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Ben Aston Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston and this is the Digital Project Manager podcast from thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
Today, I’m joined by Lina Calin. Today, we’re going to be discussing remote project management and the challenge of building strong teams. How on earth is it that you can build a strong team, a dynamic team, a team that loves working together when you’re spread out across the world, or across the country? Surely, it’s impossible. Or, maybe it’s not. So, keep listening to find out. But, Lina, first just tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you and what do you do?
Lina Calin: I am located in beautiful Richmond, Virginia in the States. I’m a digital project manager for Foster Made in Richmond.
Ben Aston Cool. Tell me a bit about Foster Made, then. What kind of projects do you work on?
Lina Calin: We’re primarily a development company. We build complex websites. We do CMS projects, custom maps. We really got started in the ExpressionEngine community a number of years ago and we really have expanded our team with a lot of skillsets. We’ve been able to do some really complex, really, really awesome projects, building applications and things like that for our clients.
Ben Aston Cool. Are there any exciting projects that you’re working on right now that you can tell us about? Or, what’s the coolest project you’ve worked on in the last year?
Lina Calin: We do really great work for Screening for Mental Health. I really like working with them. They’re a fantastic client. They do incredible work, but I really appreciate that what we do actually makes a difference. The client is conscious. They’re very inclusive, very friendly, and they understand the value of the work that we do, which makes working with them really wonderful. I also love knowing the work that we do for them is truly making a difference in the world.
Ben Aston That’s awesome. So, you do lots of big website builds, technical stuff. Do you still do lots of work with ExpressionEngine? That’s a CMS I don’t hear much bandied around. Is that a conscious choice to focus on that or do you work on other platforms and stuff as well?
Lina Calin: We’ve actually moved towards doing a lot of work in Craft as well. We have a number of clients that we support that we’ve built sites for and ExpressionEngine. Occasionally, we’ll recommend that to a client, but, for the most part, we’ve been using Craft lately on our CMS builds. We really like that platform.
Ben Aston Cool. I haven’t used Craft myself. I’ve played around with it, but never actually delivered a project in it. I hear good things about it.
Lina Calin: It is really cool.
Ben Aston That’s cool. Tell us a bit about your story. How is it that you became a digital project manager?
Lina Calin: I actually went to school in Williamsburg, Virginia. I went to William and Mary and I majored in psychology. I didn’t actually intend to go into the field of psychology. I just really loved the study of people and I knew that it would be applicable to whatever I decided to do professionally, and, as you can kind of hear as you get to know me, that most of what I actually care about is rooted in psychology. Like most people, probably, who are digital project managers, I got into this job and this industry completely by accident.
I came to Richmond actually a number of years ago with a job to manage a new restaurant that was about to open, but I quickly realized that although I had been in the restaurant industry in college, that wasn’t where I wanted to make my career after graduation. I left the restaurant and got a call from the team who had done the branding and the website for the restaurant, and the owner of that company asked me to come work for him. I spent a couple of years as his account manager, helping with marketing and operations at the company. Then I left and spent a few years managing projects on the web team of an inbound marketing agency. In both places there, I was an account manager, but project management was kind of a part of my job by default.
Then just under two years ago, I came to Foster Made. I was hired as an account manager but quickly realized that what the team actually needed was more of a project manager, so I ended up changing my role, and have since then been learning how to manage our projects.
Ben Aston Cool. Good start. It’s always fascinating to me finding out how people end up in digital project management, so from working in a restaurant to then working for the agency that makes your website for the restaurant. It’s a tenuous link, right?
Lina Calin: It is.
Ben Aston But, hey, it’s whatever works. Yes, tell me about, then, that transition for you from being an account manager to being a digital project manager. It’s a transition that I made myself, but I’d love to know how did that work out for you? Did you find yourself … you obviously, you said that you saw a need for digital project management, and then how did you transition and say, one day, “I’m no longer an account manager. Today, you will call me a digital project manager.” How did that happen?
Lina Calin: I think that I came on and one of the goals was to really manage relationships, and so definitely came in with that, but I was brought in to manage our large projects at Foster Made, and those were relatively new to the business. To start to have these projects that were so much larger than some of the CMS builds they had been doing so far, so I started to see that these projects really needed a lot more organization. They needed a lot more structure. The clients needed more communication about what was happening with the project, and it just kind of needed more project management than just kind of that relationship aspect or the higher-level vision and strategy.
I kind of waffled a bit and had Account and Project Manager as my title, and then after a while, kind of realized that I needed greater skillsets or different skillsets than the ones that I’d been using as an account manager. Fortunately, my company was very open to investing in me to help me develop those skillsets to become more of a project manager that’s providing that structure and organization on these projects.
Ben Aston Cool. Were you the first Digital PM at Foster Made, then?
Lina Calin: Yes.
Ben Aston Is that how it worked? Oh, cool. Are you the only one, or how does it go?
Lina Calin: I am right now. We’re actually in the process of hiring a second one.
Ben Aston Oh, shout out.
Lina Calin: Yes. Love it. But, yep, for the last couple of years, I have been the only one implementing those processes here.
Ben Aston Cool. I think that’s always challenging as well when you’re starting out in an agency, if there’s just account management and you’re the sole project manager. Trying to do your job well while being spread really thinly across different projects can be a challenge, so if you want a job, come join us on Slack. Go to the “Community” section of the website. Join us on Slack, find Lina, and say you want a job if you’re in management.
Lina Calin: Yes.
Ben Aston Or, actually, do you work remotely?
Lina Calin: No. Most of our team is in Richmond.
Ben Aston Cool. Good stuff. Tell us about your talk here. I think people are always interested. What tools are you using, what have you found recently that’s changed your life? What do you use to manage projects?
Lina Calin: We use Teamwork internally. We’ll also use a tool that the client has if they prefer that, so we’ve been in Asana. We have a client in Canada that uses a tool called Geppetto, but mostly internally, we use Teamwork to manage our projects. We use Harvest and Harvest Forecast. I use OmniPlan myself to make project plans. I think that’s the bulk of the tools that we’re using right now.
Ben Aston Cool. How does Teamwork … does it work well for you?
Lina Calin: I think it works very well. It was definitely a bit of a challenge to get the team to use it in a way differently than they had been using it before I came on, but I think it really helps give a transparent look into the project. I can stay up to date and keep our clients in there too, and at a glance, they can get a pretty good view of where the project is and how it’s moving forward.
Ben Aston Good stuff. I feel like it’s rare that you hear a PM say, “Yeah, I use this tool and it actually works quite well.” Maybe Teamwork is one for you to check out. Cool. If you haven’t had the chance to check it out yet, Lina’s written a great article that we published this week, “Five Techniques for Building Strong Relationships in Virtual Teams.” If you haven’t read it out yet, check it out. Lina gives five tips for working with people remotely, whether that’s working with a team, or working with your client. Let’s first talk about this. In the article, you talk about managing relationships is actually one of our most important roles, and it’s interesting, I think, that you come from an account management background, because that feels like an account management thing to say. Why do you think, from a project manager’s perspective, that managing relationships is one of our most important roles?
Lina Calin: That’s a really good question. I think at the end of the day, the reason that we’re all here is for people. I think that sounds a little cliché to say, but it’s absolutely true. We are people working with people. We’re creating products and solutions for people. We really can’t remove people from that equation, and so it’s essential that relationship-building is a huge part of our jobs. When we do that, we build relationships with the people that we work with, our jobs, their jobs, and our projects, it all goes so much smoother, because we’re all on the same team and we’re aligned. That only happens when we put that intentionality into aligning yourself with others.
Ben Aston Yeah. It’s definitely true, and I think one of the things that it’s so easy to get wrong is to just be treating people as just resources or treating clients as though they’re not actual, real people.
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston As soon as we start dehumanizing what we do, and forget about the relationship side of things, project quickly fall apart. You’ve written five great tips for how we can improve the way that we manage relationships, how we can build stronger relationships with virtual teams, or when we’re working remotely. The first thing you talk about is not making assumptions and you talk about how we shouldn’t make assumptions about people, but this is something we all do, right? This is something, whether consciously or not, we make assumptions, which we’re trying to figure people out. We’re trying to put people in boxes. Tell us, why is that such a bad thing to do? If you’ve got any personal horror stories ever … I mean, it’s your first thing you say, “Don’t make assumptions.” I’m hoping there’s a gem here, a story, where you can tell us how it didn’t go so well.
Lina Calin: Well, I’m glad to say that I don’t have any specific stories that have happened in my career-
Ben Aston Come on, Lina, be honest.
Lina Calin: I think just about me personally, it’s always been something that I’m really interested in and really concerned about. Being a woman of Color who’s just in the world and operating in different spheres, people can quickly make assumptions about me based on what they see on the outside. There are parts of my identity that aren’t apparent on the outside and there are parts of my appearance that people might draw conclusions about that aren’t necessarily accurate. It’s always been something that I’m really aware of. I think in addition to that, outside of my personal identity, I think there’s always the awareness about gender identity, and you can’t make assumptions about somebody’s gender identity. I think that happens a lot now, and so, one of the reasons that was the first thing I put down is because you just want to make sure that you’re being inclusive and allowing people to represent themselves and identify themselves in the way that they want to without us projecting our own experiences and our own biases on that person. I think that’s really important.
Ben Aston Yeah, definitely, and I really love your comment. You kind of dropped it into the section about not making assumptions, but I think what’s so important what you wrote about using “we” rather than “you.” I think when we’re able to help people understand, whether or not it’s people on our own team or the clients that we’re working with, that we’re on the same side. That we’re partnering together to deliver something, that we’re a team, using that kind of inclusive language. Letting people know that you’ve got their back, that you want to work together with them, I think is so important, so that you can be viewed as extensions of one another-
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston Is so important.
Lina Calin: Thank you. It’s a simple thing that just, I think, makes a really big difference.
Ben Aston Definitely. The next thing you talked about was not limiting your conversation to professional topics, which I think it’s totally true, but for those of us who read that and are like, “Hold on a second, but I’m a project management professional.” How do you do that? How do you not limit your conversation to professional topics without sounding too creepy or without oversharing? You talk about sharing yourself, and I think that’s a brilliant way of kind of getting people to open up, but where do you draw the line, and how do you not sound too creepy?
Lina Calin: I think you think about it maybe as you would think about sharing yourself with a member of your extended family who you’re not terribly close with, but you want to update them on your life, let them know what’s happening. I think that kind of boundary is sometimes what I think about. You want to tell them things that kind of say, “Oh, there’s something exciting going on” or “Here’s something that I’m struggling with,” maybe, that gives them a deeper look into who you are, but you’re not getting too much into the nitty-gritty.
If you’re talking to an aunt that you don’t see too often or your grandma, you want to keep them updated. You want to make them feel like they’re getting a look at who you are, but you’re not going to tell them too many personal details. I don’t know if that helps at all, but I think that there’s usually a boundary, and sometimes it’s different with different teammates or different clients. I think as long as you’re being genuine and still trying to not do anything that’s going to compromise your professionalism or your authority, it is a boundary to tow, but maybe that example is helpful.
Ben Aston Yeah. No, and I think what you say about, I think, finding common ground, as well, is so key to relationship-building. In one sense, when we’re working with clients, the common ground that we have, initially, is the fact that we’re lumped together on a project or with our teams, where we’re artificially bringing people together who ordinarily might not have any desire to hang out with each other or to build relationships. But when there is a strong relationship there, the whole thing is going to go better. Finding some common ground is so key to building stronger relationships, finding common ground outside of the project itself so that there’s more than just one pillar to the foundation of your relationship. There’s always the sport that you can talk about or food that you can talk about-
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston Or what’s new on Netflix that you can talk about, and I think it’s building that relationship around a shared connection that you both have is really important. Actually, one of the things that you talk about, which I think kind of leads on nicely is about making time for face time. I think having a shared experience as well, outside of the realm of the project, is really key. But you talk about making time for face time, and I think it’s one of those things that I find really tricky to get people to buy into. In your article, you talk about, “Don’t just default to Slack or to ringing someone, but choose to Skype them or to use video.” What I find is that I’m often like, “Okay, let’s have a Skype call,” and there I am, I’m on Skype. I’ve got my video on, and the other person does not turn their video on.
Lina Calin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ben Aston What do you do? Do you do that?
Lina Calin: Yes. It definitely happens to me, and I think that’s perfectly fine. I think that kind of leading by example and setting out the comfort level a little bit further … and I’m fine if people don’t feel quite comfortable at that point. I want them to feel safe and to feel comfortable before they do so. I want to continue to show my face. It’s kind of showing them, “You have my full attention. I’m not hiding anything. You can see my facial expressions,” and all of that. “You can see that I’m looking at the computer,” even if I don’t see their face, and I think that after a few times, they feel comfortable enough to also turn their video on as well.
Ben Aston Yeah. No, it’s so key, though, isn’t it? I think when someone knows that … when they have your full attention, it at least sets the expectation that, “Hey. We’re having this call and I don’t expect you to be on your phone, scrolling through Instagram”-
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston “This is going to be a much more productive conversation if we engage with one another and give each other our full attention.” When we’re working remotely with people, that’s one of the things that’s really tricky, isn’t it? Engaging with people properly and fully and not just having these fleeting conversations where you’re kind of half-assing it with an hour-long, really slow Slack discussion-
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston Rather than taking two minutes to have a really maybe intense Skype chat and sorting it out. I see, so often, things just taking ages to be resolved, because people just don’t get on the phone or get on Skype and have a quick chat, sort it out, move on. I think one of the downsides of something like Slack is that we have 20 conversations going on at once and they’re all moving really slowly.
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston Yeah. I think face time is so important. Next, you talk about validating people and, for me, I have to be honest, I’m terrible at this. I’m always like, “Yeah. That’s passable, but it’s not great.” Tell me. Encourage me. How do you validate people even when you think it’s not great?
Lina Calin: I think that’s a really good question. I think it’s just letting them know that their voice is important, and even if the thing that they’re bringing to the conversation isn’t the best suggestion, saying something like, “That’s a good thought” or “I hadn’t thought about that before” or “I wonder if we looked into that a little bit more.” Even something, if it’s not something to look at, at the moment, to say, “Maybe we should think about that a little bit later, but I really appreciate you bringing that to the table.” It’s just a matter of saying, “I hear you. I value the fact that you took time to speak and to bring this up” before inserting our own opinion or taking the next action.
Ben Aston Yeah. That is so true. Lina, you sound like a very nice person.
Lina Calin: Thank you.
Ben Aston You’re much nicer than me. But what you say, I think, is really important and I know I need to improve on this. I think when we do validate people, when we do help people to feel heard, it gets them behind what we’re trying to do collectively. It helps when they feel like they buy into the vision, when they feel like they’ve got a voice and that they’ve heard, and that they matter. People have buy-in, and that vision-casting and getting people to buy into the vision is so important to building a strong team because if people don’t care, you’re kind of screwed.
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston The core of a strong team has to be a shared vision around what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to achieve it. Everyone has got to buy into that, otherwise, the whole thing is going to not go well.
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston Finally, you talk about checking in with your team. I think this great, but we’re talking about building stronger remote teams or when we’re working with remote clients, so talk to us about how you do that. How do you check in with people when you’re not next to them? It’s easy when you can just wander around the office and have a chat, but when you’re remote, how do you actually make that happen?
Lina Calin: I think it depends on the person that I’m talking to, so some people … actually, I’m working with a team of developers. A lot of times, they don’t want to necessarily talk about it face to face, so just a couple of times a week, “How’s your day going? Just checking in.” Some people, I’ll get together with after work. “Let’s go to happy hour, get a drink. How do you think that meeting went?” Sometimes, it takes a while to build up that trust, or there’s a reason why somebody isn’t quite comfortable responding to me with that, and so I want to make sure that I’m taking steps to help them feel more safe and make them know that I really care about this answer. I’m not just asking it in an empty way. I really want to know the answer. I think just checking around, even if the person doesn’t have anything to say, just asking that question that says, “Hmm. What did you think about that?” I think it really goes a long way and it helps to build relationships, especially with my team.
Ben Aston Yeah. I think that’s great advice. What about working with clients as well, like checking in with your clients? How do you do that? Because I think it’s so important when we’re working on projects that we’re kind of regularly touching base, just checking in with our clients throughout our project, but when we are working kind of remotely with clients when we don’t get to see them very often, it can be really tricky. What do you do when they’re not responding or how do you check in with people, with clients, when it kind of feels like they don’t care?
Lina Calin: I think it’s important to always think about the “why” and not just write it off. If it is a trust thing, kind of doing some of the things that we’ve already talked about to help build trust. Maybe they would prefer to talk over a call instead of … they just haven’t gotten around to the email or I think you have to think about how the person is going to process information, so maybe they would prefer that I send them a couple of questions ahead of time before we talk or just answer them over email instead of over a call. Even sometimes, again, setting the example, so just saying, “I think that we could do better A next time” or “I’m really excited about this one thing that we saw today.” It kind of makes it seem more like conversation and less like an interview, and I think that makes a big difference too.
Ben Aston Yeah. I think that’s really helpful. For those of you who haven’t yet read Lina’s article on “Five Techniques for Building Strong Relationships in Virtual Teams,” go and check it out and start building some stronger relationships. I think some of the stuff we’ve been discussing today is really helpful. Thanks, Lina, for your wisdom on how we can build stronger relationships. It’s been great having you with us today.
Lina Calin: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
Ben Aston Good stuff. If you’d like to contribute to this conversation, I’d be interested to find out how other people like to build strong relationships with their teams, comment on the post that Lina’s written, or head to the “Community” section of thedigitalprojectmanager.com to join our Slack team. You’ll find loads of interesting conversations going on there, and we’d love you to join the conversation. Until next time, thanks for listening.