Ben Aston: Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, and this is the Digital Project Manager Podcast. Are you actually good at what you do? Deep down, do you sometimes wonder if you are a bit of a charlatan, a project manager charlatan, no less? Do you even sometimes wonder if you’re in the wrong career altogether? Today’s podcast will give you all the answers. You could discover how good you really are and work out if you’re cut for this game, and a bit of a spoiler alert, you probably are. You’re doing fine. You’re not a fraud. You just feel like one, so keep at it. Today, I’m joined by the wonderful Lina Calin. Lina, this is her second time on the show, and she works at an agency called Foster Maid. If you want to know all about Lina, you can listen to our previous podcast with her, but in her free time, Lina does lots of exciting things, including a food blog that you should check out. She’s into food, so actually, we should probably start, Lina, by asking you about what have you eaten today, because I’m sure it was exciting?
Lina Calin: Actually, today has been a whirlwind, and I haven’t eaten anything yet.
Ben Aston: What? You haven’t eaten anything?
Lina Calin: The lasts of me, but I am excited. I have some chicken marinating when I get home that I’m excited to put on the grill.
Ben Aston: Okay. You are prepared.
Lina Calin: I am.
Ben Aston: I mean seriously, you have not eaten anything today?
Lina Calin: I haven’t. I looked at some chocolate that we had in the kitchen earlier and just walked right on by it.
Ben Aston: Lina, I cannot believe. I feel like we should probably stop talking right away, and you should go and get yourself some food.
Lina Calin: Absolutely not. This comes first.
Ben Aston: Okay. Well, we won’t drag this out because I’m worried that you’re going to faint. Talking about cooking, I don’t know if you bought anything in the Black Friday sales, but I bought an instant Instapot.
Lina Calin: Oh, very nice.
Ben Aston: A big move for me.
Lina Calin: Yes.
Ben Aston: I’m looking forward to using that. I have used it already actually. The first thing I cooked was rice.
Lina Calin: Okay, that’s a good one.
Ben Aston: Yes, well, start with the basics and work from there, I thought, but apart from you marinating chicken, what else is on the menu this weekend?
Lina Calin: I think I’m going to go to a farmer’s market tomorrow and see what vegetables I can pick up. I love vegetables. Other than that, I don’t think I have anything planned. I’ll probably end up making some soup. I’ve been eyeing soup recipes for the past week. Not really cold enough here for me to feel “justified,” but it’s a craving, and I’m going to make it happen.
Ben Aston: It’s not cold enough to be soupy. What’s your favorite vegetable then?
Lina Calin: Oh my goodness. I love Brussels sprouts.
Ben Aston: Really?
Lina Calin: Really do. I can eat so much of them. My favorite way to cook them or to have them is just cut up really thinly raw and just toss in some vinegar and olive oil and salt and pepper. You let that sit for a little while, and they get soft. It’s really good, but I also put them on the grill. I roast them, saute them, bacon, onions, garlic, whatever you’re feeling, really good.
Ben Aston: Wow, so if anyone’s interested, there will be a Brussels sprout party at Lina’s this weekend.
Lina Calin: Everybody’s welcome.
Ben Aston: Everybody’s welcome. If you’re a DPM … We’re cutting where you are. Where are you?
Lina Calin: I’m in Virginia.
Ben Aston: Virginia?
Lina Calin: Yes?
Ben Aston: Yes, so just head to Virginia. It’s a small place. You’ll see Lina. She’s the one cooking with sprouts.
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston: Okay, but apart from cooking, what else is new since we last spoke? Any interesting projects you’re working on right now?
Lina Calin: I am working still, I think we talked about it on the last podcast, but still working on a lot of process and documentation that’s happening in the company. I’m really excited about experimenting with team GAT, which was recommended by the esteemed Rachel Gertz, taking a look at that, hoping that it solves some problems that we’re dealing with, the type of agency as far as resourcing and capacity and scheduling, projections and all of that. Well, I would say last month, but we are officially in December so in October, I was so pleased to attend the DPM Summit in Las Vegas, which was fantastic. I loved every moment as I do. It was my second time going, so as I did last year.
Ben Aston: What was that? What was the highlight for you?
Lina Calin: Oh my goodness. Everything was really fantastic. Of course, it’s always incredible to be around other people who understand. As one of my DPM friends said, “To go to an event that is put all in by project managers,” so you can just see in the small details, the things that have been thought of and organized and very well-thought through. There was a workshop that I went to. I don’t remember the name of the presenter, but it was an improv workshop that helped, that really, I think, gave me a different perspective on thinking on the spot and communication and focusing on the right things. I really, really enjoyed that perspective and how it related to project management.
Ben Aston: That sounds fun. Are you now pursuing your improv career outside of work too?
Lina Calin: I am not. I can’t say that I am, but I have definitely incorporated a few techniques into my PM work and my personal communication styles also.
Ben Aston: Yes, tell us about like what? Give us an example.
Lina Calin: For example, yesterday, I was talking with some of the management here, and we were talking about scope, which is something, of course, that a lot of people struggle with but something that we’re working on corralling internally and the idea of not just saying no to a request that’s out of scope or that needs to be taken care of later, but also surrounding that no statement with the other things that need to be said. “No,” or “We think that’s out of scope. We think that’s not a great idea according to our project polls. That will affect our timeline. It will affect our budget.” All of those statements that might apply, depending on the situation applying that.
I got a little smile on my face as we were talking, remembering the improv of our chat and saying in improv, I think one of the phrases that you’re supposed to say often is, “yes, and.” When you’re presented with a situation or some kind of proposed character, but in this situation, it’s, “No, and.” Just applying that a little bit different, but making sure that we continue the conversation and lead it on and draw this environment around the statement.
Ben Aston: Okay, so in the scenario then, so a client says to you, “Oh, can you just try another creative execution on that?” Your response is, “No, and?”
Lina Calin: I didn’t mean it directly. Maybe not in quite the same words, but that concept, spreading that concept to the team to remember that it shouldn’t be just the no statement.
Ben Aston: Right, got you, okay. “No, but.”
Lina Calin: Yes.
Ben Aston: No, but we could …
Lina Calin: Right.
Ben Aston: Change the font, yes. Cool. Well, that sounds fun. Let’s talk about your article. I think it’s a brilliant article, really, which is about reassuring ourselves that we’ll do a good job. I think it’s good for us to be honest with the fact that managing projects can be scary a lot of the time. The fun thing about digital is that it’s always changing. As time goes by, we switch agencies. We change up our clients. We change up the technologies and projects that we’re working on. Because of this, because it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving, we’re doing different things. We can find ourselves on a project and think, “What the hell am I doing here,” right? “What on earth? How on earth is it that I’m the one that’s in charge of leading this thing? I’ve got no idea what we’re doing.” I think what makes this particularly hard is, by nature, as PMs, we tend to be control freaks. We like to have a plan. We like to be in control. If we don’t have a plan and we don’t know what’s going on, it can be pretty stressful.
Lina’s written this great article on how we can know if we’re a good project manager. She raises five proof points that we’ll talk about in a minute, but I think we should start by talking about, I mean the article is about whether or not you know you’re doing a good job, but I thought it would be interesting to talk about whether or not we know whether or not we’re a good project manager. I’ve written some posts on this where I try and simplify it down to the essence of leadership. I borrowed this idea. It’s about character, competence and chemistry. It’s Bill Hybels’s courageous leadership model. Character being about leadership, about maintaining personal integrity, being calm under pressure, our competence, which is our basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, but I include in that having a good creative eye, technical analysis and commercial awareness. Then, refining your chemistry, so that diplomacy skills, the people skills that we have that help ensure that you are relating to your team and your client as well.
I’d be interested to know, before we know whether or not we’re doing a good job, just to start on this idea of actually what makes a good project manager? I’d be interested to know what you think, Lina, in terms of what is it that makes a good PM a good PM?
Lina Calin: I love that question. I think it’s really interesting, especially, the more that we see how different people from different walks of life and different backgrounds find their way into project management. It makes the range of personality types and interests that we have in this industry really vary. I think the important things are very similar to the principles of courageous leadership that you’ve talked about. I think it’s important to have empathy. I think it’s important to value communication and understanding other people. Then, also, being interested in continuous learning, continuous development, which I think leads to that competence part that you’re talking about and just making sure that you’re able to stay calm in situations and spread that to the team.
I think what we do is very difficult, and it’s very stressful at times and being able to maintain a clear head even when things get tricky is a really important characteristic of a project manager.
Ben Aston: Cool. I think the interesting thing about even those things that you mentioned, there’s things that I mentioned as well, they’re really hard things to quantify, right?
Lina Calin: They are.
Ben Aston: How do you, yes, empathy, how do you know if you’re a good empathizer? Is that what it meant? How do you know? How do you know? How do you know if you’re doing a good job or not, other than … There’s no way to empirically … I guess you could look at things like how many people say that they don’t want to be on my team because I’m just a nasty person, but other … It’s really hard to quantify these things, right? Are you leading well? Are you competent? Chemistry, empathy, these are really hard things to quantify. I think it’s really interesting that yes, you pick up on this idea of like, “Well, how do we know if we’re doing a good job if we can’t quantify these things?”
In your article, you talk firstly about caring about your job and your projects, which I think is really a really good point, like having integrity, doing the right thing for your client and your team, but let’s be honest for a second. Yes, we might care about our job. We might care about the projects, but often, we’re working on really boring or dull projects. That’s just the reality of life, or the client is a bit of a pain in the ass. When that happens and you’re like, “I have this project. I hate this job,” what do you do? How do you make yourself care, I guess is what I’m trying to say when you feel like you don’t care?
Lina Calin: Honestly, I think that boring projects don’t really affect me as much since I think project management is so exciting. That sounds like such a typical, “What a good answer,” but-
Ben Aston: That’s a great answer, Lina.
Lina Calin: I think the product that building, and this might not be the best thing to say, but the product that I’m building is not what gets me excited. It’s my interactions with the team and with the client. It’s keeping everything on track, keeping it in order. It’s seeing how we take an idea and making that a final product. The product, along the way, is really cool. It is great to have a product that we’re excited about, but to me, the idea of taking something from a conception to an actual tangible thing that’s going to help further a business and all of the hustles that happen in the meantime and the interactions and the communication and the different personality types that happen along that road. That’s the exciting thing to me.
Ben Aston: It’s the process, not the project that keeps you engaged in it? Yes, I think that’s fair. I think me, yes, maybe though, maybe I’ll get you long in the tooth and I’m jaded, but I think one of the things I found is that when … It’s sometimes hard to get a team engaged on a project if they’re like, “Oh my gosh. This is so boring. I don’t want to do another banner ad. This is just lame.” Then, the whole process becomes a bit more a chore. I think that’s where it’s tricky. That’s where we have to energize our team on, “Hey, we could make this fun, guys,” and get them actually to care about it, because if you don’t care about it, it cascades down to the team. Then, the final output is crap, and no one’s having a good time. A bit of positivity goes a long way, so Lina, you’re saying the right things.
Let’s talk about people coming to you to solve problems. I think this is another great indicator if you’re doing a good job. If you’re the fixer, then that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to grease the wheels, to forge a path for our team to follow. I don’t know about your experience, but in my experience, that’s everything from fixing a wonky desk to getting people a new laptop or software on the machine to make them save time. In fact, software on the machines, I find this all the time. Yes, a developer or someone or a designer will say, “Yes, I’ve just been spending four hours on this because, well, there’s this great tool we could use, but I don’t have it.” I’m like, “Well, how much does it cost? Tell me how much this thing is.” They’re like, “Oh, yes, it’s 10 bucks.” I’m like, “You’ve just spent four hours on it. That’s worth more than 10 bucks. We’re buying it now.” People come to us to solve problems, but where do you go when you’re not really sure how to solve the problem?
Lina Calin: That’s a great question. I think that happens every day. Honestly, I get into Google. I have a couple different online communities of digital project managers, and those are invaluable when there’s a question or something that I don’t understand. I think because of how project managers sleep with confidence … Well, I guess I’ll speak for myself. I think because I speak with confidence, it’s assumed often that I know more than I actually do, but it’s important to not be afraid to admit that you don’t know something and say, “don’t worry. I’ve got this. I’ll figure it out for you,” or “let’s work through that together.” Then, seeking additional education through mentorships or the communities that are available or just a search engine to help answer the questions that you don’t know how to answer yourself.
Ben Aston: Yes, and I think you’re so right. I think this happens all the time. The people come to me, and they’re like, “I just don’t know how we’re going to do this.” Sometimes, I say to them, “Well, have you tried finding a solution to this? Have you actually tried Googling this, because that’s what I’m about to do. I’m going to come back to you in half an hour and come back with something from the first page of Google,” but it’s amazing how part of overall, of being a digital PM is being a good Googler.
Lina Calin: Yes.
Ben Aston: Yes, don’t play it down. Not everyone can do that. You talk about as well, having a firm hand on your project. It’s like you know if you’re doing a good job if you’ve got a firm hand on your project. For me, this is really where the rubber hits the road in terms of you know if you’re doing a good job if your projects are under control or largely under control. I’m interested to know how you know or how you control your projects. How do you know if you’ve got a firm hand on your projects? What do you use to ask the team, “Hey, we’re on track,” or “We’re not on track?” Yes, I’d just love to know your thoughts on that.
Lina Calin: I compare the progress of the project according to the project schedule. We compare how developers are doing, meaning their estimates. I think a lot of my role is to encourage them or push them to meet those estimates and continue to have tasks turning over as was originally projected. Of course, the typical measurements of being to bring your project in under budget, trying to make sure that the clients are satisfied, excuse me, that give them the opportunity that they would work with us again, that they enjoy that the team doesn’t feel stressed or over-worked, but I think that in addition to those traditional measurements, which are very important, and I think the very expected measurements, the memory or the reminder that things are always going to happen that are out of our control. We’re really fooling ourselves if we think that we’ll be able to control everything on their projects.
People are fallible, and that includes us. I think one of the most important ways to keep a firm hand on a project is to remain calm in the face of the unknown and then to have solutions to problems even before they come up because you’re already thought about and prepared for them. Then, you set the expectations for how the members of our team, both in the client’s side and on our creative teams, how they’re expected to work through their project and contribute and make sure that we’re aware that it could go differently than the plan is set and to just be prepared for that and make everybody aware.
Ben Aston: Yes. I think what you talk about in terms of those, yes, that is basic elements of actually keeping track of … It can be tempting sometimes to be lazy around doing our reconciliations on estimate versus actuals and having a really solid process for that. Even just having the discipline to be doing the due diligence of running reports and working at whether or not you’re on track, I think, is a really important aspect of it, because if you’re not basing it on any data, it can sometimes … Projects can sometimes just run away with themselves, particularly if we’re stretched. Then, we’re like, “I think that one’s going all right, so let’s not worry about that one this week.” Keeping your finger on the pulse, I think is really important. This is an interesting, interesting one I thought. You said another sign you’re doing a good job is your team wants more of you. Last time I think we spoke, you were the only PM in your agency. Is that still the case?
Lina Calin: I think that we have extended an offer to a new PM who, hopefully, should be starting pretty soon.
Ben Aston: Oh, no pressure. They’re probably listening to you right now. I hope they know they had an offer.
Lina Calin: Yes.
Ben Aston: That’s good, right? You’ve created. You were the only PM there. Now, people think, “Hey, this is a good idea. We need more Linas.” Now, they’re doubling the team. The team is doubling in size.
Lina Calin: It is.
Ben Aston: That’s a pretty good job.
Lina Calin: Yes. It’s a really great thing. I think it can be difficult at first when you get it and you’re showing the benefit of project management. You want more projects, and at least for me, as an achiever type personality and as you said, a perceptionist and somebody who really likes, who has that mindset, you just want to continue to improve and to give the skills that you’re offering to more projects. Before you know it, you find that you’re stretched too thin. It can cause some ripple effects that aren’t ideal, but just acknowledging early on, the fact that your team wants more of you. They want more project management. They want more projects to have project management. I think this especially applies in the case of a solo PM. It’s a really great sign, and it means that you’re doing your job well and that you’ve shown the benefit of what you’re doing.
Ben Aston: Yes, definitely. Yes, that transition in an agency where there are no PMs, and then, you start introducing project management and then the rate at which you then scale, I think is so important because when you’re starting out, you have to carve a bit of an inch for yourself and work out, “Okay. This is what the role of project manager’s going to be.” Then, as you become successful, you very quickly start being stretched too thin. Recruiting early, probably earlier than you think, I think is really important. Otherwise, what will happen is you will be stretched too thin. Your effectiveness will diminish. Then, people will be like, “I don’t think this project management thing is working.” As a little handy tip, make sure you’re recruiting early. Otherwise, you will look bad, whether or not you like it. I think more that we’ve covered off of that, and you mentioned this in your article.
The reality is the job we’re doing is a difficult one, but just because it can feel like sometimes, that we are doing a bad job. We’re not necessarily doing a bad job, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of our work. Just because we’re being plunged into something or we feel like it’s out of our depth a bit, that really doesn’t define our worth. What defines are worth is these things that we’ve been talking about, about caring about the job and the projects that we’re being leveraged well. People are coming to us to solve problems. We’re in control of our projects. Lina’s situation, I think, is a great one where people want more of you. That’s a good sign that you’re doing a good job.
Lina, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been great having you with us.
Lina Calin: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
Ben Aston: If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, if you’ve got some thoughts on how you know if you’re doing a good job, then head over to the Digital Project Manager, to the community section of the site. Join our Membership community and also comment on the article, but until next time. Thanks for listening.