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How to live your passion

07 Jul 2016

You can’t teach passion to people; but you can teach your passion. Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez shares how his time at LBS sparked more than a new way of thinking 

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There’s one project in people’s lives that never gets pushed back, according to Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez JEMBA2003. A wedding. 

He says it’s the one initiative that people are emotionally connected to and communicate about in the weeks and months before the big day. “If your work projects ran as successfully as your wedding, then I wouldn’t need to research the art of managing them,” he says.

Antonio, who is chairman of the Project Management Institute and director of the project management office at GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines, is an expert on the topic. In fact, it’s his goal to become the thought leader on the subject.

Though passion is a key ingredient for success, he explains it almost led to his downfall in 2007, when after 10 years at professional services firm PwC, he was fired. 
 
“I had climbed the corporate ladder and was close to the top when I had to write a compelling business plan to become a partner of the firm.” Antonio thought he’d made himself indispensable with the unique knowledge he brought. 

“I was convinced that my business case was going to work. I wanted to set up a consulting service for PwC around project management. But the partners didn't believe in it.” After leaving the company, Antonio spent three months regrouping and admits it was one of the toughest moments of his life. 

“My brain was asking, ‘Should I continue working on my passion – project management – or move into a more recognised area, like marketing, finance or IT?’ but on reflection, it’s been one of the best things that’s happened in my career.” Leaving the firm freed him up to satisfy his appetite for knowledge. Since then, he’s identified new research and taught project management at some of the world’s top business schools, including Duke Corporate Education in the US, IE Business School in Spain, Tonji in Shanghai, and Solvay and Vlerick in Belgium.

“Now, I’m one of the leading project management experts in the world,” he says. “So, if you get fired, or you’re struggling, believe in your passion.” Speaking at this 2015 TEDx talk, he explains that leaving PwC was a turning point because he learnt to change his mindset. “There’s research to show that your brain will spend 10 times longer focusing on a negative thought rather than a positive one – the brain is a masochist,” he says. 

Nowadays, Antonio focuses on positivity. “With a positive mindset, while you’re going through some of the most painful changes in your life, you can grow and become a better person.” The same brain that can be a masochist, can, with the flip of a switch, bring you a feeling of belief, which can “propel you anywhere”.

LBS inspiration and support


He says that LBS is the reason for his thirst for knowledge and desire to teach project management. While he admits he “wasn’t the best student” at university, by the time he studied an Executive MBA at LBS in 2002, he was ready to be stimulated and challenged. It wasn’t a particular topic or a specific professor that ignited Antonio’s desire to teach; it was their innovative ways of teaching. 

“I’d never experienced the way they taught. They told stories and gave real-world corporate examples. I thought: ‘I want to be one of them – and learn, share and teach the way they do.’”

Antonio explains that the entire Executive MBA experience – the international trips, the pressure of exams and his new-found ability to stretch time while he worked at PwC – shaped his outlook. 

In 2007, through the LBS alumni network, he landed a role in banking as head of post-merger integration at Fortis, a leading Belgian bank: he says the job was tough. “The bank wanted to grow aggressively – not organically, but by acquisition. It was my job to integrate the companies acquired.” Antonio found that many of the skills gained at LBS helped him unify projects from institutions across the world including Turkey, Poland and China. 

“It was a lot of pressure. Though the integration processes are very similar in most acquisitions, the cultural aspects and level of resistance are always a challenge. Thanks to LBS, I'm very good at talking about the benefits and value of things.” He was able to translate business needs into real impact for people. “After we took over a Polish bank, there was a general level of dissatisfaction in the acquired team, to the extent that they would not even participate in meetings. Only after I gave them leading roles in some of the integration projects and brought them into my team did they realise the benefits of belonging to a bigger company.”

After seven years, Antonio found the banking sector “unsexy”. He joined the bank during the high of the bubble, when anything was possible and money didn’t matter. A few years after the global financial crisis however, the whole industry was immersed in a heavy fog of uncertainty. “Projects started to hinge on compliance and cost,” he says. “There was a general depression in the industry – the bank’s main strategic objective was to reduce staff by around 30% in three to four years, so there was nothing motivational about the role. It was painful to go to work.”

So he left. In parallel to his role at the bank, Antonio’s career headed down a different track. In 2007, he started speaking at events about his area of expertise, writing for thought leadership publications and teaching. His advice to people doing work they don’t love is to “dedicate time to your passion. Then, slowly build it into a business.”

As well as teaching and speaking, Antonio became the chairman of the board of the Project Management Institute, which focuses on collaboration, education and research around the value of project management, both for organisations as well as for individuals. “It’s voluntary work, but it fits with my personal values. I love research and spreading the word, which stems from LBS.”

After leaving LBS in 2003, Antonio wrote one of the world’s first research reports on project management for PwC. He says: “After coming to the School, I understood that evidence was as important as theories and frameworks.” 

Today, he’s conducting new research and seeking out innovative case studies, which the LBS network helps with. “I reach out to high-level alumni who are leading large and complex strategic projects. From understanding their challenges, I discover ideas and develop solutions. These insights help me write fresh approaches to project management.”

His ongoing research and project management expertise are the reasons that Antonio works for GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines today – in an industry he previously knew nothing about. He says: “When I went for the job, there were 200 other talented candidates. I had 12 interviews, including with the CEO.” Antonio told each person he met that he had “no experience in pharmaceuticals”. He told them he’d only ever had two vaccines in his life. He said: “Are you really sure that you want me?”

The ferociously honest approach worked. He now heads up the company’s project management office, which involves more than 1,500 people working on 200 projects worldwide. He credits his Executive MBA at LBS and his focus on large transformation projects for getting into an industry notoriously difficult to enter. 

Antonio’s best piece of advice was given to him when he was considering an MBA. “If you want an MBA, go for the best,” an LBS alumnus told him. That’s how he came to study at LBS, and that’s why he’s making his mark on the world, teaching a topic he loves.


Five tips from Antonio on project management