In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Rebecca Winston: Flexibility Is Key to Leadership


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2019.06.10

Introduction to the Interviewee:

Rebecca Winston, President of Winston Strategic Management Consulting, is internationally acknowledged project/program executive with experience in running large, highly technical organizations with global reach.  As a senior executive and as a consultant, she has assisted and led my employers and clients to unprecedented successes in highly technical environments. Her specialties: New Business Development / P&L / Key Accounts / Operations / Strategic Planning / Global Team Building / B2B / B2G / Large Organizations / Turnarounds / Start ups / Finance.

She once served as Chair of the Project Management Board of Directors of PMI and she initiated/authored PMI’s first real strategic plan. She has been of Chair of Technical Advisory Group for several ISO standards. 

She has contributed to books such as Cognitive Readiness in Project Teams: Reducing Project Complexity and Increasing Success in Project Management, Project Management Circa 2025 and she has made numerous speeches across the globe. 


“I am constantly learning.”

Q1. Why did you choose project management as your career? Is it what you enjoy doing?
Rebecca Winston: The road to selecting project management as a career was not straightforward. I moved to a part of the United States in the early 1980s that did not view female practicing attorneys as a norm. I taught at the local colleges and universities for a couple years and knew it was not what I wanted to do at that point in my professional life. A position was advertised for someone to manage university contracts for the Idaho National Laboratory.  They were looking for someone who understood schedule, scope, and budget. The job evolved into doing more project management work, then program management.  I became active in learning all I could about the field and gaining mentors that I cherish to this day.

As to whether I enjoy the job, I have to say what I enjoy is that each project and program has been different.  The differences are not just in the scope of work involved, but also in the stakeholders from the team to the external stakeholders.  Each day presents new opportunities and challenges just as in the legal practice, which is what I enjoyed about it. I am constantly learning.
“The challenges of the Portfolio Manager are two-fold.”
Q2. You have worked as Portfolio Manager, so what are the challenges of this role? 
Rebecca Winston: The challenges of the Portfolio Manager are two-fold.  The first is maintaining a balanced strategic portfolio given the numerous inputs to the portfolio from the governing body.  The second is maintaining the portfolio business view and getting into the portfolios, programs, projects or other related work that comprise the portfolio. It is all too easy to try to do the work for any one of the component managers because it is known territory.  Portfolio Manager must offer direction, but not be the doer.  

“I have been advocating membership about project management.”
Q3. When working as the chair of the board of directors of PMI, you initiated/authored PMI’s first strategic plan. Which part of this experience impressed you most? What have you learned from this role?
Rebecca Winston: I was part of the team that initiated the first “real” full-fledged strategic plan. I have to say what impressed me most was the teamwork that went into the document. Was it perfect? No. But it demonstrated passion for the organization and the membership. At the heart of the document was the need for advocating membership about project management. Remember that even in the late 90s, executive management knew little about project management.  Project managers were not the professional one invited to table to discuss the future of the organization or how to turn the ship of the organization around to save the day. Today, one often opens a business journal to find project management highlighted. It is down to the seeds planted by the group of Directors that began with that strategic plan and which successive Directors have continued to modify and build upon.

What I learned from serving in the role of Chair of the Board of Directors of PMI is to be a better servant to the Directors and to the membership.  Being Chair is an honor, but it is also a serving role that requires one to listen, to be responsive as best as one can, to be process-oriented, and to be compassionate. 

“The initial face-to-face meeting tears down the initial walls to good communication.”
Q4. As an expert on building effective global teams, would you like to offer some tips on how to manage global teams?
Rebecca Winston: While we have effective tools for virtual communications, the initial face-to-face meeting tears down the initial walls to good communication. Once one establishes that rapport, communicate often and in a timely manner on issues.  Listen first and make sure you understood. Capture your understanding in writing in simple terms back to the team and ask for feedback on what you think you understood. Beware of cultural and social norms, especially humor, and especially if one is a woman.  One may want to break down barriers and smash glass ceilings, but using the team to do it is not wise.

“The profession needs to be served by a variety of personalities and perspectives.”
Q5. What do you believe are the key qualities for women project management professionals to thrive in the field? Do you think balancing family and work is a problem for you?
Rebecca Winston: Many of key qualities for women in project management are the same as for men, but we often find we just have to do better to deal with stereotypes that seem to persist.  Some of the stereotypes are truly persistent in the global marketplace. Many barriers are amplified for women as they age now in the marketplace. This issue is becoming more apparent as the first large wave of women in project management are hitting their 60s or older. While the male seems to be more sage, the female seems shriller. It is a stereotype. It will take time and patience and more females entering decision-making positions to serve as mentors. Mentorship is something I have long advocated in this profession. I have written about the subject and find little has changed in the profession. Some women are taking steps to assist, but there is a long way to go. We need to assist both young women and men in the profession to reach their full potential and to understand that the profession is served by a variety of personalities and perspectives.

“ISO 21500:2012 is being revised for a variety of reasons.”
Q6. From your perspective as Chair of US Technical Advisory Group for ISO 21500:2012, why does ISO 21500:2012 standard need to be revised? In which direction or what aspects will be under revision?
Rebecca Winston: It needs to be revised for a variety of reasons as noted in the study conducted by the TC through its Ad Hoc Study Group 5. One reason is that it contained a couple of statements that were at best misleading. It also contained material that was process-oriented and the other main standards did not contain process material, which is more “how to” material. “How to” material is better covered in an implementation guide and can be more thoroughly handled in that type of guide to provide the user with better material. Finally, the standard needs to be brought into line with the programme and portfolio standards, which have now been published, as well as the governance standard.

“Risk management should have more of a feedback cycle.”
Q7. You’ve contributed the chapter of risk to the book Project Management Circa 2025. What will risk management be like in 2025?
Rebecca Winston: Well, the chapter you refer to was one person’s view, but it was a view hoping that risk would reflect a less linear view. Risk management should have more of a feedback cycle. Risk management should reflect some type of communication and documentation cycle that provides learning, not only for future projects and programs, but also for the current project or program. The reason for this view is that many risks have elements in common or risks can reappear or only be partially mitigated. The feedback cycle provides the project management team with material from which they can learn and build new risk handling strategies and new stakeholder communication strategies.  Risk communication is an area, which has received little or no attention and as a result is done in many cases poorly.  If teams were able to build upon the information gained from a fully developed risk management cycle, they may have the necessary information to draft better communication materials.

“Flexibility is key to survival as a leader.”
Q8. In practice what kind of leadership style do you prefer? And why?
Rebecca Winston: I prefer a flexible, situational leadership style.  No situation and no team is exactly the same. While I tend to be hard driving and goal-oriented, I need to be aware of the various styles of the teams and team members with which I am working, as well as the impacts of the situations in which we find ourselves.  I also need to be aware of the other stakeholders and their styles, if I can. I can try to understand the stakeholders ‘ style on a collective basis for a meeting or individually, if I am meeting them on a singular basis. But I believe flexibility is key to survival as a leader and reducing one’s stress.
“A well-rounded individual is the most important aspect.”
Q9. In PMI’s Pulse of the Profession in 2019, “PMTQ(Project Management Technology Quotient)” of project leaders is said to be key to project success. As a professional with excellent technology background, what do you think of the importance of PMTQ?
Rebecca Winston: I think a well-rounded individual is the most important aspect. I have tried to learn about the technology on each project or program with which I have been involved.  If I had to have a degree in each one, I would have about twenty by now.  I have taken classes in several fields, so I am well versed.  But projects are made up of several disciplines usually and the last thing I need to do is start trying to do the technical work for the team.  I need to know enough about the technical aspects to know when they are speaking nonsense or something is awry.  I have been called in to rescue my share of projects from project managers who have the technical degree and who would rather be doing the technical work rather than the project management.  They got into the details of the work and failed in the management.  So I am not completely on board with the findings.

“Agile is losing flexibility.”
Q10. Agile has been a hot topic. What’s your attitude towards self-organization?
Rebecca Winston: I know agile and have practiced it prior to the labels being developed.  We used to call it “tailoring the project”.  Self-organization used to be labeled in some organizations, “special projects”. The issue now is that we are structuring agile so much that it is losing the flexibility that many of us had come to admire about it. Self-organization also is becoming so process-centric that it is not about self-organization, but just a different organization within the harder organization. Agile is good when practiced without rigidity and self-organization is good when not a prescription to cure other organizational ills.

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