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Why the 2022 CEO must be a project manager

By Ashwini Bakshi, MD, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, Project Management Institute 

Executives have rarely been so methodically tested in the modern era as during the COVID-19 pandemic. From moving entire teams to remote working environments to working to on-shore manufacturing, executives in sectors and geographies around the globe have coped with unbelievable pressures with a common approach – effective project management.  

Empathy Driven Leadership

In prosperous times, CEOs can maintain focus on delivering growth and a relatively straightforward ‘scorecard’. During the past 24 months, however, the role of the executive has broadened to cope with complex and unpredictable challenges. The role now demands a much higher ‘cognitive bandwidth’ and the ability to bring together diverse and dispersed teams from across the business and from other organisations to work together towards successful outcomes. 

The ever-evolving Floor Is Lava-esque post pandemic landscape has meant that CEOs need to be open to a new set of skills to help business survive and recover. In addition to being a sharp strategist, the executive must also be able to lead and manage the organisation as a megaproject out of distress and the pandemic.  

A reliable Internet connection and a laptop is how most people visualise the necessary components for effective WFH. The executive’s view under the hood of the bandwagon though has many moving parts like health and safety, compliance, values and ethics, culture, financial targets, customer service – the list is endless. Prior to the pandemic, the management of these functions was easier with all employees under the same roof. The pandemic blurred this vision with a distributed workforce, now the de rigueur. 

That’s not all; a torrent of megatrends – digital disruption, global demographic and economic shifts, labour shortages, civil, civic and equality movements and climate crisis – have driven additional challenges and “Black Swan” events. The executive’s ability to maneuverer to a vantage point has become limited. In a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) executives must lead by adopting and embracing project management skills i.e., they have to learn the art of delivering outcomes on time, to specifications and on budget all the while managing risks and keeping stakeholders aligned.  

 Seeing Projects Through A New Lens

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The sought after executive education qualification, the MBA, and other leadership programmes offer a good grounding in a wide variety of disciplines – understanding markets, identifying organisational core competencies and strengths that shape the strategy. However, in addition to this grounding, the ability to learn, unlearn and learn again – a core strength of a project manager – is a skill executives must hone as they steer their organisations towards the path of recovery. 

If an MBA is essential in drawing a strategy, then a Project Management certification can help executives actualise it. To the extent, a strategy is only as good as its execution. 

The shape and form of the recovery has no precedence; the closest reference we can draw is from the subprime financial crisis in 2008. However, the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic is unparalleled with the virus leagues ahead of any efforts to thwart its transmission.  

The crisis has forced new responsibilities on executives – among them, the role of a project manager and the role of projects as vehicles to navigate complex change. Organisations have long turned to project managers and professionals with project skills to help them turn ideas into reality. What truly sets this community apart is their focus on implementation – figuring out how to make something concrete out of an audacious goal. 

Executives who embrace project management, use it as an organising principle, and as the means to deliver important outcomes could well turn this “responsiveness” into a competitive advantage. 

Any executive project management program must take a holistic approach and focus on providing executives with the right mix of skills relevant to a post-pandemic world. The skillset is fundamental at a time when they are finding themselves years ahead of where the business could have been had the outbreak in Wuhan not transformed into a devastating pandemic. 

This change of pace places new demands on executive learning and adaptability – making project management a “must have” competency for all executives. 

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