Is this why South Africans make good Project Managers?


One of the delights of taking part in the Success Stories Shared initiative is that you get to hear the stories from projects managers across a whole range of disciplines.

I always start the session by asking the manager how he/she got into project management. Invariably, it turns out to be by chance or by some convoluted series of career and job moves. (Indeed, in my entire career of coaching and interviewing project managers, I’ve only met one person – a woman – who from school had set her mind on being a project manager. She is now one of the youngest partners at Deloitte.)

Cameron’s godfather ran a ball bearings company, so engineering seemed obvious when considering which university course to take – but electrical or mechanical? Well, the decision was made for him when it transpired he had red-green colour blindness – not a helpful trait for an
electrical engineer.

His first project was the degree course group project. This required a team of students to work together to create a product: the Sasol Mini Baja© off-road recreational vehicle.

Now why is it that on all group work assignments, there’s always one person who doesn’t pull his/her weight – and how annoying is it when the lecturer tells you “that’s part of the learning process”? But of course it is.

The car that Cameron’s group produced was “the best – a technical triumph” – but the marks were low, as the assessor commented that the teamwork had been poor and on cannot run a project without sorting out the team. An early lesson – one that Cameron never forgot.

Engineering turned out to be dynamic and exciting – everything Cameron had hoped for in a career. He particularly enjoyed the design process, but found that applying project techniques such as risk management during the design and execution phases, alongside his engineering understanding, helped in driving out time from the process and making delivery safer and more predictable.

But, as he commented, he was very aware that “engineers think like engineers” and he was primarily using engineering principles to guide his management. “Sometime we’re just too logical and don’t take into account human factors.”

Cameron placed himself in a Business Studies course. Right through his career, he has always sought and exploited opportunities for personal learning and development – a common thread I find in all the experienced project managers I get to meet.

This was a life-changer: “It changed the way I thought about things”. He came back to South Africa and was thrown into a R10-million project in Town. It demanded everything he’d learnt: holistic management and sensitive engagement with the team and broader stakeholder group – a definite case of an ‘iron fist–velvet
glove’ approach.

Cameron joined Eskom six years ago. He relishes the structure put around projects in Eskom and the encouragement and support provided to promote professional project practices. When he joined, he remembers being told by his manager: “You can’t be an expert in South Africa – you have to be a generalist.”

From one point of view, this may come over as rather negative. But I suspect that for us in the project management profession, there is real merit in the statement. While projects may be our source of expertise, the importance of a holistic all-round appreciation of management, commercial and business factors is crucial.

What do you think?

Cameron works in the Outage Long-Term Planning Group at Koeberg Nuclear Power Station. Many thanks to him for kindly agreeing to be interviewed for this Success Story Shared.
If you would be happy to take part in this initiative, do contact Louise Worsley:

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