PMTips: Today’s interview is with Ruth Pearce, a project manager with an extensive experience of over 25 years in fields like financial services, state government, education and non-profit organizations. She is also an author, group coach, speaker and trainer. Her book Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management has received 5-star reviews from a number of well-established project professionals. As a trainer and coach she is known for helping professionals bring positive psychology to the workplace.
Ruth has spoken to more than 20,000 people in over 45 countries on the topic of Social Intelligence and Mindfulness for Project Leaders. She is also a contributor to several publications, including the PMWorld 360 E-zine, projectmanagement.com and the VIA Institute on Character Blog. Her articles have been published in Forbes and The Huffington Post, and she has appeared on multiple project management podcasts.
Ruth, welcome! Thank you for accepting our invitation and taking the time to do this interview.
Ruth Pearce: Thank you very much, I'm very happy to be here.
PMTips: The story of how you stumbled into project management is quite interesting. Can you tell us about the experience of having to take on the role of a project manager on short notice and how you managed to immerse yourself into the task? In addition, how did it influence your career development?
Ruth Pearce: Yes, that was an interesting story. I was, for those that don't know, I was on a project in New York City, and I was an IT developer and my project manager was sent home suddenly for reasons we won't go into. And the choice the company had to make was whether or not to replace him with another project manager who wasn't familiar with the client and wasn't so familiar with the project, or whether to take someone like me, who knew the project well, that wasn't an experienced project manager, and give me the role of project manager. And they decided to go with the second choice and send over another technical person to join me, because they said I'd already formed a relationship with the clients and was already very familiar with where the project was and all of that. And initially I was really daunted because project management wasn't something I was familiar with, it wasn't something I'd ever considered. Working with stakeholders, figuring out the scope of projects and so on was just not something that had ever been an option I'd considered. But I was kind of excited to do it too, because when it was explained to me what I'd be doing, I realized that I would have a much broader perspective on the project because I would be talking to the technical people and I wouldn't just be talking to my project manager, I'd be working with the clients and working with stakeholders, and sitting with them, and negotiating a little bit on what's included in the project and what's not. And I thought I would give it a go and I wanted to help out in this difficult situation with my colleague being sent home, and so I was sort of excited and nervous in equal measure. It went very well, largely because of other people – people were extremely supportive. I was very open about the fact that this was my first experience of project management and so the client sat down with me and spent lots of time – multiple stakeholders in the client’s organization sat down and spent a lot of time orienting me to the purpose of the project and why the project had come about and any of that context before. So I was very interested in that.
And in terms of my career development, it made me consider a new path. I wasn't really enjoying IT development, coding and testing and stuff like that. I was reasonably good at it, but not great. And interaction with people – which was strange because I'm quite introverted, so constant interaction with people is quite tiring, and yet at the same time it was more interesting to me. And so that really influenced my next steps. What I wanted to do next was this collaborating with people on projects and working together towards the goals, and then really understanding the context of a project, to know why we were doing what we were doing.
PMTips: For more than 20 years, you have had the chance to work on large-scale projects in financial services, software houses, state government, education, and for non-profit organizations. Considering your vast experience, what is your view of the profession? What do you think are the greatest benefits of being a project manager?
Ruth Pearce: Vast experience – that’s a very generous description and thank you. My view of the profession is that we have a great opportunity to change our position. I think traditionally, not everywhere but traditionally, there's a sense of project managers being the people who track tasks and check in with people, and they can sometimes be perceived as a little annoying because they're always checking in and saying ‘Are you done yet? Are you done yet?’ and I think we have an opportunity to really influence the culture in workplaces. I've seen project management teams and large teams where they've really influenced how people work and help people work together in a very positive way. And as you mentioned in the beginning, I use positive psychology and help bring those practices into the workplace. And these small changes that any person can do really make a difference. So rather than having to wait for an organizational shift or a cultural change in the leadership of an organization, I think project managers can influence the ethos of their piece of the organization, in the way that they work with people. And a lot of it comes down to them having self-awareness and having a sort of inclusive approach with people that ripples out, and other people start to follow that model and start working in the same way.
So I think we have a really great opportunity to kind of switch our role and be much more influential than maybe we've been traditionally in the past. And the greatest benefit – I think I already mentioned it – as a project manager you really see a project from all sides, all angles, you become immersed in the reasons for a project, what the context is, and that really helps you tie to the meaning of the project, that underlying purpose in doing a project. And sometimes project managers don't connect with that purpose, and then they may not be the right project manager for the project in hand. But when project managers are connected to the purpose of the project, and they can communicate that to team members, and that builds engagement and builds commitment. So I think that's where project management is going – is much more on this sort of social intelligence, not to say that we're not going to be still a process people, but some of that is going to become automated I think. Artificial intelligence is going to contribute there, but what I don't think artificial intelligence will ever replace is that human capacity to adapt to individuals and respond to individual needs and to engage each person in a slightly different way.
PMTips: In 2011, you and your team received the PMI Distinguished Project Award for your work on the developing of a multi-system integrated testing strategy, for which you acted as a Project Manager. What was it like for the team to have the work you had all done appreciated in such a way?
Ruth Pearce: It was very surprising for people. We had to submit an application, and when it was suggested that we actually send our project in to be considered for the award, people were really surprised that there was such a thing, that you could actually put forward your project and describe the processes that we’d use. And what it was really good for was it gave us an opportunity as a group, as a big project team, to reflect on what we'd accomplished and how far we had come and the adjustments we'd made along the way. And I actually think that was the biggest benefit, but getting the award was nice. The PMI came and that was nice, but the bigger thing was that the process of going forward for the award brought everyone together to reflect on what we had done, where we'd started and what we’d accomplished along the way and it reinforced the relationships on the team. So I don't think it was so much the external appreciation from the organization, it was more the internal effort and the internal reflection and our management. The fact that we've got this put forward and we were given an award made our management look and say ‘Well this project is more than just getting the project done, other things have happened too,’ and so it was that kind of internal appreciation and reflection that really counted for a lot.
PMTips: You have experience as a coach and trainer of both online and in-person courses. What is the difference between both types of courses in terms of their success rates?
Ruth Pearce: That's a really interesting question. When I was considering this I was not sure how to answer, because I think the biggest factor in success, of course, is the engagement and participation of the individuals who sign up for courses. People very often are attracted by the description of the course that maybe they think it's going to give them a sort of recipe to tackle a situation or resolve a problem or whatever it is. And people who come to courses with curiosity and wanting to dig deeper, and particularly people who come to courses wanting to find out for themselves how they relate to the content regardless of what kind of course it is – those people will be successful, because they're going to be introspective, they're going to do the work, they're going to probably go beyond what's recommended. And people who come really to get another accreditation, or to put a stamp on what their accomplishments are, are probably going to be less successful, because their motivation is different. Now it's not one size fits all and different people respond in different ways, and in terms of online and in-person, they each have their benefits and their challenges. So online courses are giving people access to so much – it doesn't matter where you are and you can participate in a course.
I've had people who take training courses with me that are dialing in from Australia, we're doing the course at 6 o'clock in the evening and they're doing at 10 o'clock in the morning the next day. It's really the online aspect [that] is very powerful and with the new collaboration tools, like we're using Zoom today – I quite often use Zoom for training classes – and we can be on camera, people can see each other, it can be very, very engaging, so online has that potential of making it very accessible to people. And at the same time there is something about being in person, being in the room and working together with people side by side that just feels very different, and so that is a huge benefit too. It's just that there's a bigger commitment very often if you're going to do something in person, because people have to get to a location and they have to be available at the specific times and so on and that can be a little harder to accomplish. But I think there's a big, huge benefit to being in person and going through at least part of the training live. And what I've seen is a lot of blended courses work well where a lot of it is done online, but maybe at the beginning and the end there's a sort of immersion piece, where there’s a coming together in person. And I've even seen some mindfulness and retreat type work done online and be very successful, as long as the people are committed to spending the time doing it. So it can be very successful, and either one of them can not [sic], so it really depends on the person leading the course and the people participating.
PMTips: How important is it for professionals that aspire to become project managers to acquire any of PMI’s certifications and what are the benefits for project management professionals to keep earning PDUs after obtaining such certifications?
Ruth Pearce: That is a very challenging question, so I don't think I can speak for the world at large, because I think there are differences in different locations and fields as well, sort of whether you're a project manager for healthcare versus a project manager for an education establishment or something like that. What I see here in the US is that it is hard to do things we don't have some sort of certification that appears to give a stamp of approval. And when you don't have something, you have the jobs where they advertise that – it usually will say ‘PMI certification preferred’ but it doesn't necessarily say that you must have one. Now what I have found over the years is there are other organizations that offer certifications that sometimes work better for people just because of the style of them and what they focus on. So the PMI one to me is very much about process and terminology and having a sort of model to follow, but it doesn't say so much about how good you are as a project manager in my opinion. So you've passed a test that says you understand the concepts. There are other certifications from other organizations and ones that come to mind are IPM, but are more personalized and more related to performance and some sort of measure of performance, and they can be very interesting to people as well, and very often they will be treated as an equivalent certification. If you're going for a job, you're saying ‘No, I don't have a PMI certification, but I am a CPO with IPM’ – that will count in many cases. So I encourage people to look around and see what's most suitable for them.
Going back to that last question of what kind of course, what kind of training is going to be beneficial and not just look at the certification itself, but what's the combination of the steps to get there, what will those steps give you in terms of experience and training, and then what will you end up with at the end of the day in terms of recognition of your capacity to be a project manager. As far as the PDUs go, again I think there's definitely a benefit to maintaining PDUs once you've put the effort in to get a PMP, or an ACP, or PGMP, or any of those things. For me personally I don't know why you wouldn't keep it up. There are lots of ways of doing that – to get your PDUs – and it's a pretty long learning cycle, so you have time to do it. And those PDU opportunities give you an opportunity to extend your knowledge, a lot of people are coming to webinars about social intelligence and emotional intelligence for example, not traditionally taught in project management programs, but definitely available in PDU courses, and so then you can expand your training and keep your certification current at the same time. So I think if you have a certification that really makes sense to continue and do the PDUs and look for different ways of keeping your certification current.
PMTips: You are an advisory board member, consultant and trainer at the Institute for Neuro and Behavioral Project Management. In your experience, can you tell us how human factors affect the project outcome?
Ruth Pearce: I think human factors are just the biggest thing, definitely. There's statistics that show that 30% of a project success is determined by process and 70% is related to human factors. Now that study was done – I can't immediately think of the name of the person – but the study was done in a particular context. It wasn't across all types of projects, but it's still a really great indicator. And if you just think about how a project works: we collect information from stakeholders, we work with colleagues to make the project happen, and the interactions that we have with people really dictate the outcome of the project, whether the people are listening with openness and curiosity, whether they're open to the suggestion that a project needs a change or that maybe the project doesn't make sense anymore, whether people are wedded to what they originally committed to.
When you look at things like human biases; confirmation bias means that we tend to put more emphasis and give more weight to information that confirms what we already believed, and we give less weight to things that challenge our thinking. Being aware of those kind of things is very, very important on projects, because that's the kind of thing that gets us stuck in a project that isn't going to be successful because we're finding it difficult to hear the evidence that things are going wrong. So I think that those human factors – there's the positivity bias, we all experience it, that idea that something is going to get done much more quickly than it ever is done, so we tend to underestimate the time it’s going to take to get things done. When we're looking at the sort of consequences of the project, we very often only look at the first-order consequences, we want to get this done and this is the benefit we're going to get, we don't think about some of the second and third-order consequences, and that's human nature that we have a tendency to focus in certain ways. There is a great book by Carole Osterweil, who's a British author, about ‘walking in fog’ (see Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience: A Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog) and she talks about the effect of what we know from neuroscience and what that has to do with the way we run projects. And it's a little tiny book, it's about 40 pages, but it gives you a really great overview of how human processing, mental processing impacts the way we tackle projects, and I just think it's a great book for people to look at in order to have just a basic view of what we are up against: when we sit down with a group of people there's group think, there's all sorts of things, and just being aware that those human factors come into the decisions we're making can help us move towards making better decisions, and therefore getting better project outcomes.
PMTips: You are the author of Be a Project Motivator, a book for project managers who want to lead and engage teams and who want to experience greater personal engagement. What is the best way for project managers to become great motivators?
Ruth Pearce: I think the best way is to spend time getting to know the people we're working with and engaging with them where they are. It's something that's often said in coaching and I think therapists use it as well: where is the person, where are they at, really spending the time to sort of get to know them. I'm not saying you have to become their best friend or anything like that, but just observe some key things about them. And this is, again, when I tend to use character strengths, because they're very straightforward and the VIA character strengths are very easily observed and are a great way to connect with people because they're kind of the core of who someone is. But taking some time to spot what's important to a person, what matters to them most, and then referencing those things so the person really feels seen and appreciated, and in particular treating the person as a whole person. You may be dealing with them in a certain role on a project, but they have other parts of their lives outside of that role. They may play different roles in other projects, they may have certain responsibilities at home, family life, friends, activities they love to do. Really connecting with that whole person sort of automatically gets them more motivated and more engaged with you because they feel seen and appreciated as an entire person and not just as a commodity that serves a purpose on a particular project, and that to me is the simplest thing.
Get to know yourself, get to know the people around you a little better and take a moment to appreciate things about those people that are maybe beyond just the role they play in the project, and you'll see that the people blossom. They seem to grow when they're seen in that way and it's very motivating, and it's not just motivating for them, there's an effect on us as well, it feels good when we spot positive things in other people. And it's not to ignore weaknesses, it's not to ignore challenges, but to start from that position of something really strong and positive that you see in the person in front of you, it just makes a really good connection with them.
PMTips: In this book, you speak to project managers and teams about social intelligence, communication, character strengths, team building and mindfulness. How can people that work in teams become more engaging with the people they work with? Is it possible for introverts to enhance their communication skills as well?
Ruth Pearce: That second one is a really interesting question. I'll very briefly answer the first one. So the first question about how people can work – I sort of touched on it in the previous answer, but I think if you could only choose one thing, if someone was to say to me ‘What's one tool I should use?’ I would say take a look at character strengths. They are very clear, easily observed, there’s 24 of them, we all recognize what the words mean, we have a sort of intrinsic sense of what each of those strengths is, and with practice they're very easy to spot, and you can't go wrong. They're all positive, so if you say to someone ‘I really saw your kindness today,’ and they don't typically think of themselves as a kind person, no one's ever going to turn around and say ‘I don't want you to think I'm kind,’ or ‘No, that isn't possible,’ they're going to be pleasantly surprised. So I think the character strengths is a really great way for any team member to become more engaged with the people around them, and you'll see that it ripples. If you do it, you'll see that it spreads from one person to another.
In terms of introverts, I will say the same thing, character strengths are great because it's sort of a roadmap for making connections with people where it can be a challenge for introverts. It's hard sometimes to sort of push oneself to make a connection with people. And for project managers who are introverted – they can be extremely effective project managers and at the same time, especially on big projects, it can be quite challenging just because of the sheer number of people that you're interacting with. And coming from that position of character strengths, what strengths do you see in this person today, what's one strength that you noticed in your interaction with them, and then tell them about it, and it's this sort of almost like a formula that can become very not automatic, not autopilot, because that wouldn't be mindful, but it can become more and more comfortable as you use that technique of ‘What did you see? What did that look like in terms of a strength? Why did you appreciate it?’ and just make this habit of once a day picking one person and giving that feedback. And again you'll see it ripple, which feels very good. People will start to do it to each other, and as you get more comfortable with it, it becomes more natural, you start doing it without having to sort of plan it and think it, and you're automatically making a connection with people which makes communication so much more straightforward. So I find that introverts actually really love working with character strengths because it gives them, as I say, a road map to make that connection with people that seems straightforward.
PMTips: You are a certified coach trainer at the Center for Coaching Certification, where you lead Certified Professional Coach (CPC) and Certified Master Coach (CMC) training courses. What would your advice be to project management professionals that would like to step up and share their expertise with others but do not know how to begin?
Ruth Pearce: I think one really great way to explore possibilities is to connect with some sort of professional organization. So in my particular case I'm located somewhere that has a very active, pretty large PMI chapter. It's a fantastic group, and they're very open to suggestions and ideas of new things to bring forward that maybe aren't typical for a project management organization to explore, because they're always looking for new experiences for people and new ways for them to explore them, their thinking and so on. There's also organizations like Toastmasters, the international speaking organization, is another great place to really sort of look into how to present information that you have and where you might present it, how do you bring it forth and so on. I know in the US there's the National Speakers Association, and I'm sure there's equivalent places in other countries as well, and other organizations, but find a professional organization. Some of the Human Resources organizations are really open to people coming in and speaking, so explore those professional organizations. And also another favorite for me is to connect with people on LinkedIn. I've found that I've made some really, really good connections through LinkedIn and had some really interesting opportunities. It takes time, it's not something that happens overnight and people tend to focus very much on how many likes they are getting on their posts and things like that. I've found that – someone posted this on LinkedIn the other day – that it's the people who quietly appreciate your work that you get the biggest benefit from and it's absolutely true: I will get contacts from people who will say ‘Have you thought of doing this?’ or ‘Do you have any interest in…?’ and it's a new way of bringing forth what I do. So exploring outside of your current organization and looking for other ways to build a network – for a while I was a member of the Elevate Network, which was a women's network in the US – things like that, finding a network that supports the thing that you're interested in and then building connections through them is a really great way to bring forth your expertise in new ways.
PMTips: As a representative of women in project management, what would your advice be to all women in leadership or to any woman who aspires to build a career in project management? How can women gain self-esteem and feel empowered in both their personal and professional lives?
Ruth Pearce: One thing I would say is to read some of the articles about some of the recent research on leadership and the qualities that women bring to leadership roles. There's a change going on at the moment I think, in terms of understanding who the most effective leaders are. And there's a lot of focus now on things like humility and social intelligence and connecting with people, motivating people, understanding their motivation, and not just pushing people to do things a certain way or to do certain things, but to sort of partner with them and bring them along with you. So it's more of a collaborative leadership style than a sort of ‘the leader being in front, leading the way.’ And women traditionally, and I don't want to generalize because it depends on the person and everyone's an individual, but women's roles traditionally have been those sort of collaborative roles, where kind of a lot of women are brought up in a way that means that we partner with people, we work alongside people, whether that be our children or our partner or whatever, and we can bring those things that are core to us into our leadership. I think the biggest thing is being authentic and not taking on a personality that we believe is what a leader should look like, but be the leader we can be. And being a leader isn't necessarily being in charge of a whole organization, or even a whole project or program. Sometimes being a leader is about taking the lead on a small core thing within a project and making a difference, so look for those. Looking for those opportunities where you can lead some part of something rather than feeling like you have to get to the top of the mountain right away. And what you'll find is as you lead more small things they add up, you know, and you find yourself moving up the mountain.
And in terms of self-esteem – I keep coming back to character strengths, but knowing, going and doing your character strengths survey or something similar, and just reinforcing what those core attributes are that you have that are strengths in you, and then understanding how you can use those strengths to good effect, really build self-esteem. We all have all of these 24 character strengths to some degree, and we have some strengths that we hold very strongly and use most of the time. What can you do with those? How do those strengths help you? Every leader is different, there's no magic recipe that says this person can be a leader in my opinion and that this person can't. It's knowing how to use your strengths in a leading way effectively, as I say, be the leader that you are, not the leader that someone else says that you should be, you know, being true to yourself.
PMTips: What advice would you give to all young people and professionals who wish to advance in their career and become successful project managers?
Ruth Pearce: Be patient, network with people, take on different opportunities for projects, get a wide range of experience of projects, even if that means maybe taking on a pro bono project or something that is very different, so that you experience different kinds of people that you're going to work with, and also you experience different pressures and different environments. Different environments work different ways in terms of the speed that things get done and the budgets that are available and so on. And really understanding those things is really helpful and then really focusing on people. I think successful project managers are those who really understand their people: learn about social intelligence, learn about emotional intelligence, learn to see the strengths that people have, connect with people on that strengths-based level as often as you can, as early as you can, so that it becomes second nature. And you'll find as you move through your project management career – that will pay you dividends. It's about the people in the end and what they will get done, and when you really connect with people they'll run through walls for you. And as a project manager you can't do better than to have resources that will go that extra mile and really put in the extra effort, and it's about connection with people, it's not so much about process. Different processes work just as well as each other, different projects need different levels of process, but all projects need connected, engaged, committed people to get them done.
PMTips: Ruth, thank you for joining us today. It was a wonderful conversation.
Ruth Pearce: Thank you very much, Ana. I enjoyed being here.