Grace Willis, PMP, says unconscious bias often “renders project leadership an endeavor in swimming upstream.” Such challenges represent symptoms of larger societal issues to be overcome, but underlying tenets hold true when it comes to good project outcomes—engage your teams, understand your stakeholders, and be authentic.
Grace, how did you get into project management? Since graduating college and entering the world of management consulting, elements of project management have been consistently integral to my job duties. However, if I had to select a turning point, it would be during an internship I held while pursuing my MBA. A mentor and supervisor suggested that I formally pursue PMI certification. He thought I'd make a great project manager based on my performance in the internship. I heeded his advice, pursued the official process, targeted my job search to roles with the official "Project Management" title, and took the exam. The rest is history; I've been a certified PMI-PMP since 2010.
What do you love most about the work? I was initially drawn to the ability to help achieve objectives whilst coordinating subject matter experts. The project management experience was akin to conducting an orchestra where each valuable specialist in unison with others created outcomes.
However, as my professional acumen deepened in this space and dysfunction emerged from the woodwork, I became intrigued in understanding organizational dysfunction and uncovering its impacts, which include misalignment between projects and organizational strategy, poor vetting of stakeholders and suppliers, unmitigated risk, and waste. The latter led me to broaden my skills and pursue Lean Six Sigma under the tutelage of Six Sigma Blackbelts. This journey into lean was essentially my formal exposure to process improvement—an asset I leverage even today as an Agilist.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating? What was most frustrating is the misuse of the title “Project Manager.” It has been used by employers to mean everything from glorified Executive Assistant to Systems Engineer, with a touch of project management capability. This is a disservice to candidates and represents a sort of “bait-and-switch” recruiting tactic. The discrepancy between title and function is what inspired my first contribution to PMI in which I discussed the many shades of meaning tagged to the "Project Manager" role and title.
An extension to this phenomenon was the inattention given to selection of project team members and suppliers. Most disappointing was senior leaders with organizational power but a comfortable ignorance of the Project Manager role—a dangerous cocktail.
Does your approach change with the environment in which you’re working? I’ve worked internationally in countries with a national language other than English. I have found, when it comes to project management, people are people. This is not to ignore certain cultural nuances such as hierarchy, labor laws, indices of respect, and of course, language. However, some underlying tenets hold true:
- Either the organization has good leadership, or it doesn’t
- Either the project team members are engaged, or they aren’t
- Either the stakeholders (positive and negative) and their interests were identified at the onset and continually re-evaluated or not
Where there are implications is how I am received when I show up. Specifically, there will be persons who have intrinsic challenges such as unconscious bias, preconceived notions, discomfort with change and so on, with the collective result being their struggle to respond professionally to someone fitting my profile. Their struggle then renders project leadership an endeavor in swimming upstream because these persons are resisting the project manager—not necessarily the work to be done.
Some of the laundry list of challenges are at the forefront of conversations going on in our current environment and represent symptoms of larger societal issues that remain to be overcome. One can only come as far as the organization allows unproductive and disruptive organizational cultural behaviors to flourish or be minimally, if at all, addressed.
What's your proudest professional achievement? Contributing thought leadership to the community. I have had several articles published whose content touches on real-world experiences, which often diverge from theories laid out in bodies of knowledge. Being able to candidly share field experiences through various print and digital avenues—and having an excerpt of my articles be selected for publication in a compilation—makes me proud.
What's the best piece of advice you've received or can share? Remain authentic. Being your true self comes with risk, especially when you must deliver tough messages. In my career, I’ve had to deliver recommendations to end a project or rethink an initiative. In these instances, leadership was holding on for dear life to make things work despite clear indices that the endeavor was failing due to deep-seated and systemic impediments. Sponsors were simply victims of the sunk cost fallacy—in a nutshell, the misguided belief in the approach to continue going because we've come this far and already spent so much money/time/resources.
In my current career as an Agile leader, I’ve had to deliver messages that an engagement was not viable, or that business leaders and team members involved in a transformation were ill-suited.
Support your authenticity by having your facts ready. Data points, data points, data points are essential. Make the connection between the data and the impact. Finally, come to the table with recommendations and possible next steps. If your authenticity is met with negativity, then evaluate if you really want to stay in the environment you're in.
How has ProjectManagement.com helped you in your work and career? It’s great to be able to get direct feedback via comments from community members—something that wouldn’t have been possible via the PM Network magazine alone. The community, reading what others are doing, and invitations to informative webinars, has been great.
Where are you from? Where are you based? I’m Jamaican, proud to be one, and very proud of our national motto "Out of Many, One People.” My second home is southeast Florida, which itself is home to a large contingent of the Jamaican diaspora.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside your day-to-day work? Decorating. I have a weakness for retailers that focus on home beautification and kitchen gadgets. Other than that, I like to discover new parks and trails, swim, go to the beach and travel.
What about a favorite TV show, artist, movie? Law and Order—all of them. Phil Collins, the Peters (Cetera and Gabriel), Bob Marley and Bon Jovi. For movie, it’s a three-way tie between Dancehall Queen, and the original releases of Back to the Future and The Terminator.
Best vacation? During the summer before my last year of college, backpacking across France and taking full advantage of my France Rail Pass encapsulated a blissful, adventurous, and precious era in my life that stays with me to this day.
Thank you Grace!