The Art of Leadership: Interview With Art Petty

Part of our new monthly interview series where we profile entrepreneurs, innovators, business leaders and project managers. Our goal is to bring in people from a diverse range of industries and backgrounds to explore different roles and challenges in leadership and project management.

Art Petty is a multi-decade software industry executive and a popular leadership and management speaker and author. After guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership as a senior strategy and marketing executive, he now serves clients as a management team and executive coach. Additionally, he is an active conference keynote speaker and workshop presenter and regularly serves as a graduate management educator at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill.Art Petty, project manager
Art’s practical and powerful business guidance is reflected in his highly ranked Management Excellence blog and the popular Leadership Caffeine posts. Art is the leadership and management expert writing at Additionally, Art is the author of multiple books, including: Practical Lessons in Leadership, Leadership Caffeine and the forthcoming (9/16) Leadership Caffeine for Project Managers.

What’s the best leadership advice you ever received?

I was the beneficiary of a great mentor early in my career and his guidance always carried a powerful simplicity that made it tangible for me. He taught me three valuable lessons:

  1. Your role is not to be in charge, it’s to bring out the best in people. You have to help people think and act for themselves.
  2. Always choose people of good character and then work like crazy to help them achieve their goals.
  3. The great thing about leading is that you get to practice every day. If you goof it up on one day, come back and make it right the next day.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

In my MBA courses I include a case that showcases a manager who struggles to deal with a difficult but brilliant employee. The manager offers feedback, invests in coaching and expends tremendous personal capital and credibility over a couple of years supporting this brilliant-problem employee.

At the end of the day, the team takes matters into their own hands and they effectively vote this individual off the island by ostracizing him. He boiled over and quit in a fit of anger. I challenge the students to assess the manager’s performance in this situation and of course, they skewer him.

Suffice it to say I learned not to sacrifice my team for the sake of one individual.


As the class winds down and they have run out of ways to describe how poorly the manager handled everything, I announce that I was the manager. People gasp. I was indeed that manager, and we don’t have enough space for all the lessons I learned from that situation. Suffice it to say I learned not to sacrifice my team for the sake of one individual.

As a public speaker, how do you convey ideas of leadership to other business leaders?

My speaking coach always reminds me that you should never give a speech unless you believe you can change the world. I love that perspective. It reminds me how important the 40 or 50 minutes should be for my audience. I feel an intense obligation to give them at least one idea they can apply immediately to improve their situation.

I do that through stories and by asking questions. As one of my participants offered, “You provoked thinking during your session.” An effective speech has to make you think! And yes, my speeches may feel a bit like a day in graduate school…I get my audience involved in solving problems and we use their own perspectives to develop solutions to the most common leadership problems.

What project are you most proud of and why?

I had a remarkable experience as an executive and an executive sponsor for what was a “bet the company” project to reinvent our software firm’s core offering at a point in the business cycle when we suspected our competitors would be cutting costs. We went all in to seize a window and flew close to the flames of disaster.

It was a great project manager we brought in who rescued this project from the flames and ultimately helped us reinvent our product and our company. As one of the team members described to me at a company reunion, “We didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the formative experience of our careers.”

The leadership lessons on change were profound and echo in all of my writing. The project experience was a once in a lifetime privilege! It doesn’t hurt that the underlying strategy was spot-on and the product worked and propelled us to remarkable growth and a successful sale of the firm.

How do you see project management changing in the future?

I remain convinced from my travels through the corporate world that there is a mismatch between the genuine importance of projects to corporate survival and success and the investment that firms and executives make in building great project cultures. We chronically underinvest in supporting the development of project leaders and in coaching project teams.

I absolutely believe that management must step up to properly investing in and building project-centric cultures of success.

As one team researcher offered, “When you put a team together, it is possible that something magical—something extraordinary will happen, just don’t count on it.” Since projects are how we execute strategy, innovate and do everything new, and given a world where we must be great at seizing emerging opportunities and responding to sudden threats, we have no choice but to cultivate project-centric cultures.

That’s a long way of saying that I am not sure how the discipline of project management will change, but I absolutely believe that management must step up to properly investing in and building project-centric cultures of success.

At the end of the day, what makes a successful project?

Happy customers are always a good benchmark, however, that’s too narrow to evaluate the true success of the initiative. I care deeply about how much we learned as a team and as a company that we can use to keep improving in the future. I want my teams to find the things we did that worked and find ways to do more of that. I want the lessons learned to permeate all of our teams. And importantly, I know a project initiative has been successful when the team wraps up with fire and confidence and enthusiasm for their next great initiative!

Related Posts

Deliver Your Projects
On Time and Under Budget

Start planning your projects.

Start 30-Day Free Trial