Project Management Talent and Its Evolution
By Susan Fennema
I’ve demonstrated project management talent my whole life. I remember things I did as early as 3 years old that were clear signs. And, I was in jobs where I was project managing without even realizing it. But, the first time my job title was “Project Manager” was in 2010… that was 22 years after my career path began.
There isn’t a college major for project management – at least not at my school. I was a journalism major, and that writing ability has served me well. You can become a certified project manager through the Project Management Institute if you believe that is necessary. (I do not.)
Many of us evolve to this career path as you learn in your various roles that you have, as Liam Neeson would say, “a very particular set of skills.”
Hopefully, by understanding some of your natural project management talent, you will be able to either move toward a project management career earlier – or acknowledge that it is part of the role you are playing in your other jobs. So, what are these talents and how did I recognize them in my personality and my God-given talent?
I’m a first child, the daughter of two first children. Yep, I’m bossy and controlling. I came by that very naturally. Bossy is the pure immature project management talent. Taking charge is the more evolved and desired skill.
You want your project manager to take charge of the situation, project or meeting. Otherwise, you end up in meetings where no one was sure who was doing what or by when. There might have been a lot of talk about what everyone thought, but with no one there to take charge, you got nowhere pretty fast.
Ever sat around with a group of friends having this conversation: “I don’t know where we should go after dinner. Where do you want to go?” Response: “I don’t know… what do you want to do?” In a group of friends having this kind of circular, non-ending conversation, the project manager will leap in and formulate a plan and everyone will then have plans after dinner. I can’t help it. I have to… every time.
When I was 3 years old, I would organize my mother’s button collection by size, shape, and color. This is how I “played” while my mother sewed. To this day, I eat Smarties® by pouring them on the table and organizing them by color in a graph format and then eating them in the order of fewest to most. Slight OCD? Maybe. God-given organizational project management talent? Absolutely.
The evolved organization skill is being able to see how things go together in a structured, organized way. Project management is like dumping a jar of buttons of all different sizes, shapes, and colors on the floor and putting them together in a way that makes sense. The difference is that you’re dealing with tasks, problems, and personalities in the project management world.
In one of my jobs in the 90s, I worked for a mail order catalog company which sold business forms, signs, and other materials to property management and automotive companies. My role was to lead the creative team while working with marketing to produce the catalogs. The process started with marketing developing product ideas, which my creative team designed and a production team printed or built. The creative team did the product photoshoot (studio and location) while the marketing team wrote the sales copy. Then, we designed and laid out the catalog itself, with marketing planning the different covers and mail drops. Finally, there was printing and press check. Then, the process started all over – every 3 months. Working in this environment was where I figured out how to create a process and how important it was that it wasn’t stagnant. But, even in that role, my title wasn’t “project manager”, even though that’s really what I was doing.
I trained over 50 project managers at the advertising agency I worked at in Chicago as the Operations Director. Just last week, I chatted on Facebook with one of those project managers who told me that I was her “only/best/favorite mentor.” Talk about a compliment! It was 15 years ago that she worked for me and she was sharing specific things I had said to her that had made her better. Wow! I stay in touch with a lot of my former team members. It is always humbling to me that they remember how I had their backs and how I wanted to make them better.
Leadership isn’t just being put in charge of something. Leadership is never expecting more from others than what you expect of yourself. It is setting the example. It is having high expectations, but being fair and just. Leadership comes with a desire to see those you are leading succeed. It requires compassion, empathy, and a willingness to say the hard things too.
Project managers have to be leaders. They are rarely “the boss” of the team they are leading. Instead, they have to use their project management talent of leadership to get the whole team on board. Sometimes, they are even leading their bosses. You can’t coerce or threaten. You have to lead people and make it obvious to them that you are there to help achieve the goal.
Making Things Happen
I really hate unfinished business. Checking things off a list is one of my very favorite things. It is innately satisfying. I didn’t realize until later in my life that my desire to make fancy lists and then be driven to check all the tasks off was a project management talent.
As a more seasoned professional “list checker off-er”, I have learned to see the end goal and figure out how to lead a team there. Many small business owners love starting new things. Very few of them love finishing things. That’s where project management talent comes into play. A solid project manager can facilitate the finish… making the original vision in the small business owner’s head come to reality.
Finish what you start was certainly a lesson I learned from my amazing parents. Especially in software development projects – where many fail – having a “finisher” can make all the difference.
Through all the experiences I’ve mentioned (and many that I have omitted), I didn’t realize I was a project manager until about 18 years ago. I didn’t know it was a job or a career. I just thought that project management talent was something you used to make things happen. It just goes to show that you don’t have to have the title to make it an integral part of what you do to succeed.