Conquering Mont Ventoux by bike – A Team Effort

Today I have two topics for you, both inspired by my holiday in Provence last week.
– Conquering Mont Ventoux by bike – a team effort
– Popes, Prophets and Project Management – Learning through the Ages

How my team helped me cycle up a mountain

Last week I was on holiday in Provence. I signed up for a cycling tour. Concerned I would struggle to keep up with the group, I asked the organiser, whether I would be ok. She said, “don’t worry, the group is made up of 3 people in their late sixties and seventies on e-bikes, and the daughter of one of them, as well as a slightly younger couple, but only he is super fit, she is average”.

When we start biking, the 79-year-old cycles uphill beside me, on his e-bike, with his engine switched off…I am struggling on my road bike, he is not. The younger couple turns out to have run both the Boston and the New York marathons as well as a cross-Atlas marathon, they do spin training every morning and own Peloton trainers. We did 60 km on average every day. This I knew in advance. We also did 1200-meter climbs on two days; which I was not aware of. My first two days, as I struggled behind the group, I worried they would be impatient with me. But they were lovely. One of the group members always came back to see how I was doing. They said, “don’t worry, we will never leave you behind” and “Don’t think about us, it is your holiday too”.

They were so encouraging, that on the last day I cycled up Mont Ventoux. A 1168 m climb, you can see the profile of my ride here. Mont Ventoux is well known to any cycling enthusiast. Six km from the top I was telling myself, that this is not a life-goal I ever had, and therefore it would be fine if I turned round. However, our bike guide, Susan, cycled alongside me, and told me I could absolutely not give up now, and cheered me on. And I made it to the top. I also overtook two young sports enthusiasts on carbon racing bikes as I made my way to the top, which was a further highlight of the day.

Looking back, I am beyond proud. It was a goal I never had in life. My first cycling holiday and I loved every bit of it. I cannot wait to go back. The group I was with made all the difference. I could not have done it without them. Many of our happiest work memories are like that, when we achieve something, together with a good team, the feeling is magical.

Project Leadership Skills Through the Ages

Last week I was in Avignon. I visited the Palais des Papes, a medieval Gothic building, which served as a papal residence in the 14th century. Construction started in 1252, the core of the complex was erected by 1272, just 20 years later. The resources available? Cheap labour. Church funding. Belief. No electricity, no machines, no computers, no complex project plans, no memos, no interminable meetings. But it was done.

The reasons that this feat was possible include the following:

  • The vision was long term and there was a unifying belief system and a “higher cause”
  • Popes came and went but dedication to the project remained
  • Belief in the importance of the papal palace was absolute
  • Funds were dedicated and not reallocated to competing projects
  • Plans were adhered to
  • Focus: The involved teams didn’t build other palaces at night and on weekends

The Papal residence shows how much you can achieve if you have a long-term vision and the dedication of successive leaders. Of course, having one long term leader, you trust implicitly, works well too. Think of the story of Moses leading the Israelites to safety after parting the Red Sea. How many would follow a new manager, through a parted metaphorical red sea, just because it looked like he was performing a miracle? Trust takes time and shared experiences to build.

So how, you might ask me, is the above relevant for you? If you are leading projects in today’s world, you can point out, that your reality is very different. Modern pharma projects have different running conditions to historical projects. They are collaborative. There is a matrix situation. They are international. There are many different leaders. The vision is often shorter term. The expectation of delivery is often immediate.

And nothing we build today is expected to last forever. Leadership changes fast. Projects may be deprioritised, or stopped, half-way through because of changes in strategic direction, market changes, budget reallocation, or new management. A project that was high priority last year is suddenly no longer relevant at all.

The reason it is relevant for you, is that although you work in a different era, considering the learnings from the Papal Palace build in Avignon, when managing an international pharma project, will stand you in good stead. Here is how:

  • Long-term Vision: When engaging in a project, aim to align it with others that are business critical across the organisation. Ideally tie it into the CEOs long-term vision for the company
  • Consistent support despite changing managers: Don’t put all your eggs into one basket. A global project needs many cheerleaders. Your manager may get promoted. If she was the only one who cared about the project, that is an issue. When I started my first job, I was hired to do an unpopular project. My manager left after 3 months; everyone thought the project was dead. However, the General Manager was so enthusiastic about it, that the project continued. In general, identify senior leaders in your organisation, who can champion your project. Engage with them directly, if appropriate, or consult with your manager or management team on how best to engage with them.
  • Believe your project is important and talk about it – if you are leading a project, you are the champion, if you cannot be enthusiastic about what you are doing, you cannot expect anyone else to be. If you don’t believe it is important, why should anyone else?
  • Funding: this is hard to steer, however, if you have senior leadership support it is possible
  • Plan – Plan – Plan – In my last newsletter, I highlighted the fact that knowing where the church spire is in a village helped people orient themselves. If we keep moving the spire, it’s easy to get lost. Making sure that your team knows where it is going, what, if anything has changed, which priorities to focus on, and what to ignore. Leading teams through the wilderness of competing priorities is what makes a great project leader
  • Focus – and use your teams wisely. If the same team at local level is being asked to roll out 4 global projects in the same year, then they will be unenthusiastic. Ideally, aim to work on action items with country teams when they are not also visiting international conferences and delivering 3 other global projects. Often, this is not in our control, but it helps if you know what is going on.

In addition to project management learnings from 1252, today, we also have access to great communication tools, excellently trained teams, international knowledge, immediate access to information, project management training and software. If you take the above political dimensions into account, and use the tools at your disposal wisely, you will find managing global transformation programmes is suddenly much easier.

Wishing you a wonderful September. If adapting the Popes project management approach sounds too tiring for you, and you’d like some help to implement globally, contact me for a chat. Alternatively, if you are considering your next career step, and would like to discuss executive coaching, feel free to contact me to discuss how and if I can support you.