Trainer, Mentor, Coach or Counsellor?

I attended the PMO Flashmob the other week on coaching and the PMO. This talk was given by Suzanne Masden, who based on her qualification has had a bit of experience in being a coach to a variety of people, plus was once a project manager.

During the short talk one of the questions that came up was what exactly is a coach anyway? I am sure that you can go and look this up on the web, but the reason it came up was that it is an expression that we as PMO’s seem to use all the time. However we don’t have a correct understanding of what this really means. Most of the time when we say we are coaching the project managers, we aren’t actually doing this at all.

So I thought I would post something up which was my understanding of the difference we have between the 4 roles outlined in the title

Trainer Arrow
Assistance spectrum



Trainer – at this level a PMO would be teaching something to a project manager. e.g. This is how to fill in the progress report. Most likely to say: “Do it this way”

Mentor – normally a more experienced PMO person who is assisting the project manager with a topic, based on their own personal experience and giving the knowledge as though they were the individual in the job. e.g. This is how I would deal with stakeholders when going through the design stage of the project. Most likely to say: “This is how I would approach it”

Coach – an individual who is qualified as a coach (yes there are qualifications) who will assist the project manager by asking them questions about how they are likely to achieve their goals. e.g. How can you get the best out of your project team? Most likely to say: “What can you do to improve?” or “Is that working for you?”

Counsellor – an individual who is qualified as a counsellor who can help and individual reflect on what is happening to them and consider alternative ways of doing things. As such this individual will not be dealing with items specifically linked into the world of project management, but will be looking at an individual’s life problems and how they can be overcome.

There was an interesting part of the discussion where we talked about the difference between the mentor and coach roles. Based on the experiences of the individuals within the room it is most likely that when a PMO individual is saying that they are coaching project manager, what in fact they are doing is either training them or at best mentoring them.

I came away feeling that a coach would be very useful in all sorts of circumstances, and it shouldn’t be limited to just PMOs coaching project managers, but should be PMOs coaching other PMOs, or at least PMOs seeking coaching for themselves. This was where the difference was made between a coach and a counsellor. In order to be coached the person being coached must want to make some changes to the way that they are doing things. If changes are required, but the individual is unwilling to want to make any changes then that will go into counselling, and is above and beyond what a coach would want to do.

I thought the session at the PMO Flashmob was informative, and I have gone away with a fresh understanding of not only what I do, but also what I could do to develop myself. After all isn’t that why we go to such events?

PMO Competencies

At the PMO Flashmob last night we were talking about PMO competencies. It was good to start a discussion on what is required to be a PMO person. If we can start as a profession to understand what is required from the role then we can start to get people who can improve and lead the profession onwards.

However as a group of people gathered in the room we found that difficult to do. I found it interesting that we found it easy to talk about some of the technical competencies that were required for the role e.g. updating logs, registers, dependency maps, starting projects.

What we found difficult to do was to put down anything around the soft skills (not sure why they are called that as they are quite hard to get right). On a lot of the linked in discussions I see we talk about what is required for a successful PMO. The answers seem to come back to the same things. It’s about the behaviours that people demonstrate. This includes leadership, influencing, learnability, inquisitiveness, pragmatism. Not sure that some of those can exactly be linked to competencies. However it surely has to be worth a try.

As a starter for 10 we looked at the competencies that have been developed for project managers, which gave a framework we could look at. We had a discussion about how different was the competencies required for a PMO person from that list. It should be noted that the list didn’t have behavioural attributes on it. I suggest that this is probably missing the competencies that you might find in an Analyst role,

I do wait to see what the Flashmob make of the consolidated lists that will come out, and I would like to see if we can get the necessary people together to get a competency framework together and off the ground. That then will give us something to judge ourselves against.


The Agile PMO

As part of the PMO flashmob I went along to a talk given by Jennifer Stapleton the author of the agile PMO pocketbook. Jennifer has a background in agile having been involved with DSDM since its beginning 20 years ago (which on my estimation makes it older than PRINCE2). In this session Jennifer talked us through what a PMO can do to support agile projects, rather than what makes a PMO agile.

There are various things that PMOs can do to support agile, including using some of their techniques when prioritising projects. Using a MoSCoW method for selecting which projects are more important, and this can be used on agile and non agile projects together as part of a portfolio role. Jennifer did suggest more than once that by selecting an agile project that would of course mean that benefits come earlier with the initial delivery from the agile project. Jennifer discussed the sorts of things that a PMO may need to do differently when looking at an agile project, including reporting and gate reviews. These she said can still be done, but they would focus on different things, with the reporting looking at velocity and user engagement rather than focussing on a Gantt chart and finances.

There were over 20 people present from different PMOs, not just those who were running a PMO with agile projects, but those people who were doing a project manager role and those people who were looking to find out more about agile.

Having received a copy of the pocket book that Jennifer I think it is a useful practical way of looking about how a PMO needed to change to be applicable to the agile world, giving actual examples of how some of the things that a PMO get asked to do can change for the better. In fact Jennifer said that actually having a PMO involved with an agile project was a benefit for the project. Although Jennifer was unable to stay for the social at the local pub afterwards she was able to answer everyone’s questions as part of the session.

The other thing that struck me was how some of the subjects that Jennifer mentioned about user engagement, focussing on what is important for the project rather than what is important for the PMO and having the PMO adapt to organisation style were important regardless of whether the organisation runs agile projects, non agile projects or a combination of both.