.

Q: Watching your interviews online, I was struck by your idealistic conception of what is possible for project managers and project management. In particular, I liked your explanation of why project management is “a strategic asset.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?

A: I call project management “the art of the possible” and I’ve been a believer in project management’s capability and value for decades. Despite all our progress, I believe we have still not fully realized the potential of project management. In teaching it, we tend to focus on  tactical uses, breaking it down into components, as a complementary discipline, rather than a full-blown discipline.

We continue to struggle to get through to the C-suite. To date, only a handful of organizations have memberships in PMI’s Global Executive Council, for example. You don’t often see CEOs stepping up to say, “our successes are due to project management.”

Why not? One of our limitations is the belief that project management is industry-specific. I found when I tested this theory in my own professional life, moving from construction to manufacturing, that it was absolutely untrue, that the experience of a different industry in fact enriches the discipline.

We are only beginning to have folks go up the ladder from the project manager role. They have moved across organizational boundaries, they understand cross-functional projects and the organization as a matrix, so I feel they are uniquely qualified to lead organizational strategy. Strategy is executed as a set of projects, after all.

So how can we push project managers to their potential? Consultants are on the leading edge of this, especially when they lead, as so many of our PM Solutions senior program managers do, mission-critical programs. Maybe part of it is in the language we use: I would rather we call even our own consultants “transformation leaders.” They are the ones who are showing us the potential of the discipline. They possess the ability to generate a vivid description of the future, the ability to question the status quo, to initiate change. And what else do organizational leaders do?

Great consultants are those who have moved across organizations, industries, systems … they know what is feasible and where the difficulties arise from cultures, politics. They know how to probe for underlying assumptions, which may be faulty. The ideal consultant profile, in my view, is about 30% technical expertise and 70% cultural, interpersonal and leadership skills. This way, going into a client organization, they are capable of helping them chart a course, not just perform a task. One of the things that appealed to me about PM Solutions is that we earn respect by being a true partner, not just a follower.

Q: You said in the interviews that your best advice for leaders (including project leaders) is “be a sponge.” How’s that going these first few weeks with PM Solutions? What are you soaking up about this organization?

A: It’s been good. In this case, the first impressions are cultural impressions. Our people are great assets. ALL are interested in doing more meaningful things. That’s evident in the dialogue we’ve had so far. Everyone shows great willingness to learn, which is good because we have ambitious plans ahead of us, and this will require us going beyond our comfort zones.

Tremendous assets! Our books, our tools, our people, our clients experiences—we have a great foundation. In putting a fresh focus on taking project management to a strategic level, our research and publication has been and will be a differentiator.  Another strength in our culture is the way we partner with clients. So I feel very, very good about where we are.

We have room to grow, of course, for example in terms of transparency. If we really want to change our path forward, we do have to treat PM Solutions as “our own” organization. Not waiting to hear what others have decided, but asking questions, expressing viewpoints. We’ve started on that journey.  I am still on a journey myself of learning to be more open. When a leader stretches, he or she becomes more open to the possibilities in people and in relationships.

Q: A former colleague of PM Solutions Research, Dr. Frank Toney, did a seminal study on how important the quality of humility is for leaders. So it was great to hear you stress the importance of that quality, which you credit your father with showing you by example. A president is kind of like a father to an organization. What traits and habits do you hope to model for PM Solutions?

A: [Laughter] As “daddy” to the organization? I guess that is one way of looking at it. Seriously, though: my dad was a chemical engineer and head of a number of chemical factories. Whether he was talking with guys on the shop floor or to a doorman, or in a meeting with executives or government officials, he showed the same focused attention on that conversation and that person. So what I learned from that was to connect authentically to others, engage others, to lead by example. To say “I’m glad you brought that up” if someone has a criticism or problem. To realize there are better ways of doing things. To acknowledge others’ contributions.

Nothing helps me more than being humbled by the value of what others share and accomplish. That’s how we transform.

Q: Lastly, how about a few words on the importance of strategic planning to engage and motivate a workforce?

If not strategic planning, then what? If, on a personal level, we are not approaching our lives, our work, strategically, then why bother?

Strategic planning is a crucial piece or set of capabilities that link to our core purpose. Individually we have core purposes … our organization also has to have a core purpose. The more closely these link up, the more powerful we become.

One of the most important questions is Why? I live by that question. That’s how you raise the bar in service delivery. If you just ask “how are we going to do this?”  instead of “why are we doing this?” you lose inspiration and energy. And that goes for client strategies as well as our own internal strategies.

My direction for myself is to continue to ask tough questions and look for answers. Understanding the linkage between what we personally do and achieving our strategies is a way to stay focused, a way to organize knowledge.

Our success so far – and it has been notable, don’t get me wrong – but it has been tied to people coming to us to fix a problem, rather than us going to the world with an inspiring message about what’s possible. This is the shift we hope to incorporate in our new organizational strategy, and we hope it will be an energizing shift for associates and clients alike.

So, now I have something to ask your readers. What are your burning questions? How do we become a more creative, impactful organization? I want to communicate with everyone who has a relationship with PM Solutions and PM College. Let’s have a dynamic, open, dialogue and bring forward ways to improve on the great things we are already doing. Advise me how I can help. The more ideas we generate, the better we will connect, the better we will deliver. And become a better version of what we are.


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1 Comment on “The Art of the Possible”: An Interview with Dr. Al Zeitoun, PMP

Paul Ritchie says:

Stoked about the explicit move to strategy execution. Quick question: a lot of PMs ask me “How do I engage with strategy?” However, per the post, perhaps that’s not the right question.

Perhaps PMs need to ask themselves; “Why am I, as a project manager, so integral to strategy execution?”

Posted on June 7, 2016 at 3:28 pm

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