Nothing Like a Recession and a European Vacation to Drop You Into the Project Management Deep End
On reading that title, I suspect that an explanation might be in order. Let me set the stage…
I had been working as a professional archaeologist for about six years after getting my Master’s Degree in Nautical Archaeology. I’d worked almost all of that time with a small environmental consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. In those six years, I’d reached the point in environmental consulting where I had a decent feel for how projects worked at the ground level - I could scrounge up a field survey crew and make sure the fieldwork was being completed on schedule with minimal problems and I could write up a decent report within the budget that I was assigned. Around this time, my superiors were just starting to give me higher-level responsibilities like estimating budgets for proposals and coordinating findings with other disciplines’ studies and with regulatory agencies. All of this was done under their watchful eye. Out of a group of about eight archaeologists, I was the third-most senior in the company.
The Great Recession hit in 2007 and the environmental consulting industry, like almost everyone, took it on the chin. My firm, almost wholly focused on the transportation sector, found its list of active projects drop to nearly zero in a matter of weeks after the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced dramatic budgetary cuts. With other, more industry-diverse firms faring a little better, scientists at my firm started giving notice fairly regularly. My immediate superior, who’d actually interviewed and hired me out of grad school, was among them. I’d advanced to second in line but didn’t have a lot of work to learn from.
Around that same time, my wife and I were flying off to Europe for a long-planned, and hard-saved, two-and-a-half week trip with some friends through Austria and Italy for Christmas. We got bumped up to First Class on the flight over; we saw Lindsay Lohan shopping at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome; all-around Magic. Early in our trip, our hotel in Florence had internet so I checked my email. I had a message from the senior archaeologist - my boss - saying that he’d taken a position at a new firm and was turning in his notice. “Oh… Crap…” I thought. When I landed back home, he’d be gone and I’d be [bum - bum - BUM!] in charge.
Being Thrown Into the (Not So) Deep End
As I’d suspected, I got back in the New Year and was offered the position of Archaeology Program Manager. In my firm, archaeology was always a secondary service to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) services so I’d be working closely with the other - and decidedly more senior - department managers. Nonetheless, I was the program lead and senior archaeology project manager. I no longer had someone to bounce insider questions off of. If a client asked me a question about archaeological work, I couldn’t say, “I don’t know. Let me go ask and get back to you…” quite as easily.
As bad as it was, the severe economic downturn was kind of a blessing for me. Without a whole lot of work going on, I had the time to really focus on the projects we did have. Many of those projects had been started by my predecessor, so I wasn’t building from scratch. In addition, our program had shrunk from eight people to about four. To his credit - and I’m incredibly grateful for him to this day - my boss had been an intense person who focused a great deal of effort on teaching us through the work that we did. (Between us - I HATED our sessions in his office when he’d sit down and eviscerate my masterpiece reports, but I’m much better for it). He also had assembled an excellent group of professionals, several of whom were still at my firm, who now are a who’s-who of industry leadership here in Texas (where’d I go wrong?!). In other words: it was pretty slow, I had solid professional footing, and a great team around me to lean on. I’d indeed been dumped into the deep end, but it turned out to be the deep end of the kiddie pool (minus all the pee). While I flailed a little here and there, it was ok and I found myself to be a fairly good project manager, teaching myself some hard-earned lessons.
Lesson 1: Own Your Mistakes - It’s the Only Way to Learn from Them
When I took over the program, the archaeological buck stopped with me whether I liked it or not. My days of being a waiter-in-training were long gone. I couldn’t go to our clients and say, “Sorry I got your orders mixed up, folks… I’m in training.” Worse yet, I couldn’t be that guy who points the finger at everyone but himself when things didn’t go according to plan. I had to do my best and deal with the consequences of the mistakes that invariably came. One instance comes to mind: I’d prepared a proposal for an archeological survey for a small sidewalk project and had forgotten to include any time for our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) folks to prepare maps for the report. The company couldn’t afford to run over because of my error so I stayed late for several days and made the maps myself. I can assure you, I haven’t forgotten to budget for mapping since.
When we won a competitive proposal to conduct a large survey at a State Park, I didn’t communicate with the field crew about a small additional area that needed a survey that wasn’t connected to the rest of the project. The area was depicted on the survey maps, but I didn’t communicate with them about it. I wound up making a family trip out of going back out to wrap the area up, leaving my wife and son to explore the park while I worked. I very easily could have blamed my field crew for not catching that additional area and surveying it (and to some degree, I’d be right...) but I was the manager on this project. It was my responsibility to meet the client’s expectations and fulfill our scope. I learned to follow the old saying: Trust, but verify.
Lesson 2: Think REALLY, REALLY Hard About Turning Away Work
If there is one glaring, flaming-hot regret in my professional life (besides not fully chasing my dreams to become a bass player), it came on the afternoon I took a call from someone asking for my predecessor. The woman wasn’t too sure of the project she had and I was actually pretty busy at that time. When I told her that my predecessor was no longer with the company, she described her project a little bit: “Well… I don’t know what’s involved here. Apparently it goes through some old oil facilities so we have to survey it. Is this survey something that you can do?” The way the woman talked about it, the archaeology sounded small and pretty run-of-the-mill. I was busy and running late for my meeting and said that we probably wouldn’t be able to get to her project as quickly as she needed. I gave her my predecessor’s contact information at his new company (like a moron) and patted myself on the back for helping someone while keeping my priorities on the work at hand (also like a moron). Within a few weeks our busy spell died down and we were back to twiddling our thumbs a bit.
Fast forward about a year. I was attending a conference and my predecessor was giving a talk. His talk was about that same project. It wasn’t just some rinky-dink survey through East Texas. It wound up being a huge survey and follow-up excavations through the birthplace of the American Oil Industry: Spindletop. I sat in my chair, shrinking into it inch-by-inch, as I watched my former boss describe a fascinating, sustained, and large-scale project that I would have killed for. Then, to really twist the ol’ knife even more, he stayed on stage to receive an award for his work on the project. The regret I felt at passing up what would have been a life raft for our struggling program was pretty terrible. In a way, this post is a bit of a coming out as I’ve only admitted this mistake to a few folks, and certainly no one who worked for me during my time as the program manager.
Since then, I’ve made sure to take time to talk to all prospective clients to really understand what they are asking for. If I don’t have the time then, I’m honest and say so, but I follow up with them later.
Lesson 3: Use Your Personal Strengths to Your Advantage
As far as archeologists go, I’m a pretty unremarkable scientist; kind of like those waffles they serve at the free hotel breakfast we’ve all had on field projects: fine. And ya know what? That’s ok. Working in a science-based profession, we are often surrounded by folks who are a bit more introverted and who struggle with interpersonal relationships but their scientific prowess and genuine enthusiasm are enviable. I, on the other hand, consider myself to be a pretty friendly, fun-loving guy who takes great pride in the positive working relationships I have with my co-workers and with the fact that clients repeatedly ask for me directly. My clients don’t ask for me because I’m a great archaeologist. They ask for me because they like me. I have learned in my dealings with my clients that my casual, respectful, and friendly attitude more than make up for any scientific mediocrity I have. Other members of my teams fill in those gaps for me. I have excelled by using what makes me different and special. Find your strengths and use them!
Lesson 4: Your Client is a Person and a Customer
For the longest time, I relegated the concept of a “customer” to the service industry, but in my transition to project management, I’ve learned that knowing your professional service client is your customer is an excellent rule to live by as well. Always approach projects from your client’s perspective. Clients won’t always know what you’re talking about so overexplain anything important. If your client doesn’t need the primer, fine; if they do, they might not have even known that they did until after they got it. Fight those internal voices who are frustrated with your client’s unreal deadlines and over-the-top expectations. Chances are very, very good that they are answering to someone else who is pushing just as hard. Ask yourself, “What is my client going to do with this?” and try to improve what you’re doing to make your contribution to their project that much better. Anything you can do to make their job easier will ultimately endear them to you in the long run.
Looking back on those first steps toward project management, I can’t really think of a lot of conscientious decision-making that changed how I worked. I didn’t say, “I’m a project manager now. I need to do this this way…” I just had different stuff to do. I was still the same guy who responded to the task that was in front of me as earnestly as I could. New experiences through that work (positive and negative - sometimes very negative), like dust on a breeze, chipped away at my awkward angles and clumsy errors, leaving things a little smoother for next time. It just took time, patience, and a sense of responsibility for my clients and coworkers. Pretty straightforward really. It’s not like it’s archaeological science or anything…