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'Programme management: career catalyst or cul-de-sac?'

Can project management roles offer future leaders the career experience they need for the very top jobs in the organisation?

CEOs tell us that finding the talent they need for the future, including the people who will become the organisation's future leaders, is one of the biggest challenges they face. But are they neglecting a pool of people with exactly the right qualities and experience sitting right under their noses?

Lesley Uren, PA talent management expert, put the questions to guests at a recent event held by PA’s Programme Management practice. Project management professionals, programme directors and HR leaders from major organisations in both the public and private sectors came along to debate the question and share their experiences over dinner at PA’s London HQ.

What characteristics will future leaders need?

The event began with a look at the capabilities and characteristics that future leaders will need to grow their organisations successfully. These include being able to navigate a path through complexity and uncertainty, inspire confidence, ensure transparency, make fast, informed decisions and involve and engage staff. 

Traditional routes to the top, via a succession of increasingly senior operational roles, no longer expose ambitious people to the range of experiences they need to develop these skills. By contrast, project management and programme management roles provide some of the most stretching and challenging roles in organisations today. They are exactly the place where potential future leaders can acquire the experiences they need to support their development.

So why do project management and programme management professionals rarely capitalise on their experiences to take their careers right to board level? Are they failing to grasp the opportunities that are there? Or should we be pointing a finger at businesses themselves, who are squandering a human resource that can deliver precisely the talent they need?

Lively debate among guests at the Programme Management dinner produced some interesting points:

Project management professionals have other priorities

Project managers tend to be focused on delivering their projects. That’s what motivates them. Could it be that they’re not interested in senior roles on the operational side? Perhaps being curious about new opportunities for the business or challenging existing strategy simply isn’t part of their mindset.

When it comes to choosing future leaders, organisations are risk averse

Many organisations prefer to take on people with a track record in the same role in another organisation rather than take a risk on their own people who, though talented, are unproven in senior roles. The experience people gain on projects often goes unrecognised when they move back into operational roles.

Who really has the skills to be a great CEO?

Aren’t the business and financial skills that people acquire through a conventional career path really the ones that a CEO needs? Or do we need to recognise that being good at managing money, for example, is just a small part of the rich skill-set future leaders will need. Won’t the changes in attitudes to work that emerge as a new generation comes to dominate the workplace demand a different type of CEO?

‘Once you’ve delivered the change, live with the change’

A new role combining project delivery and running the project operationally once it’s delivered could give project management professionals the experience they need to take their careers further. The challenge of today’s very fluid operations means they can provide the excitement and interest project professionals thrive on. Operational roles are no longer just a matter of keeping the business ticking over.

CEOs’ own career experience shapes talent management in their organisations 

It’s easy for CEOs to have a blind spot around talent development. If they’ve reached the top via a traditional route, they’ll probably assume that’s how other people will do it too. But mapping experiences, rather than stepping from role to role, can provide a better template for career development in today’s complex and uncertain business environment.

The organisation as a portfolio of programmes

Some organisations are already beginning to run their businesses as a portfolio of programmes; the organisation may have a small core team, but expert teams come together to address a particular need and disband once the need is met. Could this approach, which is likely to grow, make project managers’ experience more valuable at board level?

Organisations aren’t good at sharing talent internally

Moving talented people from one part of the business to another so they can gain the ‘stretch’ experiences they need to become future leaders is often fraught with difficulty. Bureaucracy, a desire to hang on to good people in a particular area, fear of being allocated less-talented people, and resistance on the part of employees themselves are all factors limiting effective talent development. A commitment to sharing talent needs to come from the top.

What’s the incentive for today’s CEOs to develop future leaders?

Businesses that think seriously about how they develop future leaders and that embed talent management practices in their organisations perform better financially than those that don’t. Research by PA proves it. Senior leaders can boost returns by playing their part in the talent management process, mentoring future high-flyers and taking time to really understand what motivates them.

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