How to Progress to the C Suite in 7 Steps with Dee Morrissey

Are you a Project Manager wishing to further your career? In this episode, Dee Morrissey, a corporate educator with a long career in project and program management, shares 7 steps Project Managers can take to progress to the C Suite.

During the interview, Dee also shares some great insights into the evolving role of the Project Manager.

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Highlights from Episode 73: “The Project Manager’s Path to the C Suite”

Can you share with us a brief overview of your background?

Currently, I am a corporate educator, but I started my career many months ago as a project manager and then I progressed to the program management and I worked in large companies as well as small mum and pop shops, as well as, most recently, in consulting and coaching environments. Educationally, I have a degree in English and I am a postgraduate masters in business.

In terms of project management then, one of the things we had discussed before this interview was, how it fits into the gig or consultancy economy, can you share your thoughts on that?

In terms of project management, even though the traditional project life cycle for many large projects can take years. What we’re finding is that in the phases of projects, project managers, assistant project managers are swapping in and swapping out. As relevant, demographic changes in terms of the industry or changing, too.

The industry itself as project managers will know when a test is changing, we have a move away from the waterfall into the scrum and agile environments. Even though the likes of PRINCE2 are still incredibly powerful and every month I deliver at least once PRINCE2 course. We’re finding that the gig economy is changing the nature of what project managers actually do and how they are employed.

In terms of your own role as a female project manager, is that role changing as well in terms of leadership and is it evolving?

Project managers are becoming project leaders. As women, it’s a wonderful opportunity actually to progress our careers. We are demonstrating the change and the very nature of the project is to deliver change. If we quote the old PRINCE2 of what is a project, it’s temporary and it delivers change. And women are actually incredibly effective in that role actually. And where we’re seizing opportunities more. I see it in my, in my working life.

The diversity and the leadership are often spoken about as the kind of buzzwords these days and how important are they for project managers specifically?

For projects and free innovation, for problem-solving, we do actually, in my opinion, require diversity. We are very fortunate in Ireland. We are demographically changing and we have a lot of people coming from all sorts of areas of the Planet, with all sorts of experience. And in terms of projects, we as project managers driving the projects actually benefit from all of this, wearing different perspectives that people from different backgrounds bring. In the same way as innovation and creativity benefits from that. And in terms of leadership, it’s a phenomenal situation we have in Ireland now at the moment, that we really have a lovely wealth of talent coming up through the ranks.

You had mentioned to me before the role of the chief project officer as a relatively new thing?

It’s something that the PMI the Project Management Institute of been writing about I suppose for the past 5 to 10 years. And it’s slowly emerging that projects are becoming such a crucial part of the way we do business. But having a seat at the big table, at the C suite table is really becoming normalized in some scenarios.

Now it’s kind of interesting because, as you probably know, we have so many big elements of change hitting the industry in general, whether be the destruction that heading in the banking sector, we have the information security issues that are constantly hitting us, we have the GDPR projects, are big-ticket items. So, it makes sense now to have this role of the chief project’s officer. And it’s a very interesting one because it’s an awful lot connected to governance and then there’s a nice connection back to the PMO the project management office, as well.

Do you see like CEO and CTO, or are you starting to see more CPOs on the org chart if they still exist?

It’s slow by the C suite by its very nature it is changing traditionally. Membership of the C suite came from functional roles, even the CEO who they were predominantly coming from finance because they could drive cost-cutting, maybe perhaps from sales because they could drive growth, research and development was another source of CEO’s as well.

Because, of course, operations run the heart of a business but this is changing now, we are expecting those on the C suite to be more cross-functional to be involved in strategy themselves, not just relying on the CEO to do the strategy. So, we expect finance leaders to be involved in risk management. We would expect sales, of course, to be involved with the CIO in terms of big data to drive marketing, to drive sales. So, the rules on the S-suite are changing and across projects are such a big part of organizations and how they’re moving forward. It makes sense now to have project represented on the C suite, too.

In the terms of the PMO then would the head of the PMO or the chief, if you like, of the PMO not be by default the CPO or how does it fit in with the PMO then?

That depends on the nature of the organization, what they’re doing. Some organizations are staying with the PMO as their main driver of governance in terms of projects. Smaller organizations or organizations that are really driven by projects are looking at the chief project’s officer. And other organizations are looking at a hybrid of the two. So, it’s context-driven, but it’s an option and it’s a very interesting one. And of course, for project managers coming up to the ranks, it’s offering a lot of opportunity in terms of their career prospects.

Because by tradition they didn’t really guess necessarily up by the default anywhere seated at the table, at the C suite table?

They didn’t because you’re seen as somebody who is a project manager and that would be your last, so to speak, and you were involved in the iron triangle of the cost, quality and time in terms of delivering a change. It was very challenging to progress. I’ve seen it happen but it’s rare to actually go from project manager straight up to the C suite.

But it, as I said, this is changing now because organizations are dependent so much on the projects. Now because projects are so prevalent, we’re delivering strategic change down through the ranks via projects to get things into business as usual. As we’ve spoken about project PMO project management offices are very standard in many organizations. Those projects are essential to how organizations do business, to deliver a competitive advantage, to get ahead in the market.

The role is evolving into, from much for sharing at the operational level projects are critical and of course, all project managers think that they are critical but now you’re seeing it evolving to that higher-level?

Let’s take it back a step and a look at an organization. So, we started the top with our C suite delivering the visionary strategy. But that cannot just be dropped into business as usual. That has to be put into a program and then into a project, to facilitate to actually becoming real. Now we have so much strategy involved in the organizations that projects themselves weren’t for the retention.

And especially in terms of governance, that’s a huge issue in terms of managing projects that we have consistency, and that we have policies and standards, as regards how we gonna do things, how we’re gonna role things out. Even if we just look at projects as regards the GDPR which goes live in 2018. The amount of governance to get that in place in even the medium-sized organization is huge.

In terms of PMs listening and if they want to get into that C suite, what specific steps of training would you recommend?

I bring people back always to seven items. Seven items for them to think about and to possibly develop. And I’m not just talking about getting training, I’m thinking about education. Training gives you a competency, education is where you develop knowledge. Seven items that I really recommend that people kind of think about and maybe do a bit of work on their own strategic thinking and how to execute on strategy, what strategy is.

Now you can get that by even doing a PRINCE2 course, you can get the basics there. But in terms of actually visionary strategy, you might want to do some reading. Yeah, of course, in technical and technology skills and it doesn’t matter we like it or we don’t, we all work at IT companies at this stage as we spoke of earlier, before this call will be sorting out the technology. Technology is huge. The third thing people need to develop is their team and relationship skills. That’s huge.

We’re always dealing with people. We need to be able to communicate and present, that’s a very substantial part of project management and leadership in general. And especially if anyone wants to get the C suite they have to be able to communicate and present both on a one-to-one and a one-to-many basis. Change management that we are in a constant state of change in business, at present as we all know, so to manage the change is the key item and projects deliver on change. So there’s a natural connection there.

And of course, there are many courses on change management for people, to dip into, there are plenty of books, there’s plenty of literature. Then there are some interesting ideas, things that actually, the phrases that are bandied around so much, they possibly have lost meaning. The two last items I suggest to people to focus on the integrity and by that, I mean ethics and meaning what you say and that sort of personal development, that thinking about how you comport yourself perhaps, which ties in with the last and most important one.

Developing leadership skills. What is leadership? Well, this is where I challenge people to actually figure it out, to go do some reading and figure out what it means for them, and how they might actually want to develop leadership skills because you can. There’s a myth that leaders are born. Leaders are born, but you can, as an individual work and develop leadership skills, too. And project managers because of their ability to multitask and deal with people and communicate have a lot of potential in that area. And perhaps it’s worth sitting down and doing the homework to develop it further.

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