The IIL Blog

LinkedIn Newsletter | Join our Email List
Developing Project Leadership Skills One Boat at a Time

Developing Project Leadership Skills One Boat at a Time

Image by Stephanie Aaronson

By J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, CSM, GWCPM, SCPM   |   Executive Vice President – Enterprise Solutions, IIL

Susan Crown is a philanthropist. A member of the billionaire Crown family, she has been donating impressive sums to various social and other causes for years. As she admits, her donations went to organizations with very broad social objectives where it was difficult to discern if her money was really making any difference, and that bothered her. That’s all changed.

Recently, she started a more targeted approach to philanthropy. Rather than trying to address “boil the ocean” big objectives, she decided to donate to organizations “that seek to foster character traits like grit, empathy and perseverance,” traits that some studies have shown are determinants of future success. I read about her efforts in “A Philanthropist Drills Down to Discover Why Programs Work” by Paul Sullivan, the “Wealth Matters” columnist of The New York Times.

She identified eight organizations that target their work on character building and donated $100,000 to each one. The only stipulation was that over a two-year period they had to report three times on what they were doing and how it was working.

One of those organizations is the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory where 36 participants a year from poor sections of the city work in teams to build wooden boats. Brett Hart, executive director, comments that as a result of the glaring educational inequality in the U.S., organizations have responded with programs such as Common Core. Yet, he maintains that skills like “the ability to be adaptive, collaborative, resourceful, are the tools we need to thrive.”  And through his program, young men and women are learning, and practicing, these critical skills as part of their boat-building projects, skills that he knows will carry them through life.

Let me stop here for a minute and ask: Aren’t these the skills every project manager needs to be successful? You bet. But wait, there’s more.

Ms. Crown wanted to apply the lessons learned at the Boat Factory to other organizations engaged in this important, and successful, effort. In short, she wanted to create a how-to-guide, and that’s exactly what she and her colleagues did. Titled “Preparing Youth to Thrive: Promising Practices in Social and Emotional Learning,” the guide was produced with the help of the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, which has developed methods for assessing the efficacy of youth programs.

Ms. Crown and her colleagues discovered that the major skills that needed to be developed were emotion management, empathy, teamwork, responsibility, initiative and problem solving. But there was also one super-skill, as she put it: namely, “agency,” or drive. This list sounds almost identical to the responses I receive when I ask audiences “what are the key skills or personality characteristics of successful project managers?”

So, whether you’re a teen from a disadvantaged background, or a highly educated professional with a university degree, each of us can learn to be better at what we do by developing, practicing and refining a set of personality characteristics just like the ones they’re teaching at the Boat Factory that will help us navigate the vagaries of the world and be successful in life (and, on our projects).

In reviewing Ms. Crown’s list there’s one trait that, based on my experience as a manager–and father–is the most difficult of all to “teach” or even help people practice, and that’s “drive.” The only way I know how to do that is to provide my own personal example to those around me.  If you know a better way, let me know.

How successful are they at the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory? Next fall Jackson Adens will enter Colorado State University hoping to become a veterinarian. I’d be he’d make a pretty good project manager too.

That should make Ms. Crown feel that her efforts are paying dividends and not the kind she sees in her personal financial statements.

J. LeRoy Ward is a highly respected consultant and adviser to Global Fortune 500 Corporations and government agencies in the areas of project, program and portfolio management. With more than 38 years of government and private sector experience, LeRoy specializes in working with senior executives to understand their role in project and program sponsorship, governance, portfolio management and the strategic execution of projects and programs. 

Scroll to Top