4 Project Management Tips From the Pros

Successful project management doesn’t just happen overnight. But if you can master the skill, it can improve IT decision-making and communication, and help foster an effective work culture. In fact, a 2008 study from the Project Management Institute found that the more mature the project management in an organization, the greater the number of intangible values that came out of it -- not to mention that companies at every level of maturity that used project management in the study saw tangible benefits.

No matter what the project, these strategies will help you be the best project manager you can be.

1. Streamline with simplicity.
Have a detailed breakdown of all the elements in a project -- data, products and services -- so you know you’re not overlooking anything, suggests Ginger Levin, PMP, a consultant who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “Assign each work package to a specific individual or organizational unit to complete,” she says. “Then, list activities to be done to complete each work package, determine resource requirements, determine cost estimates, identify risks, and identify possible needs for outside procurements.” Keeping track of every detail will help you stay organized and on top of everything that needs to be done.

2. Identify all stakeholders.
Don’t procrastinate when it comes to involving stakeholders. When implementing a new project, you’ll probably have a list of obvious stakeholders, but it’s the people you leave off the list that can throw a wrench into it in the long run, says Albert Lee, lead analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, an IT research firm in Boulder, Colo. “It’s not just the IT people or management you need to worry about,” he says. “You also have to think about everyone who is going to interact with the project in the long run.” End users should be consulted, he says, as should outside contractors who might be affected by the new project.

3. Set a vision for the whole team.
What will your project mean to the IT department? The answer is probably very different from what someone in customer service or finance would say. This is why you need to make sure everyone on your team, including customers, has the same vision for your project, says Levin.

“Ideally, it should be done at the kickoff meeting with the customer,” she says. “Then, when a scope statement is prepared, include the vision and make sure everyone signs off on it.”

This should include bringing together representatives from every department and making sure they communicate from the start with IT and with each other. “Recognize that communications represent 90 percent of the project manager’s job,” says Levin.

4. Keep an eye on time and budget.
Before starting any project, create time and cost estimates for your project. Make sure you’re tracking progress of both on every task, even those that don’t seem critical. The sooner you can spot time or cost creep, the sooner you can squelch both or readjust stakeholder expectations. “You’ve got to track everything to make sure the process is smooth for everyone involved,” says Lee.

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5 Smart Tips for LinkedIn Self-Promotion

Smartly executed self-promotion is the key to career advancement, and in our hyper-connected days, LinkedIn is one of the best tools to help you do this. The question isn’t whether you should be on LinkedIn, the mega-popular professional networking service, but rather, how to best take advantage of this powerful medium to separate you from the pack. After all, with more than 80 million registered LinkedIn users, standing out among your peers can be a daunting consideration.

"Not doing something with LinkedIn is like leaving money on the table," says Debra Forman, a certified executive coach in Toronto, Ontario. "You don't need to pay for the upgrade -- the free service is all you need -- but the key is getting people to land on your page."

To get the right people to view your profile and to wow them while they’re there, consider these tactics:

  1. Get connected. "The key to LinkedIn is being found and being fabulous," says Irene Koehler, a social media consultant in San Francisco. Koehler says the first step is to make relevant connections. "Understand that the number of connections you have directly impacts how easily you can be found," explains Koehler. Forman agrees but believes there should be quality along with quantity: Don’t add more connections than you can keep up with, she says.
  2. Say something. Take advantage of the "Share" tab on your profile page, which lets you share insights, a website link or other information with your community. "Draw people into whatever you're doing, and it'll go out to all of your connections," says Forman, who promotes a monthly video in this fashion. "Remember, you might only have, say, 100 people in your network, but you could reach millions because every one of those connections has connections who can see what you're up to as well." Using the "Share" tab is a good way to be proactive in the search process, as if raising a hand above the crowd. Another way to be heard is to regularly answer questions in the question/answer component of LinkedIn, establishing your expert voice.
  3. Be a joiner. Belonging to a LinkedIn group that's relevant to your expertise opens up new opportunities, says Forman. "The beauty of groups is you can promote yourself, get work and be noticed.”
  4. Be a wordsmith. "Unless you optimize your profile, which includes using good keywords, you'll be the world's best-kept secret," says Koehler. "Understand which keywords are best to use, which speak to who you are and who you're trying to attract. Use the terms employers are using, says Koehler. "For example, if you're a Web designer, you'll want to use searchable words like 'web,' 'html,' 'graphics,' 'design,' 'designer' and so on. The top key words should be in the summary section of your profile page."
  5. Show, don’t tell. Aim for compelling text on your profile page, such as, "You've only got that one moment to impress them," says Koehler. Your profile should not look like a resume with bullet points; instead, potential employers should hear your voice and understand how you approach this job differently than the next person, she adds. Include links to your work-related blog and import feeds from Twitter if you offer commentary on IT issues.

It’s not just what you have to say, however. Recommendations from others who know your work in IT are important too, says Koehler. "We all think we're fabulous, sure, but it's more powerful to have others offer their perspective."

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Hang Onto People Who’ll Help You Advance

Murky employment statistics don’t change one truth for IT departments across the country: Companies are still projecting shortages of qualified IT workers, so hanging on to good employees is more critical than ever.

If you want to advance, you need a quality workforce that makes you look good when it comes to handling projects and day-to-day operations. The first mistake you can make is to think keeping these employees happy is not your problem, says CEO Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ, a training and research center based in Washington, D.C., that teaches executive and management best practices.

“It has been easier for leaders to outsource retention to HR and say ‘That’s an HR issue,’” says Murphy, co-author of The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention. “Every company on Earth says, ‘People are our most important assets.’ But they spend more time monitoring the copy machine as an asset than they do their people.”

You need to think creatively to retain a skilled IT workforce, say Murphy and other experts. Here are strategies worth embracing:

  1. ID your best people. Knowing and understanding your current staff is critical, says Murphy. A Leadership IQ study found that a staggering 47 percent of high performers are actively seeking other jobs. Step one in keeping those employees is identifying them. Create an individual action plan for each of these workers.

  2. Make it personal. “Your retention practices really need to meet individual needs,” says Lily Mok, a research vice president in CIO workforce management for Gartner, an IT research and consulting firm. Understand that while one worker might value flexible hours and workdays, another might prefer the option of telecommuting when it’s feasible.

  3. Provide diverse experiences. Young workers enjoy the excitement of trying different opportunities that help them develop a diverse, marketable skill set. If you follow a traditional set schedule, expecting a young employee to advance in two or three years, the employee will likely leave. “If you miss the window, they’re going to look for opportunities elsewhere,” says Mok.

  4. Conduct "stay" interviews. An annual review isn’t enough to stay on top of an employee’s satisfaction level, say Mok and Murphy. And certainly, an exit interview is too late, since that employee you trust is already headed out the door. Mok recommends a “stay” interview instead. Take the time to talk to your employees about their job satisfaction and concerns. “It could be as simple as a 20-minute conversation once a month,” says Murphy.

  5. Meet pay expectations. The bottom line is still, well, the bottom line. “Money still talks,” says Mok. “When people start looking elsewhere is when they realize their value is not recognized in an organization.” Mok recommends regularly benchmarking pay positions against industry standards to retain competitiveness.

Ultimately, retaining the workers who’ll help your own career is primarily about what Murphy calls “softer” issues. “Our high performers want to work on teams with great people; they want to know the manager has their back,” he says. “It’s really about understanding.”

Will Apple Be the Same Without Steve Jobs?

Imagine you’re the most famous and most successful entrepreneur in the world.

You’ve introduced iconic products again and again. You’ve completely changed how people work, keep in touch and listen to music, and even how movies are made. You’ve built a company that briefly edged out Exxon to become the most valuable business in the world.

What can you do for an encore? Carefully plan for the day when you will no longer be running the business, so that it can perform just as well without you.

That’s what Steve Jobs did, according to industry observers and executives who’ve worked with him. Specifically, here are the four keys he followed to help set up Apple for success, no matter who’s leading it.

1. Groom talent.
“One of Steve’s magical abilities was finding the right talent,” notes software entrepreneur Jay Elliot, a former senior vice president of operations at Apple and the author of The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation. “I think new Apple CEO Tim Cook is a very efficient executive. He’s learned about the Apple culture and how it operates and what it is to be an entrepreneur in a large corporation.” Cook also worked closely with Jobs for years before his departure, and even had some practice periods as interim CEO when Jobs was too ill for the job. For these reasons, he should be very well-prepared to take over as Apple CEO.

2. Be farsighted.
Elliot also notes that in Apple’s development cycle, there are always two to three years’ worth of products in the pipeline at any one time, which means the company should have two to three years’ worth of designs that Jobs worked on and that are on their way to release, even though Jobs himself is now gone. This should help with the transition, after which the company is on its own.

3. Develop a positive company culture.
More important than passing along the products themselves, however, is the culture of Apple, which Elliot describes as “built on entrepreneurship, on being open -- not political -- and on small teams organized to make things happen.”

“Jobs was an entrepreneur, and he was fearless,” adds Arthur Wylie, an entrepreneur and the author of Only the Crazy and Fearless Win BIG! The Surprising Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “He went out there after being fired from Apple and bought Pixar, a whole new company in the film industry, which he knew nothing about. And he sank a lot of money into it too.” That fearlessness is reflected in Jobs’ often-quoted dictum: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

“Cultures evolve -- they always do -- but I think one of the keys for Apple is to take a measured approach to how its culture evolves,” says Jeff Leopold, managing director at Cook Associates Executive Search. “The culture wasn’t Steve Jobs; it was the whole company. It was bigger than him, and it still is. He was the tuning fork for that culture. Now Tim Cook will have to learn to be that tuning fork.”

4. Understand your product … and its users.
Another piece of Apple’s culture is its focus on products that are beautifully designed and extremely simple to use. “To have his insight, you have to be the world’s greatest user yourself,” notes Elliot.

And that kind of vision pays off. “One interesting point about Steve’s death was the amazing reaction the world had to it,” he says. “It may never happen again that customers of a company, when the founder dies, go to its stores and leave flowers and notes. I challenge CEOs to think about how they could create that kind of appreciation for their own products.”

So, will Apple stay the same now that Steve Jobs is gone? Probably not. But his efforts have certainly left Apple poised for success, which we’ll watch unfold in the years to come.

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Photo: Getty Images

How to Be Successful: Think Like Larry Ellison

Silicon Valley is no stranger to cutthroat competition. But even there, Larry Ellison stands out.

Many anecdotes about the man paint a portrait of a smart but unscrupulous competitor, someone for whom winning takes a backseat to watching rivals lose. But here’s an illustrative one: At a conference several years ago, Ellison showed a photo of a competing company’s headquarters to staffers. “We’re going to run them out of business and buy that building, which we’re going to bulldoze. After that, we’ll salt the earth. Then we’ll go after their families.”

Stories such as that -- recounted by Karen Southwick in her book, Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth About Oracle and Larry Ellison -- paint a caricature of Ellison, who in addition to being fiercely competitive is also a risk-taker who overcame a broken home and an undistinguished college career, and who saw openings in the market and exploited them effectively time and again. Throughout it all, Ellison has stayed true to his vision, seldom worrying about what others think.

“When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts,” Ellison once said. “Sometimes people just throw labels at you and throw criticisms around that are not rational, and they call you names,” says Ellison. “You can’t change behavior that you think is right, just because someone is calling you names, and it’s not the conventional way of behavior.”

Here’s how you can think and operate as effectively as Larry Ellison:

1. Be yourself.
Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group and a longtime Larry Ellison watcher, says there’s something refreshing about Ellison’s ability to put his personality on display, consequences be damned. “For the most part, he is what you see,” says Enderle. “You don’t see a facade when he’s working.” Part of this is because as CEO, Ellison outranks the legal department, typically the mechanism for reining in loose cannons.

In modern-day Silicon Valley, such complex characters (Steve Jobs was another) stand out in a sea of empty suits, says Enderle. People who are genuine like that inevitably spawn detractors as well as advocates, whereas colorless execs are likely to prompt only a lukewarm response.

2. Have a Teflon ego.
Larry Ellison started out as a salesman, and Enderle groups him among a special class of “Salesman CEOs.” (Another example is Steve Ballmer of Microsoft.) The key to being successful in that line of work, of course, is an unshakable confidence, being able to absorb 10 “nos” for every one “yes.”

That’s not to say that Ellison is so sure of himself that he can’t see the value of criticism. “If anyone has a logical criticism and can explain to me why what I’m doing is wrong, and they can convince me, I’ll change,” he once said. “If they have good reasons, I’ll just alter my behavior. I love it when people point out when I’m wrong and explain to me why I’m wrong. That’s great. I don’t want to be wrong. I would love to be right. If I am wrong, I love it when people stop me.”

3. Don’t be afraid to take risks.
There’s often a thin line between confident and arrogant, and Larry Ellison frequently crosses the line. For instance, Ellison spent the better part of the ’90s picking pointless fights with the larger Microsoft. But there’s one career in which brashness is a job requirement: entrepreneur.

Rob Reeves, president of Redfish Technology, a tech recruiter, says that someone trying to emulate Ellison’s demeanor wouldn’t make it through the second round of most job interviews. “It’s a plus if you’re starting your own business,” says Reeves about Ellison’s super-confidence, “but if you’re applying for a job, you have to show the soft skills of being able to work as part of a team.”

Still, if you want to be as successful as Larry Ellison, you’d be wise to focus on his propensity for self-invention, risk-taking and immunity to criticism. Ellison’s rise from mediocre student to CEO came in part from his desire to prove himself (Ellison’s stepfather, Louis, often told his adoptive son that he would come to nothing) and in part because he was able to see an opening in the market that no one else did (for relational database technology in the 1970s).

Reeves speculates that Larry Ellison is just wired differently. But perhaps it’s his far-sightedness and have-nothing-to-lose principle that drove his success on such a large scale. Even on his off time, Ellison channels his competitive instincts into yacht racing, a pastime that almost killed him and his friends in 1998 when a typhoon hit the coast of Australia during a race. A brush with death did not cause Ellison to re-evaluate his life, though. Instead, it merely solidified his worldview: “I’ve known for a long time that life is glorious and fragile and short,” Ellison said at the time. “This re-emphasized it; it didn’t really change me.”

Photo Credit: Getty Images