As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sunil Prashara, President & CEO of Project Management Institute (PMI).
As President & Chief Executive Officer of the Project Management Institute (PMI), Sunil Prashara is the lead advocate for PMI’s global organization, serving more than three million professionals working in nearly every country of the world. His primary responsibility is to implement PMI’s global strategic plan with a priority on strategic focus, customer centricity and organizational agility. This includes expanding the PMI footprint globally, as well as digitizing PMI’s offerings and platforms to benefit its members and a variety of other stakeholders. The plan will also continue to enhance and advocate for the profession of project management.
Sunil was named CEO of PMI in March of 2019. He brings more than three decades of valuable global leadership to PMI, with a solid track record of setting and delivering strategy, managing large scale transformation agendas, and meeting growth targets for international organizations.
Prior to joining PMI, he served as CEO of i1too Ltd in the U.K., a sales accelerator for digital start-ups, which he founded in 2016 and grew internationally. He previously served as CEO of Expereo International, and also held numerous executive leadership positions throughout the information and communications technology and telecommunications industries. His extensive multi-functional, multi-cultural, multi-geography experience includes managing sales, operations and digital transformation for companies such as Vodafone, Nokia, Accenture and Perot Systems (NTT). As a business executive, he has developed an appreciation for project management expertise, and understands from an “outside-in” perspective how PMI can expand its reach globally.
Sunil speaks Punjabi and Hindi. He is a graduate of the University of London and resides in the U.K. with his wife Kavita and two sons Kamran and Raghav. He enjoys golf, boxing, martial arts and traveling.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My backstory isn’t exactly traditional. While I have always worked in the corporate world for large, global organizations, I didn’t have just one clear path or role. Within my 30 years of experience, I’ve worn a variety of hats from finance to sales to operations.
I have a degree in medical biochemistry but started in finance and worked my way up to become CFO of an IT services company. I then began as a rookie salesperson and ended up as the Global Head of Sales for Nokia. And within operations, I ran multi-billion-dollar transformation programs for Vodafone.
And since my global roles have taken me all over the world, I have a strong appreciation of different cultures and the way business is conducted worldwide.
I believe it’s this variety of experience that has prepared me to work as a CEO. I understand the different challenges, needs, thought processes and working styles across functions and borders.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Some consistent mistakes that I’ve seen time and again have been the consequences of miscommunication, which results in a lack of alignment. Problems can easily emerge that shouldn’t have ever arisen — and they all stem from poor communications.
That can happen all the time at both tactical and strategic levels, especially when you’re communicating across countries and languages. I can remember times seeing someone present information to senior leaders after working diligently on a deliverable, only to discover that they had totally misunderstood the request. It can be funny — but it can also be embarrassing and cost lots of money!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people who have helped me over the course of my career, but I would have to say that I’m particularly grateful to Ross Perot. I had risen to the senior finance position at Perot Systems, and one day Ross came to me and said he wanted to move me into sales. He wanted me to learn what life was like on the other side of the business. So I started as an entry-level salesperson. This proved to be a career-changing experience — the first of several pivots in my life that exposed me to different functional areas of business. Ultimately these pivots allowed me to gain the well-rounded experience needed to take on the CEO role at PMI.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
PMI was founded in 1969 in response to the increased need for skilled professionals who could implement strategies and bring bold ideas to life. We set out to establish project management as a profession, and today we’re the world’s leading association for those involved in project, program or portfolio management — with more than 600,000 members and more than 300 local chapters globally.
What’s particularly exciting to me today is that we’re building on our original purpose to serve an expanded base of “change-makers” — people from 5 to 75 who don’t have a formal project management title but find themselves managing significant initiatives as part of their work or their daily lives. This means not only educating the next generation of leaders, but also championing, whether through our annual awards programs or Most Influential Projects lists, the incredible work that project managers and change-makers have done to impact our world.
Our community also places great emphasis on contributing our unique skills to maximize social benefit. In 2019, PMI volunteers donated more than 150,000 hours to PMI’s Celebration of Service initiative, which focuses on supporting the United Nation’s 13 Sustainable Development Goals.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
COVID-19 was a watershed experience for PMI. We put a crisis team in place to monitor the situation two months before the majority of the world’s organizations and governments shut down. When the true nature of the crisis became clear, our first priority was to ensure the health and safety of our staff and stakeholders. So, we immediately implemented travel restrictions and successfully converted to an all-virtual environment.
Next, we accelerated our work in adapting our portfolio to a “digital first” environment. All our events, products, and services went virtual to accommodate stakeholders who were increasingly working from home. We even embraced online proctoring of our certification exams and provided more than 500,000 Professional Development Units (PDUs) free to our community and made a variety of discounted certifications and courses available.
We’ve also prioritized leading with empathy. Early on, we hosted regular “coffee chats” to foster staff connections and information sharing. And we had a two-week “circuit breaker” over the holidays — a time when we shut down the organization completely, so our teams could recharge their batteries and focus on caring for themselves and those closest to them.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
On the contrary, I think our organization was energized by the crisis. One positive effect of a crisis is that it shakes your faith in “sacred cows.” It gives you greater freedom to consider options that you might never have contemplated or to accelerate changes that you’d considered but never acted upon. Online proctoring for our certification exams, for example, is something we had long talked about at PMI; the COVID crisis forced us to do it. There are many similar examples across the business world. We also had to ensure that our community of project managers could continue learning no matter where they are, leading to the release of many new online courses, including the Basics of Disciplined Agile. There’s no question that crises are challenging, and you must take precautions against burn-out. But they can also be a great source of inspiration and serve as a rallying cry for an organization.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leaders play many roles within an organization, but during a crisis I think the most important role is that of Chief Morale Officer. When the business is on the line, you need people to come together. And it’s the leader’s job to rally the team — to get team members to put aside narrow interests, to focus on the critical tasks at hand and to energize them to perform. There’s no end to what a team can accomplish — especially during a crisis — if they are united in purpose and empowered by enlightened leaders.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
To connect with teams in uncertain times, leaders need to demonstrate empathy and authentic humanity. One silver lining of the COVID crisis is that it forced leaders to prioritize the human dimension of their decisions. How do I keep my workers safe? What can I expect of an employee working from a dining-room table at home, while trying to home school two kids and care for an elderly parent?
These questions forced leaders to step into their employees’ shoes — the very definition of empathy. And leaders could no longer hide their own humanity — their own vulnerability in the face of an unrelenting external force. That’s the formula for engaging and motivating teams in uncertain times: demonstrate that you understand what the team going through and bring your humanity — your real self — to every decision and every interaction.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With honesty and, again, with empathy and humanity. Leadership involves making difficult decisions. But we have a responsibility and moral obligation to be share tough news openly and candidly. That said, there are a few things you can do to make communicating difficult news a little easier. First, build a communicative culture. Update your teams regularly on the state of the business so they have some context when you do need to communicate difficult news. And have a plan to cascade the news appropriately. No one should be caught by surprise. That means letting your employees and key stakeholders know before the news appears in the press or on social media.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’ve always liked the quote attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” I think that holds true today. As we learned from COVID-19, the most carefully thought-out plans can become obsolete overnight. But you’ll be that much better prepared to pivot if you’ve done the hard work of planning in advance.
That means looking at all aspects of the external environment carefully and analyzing your strengths and weaknesses objectively; pressure testing your assumptions and data with the people closest to the action and planning across multiple time horizons: a long-term directional plan, a more detailed medium-term plan and an annual plan, which, of course, will be the most detailed and — it is to be hoped — the most accurate.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay agile. That’s true in our normal VUCA world, but it’s doubly true in times of great dislocation. In fact, I would say organizations today need to be more than agile — they need to be “gymnastic” in their ability to respond to change. That requires organizations to establish strong sensing mechanisms to detect early marketplace signals of impending change. And they need to respond to unforeseen shocks with speed and dexterity.
At an organizational level, that means rethinking your operating model to ensure you’re able to respond quickly. At an individual level, it means upskilling and reskilling to master new ways of working and to acquire “power skills” — the soft skills like empathy and collaborative leadership that will help you deliver winning results. Our recent research at PMI found that nearly half (49%) of business leaders who said their company successfully navigated COVID-19 challenges believe that teamwork and collaboration made them successful.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most egregious mistakes in the business world, I believe, are sins of omission rather than commission. By that I mean they stem from a failure to fully account for certain factors that are critical to success. In a sense, they’re due to short-sightedness.
Take, for example, the tendency to confuse process with outcomes. We become so involved in producing a certain deliverable or doing something a certain way that we lose sight of the ultimate objective. We win the battle but lose the war.
Another example is a failure to fully account for the human element in whatever we’re doing. Did you know that 70 percent of business transformations fail? That’s according to McKinsey. One reason for this dysfunction, I believe, is a failure to engage employees and stakeholders in the process. Indeed, Gallup estimates that 85 percent of the workforce is disengaged.
A final example is shortsightedness in planning — either a failure to take broad enough measure of the business landscape or to adequately anticipate and prepare for business disruption. We live in an increasingly VUCA world, i.e. a world defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We need to accept that and plan accordingly.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Maintaining business momentum during a crisis is challenging. I think of it as a form of jujutsu where you try to use the energy generated by the crisis to your advantage. According to recent Quartz/Brightline research, 75 of respondents said that people rallied together with greater purpose during a crisis, and 78 percent of respondents from organizations in crisis said that their strategy implementation skills grew stronger as a result of the crisis, including:
- Prioritization of strategic initiatives
- Speed in executing existing organizational processes
- Speed of overall decision-making
- Empowerment of crisis teams
- Senior level involvement in day-to-day team activities
Our job as leaders is to harness the skills and energy generated by the crisis and channel it into moving the business forward. As I said before, the crisis energized the PMI team and gave us license to try new things and accelerate many of the strategic initiatives we had planned.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Lesson 1 — Be clear on priorities. This allows you to take quick decisive action.
In January, shortly after moving into pandemic crisis mode, we settled on three priorities:
Priority 1: Safeguard the health and safety of our employees and stakeholders
Priority 2: Ensure operational continuity
Priority 3: Maintain services for customers and critical stakeholders
These priorities drove all our decision-making. As mentioned earlier, we halted all travel and within roughly 48 hours moved our entire organization to remote working. We restructured our commercial activities so we could continue serving stakeholders, including rolling out online proctoring. We also accelerated development of more digital products and services so that members could use the time during the lockdown to enhance their skills.
Lesson 2 — Establish clear sensors and put in place a small trusted team to meet frequently, monitor and recommend adjustments to the response.
Our crisis team, made up of talented executives from executive and operational leadership, was responsible for all decision-making during the crisis. Because we’re a global organization, we were able to get reports on local conditions directly from team members in those regions. And we listened only to the most authoritative sources of information about the pandemic — like the World Health Organization. Each team member brought their own unique perspective to the job, but they all understood and were deeply committed to our priorities. So, we were able to track the pandemic closely and adjust our responses accordingly.
Lesson 3 — Manage the near term strategically, based on a holistic view of your challenges.
As important as the crisis team was, we knew we had to involve the entire organization in the crisis management process — all 550 staff members. So we created all-hands meetings and virtual coffee chats where employees could ask questions and share information. We wanted to keep our finger on the pulse of what employees thought and give them some ownership of how we were responding.
Lesson 4 — Encourage outside-the-box thinking and work with partners to stay on track.
As mentioned, the COVID crisis accelerated certain of our plans and encouraged our team to think expansively about the solutions we put forward to address the fast-moving crisis. We encouraged this outside-the-box thinking, recognizing that the crisis gave us latitude to propose and try new things. It also created an opportunity to think differently about the future — to assess our operations more critically and to ponder what the PMI of the future should look like.
Lesson 5 — Understand your new context based on facts versus conjecture.
A first step in that assessment process is to understand as objectively as possible the new context created by the crisis. In the case of COVID, for example, we knew there was going to be less travel and more social distancing — at least for the foreseeable future. And working from home was going to become standard operating procedure — and it will remain so well after the pandemic is over. Our job now is to understand all these developments and assess their impact on the future of work — and what that will mean for the hundreds of thousands of project managers in rebuilding our economies.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I suppose my favorite quote would be from my dad, who told me, “You better make sure you’re doing what you love doing, but stick to your principles.”
When you do what you love doing, you bounce out of bed. You don’t get tired. It took me a long time to find it, but I needed all of my sales and operational roles to gain the confidence to become an effective CEO.
So, my life lesson is to make sure you know a little about everything; organizations increasingly tell people today that they need to be lifelong learners and I’ve strived to be that since I left university. Across different industries and technology areas, from consulting to even starting my own company, I’ve amassed a lot of different experiences. I’ve worked in the for-profit and non-profit worlds, across finance, HR, and sales. I’ve lived and worked in Singapore, India, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France…and what all of these experiences teach you is that you don’t know everything!
There is always so much to learn. What’s the latest thinking in data science and AI? What’s it like to work in Russia, or Mongolia, or China? The keys to unlocking new opportunities are curiosity and lifelong learnings.
How can our readers further follow your work?