COLOMBO: TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP ON PARADISE ISLAND

I just landed in yet another country for the weekend, as I am in Sri Lanka for the Regional Project Management Conference 2018 - organized by PMI Colombo Sri Lanka Chapter - under the theme of "Transformational leadership for project success". Indeed, I was invited to deliver a keynote titled "Scientific Project Management: The Horizontal PMO Concept". How did I end up being a headliner for such a highly regarded event in the Project Management international scene? Aliki (Aliki en route) from PMI Montreal whored me out on the international scene like fresh fish at the early morning market. All jokes aside, Aliki visited Colombo a few weeks back. While she was here, she was asked to deliver a presentation which went super well. When Ganesh W - President of PMI Colombo Sri Lanka Chapter - asked her if she could come back for the regional conference three months later, she unfortunately couldn't fit this trip into her itinerary around the globe. On the other hand, who has two thumbs and has experience talking in front of large audiences of hundreds of people ? This guy!

And so, Aliki connected Ganesh and myself through facebook. From there, we worked the logistics while I was preparing my one-hour conference.  One month later, here I am at the Saigon International Airport, ready to meet about 200 Project Management Professionals in a foreign country I have never set foot on before. The opportunities we have, sometimes...

It is 9:30pm and I have just landed at the Colombo International Airport. As always, I travel light with a carry-on luggage only for any trip that's shorter than two weeks. For this four-day trip, I don't see why I would have done any different. A man with a sign with my name on it is waiting for me on the other side of the customs area. The man was Ganesh's personal driver who brought me to their house where I will be hosted for the next four nights. Thought, the first stop was at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel. Ganesh was still there with the team finishing the last minute preparations for the two-day event. We reached his house around 1:00am. We sat in the living room and caught up over a cup of coffee for about an hour. Put two Project Management advocates together and you can forget about time. When we made it out of the vortex, it was already 2:00 am and we only had 4 hours to rest before waking up and getting the show started. I haven't slept much all week and tiredness started to catch up. Thought, my presentation was ready and I knew the adrenaline running through my nerves would keep me awake.

The next day, we went straight to the hotel and kicked off the two-day Regional Project Management Conference with the traditional lighting of the oil lamp - a multi-level golden oil lamp that each dignitary and special guests are invited to light up together. I was honoured to take part to this beautiful ceremony. Ganesh handed me over the candle stick and I proceeded to light up one of the cords half-soaked into oil and hanging from one of the plates. Then, followed the Sri Lankan National Anthem and a series of opening speeches from local dignitaries. After the standard protocol, we were finally ready to talk Project Management.

Regional Project Management Conference 2018

As per the conference agenda, I was scheduled to be the second keynote speaker to take over the stage on the first day. I was very happy with being keynote speaker #2, as i neither have the pressure to set the tone for the whole weekend, nor do I need revise my presentation instead of enjoying the event. Though, I still had my reserve as to whether I should open up keynote with asking an audience member to peel a banana or not. Let me explain! The topic of my keynote was to setup a Project Management office by leveraging the best practices from Operations Management. To rest my case, I wanted to demonstrate that the best practices are often right under our noise, but we tend to demean them under the pretext that they belong to a primitive concept. The best practice on how to peel a banana was a metaphor for Project Management looking down on Operations Management - the process control best practitioners - in the same way that humans look down on chimps - the banana-peeling best practitioners. I was quite hesitant on whether or not it would be appropriate to make such a demonstration in such event. Suddenly, all doubts magically disappeared when keynote speaker #1 showed a slide titled "Who pooped here?" With full size pictures of dog pooh all over the giant screen. Needless to say I was not so stressed after that. My conference went super well, as I delivered it with great confidence. When I concluded, I could sit back, relax, and enjoy the other keynotes for the rest of the weekend. What a relief, compared to my keynote of 2016 at the PMI Montreal Symposium, where I was the last speaker of the event. Although it was very well received, the waiting process was not so enjoyable.

The Battle of the Saints

Stefan, keynote speaker #1, had plans to go watch a local rugby game at the stadium. When he asked my if I wanted to join, I couldn't possibly think of declining this thoughtful invitation. Embracing the local experience while enjoying a sporting event? It was an offer I couldn't refuse! And so Stefan, Sheran (anotger fellow Prohect Manager), and myself drove to the stadium to enjoy what was advertised as The Battle of the Saints. It was the championship final match opposing two catholic high schools in Colombo : St-Joseph's vs. Saint-Peter's Tickets worth 600 Rp (about 4 USD) were sold out. Luckily, Stefan had bought the tickets in advance. The audience was packed with supporters of both schools tightly separated in the middle like where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. Joe's navy and white on one side, Pete's yellow and royal blue on the other with no overlap whatsoever. The three of us were seated on the navy and white side, as Stefan was a proud alumnus of Saint-Joseph's Catholic High School. The vast majority of the stands was composed of generations of alumni from either school. Although the Catholics of Sri Lanka only represents 5% of the population, they remains very close and keep supporting events from their community such as the very event we were attending on that day. In the stands, we could see supporters wearing their team colors, flags, snacks vendors, marching bands and even ultra supporters chanting nonstop from the kickoff all the way through the final whistle.

The two teams made their entry on the pitch and lined up on both sides of the referees. This time, instead of the National Anthem, it was rather the respective anthems of the two schools aspiring for the title. The whole stadium, including Stefan, rose to the occasion as they all stood and sang along for the colors they are proudly wearing. To be honest, I didn't not expect much from a game opposing a bunch of 18 year olds. To my surprise, the game was of a high level of skills. To answer Russell Crowe's famous question while those modern time gladiators of this paradise island slammed into each other during two halves of 35 minutes, I was indeed entertained!

After the game, we headed to the Colombo Rugby & Football Club (CR&FC) to catch the FIFA World Cup games on television. Lukas is a friend of mine from my international student exchange in Lille (France). This experience took place in 2009 and I hadn't seen him since then. Turns out Lukas was also on a business trip in Colombo for a couple of days. We definitely had to meet! Lukas is also a football fan. The easiest way to meet and have a good time together was to join us at the CR&FC. Lukas showed up with his boss and joined Stefan, Sheran and myself, along with two of Sheran's friends. Next thing you know, there were 7 of us ready to cheer and scream at the television for the next 90 minutes. Just a quick stop to the loo and back to our table that Lukas not only changed outfits but they were wearing the exact same polo shirt.

Me: "What the hell is going on here? Are you guys embracing the Chinese trend of wearing matching outfits while travelling, or what?"
Lukas: "Well, this is a country club. Apparently, it is mandatory to wear a collar shirt."
Me: "What! They forced you to buy thse shirts?"
Lukas: "Yeah... the bouncer came to us. It was either that or we had to leave..." 
Me: "How much did they make you pay?" 
Lukas: "It was 15000 Rp (about 9 USD)." 
Me: "Oh, that's not so bad... At leadt, it suits you well. It could have been worse. And now, you've got yourself a nice souvenir made in Sri Lanka!" 

The first half had just ended that we decided to call it a night and head back to our quarters from where we would individually watch the rest of the game. It was 2:00am and I was yet to sleep a first night in a week with more than 4 hours of sleep. As you can imagine, I fell asleep halfway through the second half with my mouth wide open in front of the television in Ganesh's living room.

Unawatuna and Galle

The next day, Ganesh brought Niraj - another fellow Project Manager - and I to the beach. We drove South of Colombo for about two hours until we reached Unawatuna Beach. It was my day off and Ganesh was finally liberated from the organization of the two-day event. It was the perfect timing to enjoy the beautiful weather and (even more) laid back attitude of the coastal village. We enjoyed a cold one, delicious sea food prepared in the local way and a swim for a good two hours.

The plan for the evening was to visit the nearby Dutch colonial village of Galle, have dinner and watch the football game from there. And this is exactly what we did. We started with a walk around the village and admired the Dutch architecture from the yesteryear. A lighthouse, a series of white buildings with brown rooftops, and fortified walls protecting the village from botg the high waves and potential invaders constituted some of the features that made Galle so charming. When the game was about to start, we headed to the old Dutch Hospital - converted into a nightlife central with two full floors of restaurants and bars. We picked the one that looked the most comfortable to enjoy the game and ordered some drinks. When the game ended, we headed quickly back to Colombo before the next game started... Perhaps too quickly, as the driver was speeding like crazy on an oscillating road in the middle of Sri Lanka's capital. When I asked Ganesh if his driver was always driving so unresponsibly, his answer was that he wanted to make sure you didn't miss the kick-off. My answer was very clear and concise: "Ganesh... Granted, I'm a football fan. But, I'm an even greater fan of my life."

The Sri Lankan lifestyle (meeting times, bank holidays, etc)

My experience in Sri Lanka was memorable and it really motivated me to come back for a full vacation to explore the island further.  what struck me the most during my stay as definitely the kindness of the Sri Lankan People. Moreover, Sri Lankans truly love their country and take pride in contributing to its development through different projects and investments. However, some enterprise environmental factors contradictorily contribute to both the preservation of its laidback attitude and the exodus of its manufacturing industry. To illustrate my point, Sri Lanka is so peaceful and accepting that it celebrates every religion. This also means that Sri Lanka is the country with the most bank holidays in the world. When you observe all Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist holidays - including every full moon - it becomes difficult to attract businesses to open factories on the island with 37 official bank holidays. Although, I am quite confident that its proud people will soon find a sustainable solution to its economic development. More to come for the paradise island.