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International project manager trainings also develop professional self-awareness

2023-07-12 15:41:00

Why is the human side of project management important and how can we learn more about it? An interview with Julianna Czifra, psychologist andeconomist, lecturer of the Corvinus’ specialist postgraduate programme of International Project Manager.

Budapesti Corvinus Egyetem

Julianna Czifra has spent 12 years of her two-decade career as a project, programme and portfolio manager in multinational companies. “I have always been on the human side of project management. I had to coordinate large teams of professionals and I think I had a knack for managing this complexity and building good relationships within the organisation,” she recalls of the past years. Julianna started her career as an economist, working for large companies such as British American Tobacco and Vodafone.

“A big part of my job was about building relationships with the key stakeholders in the project, the managers, to enable us to deliver very complex projects with my teams,” she recalls of her time at Vodafone, where she led teams of 80-100 people as a senior programme manager. For the introduction of the unlimited calls tariff package, which was a key strategic project at Vodafone, she was nominated by her supervisor for the Project Manager of the Year Award in 2013, which she won. This national recognition has given her the opportunity to present at conferences and speak publicly about the project management profession. It was then that she realised she wanted to do more to promote the profession. She has been an active volunteer for the Hungarian Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Project Management Association (PMSZ), and for about five years she dedicated a significant part of her time outside of work to representing the profession at universities and professional forums.

Project management and psychology

Despite her professional success and her love of project management, by the age of 40 she felt she had to make a change. She was going through a very stressful period and was feeling the signs of burnout. That’s when she started her studies in psychology and coaching. “I started to formally learn what I had already tried before.” During the global economic crisis of 2008, she was already working as an executive and team coach. “Drawing on my knowledge of multinationals, I started supporting CEOs and their teams. I tried my hand at leadership, team and organisational development for a few years, but then returned to the multinational world in 2012 when I joined Vodafone.” Since 2017, Juli has completed several professional training courses, at home, in the UK and in the US. She has now invested more than 700 hours to deepen her understanding of the professions of coach, systemic team coach, mediator and organisational ombudsman. She also holds a degree in psychology, specialising in work and organizational psychology, and is currently pursuing PhD studies at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Debrecen.

“The themes of my psychology research come from my workplace experiences, drawing on my multicultural life.” When the topic of toxic leadership came up in one of her bachelor-level psychology of leadership classes, Juli was immediately aware of it. “To this day, I am  under the influence of the realisation four years ago that this was a real phenomenon,” she says enthusiastically of her first research topic on which her bachelor  thesis was based. Toxic leadership has several components: the leader cannot accept when someone stands out from the team, finds it difficult to take criticism, and develops a fear-based system of domination. “One of the hallmarks of a toxic climate is that employees are driven to survive and stress management becomes the focus of the team.”

The presence of toxic conflict is an important motive for toxic leadership, and Juli became interested in how to manage conflict well within an organisation. “What we see in the research is that a significant proportion of employees don’t take their problems to HR or management through the formal channels for fear of the consequences, but take it out of the organisation or get stuck in it. I’m interested in how to manage conflict well through informal channels,” says Juli about her current PhD research topic. “Conflicts can be transformed. If they are managed well within the organisation, they can be a win-win situation for the company and the employee,” she adds. In addition to research, she also practices her new profession as a leadership, team and organisational development coach.

Professional self-awareness at the university

One might think that the whole career change was a break with project management, but in Juli’s case it contributed to an integrative approach. “Because of my diverse studies, I teach the human side of project management in a comprehensive way,” says the expert, who has been teaching in Corvinus’ international project manager  specialist postgraduate programme since 2021.

“Project management is currently in my life through education. I think it is very important to pass on this knowledge because we are surrounded by the world of projects.” According to Juli, the participants are usually a mix of lawyers, bank employees and academics. In fact, students come from abroad because the training is in English. People who do not have any project management experience can also enrol, because the programme  is practice-oriented. “I try to impart knowledge that is not industry specific and combine my psychology studies with my experience in multinationals and consultancy.”

In addition to team leadership, she also teaches self-management, which is about developing emotional and social intelligence. “When designing the course, we thought it was important for a project manager to have competences such as coping with stress, self-control and self-assessment.” According to Juli, it is important to learn about these because project management is a stressful profession, where you have to work to tight deadlines, navigate a system and see the bigger picture, and managing stress well is crucial. In addition, aspects of social intelligence such as empathy, organisational awareness, perception of group dynamics and the management of relationships within the organisation are also crucial. “We work in a network, so how we are connected is very important.” Through social and emotional intelligence, students can develop their professional self-awareness and lead their teams better.

“The greatest recognition is when a student tells me that on Monday they were able to incorporate what they learned in class into their work,” says Juli, who has been awarded  the Favourite Instructor Award three times since 2021 for giving the most enjoyable lessons in the prorgramme. I found that the self-awareness courses were also a good way to get to know the students and each other better, something that is often missing in universities. My classes give them the opportunity to share their experiences.”

Written by: Tünde Taxner

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