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Eddie Kilkelly


Managing Director

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Training support for senior managers – what needs to change?


Insynergi's Eddie Kilkelly highlights the need for training at every level of business.

Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) have high-level accountability when it comes to programme and project management in an organisation. Not all will have the same range of experiences as there are a number of ways by which SROs reach this position of seniority. They may take the functional route – for example a HR or finance specialist promoted to a senior level within their department. They may be a successful project manager who rose through the ranks into senior project leadership or they may be a fast track graduate who reached a senior level more quickly than the functional specialist or star project manager. Depending on the route they took to become an SRO, they may need training and development, but traditional training courses are often not appropriate to deliver this.

All three will have a good understanding of leadership, but from very different perspectives. The senior functional leader will have a day job and is likely to work within a culture where they lead a team that generally behaves as directed. The experienced project manager is likely to have reached his or her position through having a hands-on delivery approach, while the fast track graduate may have racked up a broad range of experiences and a wide theoretical knowledge in a short space of time. While the fast-track graduate will have been introduced to project management, it is less likely they have spent any time immersed in it.

SROs from all backgrounds will have built up similar levels of competence and expertise in many aspects of project management, but the key is to determine the significant differences when planning how best to support SROs. Of course, at this senior level SROs are likely to feel that they are well qualified for their role and are liable to underestimate the differences involved in being an SRO on a major transformational programme in comparison with what they have done before. The aim is to help SROs determine the appropriate level of involvement for them in a project or programme so that they do not approach it expecting to lead it or understand it in just the same way as they have done in their past roles. 

SRO skills shortages

Addressing SRO skills shortages need to be carried out with extreme sensitivity. There are generally three key steps to identifying and dealing with SRO shortcomings:

  • The first step is to develop a clear definition of the role of the SRO and be clear about how that role relates to the other project related roles so that there is no overlap.

  • Then take a look at the three key areas of competence: behavioural competence – how do you become an inspirational leader?, contextual competence – do you understand the world of programmes and projects and where you fit? And then technical competence – do you understand what your project manager is doing? Depending on which one of the routes the SRO took to reach seniority, competence levels will vary. Someone who came through the project management route might need development in the behavioural competencies, while the fast track graduate may have a high level understanding of all of it, but lack practical experience in a project environment. At this point it can be constructive to use a tool to carry out an objective assessment of the levels of competence.

  • Finally, having identified the gaps, active learning on the job will plug most of them. At this level of seniority it is reasonable to assume an ability to grasp concepts quickly within a short timeframe as these individuals are very time poor. The best way forward is to work one-to-one with individuals, perhaps working through practical examples and carrying out observations with a coach or mentor. There will be some core topics that the organisation will want to bring every SRO up to speed on, such as governance, programme reporting, new technical concepts, or Agile methods, so regular webinars or short presentations in person to all SROs can deliver this.

The business case

It is important not to discount traditional training methods altogether when addressing SRO competencies. In one survey [1], 83% of SROs and sponsors or executives of programmes and projects said they thought that training in how to understand the role of the SRO, programme management language and how to lead in a programme environment would all have been useful when they first took on the role. At the end of the day the SRO is accountable for the success of projects and programmes – it is in their interest not to fail.

If an organisation looks at the amount of money they spend on transformational change, which can range from hundreds of thousands to billions of pounds, then spending a few thousand pounds on training a select few at senior level who hold the balance between success and failure is a logical step and difficult to argue against. Taking a fresh look at supporting senior project managers need not be a costly undertaking, but the rewards can be high.

[1] Survey, entitled ‘Benchmarking Programme Sponsors' Attitudes’. Published in March / April 2009, Moorhouse Consultancy.

Eddie Kilkelly is managing director of insynergi. Insynergi is part of the Outsource Education Group

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Eddie Kilkelly

Managing Director

Read more from Eddie Kilkelly

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