Lessons from Being Thrown into the Deep End

Effective public speaking is challenging for many Project ManagersEarly in my career I was assigned the role of Training and Implementation Manager on a major project for a U.S. state government department. Little did I expect what was about to happen next.

Our firm was the Design / Development / Implementation (DDI) vendor selected to implement a statewide, mission-critical system for the State. I had been recently promoted from the system development ranks to a lead position and was learning my new role as quickly as I could.

The project was funded through a partnership with the federal government. Shortly after I arrived onsite, we were informed that the “feds” were sending a team of auditors to conduct a project assessment and status review. My boss, our VP in charge of our division’s DDI projects, asked me to prepare the presentation. As a newly minted Team Lead, I was happy to do so, and soon had the presentation and transparencies (this was pre-personal computer, pre-PowerPoint, Precambrian) ready to be reviewed by him.

As we reviewed the presentation, he told me that he would be on vacation during the feds’ visit. However, I was not to be concerned. I had been approved by the firm to present the project status to the federal auditors.

Well, three things happened the day of the presentation:

  1. I squeezed twenty minutes of material into the allotted two and one-half hours.
  2. At the end of my presentation the only one still awake was ME! (and that was because I was the only one standing).
  3. That afternoon I sought out an organization that promoted public speaking skills, and I joined it on the spot.

Ben Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” I suppose in some way my VP was practicing the last part of that quote., though it brought back nightmares of my Dad throwing me, at the age of six, into the middle of the river to teach me to swim. Both men knew I would come out unscathed. I just wished I had been as confident.

What if I had not been the type of individual who immediately looked for a solution for my lack of public speaking abilities, knowing then that this would advance my career? After all, training in public speaking for IT leadership staff is not a typical offering by IT firms.

Or, what if I was one to wait until my firm provided public speaking training (of course, on its schedule, not mine)? I would have missed out on an incredible learning opportunity and a subtle turn in my career that has since reaped huge rewards.

What if in my humiliation I would have packed my bags and left the project and the firm? Instead, because of my botched performance, I found my own solution. And I never gave another substandard presentation in a client situation again. But I had to do this of my own volition; it was not supported by my firm.

It is imperative that Project Managers pay attention to the developmental needs of their team members beyond the obvious technology and process requirements. Focusing on the people aspects of project management will reap huge gains for the individual, the project, and the organization.

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