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:
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!
Based in Salt Lake City by way of Barcelona, Mayte Mata-Sivera, PMP, is truly a global project and program manager, speaking several languages and leading efforts in Europe, Asia, North America and South America. She believes in challenging, empowering and trusting her teams.
Mayte, how did you get into project management? After six hard years at Chemical Engineering School in Valencia, Spain, and a week before my graduation, one of the Big 5 technology firms offered me an internship plus free tuition for an SAP course. I struggled for days about accepting the offer. I was not very tech savvy, but thanks to my mentors and coach in the company I learned not only technical skills but also leadership skills that I continue to use and develop today.I realized that my passion is being a great project manager. After 13 years in tech, I have moved to the business side, and I’m leading strategic and operations projects now.
What do you love most about the work? There are some myths about project management. It’s not only spending the day in front of the computer sending mails with due dates. It is also engagement, communication and leadership! I try to be someone who inspires the team, someone who creates more leaders and more project managers.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating? Each project is a different challenge, and I need to feel challenged and empowered to be creative. If I don’t feel challenged in my work, I get bored. I need to be learning something new constantly, from the project and from the team.
Does your approach change depending on the country you’re working in? Cultural differences matter, communications needs and gestures are different. I always recommend learning something about the culture of the team and country that you are working in—even a few words such as “hi” or “thank you” in the native language. If you show interest in the culture and people, you will win over your team.
What's your proudest professional achievement? Any project that challenged me and my team, and anytime that we delivered value and benefits due to a project implementation.
What's the best piece of advice you've received or can share? Take care of your team. It doesn’t matter if you are their functional manager or not—challenge them, empower them and trust them.
How has ProjectManagement.com helped you in your work and career? I joined before getting my PMP certification, and after a few months I realized that this is an amazing community where I found mentors and friends. People helped me and I was able to give back to the community, too.
Hometown? I was born and raised in Xàbia, a town in the East Coast of Spain.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside your day-to-day work? I’m a co-organizer of the TEDxSaltLakeCity event. I really enjoy learning from the speakers, building a diverse community, and sharing ideas worth spreading. I also love to spend time diving and snorkeling, though I can’t do that here. I really miss the ocean, so I try to travel to California when I can for a weekend break.
Favorite TV show, artist or movie? I don’t really have a lot of time to see the TV; however, I’m a fan of the Star Warsmovies.
Best vacation? If you asked me four years ago, it would be any country where I’ve backpacked—India, China, Vietnam—or the European cities that I have discovered. I define myself as a traveler, not a tourist. Now that I’m living in the United States, the best vacations are those few weeks or days when I can travel back to Spain and share quality time with family and friends.
Thank you Mayte!
To connect with Mayte, visit her ProjectManagement.com profile.
Based in Bangalore, India, Girish Kumar Dharan is a senior project manager for SAP Innovative Business Solutions. He believes that project success greatly depends on addressing the unknowns, which don’t have defined recipes for managing.
Girish, how did you get into project management? I started my career as a piping engineer with a construction company. Then I did my MBA and joined a pharmaceuticals company where I was part of the PMO formed for the implementation of ERP. Along with PMO activities, I played the role of functional consultant in the implementation of SAP modules. After the successful completion of the project, for the next few years I was a functional consultant with a leading technology company. At a certain point during this tenure, I had to decide whether to continue with functional consulting or move into the project management stream. I consciously took the decision to manage and drive projects.
What do you love most about the work? In general, there are two broad areas that need to be addressed by a project manager. The first area is “the known”—plans, schedules, estimations, reports—that have prescribed ways of doing them. The second area is “the unknown”—customer or partner behavior, organization and location culture, politics—that doesn’t have a defined recipe for management.In my experience, project success depends on how effectively the unknown is managed. I love shaping solutions by addressing the unknown.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating? Due to the geographical spread of expertise across the world, project teams operate globally and remotely. Great advancement in technology have enabled project teams to collaborate. However, even the best technologies are still not able to provide the effectiveness and efficiency attained by team members working out of a single location.
What's your proudest professional achievement? Last year, I was fortunate along with the team to [deliver] a project that was extremely complex technically, the first of its kind, with a high level of remote collaboration and resource challenges due to niche skill requirements.
What's the best piece of advice you've received or can share? It is a quote that I refer quite often: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
How has ProjectManagement.com helped you in your work and career? PM.com has added a lot of value with its wide collection of webinars, templates, articles on various topics, and tools that help me perform my role. I also gain a lot by reading and participating in the community discussions and attending the [online] events.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside work? I am an avid reader. I also play tennis, badminton and cricket, and keep myself fit.
Favorite TV show, artist or movie? Quentin Tarantino movies.
Best vacation? Andaman and Nicobar Islands [in the Bay of Bengal].
Thank you Girish!
To connect with Girish, visit his ProjectManagement.com profile.