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How to banish toxicity and create a healthy, productive PMO culture

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When Dawn Mahan was a girl, growing up in the US, her father would come home from working on the railway, dirty and exhausted, and she would guide him through the house to the couch, so he could lie down. He often told her: “Dawn, you’re going to college so you don’t have to do this to yourself.”

In that pre-Occupational Safety and Health Administration era, Mahan’s father was working in extremely unsafe conditions. Employee wellbeing was not a consideration. “He was treated like a human mule.”

Following her dad’s wishes, she went to college and started her career in the corporate world. In those early roles, she was shocked to see people suffering, to some extent, in the same way her father did. They weren’t working in dirty, unsafe conditions, but they felt just as downtrodden. Mahan became acutely aware of the toxicity present in many workplaces.

“It’s like you’re trudging through a thick swamp, scared at what might jump out and bite you,” she says of working in a toxic culture. “You fear going to work every day. It haunts you in your sleep. While you are there, you’re so stressed out and having a hard time concentrating on the job because you’re busy looking over your shoulder.”

This revelation became the foundation for her career. Through her business, PMOtraining, she and her team coach PMO leaders on creating healthy, productive cultures that drive successful projects with minimum stress. A PMO should have a healthy culture that gets results, she explains. The core of that healthy culture is trust, both between the PMO leader and project managers, and between the PMO and the organisation’s stakeholders.

“A lot of times, the PMO is a catalyst for the way that work gets done,” says Mahan. “We are the stewards of getting results, but we are also the stewards of a healthy, positive way of working. You want people to stay, get results and feel great about it. Projects are hard. We need a healthy foundation if we want sustained results.”

Creating a healthy culture starts with research

To create a healthy culture, start by doing some 360-degree information gathering, speaking to executives, project managers and other team members about what a healthy culture would look like, and how to get results. This helps to establish the sort of culture you should be aiming for.

How do those results compare with the current culture, either in the PMO or the wider organisation? Do they align fairly closely, or are they completely divergent? This will give you an idea of how difficult the results will be to implement. The bigger the change, the tougher it will be.

“Even if the current culture is terrible, and everybody agrees that it’s terrible, it’s the devil they know,” says Mahan. “There’s a bell curve when you start a journey like this. There are cheerleaders on one side, saboteurs on the other and finicky fans in the middle.”

The cheerleaders in the organisation are critical allies, helping to bring others on board. Saboteurs will actively work against you. But the majority of people will be ‘finicky fans’. They will not necessarily be thrilled about change, but their response will be passive. They won’t engage and will ‘wait it out’ until the change goes away. Some of these will like the idea of this healthier culture, but they don’t believe it will happen.

Hopefully, the PMO leader will be an experienced project professional. PMO design and implementation is a major change project, so it ideally needs someone who knows how to handle something that complex.

The number-one skill for project professionals is leadership…

… and this is closely followed by communication.

“I’d rather use the term project leadership than project management, because you really have to be a leader,” says Mahan. “By definition, projects are unique, which means it’s going to be hard. You’re going to have to motivate people. You’re a pioneer, leading people through unknown territory. You have to problem‑solve and figure it out.”

PMO implementation involves harnessing all of the leadership skills that project professionals have developed. Yes, there is a science to implementing a PMO, but you need to focus on the people if you want to ensure success.

“As a PMO leader you can influence the top executives to be great project sponsors. Help them understand that their reactions will influence the culture more than they can imagine. That’s a huge win. It will help in moving the rock towards that utopian, healthy culture that gets results.”

Dawn Mahan presented a webinar on culture for PMO leaders for the APM PMO SIG in June. Webinar resources will shortly be made available.

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