The Changing Role of the Project Manager: An Interview with Jennifer Bridges

ProjectManager.com

We’re kicking off a new interview series on the blog, where we feature a significant personality in project management, leadership and business. Our goal is to feature people we can all learn from, and we can’t think of a better person to kick off our new profile series than our own Jennifer Bridges, PMP.

As many visitors to ProjectManager.com will know, Jennifer Bridges is our most prolific video trainer. Her training videos are watched by literally millions of people on our site, on our mobile apps, on our YouTube channel, and through our LinkedIn Group, who learn practical tips on project management and engage in robust discussions on best practice.

Jennifer is also the founder and CEO of PDUs2Go.com, a PMI-registered training provider of mobile certification and PDU training content. With over 20 years experience in IT project management, she also advises clients on project management process and practice and serves as a mentor to aspiring project managers. 

The Interview

Stephanie Ray: Welcome, Jennifer!Jennifer Bridges, Founder of PDUs2Go

Jennifer Bridges: Cool. I’m excited.

SR: So how did you get started in project management?

Jennifer: Well, I got started in project management early on in my career, because out of college I started as a Unix System Administrator for BellSouth. At the time, there was no role as the project manager.

My role has always been on the IT technology side where there’s been software development and hardware implementation, those types of things, around technology projects. So there were just different people performing different roles, and because there wasn’t anything called the “project manager” role, it was deemed in our company that the Unix System Administrators would be responsible for the project.

So I liked being able to be the one to structure things and put process flows and systems in place that were repeatable and everybody knew what was to be expected, because I had a short time where I was on the receiving end of chaos and confusion and bad emotions. [laughs]

So I was one of the “accidental project managers.”

SR: Right! And then you became more formalized at some point…

Jennifer: Yeah. And then things became more formalized in our company, and even in the industry. So we formed a group, a project management group, at BellSouth Telecommunications.

We were the ones to define the process flows and processes. I did a lot with CMM, the Carnegie Mellon Capability Maturity Model, and ISO-9000 and those type initiatives. So to me, they run hand-in-hand. I don’t think I can do project management without asking, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to communicate?” I’m always trying to get a process in place.

SR: And do you think those two things are inextricably bound? That project management is process management?

Jennifer: I think I can say that [just] for me, because I’m sure it would be debatable. Everybody can debate everything. [laughs]

For a period of time, I was brought in to recover failed projects. Time and time again, it was just the small things that caused huge catastrophes. And a lot of it was, like, simple process. It wasn’t even having to put anything complex in place. It was really the simple things.

SR: What was one of your most challenging projects and why? Maybe an example of one of those simple things.

Jennifer: Yeah. I can give two scenarios that I find myself repeating over and over. I’ve been on projects of hundreds of people, because a lot of the projects I worked on were enterprise-wide implementations, where everything that we did would impact the entire company from a technology standpoint. And we had hundreds of people on the projects, and some of these implementations way back were $500 million implementations!

SR: Phew!

Jennifer: And those were complex and they ran multiple years. And we would have a lot of complexities. There was this Oracle implementation project where they were just having these awful problems, so they called me in, because it was during the time period, again, that I was recovering failed projects. It was one of the later phases, and there were just three people on the project. Three.

Mind you, I’d been on projects of 300 or more people.

So, this one had three people on it. They were contractors from the same company. And they all were at odds with each other, and [even though] their work depended on each other, they literally were arguing and fighting with each other on the client site (which was our company.) So that was difficult because the contract company wouldn’t fire them, and the reason they couldn’t do that, was because Oracle was new at the time. There just weren’t that many people in the country who even knew Oracle or knew how to implement it or knew how to repair it.

We were held hostage, so to speak.

“So to get the project to work, it wasn’t solving complex technical issues… It was solving communication issues between people.”

So I had to keep working the people part. So how did I solve that? I needed to basically keep them working on getting to know each other.

I later wrote my book, “How to Optimize Your Thinking,” exactly on that people part. It’s like getting people to understand each other, such as: “Hey, you know? She’s a human being.” And getting them to realize and treat each other like people, like humans. And getting people to realize commonalities and [understand] what does this person need in order to get their work done?

So to get the project to work, it wasn’t solving complex technical issues. The issue or barrier wasn’t, “Oracle’s not working.” It was solving communication issues between three people who sat in the same cubicle area.

SR: So what would you say…

Jennifer: That’s the hardest one, and I’ve worked on some boogers. You know? [laughs]

SR: [Laughing…] So, if the most challenging had to do with communication, what would you say in general is the most challenging part of managing projects? Since you’ve done so many, if you had to name one thing that, for someone getting started, like what’s the most challenging thing you’d say about managing projects in general?

Jennifer: It’s funny because everywhere I go I take a sketch pad with me, like an artist sketch pad, and when I’m in meetings with people, whether it’s one-on-one or group, I draw things or I get up on the board because I think people need to see and understand, “What are we doing and why are we doing this?”

“If people can see the vision of the projects we’re doing and how they’re contributing to a greater cause, then people (for the most part) buy in.”

I think a lot of times people can’t see the big vision of what they’re doing, and they can’t see themselves in it. So if people can see the vision of the projects we’re doing and how they’re contributing to a greater cause, then people (for the most part) buy in.

If they don’t buy in, then that’s when they kind of go away.

I was always amazed at some of the projects I worked on early in my career. Like, “Oh my God, I get to be on the forefront of this thing. I get to work on this great project.” All the projects in my days were something, but I also think about the people who were on the project for the likes of Uber, or projects that really can change something.

So I think appreciation of the projects, and what we can be a part of, is important.

SR: It’s an interesting answer! Tt’s not the one I would have thought you would have said. But I think it’s interesting. Do you think it’s hard to get people to get their heads out of the weeds to see the big vision?

Jennifer: Yes! I had the privilege when I started working to be in an environment where I had mentors, people who would actually take me under their wing and mentor and coach me. And then I experienced in that same environment where times changed, and we were having to do so much with fewer resources and little time.

And then things got stressed. So then when we brought new people in it was like, “Man, I don’t have time to do my own job mixed with spending time trying to explain to you stuff.” You were kind of on your own.

So I think that because people are always trying to do so much with less resources, [the attitude is] just kind of like, “Get it done.” And in some environments people haven’t been spending time with people on the team to kind of mentor them or make sure that they have the resources they need. Do you have the training that you need? Do you have the support? If you’ve got a question, is there somebody there who’s going to help you see the vision?

SR: And now you do a lot of mentoring yourself, I understand. So what would be your advice to aspiring project managers or somebody who’s maybe new in the field?

Jennifer: So a couple of things I tell people is (and I may have done a video whiteboard session on this): “Find a mentor.” Someone in your organization that knows the organization, they kind of know the ropes. They’re like your go-to person.

Also, find your peers, but also find above your peers. Somebody that you can go to to ask questions.

“I feel like people can contribute something to anybody. I always say, ‘Mentor up and mentor down.'”

And then I also feel like it’s important to mentor others. Like, everybody contributes. I feel like people can contribute something to anybody. I always say, “Mentor up and mentor down.”

And finally, “Form relationships. Be a relationship-builder.” Because that’s how we get things done! Remembering that through those relationships, you’re not just taking. Right? You’re also giving value to other people.

SR: And how do you do that when you’re a junior?

Jennifer: I learn a lot from our summer college interns! Now, I had a business partner who told an intern, “In meetings don’t speak unless you’re called on.” And I’m like, “What?” Because I had the opposite opinion.

I learned through bringing interns in, that I had a lot to learn from them. Like I could share things from a business perspective that I learned, but I also was learning from them new ways to look at things.

An example. We needed some pretty complex spreadsheets built, and I don’t know how long it would have taken me to do it. In fact, I don’t know if I could have even done it. But we gave them to the interns, and they were from Hong Kong, actually, and they used their social tools to ping people all over the world, and they had this complex spreadsheet built in like two days.

SR: Awesome.

Jennifer: And then they were showing me how they use some of the social tools. This is probably 2009.

So I believe everybody needs to feel like they can contribute something, because I feel like they can. And if people feel like they can contribute in an environment, they will rise to the top.

“If people feel like they can contribute in an environment, they will rise to the top.”

I’m working right now with mentoring several people and when we have meetings, I’ll ask them their opinions. And that just… I don’t know, it roots something up in them and they rise. Like they’re just rising up doing some amazing things. They get to use their skills, their experience, and their expertise.

Interviewer: And do you think the role of the project manager is changing? Obviously, you said it changed from when you first started until a kind of more formalized role kind of took root with it, but there are the recent PMI changes…

Jennifer: Yeah, I think it is changing. The reason I paused is because there is, I think, some of the changes are ones I’ve always thought were important. And now they’re becoming industry-wide, like learning from the business perspective.

And I probably learned that even more having my own company. Right? Because I have had several companies now, and I see how important the business aspect is of [project management] is, as well as leadership. And I do believe that companies are acknowledging that more. They want their project managers, and they need their project managers to have business acumen, being able to understand the business speak, and how what they’re doing is important to the company.

SR: And on that note then, if you were doing executive coaching, what advice would you give executives about project management today? Since requirements are being much more leadership-driven, how does the executive leader work with project managers? What do they need to know about the changing role of project managers or how can they use project managers more effectively in the organization?

Jennifer: I still do consulting work for big companies, both executive coaching or team member coaching. My experience when I’m talking to the executives (and why I like the changes that I see PMI requiring), is that they want project managers to step up to the plate. They’re looking to hire somebody to hand off a project that’s delivering something really critical to the company or important to the company. And so they’re looking for somebody to own that and drive it and make sure that it gets delivered. They expect [project managers] to have the leadership skills and the business skills.

So I think a good question is, “Where is the gap?”

Because I hear them wanting one thing, and one thing I see on the project manager side is they say, “Well, I don’t have the authority for that.” Right? Yet a lot of the executives say, “You are in charge. That is your job responsibility.”

But there’s some gap in there where [the PMs] don’t feel like they have the responsibility or they don’t have the authority. I think if the two parties met in a room they would see that they both want the same thing.

SR: That’s interesting.

“In my ideal world there would be a project leader and a project manager.”

Jennifer: Yeah. It’s almost like there became this demand for project managers, and I think there’s still a curb on developing project managers. But there’s the [limitations of the] project manager role… In my ideal world there would be a project leader and a project manager. Because there’s somebody that’s got to handle all the minutia of the planning, and then there’s the leader who’s doing the people part.

And I submit that there’s fewer people who can do both.

SR: And it’s hard. Right? I think it’s tough because the role has become like an executive, but you don’t have the executive authority. You know?

As you said like if you sat the CEO and the Project Manager in their office together the CEO says, “Well, I want you to run with it.” But then there are mandates from on high that the PM isn’t privy to. So I see what you mean that there’s two different roles that would be ideal. But we’re really conflating them together these days and it’s pretty hard, I would imagine, for that Project Manager to take certain initiatives and run with them when they kind of need to get the approval. And yet the approvers want them to just run with it. You know?

Sort of a catch-22.

Jennifer: Yeah. Because I don’t think I’m one of those people that buy into the whole… I don’t necessarily buy into the whole BAPM role, like the business analyst is the Project Manager. Those are two different roles, in my mind. Different skill sets.

And, again, I’m just learning from people, because I’ve studied the people part. I really study people, and my greatest successes, I think, have been in positioning people for their strengths, such as realigning the team members to do the things that they have the greatest strengths to do.

PMI is coming out with all of these technical certifications, yet if a project manager says, “Well, I want to transition up. I want to get promoted,” or say they want a bigger span of projects, to take on greater projects or more advanced or complex projects, it’s not learning more about all of these technologies, it’s not being the agile specialist or the Scrum master, it’s that you need to know more about people.

Core questions are: “How do I influence my team? How do I impact my team? How do I get my team to follow and do the things I need them to do? How do I get them to get along? How do I resolve conflict? How do I built a synergistic team who are going to work together and who are going to support the initiative?”

That’s just a whole different discipline to me.

Jennifer helps train people every week in project management practices and processes through her whiteboard sessions and her consulting practice. She knows the importance of tools that can support the processes. ProjectManager.com was designed to help create the structure and communication so essential to managing projects today. Start your free trial and see how you can improve your projects.

 

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