Galen Low is joined by Julia Rajic, the Senior Vice President of Operations at No Fixed Address Inc. to discuss the various career paths of a digital PM, how PMO leaders can support their teams’ professional growth, and whether being a digital PM can get you into the C-suite.
- Julia Rajic is an operations and project management specialist with over 14 years of experience within advertising and marketing organizations. Her path has taken her from the traditional side of event marketing and advertising, all the way through web projects, CRM implementations, and integrated loyalty systems for clients like Blackberry, McDonald’s, TD Bank, and more. [0:43]
- Today, Julia is the Senior Vice President of Operations at No Fixed Address where she balances the competing needs of a distributed, multi-disciplinary team to maximize business efficiency and profitability. Outside of work, she lives for travel, musical theater, live concerts, and music festivals. [1:03]
- Aside from music festivals, Julia decided that 2022 is going to be an opportunity for her to learn. She’s pushing the boundaries of things she can learn for her industry and for herself, particularly about different ways to manage profitability and operations. [3:21]
- Julia started in marketing as a project manager and she also did a little bit of the account management stuff. So as an account manager, she was also the project manager and wearing many hats helped her decide what she liked more and what she liked better. She also did a bit of event management, digital projects, and all kinds of things. [5:21]
- Julia pursued project management, because she likes to be involved with the ins and outs in the organization of a team, how to motivate a team, and how to get to the end with a team to a positive result. She took one project, two projects, and then ended up managing all the projects on a particular account. [6:05]
I think the thing that keeps me going every day is that every single day is different.Julia Rajic
- In an advertising agency context, Julia built a whole wheelhouse of skills. No Fixed Address does traditional ads, TV/Radio, broadcast, digital, but they also have PR. They have media, a content team that will help produce all of the things that go out into the world, they’ve got quite a few disciplines. They tackle everything from TV spots to big corporate websites. They’re team is growing every day. They’re in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. [8:45]
- As you grow, there’s always going to be different things you have to overcome — bigger agencies or bigger organizations, there’s growing pains. What worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work when you’ve got a hundred more people in the organization and it just gets more complicated. It’s one of the biggest challenges that Julia is facing today. [9:44]
As we grow and as we get bigger, there’s a need for someone to come in and be that person to help solve some of those challenges that come up that are related to our growth.Julia Rajic
- If you’re a project manager who looks at your project as a whole and you can see the big picture, you might do well as a business leader by looking at your tasks and initiatives as a project. There’s lots of different strategic initiatives that could be tackled if you look at it through a project management lens. [12:39]
- On a project, you’ve got specific objectives to get to the end of the line to deliver this thing. As a business leader, your objectives and your KPIs will change, butas long as you’re clear about those goals at the beginning, you can be successful in either stream. [13:59]
- As a project manager, you need to motivate your team to the end, and learn people and how they work and how to connect with them to work towards the same goal. Those are skills that you’re going to need in business leadership. You have to be able to read a room, you have to understand how to tailor your content or a presentation so that it’s relevant for your audience. [16:43]
- PMs are innately organized people. To be able to distill the complicated into something more simple, that is something that you can take with you as you move around and up in your career. [17:38]
As a PM, part of what you need to do to make your project successful is understand the different people on your team, what they do, and how they do what they do.Julia Rajic
- As someone who came up in an agency environment, all of Julia’s projects and all of the work she was doing was very deadline-driven. It was either driven by a launch date, or a client need or specific things. As a business leader, you have to provide your own deadlines, your own requirements, and your own clarity. [20:57]
- Some of the project manager skills that Julia is thankful to have is a solution-focused attitude and problem solving skills. As a project manager, she always wanted to find the solution so if she hit a wall on a project, whatever that wall was, she would have one, two, or three potential options for how to proceed past that wall at all times. [25:02]
- For someone who is trying to climb the ladder and give themselves the right visibility to be considered for a promotion, specifically from PM to Senior PM or Digital PM to Senior Digital PM, the key thing that might be a differentiator between growing up into a senior or moving into that role is — simple things like moving from supporting the team to leading the team. Moving from receiving direction from your subject matter experts to giving or suggesting and proposing direction or budgets. [27:47]
- Moving from supporting your team to leading and driving and pushing things forward is the difference between someone in a more junior role to a more senior role. [29:09]
- For a senior project manager who’s planning to move up, that’s when softer skills come into play. Emotional intelligence, negotiation skills, being able to tailor your conversations to the audience directly because you’re going to need to create business cases to get hires. You’re going to need to see the bigger picture forecast, so it’s not just your project. Now you’re talking about people management skills, and getting people onside for your vision. That’s the type of thing that Julia thinks requires lots of those soft skills. [32:29]
- Julia’s mindset to get from director level into a VP level or SVP level is double clicking deeper into the things that you’re learning. The differences as you get into a director level, it just gets bigger. It gets bigger and it gets wider. That lens just keeps zooming out. [36:50]
Once you get VP or SVP, you really need to understand where the organization is going and how you can help it get there.Julia Rajic
- Make sure that your people are happy and that everyone feels supported, and you’re now managing people who manage people, and so that the tree gets wider and bigger and larger, and you have to be able to understand the intricacy of that and delegate. For Julia, once she gets to it, it’s going to happen at a different point in everyone’s career. [38:56]
It’s one thing if you want the title, it’s one thing to have to deliver on the work that goes along with that. But if you don’t believe what you’re doing every day, that just makes it more challenging.Julia Rajic
- Julia’s advice to someone who feels pressured to climb the ladder into a management or executive role is to trust your instincts, trust your gut. You know ‘you’ best. The only person who’s going to know what’s right for you is you. [44:26]
Growth does not automatically mean you have to climb a ladder. Growth means just like we started this and you were asking me, what am I excited about?Julia Rajic
- Innately as project managers, we understand quite a bit about different roles. And for Julia, being curious early, understanding what people did, how they did it, what motivated them – those are all the pieces of this puzzle that start to formulate. The more people in the organization you meet and speak to, the more diverse opinions you get. [57:31]
- Can you get there to VP, SVP, C-suite? The answer is ‘Yes’. You just need to be curious and you need to be true to yourself and figure out – what am I good at and what do I enjoy? Because for Julia, success has been a combination of those two things. [58:09]
Julia Rajic has over 14 years of experience in operations and project management within advertising and marketing organizations. As a results-driven and forward-thinking Senior Vice President, she’s had great success balancing multi-disciplinary teams’ competing needs to maximize business efficiency and profitability.
She’s innovative, adaptable, and resourceful, with exceptional business acumen and prioritization skills. She knows how important it is to build strong relationships with clients, partners, and internal teams & she’s able to adapt to different audiences and can tailor communication to suit.
Julia enjoys taking on a solution-focused approach to complex, challenging situations and constantly strives to bring the best of herself while helping others to do the same.
She has experience with a range of Digital projects including integrated loyalty systems, CRM, web design, and more traditional event marketing and advertising.
Outside of work, Julia lives for travel, musical theatre, live concerts, and music festivals. Bonus points if she can travel to a music festival.
As a project manager, you need to motivate your team to the end, learning about people and how they work and how to connect with them to work towards the same goal.Julia Rajic
Resources from this episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Check out No Fixed Address Inc.
- Connect with Julia on LinkedIn
- Follow Julia on Instagram
Related articles and podcasts:
- About the podcast
- Article explaining project management tasks: what does a digital pm do all day?
- Article explaining digital agency growth secrets from a digital pm
- Shortlist of the Best Web-Based Project Management Tools
Read the Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Galen Low: Is your career as a digital project manager going to top out? Or do our skills make us a natural fit to become business leaders in an increasingly digital world?
If you've been wondering where the career path of a digital project manager can go, keep listening. We're going to be unpacking exactly what skills and mindsets are required to get you to the next step in your career, whether that step is up, sideways, or even just staying right where you are.
Thanks for tuning in, my name is Galen Low with the Digital Project Manager. We are a community of digital professionals on a mission to help each other get skilled, get confident, and get connected so that we can deliver value and impact through our projects. If you want to hear more about that, head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
Hey everyone — thanks for hanging out with us on the DPM podcast.
My guest today is an operations and project management specialist with over 14 years of experience within advertising and marketing organizations. Her path has taken her from the traditional side of event marketing and advertising, all the way through web projects, CRM implementations, and integrated loyalty systems for clients like Blackberry, McDonald's, TD Bank, and more.
Today she's the Senior Vice President of Operations at No Fixed Address where she balances the competing needs of a distributed, multi-disciplinary team to maximize business efficiency and profitability.
Outside of work, she lives for travel, musical theater, live concerts, music festivals.
Folks, please welcome Julia Rajic. Hello, Julia!
Julia Rajic: Hi, Galen! How are you?
Galen Low: I'm good! Great to have you on the show.
Julia and I have been collaborating within our members community and other areas for the past couple of months, so we've got a really great chance to get to know one another. And I'm really excited about this conversation today, because we've really been scratching the surface on the career path of project managers using your own path as a little bit of a lens to look at where a project manager's career can go in the world of digital.
So we're going to get into that all, and we're going to get into all the juicy topics, but I have to, I was just reading your bio and I'm like, yeah, musical theater, live concerts, music festivals. I'm like, that's my jam too. I'm just wondering, I know we're like still mid-stride pandemic, but have you been to any good music festivals lately?
Julia Rajic: I have. Lucky enough for me, I managed to sneak out in the fall of 2021 and I went to Florida and I got to go to a festival there. Yeah, it was a super awesome, it was outdoor so it was great. Lots of people, great music. I really missed it. I really missed it. And it's good that, hopefully, we're at the tail end of this and there, hopefully will be more to come. So I'm really stoked.
Galen Low: That's really exciting. I'm selfishly excited in 2022 to do more in person stuff even on the work side of things, right? Music festivals, yes. Concerts, yes. Live music, love it. And also right in our industry, conferences and things like that.
We've done a couple of years of just virtual and it's fine, but also it'll be great to just be with humans again, right? I just think that's just, hopefully that's a thing that unfolds and becomes normal again in 2022. Fingers crossed.
Julia Rajic: Yes, me too.
Galen Low: Speaking of 2022, here we are at the beginning of 2022 and I'm wondering if there are some things that you are excited about. What is the most exciting thing that you're looking forward to in 2022?
Julia Rajic: I, well, I mean, aside from music festivals and going to more of those on like a personal front or on a work front maybe I've really decided that '22 is going to be an opportunity for me to learn. I'm really pushing the boundaries of things I can learn for my industry and for myself particularly about different ways to manage profitability and operations.
I know that's, you know, that's my jam right now. And trying to figure out how different organizations do things and learning from that and so just really deep diving into that is kind of making me excited.
Galen Low: I love that. And I think, you know what? It's like so much has been changing over the past couple of years. I mean, everything is always changing, but I mean, in terms of some of the things that you've been talking about — operations, profitability, right? Some of these things are not, they'll sort of traditional pillars that you normally would have learned about, everyone reinvented. There's so much to share and learn across organizations between teams.
I think it's like an awesome goal to be learning in 2022. I think that's a great way of looking at it.
Julia Rajic: And I think also it'll never change, like it'll never stop. The objective here is — learn what people are doing today or what they've learned in the past, but that's not necessarily going to be the only way forward going into '22, '23, '24.
So, it's a never-ending learning path for me and I think that's also super exciting, is to just know that I'm going to continue to learn.
Galen Low: I love that. And to your point, right? They're ingredients that you're gathering, not necessarily recipes. That's very cool. Awesome.
All right, let's get into it.
Let's talk about the career path of a project manager working in a digital space and where it can lead versus where there actually might be a ceiling.
But first of all, I wondered if maybe you could just tell us a bit about your own career path. What is your role today and what's the path that took you there?
Julia Rajic: Ah, I mean, it wasn't a straight line path. I don't think it ever really is. I started in marketing and I started sort of as, I would say a project manager, like I, you know, I did a little bit of the account management stuff, if you're familiar with, you know, typical agency setup, right? You've got client service team and you've got project management.
The place that I started is someone is an organization that kind of joined both. So as an account manager, I was also the project manager and I think wearing many hats kind of, let me decide what I liked more and what I liked better. And I, you know, I did a bit of event management, I did digital projects, I did all kinds of things.
And that helped me sort of figure out what I like best. And then I pursued project management because I like to be in the ins and outs in the organization of a team, and how to motivate a team, and how to get to the end with a team to a positive result and not just kind of spiraled, you know. I took one project, two projects, and then I ended up managing all the projects on a particular account.
And then you take on a couple of portfolios and then sort of, I, you know, I said at one point to myself, like if I looked at the organization as a project and trying to make that run smoothly, where would that take me? And so that's kind of how I ended up where I am today, I would say. Yeah.
Galen Low: And what is a, what is the sort of core focus of your role today? What are the challenges that you face? What are the things that you love about it?
Julia Rajic: I love so many things about my role today. I love so many things about my organization, but you know, I think the thing that keeps me going every day is that every single day is different. There's a new challenge, and I think we talked about this the other day, you know, I will come to work that day and I will say, these are my priorities. And then by the end of the day, it's topsy turvy. What I thought would be my objective of the day or what would be my top priority for the week, not at all how it ends up being.
And that's cool. I love that. I wake up every morning not knowing what the day will bring super unpredictable, but in the best of ways. It keeps me challenged, and I think that's that's sort of what gets me going every day. But in general, my role is supporting the team inside NFA (No Fixed Address) and really understanding everyone's objectives and understanding all the different disciplines and how they work and then how we can work better together.
It's really just, I feel like my job is to make everybody else's life easier, make your job easier. If your job is to be client services, what can I take off your plate or how can I support you so that you can focus on that? And the rest of it is either handled for you or in a different way that makes it easier.
Galen Low: I love that. And I think it's like, it's interesting because as project managers, sometimes we were like, oh, it's the projects that make our days unpredictable and dynamic, and operations sometimes looks like this, you know, the kind of like continuous repetitive wheel of things that could get boring, but it's nice to hear that it doesn't, right? You like working with this organic machine that is dynamic and actually every day is different.
I'm wondering, you mentioned about the team. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about like the team makeup and the types of projects that your organization takes on?
Julia Rajic: Oh, wow. Ah we take on a little bit of everything.
So in a, in an advertising agency you know, we've got a whole wheel of skills. We do the traditional ads, so we do TV/Radio, we do broadcast, we do digital, but we also have PR. We have media, we have a content team that will help produce all of the things that go out into the world you know, we've got quite a few disciplines and we will tackle everything from, you know, your TV spot to you know, big corporate website.
And we can do all of the things in between. And so the team itself, I mean, I mean, it's growing every day, so we're in Toronto, we're in Montreal, we're in New York. So we're just kind of continuing to grow and do the best work we possibly can, no matter what that is.
Galen Low: I love that. And then amidst that growth, I'm just wondering — what are some of the biggest challenges that you're facing today from an operations perspective?
Julia Rajic: That I will say, you know, as you grow, there's always going to be different things you have to overcome — bigger agencies or bigger organizations, there's growing pains. I know that sounds so silly and simple but you know, what worked yesterday doesn't necessarily work when you've got a hundred more people in the organization and it just gets more complicated.
And so the bigger we get the more challenging it is, and I think potentially that's sort of why there's an opportunity for me to really make an impact at the organization, because as we grow and as we get bigger, there's a need for someone to come in and sort of be that person to help solve some of those challenges that come up that are related to our growth.
Galen Low: You're like the integrator as well, not just running the ship, but adding parts.
Julia Rajic: I mean, it's a huge team. I don't take credit for running any ship on my own but for sure, there's a piece of the puzzle that's related to integrating and making sure that all of the different pieces of the puzzle are talking to each other.
And making sure that there's somebody who's maybe agnostic of a priority or agnostic of office and city to say, you know, this is what's best for us as an organization, or this is how we can work better together. I just sort of help guide the ship, maybe map the path, but I do not run that ship all by myself. Definitely not.
Galen Low: Fair enough. Fair enough. Awesome.
All right, well — let's get into it. Let's get folks their bearings. So again, just to level set for our listeners, Julia and I, we've ended up having a lot of conversations with project managers who have been doing the job for years, but they don't really see a clear path forward beyond say like a senior project manager role.
So on the one hand, some of them are being told that project managers should become executives. And through that lens, project managers are well-suited because they're already executional masters that are hell bent on delivering business outcomes by leading disparate teams towards singular goals. But on the other hand, some of them get the feeling that they'll need to make a dramatic career shift to get the skills that they need to climb the ladder.
And through that lens, the project manager role is kind of seen as an undervalued tactical role that doesn't really get the same respect as something that has like strategy or product in the title. So they'd see themselves hitting a ceiling and having a skill set that isn't really all that transferable.
So Julia, instead of loving a soft ball at you for the first questions, I thought I'd actually just start with the big question. And the big question for me is — how is project leadership different from business leadership, or is it different?
Julia Rajic: That's a great question and it's not an easy one to answer. Hardball right away.
I think one of the things that I have found is, if you're a project manager who looks at your project as a whole and you can see the big picture per se on your project, what has served me well or what I think might be the similar component is, and I think I mentioned it earlier, looking at the organization or looking at a very high level or a much higher level, looking at that task as project management.
I think the skills that we have as project managers and leading a project are very similar to what you might need to sort of lead a business forward. You have to take a look at different pieces. It's a moving organism, right? There's lots of different projects that could be tackled if you look at it with that lens and someone with project management experience can take that and apply it in a maybe broader sense if that makes sense.
So maybe it's not that different. I think I've found it to be quite similar. I found the skills that a PM has can be transferred if you know how to look for it. You know what I mean?
Galen Low: I hear ya. I hear an executional part. I'm wondering, are there parts that are actually though distinctly different in your experience?
Julia Rajic: I mean, you'll have to look for the objectives and the KPIs. So on a project, you've got specific objectives to get to the end of the line to deliver this thing, your objectives and your KPIs will change when you're talking about business leadership. And I think as long as you're clear about those goals at the beginning, you can be successful in either streams.
So if there's something specifically different, I would say, you know, you have to hunt for objectives and KPIs where they might not be as obvious. It's a bit more ambiguous when you're in business leadership to find what are we achieving? What are we trying to do here? And what is success for us? Because sometimes success is a moving target.
Let's try this and see how it goes and then update and augment and keep going. It might not be a complete finish line, like a project where you can tie the bow and say, finished, I've done the reconciliation, it's over. I think those are some of the things that are maybe different. It's probably a significantly more ambiguous and, and the objectives might be a little different.
Galen Low: I like that. And I think you've hit the nail on the head for me, at least in some of the conversations that I've been having is that there is this ambiguity, whereas in some ways, project management — it's challenging, but in some ways a project is quite well-defined while, hopefully, in a perfect world, it can be quite well-defined.
The KPI is a different project, health is different, but at least they're clear in terms of the things that you're trying to do and deliver, and the constraints that you're under, whereas yeah, I hear that from a lot of business leaders, just kind of reconciling that notion of ambiguity and the fact that yes, how we're measuring success is different.
And also the path word is actually you're paving it as you go. It's not necessarily looking at a clear destination and having a plan to get there. It's actually creating what that destination ought to be.
Julia Rajic: No, that's very true. I think, I think, you know, that's a, that's an interesting point that you make. A lot of times, not only is the path not clear, you know, just to reiterate what you said, like the end goal might be a moving post, or you might have to work with your, you know, your team.
You know, I said it earlier, like it's not a one-man show, it's never a one-man show. It's always a team and so to rely on your peers, to support you in figuring out what that goalpost is.
Galen Low: And probably a really good segue into what we were talking earlier about, okay, well, what are the things that are similar?
There definitely are similarities. If we were to zero in on, like the skills that a project manager has, and we were just double-click on those skills, like what are the skills that actually transfer quite well that make a project manager actually quite well-suited to become a business leader?
Julia Rajic: I think project managers have an innate ability to it's like the people skills, right?
It's, as a project manager, you need to motivate your team to the end and learning people and how they work and how to connect with them to work towards the same goal. I think those are skills that you're going to need in business leadership, for sure. You have to be able to read a room, you have to understand how to tailor your content, a presentation and ask to the audience so that it's relevant for them.
Those are things that as project managers, I think we do very well, maybe innately without even noticing it. And it gets it that type of thing gets you maybe more success as you, you come into business leadership. And then the only other thing I would say is like, you gotta be organized.
I think PMs are innately organized people and to be able to distill the complicated into something more simple, that is something that you can take with you as you move around and up in your career.
Galen Low: I really liked that in terms of, yeah, the people skills, organization skills, and then just overall communication skills, the things that are like bouncing around in my head, or like, you know, this is how we kind of describe emotional intelligence in some ways, right?
Knowing your audience, understanding in how to motivate people based on their motivations and I think, you know, it's like there, there is, there are studies out there's research out there that is indicating that yes, that is kind of a big differentiator in terms of like, what makes a good leader.
And I really liked that. Absolutely the distilling of the complex into something that is more digestible, I think a huge skill. And then, oh man, it's such a good point that we don't really see these things necessarily as, you know, skills specific to a craft. And I guess it's because they're not but they are very important to project management as much as they are important to being a business leader.
And I really like, I really like what you're saying, just in terms of the fact that, well, These are things that transfer through and you might need to pivot them a bit, but they are the things that make us great project managers, delivering, you know, a project against objectives and goals, as well as just delivering and creating the goals and objectives for an organization and leading people there.
And then coming back to your earlier thing, really, which is that like, I think what's coming through for me is your perspective on the fact that it's very clear that yes, it's not just one person, it's a team effort. And I think it's also that trust, right? Part of all of this kind of leads back to trusting the team and understanding what they do to contribute towards a goal, whether it's a project or whether it's just evolving the business to the next level.
Julia Rajic: Absolutely. That's a very good point. And I want to just kind of touch on that a little bit. As a PM, part of what you need to do to make your project successful is understand the different people on your team, what they do, and how they do what they do. That's gonna make you a successful project manager, because then you can provide them with the time, the tools, the resources to get the best you can out of them on your project.
And the same is true about, you know, leadership skills and working with the team that you have, when to pull on people to get the job done. It's not always going to be on you to spearhead everybody and not everything you do in leadership is going to have a timeline and a work back schedule. But knowing how to ask people for support, knowing who to go to, knowing who to lean on, and that trust that you have with those people.
As project managers, we build that every day with our teams and continuing to do that in leadership is so important. You'll be so much more effective.
Galen Low: I love that. I wonder if we can kind of dive into your personal path because you, as someone who came up, as you mentioned through project management, it's up into operations leadership. I'm just wondering — what are some of the most, like jarring changes that you face when moving from a project management role to like overseeing a team or a department to, you know, being a sort of like executive, well, like a senior leader?
Julia Rajic: Yeah. This has given a sound like one of the things for me personally that was really jar, right? And maybe this isn't applicable across the board to everyone, but as someone who kind of came up in an agency environment, all of my projects and all of the work I was doing was, was very deadline-driven.
It was either driven by a launch date or a client need or you know, specific things. And I'm not particularly one to procrastinate. I don't say that I would procrastinate, but when I moved to a role that was slightly less client-driven and it's more like internal initiatives and supporting the internal agency.
I was like, oh, I make my own deadlines? That for me was a bit like, wait, what? And sometimes as a project manager, you choose your priorities when you have things that crash, you choose those priorities based on client need. And it's easier to be able to prioritize maybe because you've got people feeding you, like this client is, or this is more urgent because the deadline is sooner or when you have a bunch of internal initiatives, you have to decide for yourself.
And that took me a bit. It's an art form to be able to go, what is the hottest priority? It's not as cut and dry to prioritize. And I thought that was I thought that was challenging. And the only other thing I'll say about the, like the shift here and the jarring things was, you know, being okay with making mistakes. As project managers, like I, as a project manager, I was very much like my success, like my success is my team's success.
This thing needs to get off the ground and it needs to go well. And that was rated either by client satisfaction survey or like success metrics that were pretty clear. It's not as, it's not as, it's not as, it's not as obvious when you're doing internal projects and sometimes you're gonna fall on your face.
You have to be okay with making mistakes and like, that was hard for me too. I was like, Ooh, is this going to work? You can't have analysis paralysis. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and go I'm going to do this and I have to be okay to, if it doesn't work out, I have to be okay to figure out how to pivot or to start again because you can't spend too much time trying to think what could possibly go wrong. Like that risk assessment stage of your leadership life is short, very short.
Galen Low: I like that sort of model of like, you know, the tolerances are different on failure, right? We're, you know, we're so used to like this iron triangle of like timeline, budgets, scope yeah, again, usually kind of informed by external factors.
And in some ways we are like conductors there, whereas, you know, in, in business, as you mentioned, right? Like sometimes it is that boldness to try something and maybe fail. And you know, if as project managers, we are conductors then you know, in your role, you're almost like the person, the composer, right?
The person writing the music and the person who, yes, if you write it wrong and it kind of instinct kind of terrible, you can perform it and you can fix it, right? It's not like, it's not like you're suddenly sinking the ship but it's something that you can kind of course correct for and you're learning every time that you know, fall on your face.
Julia Rajic: That's a fabulous analogy. Yeah. That's fabulous.
Galen Low: Wow. Yeah, I pre-baked that in the oven. No.
Julia Rajic: I'm just going to write that one down, save it for later. No, that's actually really good.
Galen Low: I'm wondering, just even like in the role you're in today, like what are some of the project manager skills that you're still relying on day in, day out that you're thankful to have, that you might be at a bit of a disadvantage on if you didn't have a project management background?
Julia Rajic: That's a great question. Like a solution-focused attitude, problem solving skills. I think, you know, as a project manager, I always wanted to find the solution. So if I hit a wall on a project, whatever that wall was, I would have maybe one, two, or three potential options for how to proceed past that wall at all times.
And if I didn't, I had one and then I would come up with two and three and move around that wall, right?
Galen Low: Right.
Julia Rajic: I think that skill of having that kind of always in the back of your mind is super helpful in my role today because, you know, if I'm in a meeting and I have a plan and I want to implement something, or if I want to go ahead and someone just puts a wall up in front of me in that meeting, I'm faster at saying, okay, well, how about this?
Okay, well, how about that? Right? I think that type of thinking is something that I'm so grateful for. And also, I will say that distilling complicated things into simple terms and simple next steps, because sometimes I'll have a meeting with the team and we have this amazing conversation that kind of pivots in many, many ways.
And we start here and we get here and we go back here and it's all really important conversation. And it helps us, you know, batted around a bit, you know, find the holes in something before we decide. And then at the end of the meeting, people kind of go, okay, that was a great conversation.
And I find that I'm the one going, okay, so the next step out of that is this and this, right? Which is great. I don't think, I think being a PM really helped me be able to follow that and be able to distill it either on the flyer, in the meeting or immediately after the meeting. I think I'm, those skills I'm so grateful for.
Galen Low: I love that. I think that's so cool. Absolutely. That distillation for sure.
All right. Let's let's double click. Let's double click on a growth-oriented career path that begins as a project manager and continues up, let's just say a typical organizational structure. However you may define that for our listeners as well.
However you may define a typical organization organizational structure. But I'm just thinking like for someone who is trying to climb the ladder and give themselves the right visibility to be considered for a promotion from say a project manager, even just to senior project manager, what are some of the kinds of things that they should be paying attention to and how should to be, they be framing their story? Like what kind of mindset do they need to adopt?
Julia Rajic: That's great. I mean, if we're talking specifically about, you know, PM to senior PM, or digital PM to senior digital PM, I think the key thing for me that might be a differentiator between, you know, growing up into a senior or moving into that role is — simple things like moving from support the team to lead the team.
Moving from receiving direction from your subject matter experts to giving or suggesting and proposing direction or budgets, or like anything like that where early in my career I would be tasked with budgeting something and I would go to the different subject matter experts and wait for their quote.
And then I would compile it and off to the races I go. As I went further down in my career, I had experienced with these things and I could say, well, this is the task. I'm going to quote these pieces. I'm going to do this myself. And then I'm going to reach out to the subject matter experts and go, does this make sense to you?
And then I'm taking the work off their plate and they can go, yes or no. Yes, this works and then they're done. So those types of things, right? Moving from supporting your team to leading and driving and pushing things forward. That for me is the difference between someone maybe in a more junior role and in a more senior role.
Galen Low: That makes sense. I mean, I love that overall model of like, kind of like casting the vision and the strategy and not just reacting to the things that are kind of around us. And I mean, you've worked in a client services organization, agency context like most of your career, would you say that also translates across to the clients interaction?
Julia Rajic: Ultimately, yes. So if we're talking in a client in a client context, like if your client facing, or if there's an internal stakeholder that is your main point of contact, whether you're in a client like an agency or not I think the key piece here for me from a more junior to a senior is being able to think about what they need and provide it to them before they ask.
And that's information, that status, that's deadlines, that's timing, that's budgets, that's a burn reports, risk assessments, things like that will support them in making decisions earlier and faster or anything that's gonna make them look good to, you know, to their peers and their bosses and their managers. I think that for me is a key piece of a senior person.
Galen Low: I really liked that because, I mean, like we think of leadership as like leadership skills now, and a lot of people kind of forget the, like origins of it, which is actually just being ahead of everyone else leading the way, right?
When you're looking ahead, seeing the path ahead, being proactive, that is like the crux of the leadership puzzle. And then all of the like leadership skills that go along with it in terms of, you know, inspiring and casting a vision and supporting and enabling a team to succeed. That's really cool.
I wonder if we can keep playing this game and be talking about like that next move, right? So what should someone be paying attention to? How should they be framing their story if they are a senior project manager and they're looking to move up to, let's say a director role in our sort of in our example organizational structure?
Julia Rajic: Yeah. That's I think where maybe some of those like softer skills come into play. So the emotional intelligence, right? Negotiation skills, being able to tailor your conversations to the audience directly because you're going to need to create business cases to get hires. You're going to need to you know, see the bigger picture forecast, so it's not just your project.
Now you're talking about people management skills. Now you're talking about getting people onside for your vision for maybe a team or a department. And that's the type of thing that I think requires lots of those soft skills, you know, negotiation and also like the numbers are important too, when you're, when you get to be maybe director level. The numbers are important because it's a business case to hire.
Or you might be responsible for profitability of an entire portfolio or, you know, show value for the team that you have or that you are managing. Whatever that looks like, it might not be financial value, it might be, you know, different ways, but being able to articulate those things and seeing that I think is a distinct difference from, you know, managing either larger projects or leading the, like leading the team on projects.
Specifically you might now be in an in a position where you have a whole portfolio and a team to manage and being able to use those types of skills to push the agenda forward that way.
Galen Low: I like that, like zooming out, right? It is kind of the zooming out exercise and that agenda actually changes from what is the best thing for my client or my project team to, I mean, it has it to say, what is the best thing for the organization at large and making decisions at that level and having a vision at that level and like having that kind of perspective in terms of, yeah, your agenda actually becomes about like the health of the business.
As much as, and including a health of an individual project, but then, you know, again, your prioritization conversation is different. And to your point earlier about, you know, when you're a project manager and things are sort of crashing together, it kind of tells you how to prioritize things. And then what I'm hearing is that at the director level as well, just kind of like, all right, well, we need to kind of create the priorities.
Like not everything can be equal across our org in order for us to be as successful as we can possibly be.
Julia Rajic: And I like what you said about you know, zooming out. I think, whatever that looks like for your organization, if it's an agency or not, I think zooming out and whatever your mandate is, right?
Like at this point, starting as a project manager, maybe you're not going into a project director role. Maybe you're going into, you know, director of something else, right? At this point, you might be able to spear head off if you started in digital project management and you really have a love for the digital stuff.
You know, maybe you're in a technology role. You know, maybe you're shifting that way. So the key here is zooming out over whatever your purview is. And, you know, it's either a group of projects or a group of people, or, you know, and then balancing the priorities of success of project, success of client or happiness of stakeholder and, you know, business objectives.
That's really cool. I like that idea. Yeah.
Galen Low: What about that jump from a director role to a VP or an SVP role?
Like what are some of the things that you should be highlighting, should be promoting about yourself, skills that you should be focusing on? What is your mindset to get from that director level into like a VP level or SVP level?
Julia Rajic: I think it's just kind of double clicking deeper into the things that you're learning.
You know, the differences that we mentioned as you get into a director level, it just gets bigger. It gets bigger and it gets wider. That lens just keeps zooming out. So I would say, you know, similar things. For the next few steps, at least in my experience, but on a broader, wider scale. Right? So if you're, you know, if your team is growing or the portfolio you manage is larger, if it's a dollar figure that you're in charge of, or a number of people on your team, if that gets larger, I think it's, the only thing maybe that I would add to this whole idea of zoom out and balancing priorities and feeling out from a soft skills, like a prioritization and organization, like getting a sense of where the gaps are and where you can lead in.
That's a skill that you're going to need to hone. The other thing is you get a little bit, you know, farther up this proverbial ladder is really just, you know, going from whatever your portfolio is to really understanding the objectives of the organization. You are now part of leadership team, executive leadership team, and making sure that you believe that you understand the objectives of the organization and that you live and breathe them.
That is something that you have to really believe in the organization that you're with and you have to really kind of sink your teeth into it and everything that you do whether it's how you manage your team or how you manage your budgets or how you organize and structure and optimize performance or whatever it is that you're doing at that level.
Like once you get VP or SVP, you really need to understand where the organization is going and how you can help it get there. And make sure that your, you know, your people are happy and that everyone feels supported, and you're now managing people who manage people. And so that the tree gets wider and bigger and larger, and you have to sort of be able to understand the intricacy of that and delegate.
That's something that, for me, once I got to it, there's a certain level of, it's going to happen at a different point in everyone's career. But as a project manager, I was just like, I own this. This is mine. The success or failure of this is on my shoulders to be able to trust your team and to delegate and to know when to delegate and when to do it yourself.
Those are things that you'll learn, you know, somewhere in, in that ladder climb and it can be challenging for people like me who want to just like own it all, but there will come a point where you're like, I just can't, I can't. And nor should you, right? Nor should you.
Galen Low: Zooming out means letting go of some things and building the framework of trust for your people.
And actually I mean, depending on people's definition, I think people define it differently, at least in my circles, but I like what you're saying about like living and breathing it because suddenly, you know, what you might call middle management, you're not there anymore. Actually, you can't really be in a position where like, well, they said, you know, my higher ups said this, so that's what we got to do.
Let's figure this out together. Suddenly you are that thing, right? You are that vision being cast. And it's not like it's not like a, oh, because somebody told me to do it. It's because I'm living and breathing this, I believe it. And we have to lead through to this and yes, I'm going to delegate so you can my team can like help execute and get us there.
But it really is a vision that I own, live, and breathe.
Julia Rajic: And I think, yeah, and I think, you know, it, everyone is going to have a different experience. If you're, you know, a PM right now and you love the organization that you work with and work for and you feel supported and you live and breathe it, then maybe that's the place for you to grow.
And to climb that ladder, if that's what you want. Sometimes, you know, in my career personally, I, you know, I got to a place where I was like, I don't think I'm gonna, this isn't the place that I'm going to hit that marker. This is what I want. I definitely want to be a VP. I want to be an SVP, but is it, this, is this the organization where that's going to happen?
Because I knew even then I had a sense that like, exactly what you said when you, or that person in the executive leadership chair, you are the voice and you have to believe what that organization stands for in order for you to be able to come to work every day and to disseminate that information and rally the teams towards that end goal.
And I think I'm very lucky to be at an organization right now where I I love what I do. I love where I work. I love whom I work with and who I work for and the work that we do. So, you know, I see this was the place for me to have that opportunity. And I think that's very important because you have to be able to live it, live into it.
Galen Low: I think that's huge. I think it's like, we can look at it one way, like, okay, I want to have this title because that's where I want to set my sites. And then the opposite, which is that, like, I am able to, like, I believe in this strongly and the stars are aligning in the sense that, you know, I'm on board with the culture and like the nature of the business, the culture of the business, the direction of the business.
And that might actually be the propulsion that actually like sends you up whatever ladder you may be climbing, right? But like, I think that can be the motivation more than just like the title, which doesn't necessarily mean all of those things align. And you might find yourself in a position where you have to pretend that you live and breathe it, and that actually becomes another layer of difficulty in an already challenging role.
Julia Rajic: Absolutely. I couldn't imagine what that would be like, right? It's one thing if you want the title, it's one thing to have to deliver on the work that goes along with that. But if you don't believe what you're doing every day, that just makes it more challenging. I mean, maybe I'm just super lucky in the opportunities that I have.
But I wish that on everybody else as well, right? You have to look for it and hunt for that component as well.
Galen Low: Love that.
All right. Let's dive into the juicy stuff.
Julia Rajic: This wasn't juicy already? This was so juicy already.
Galen Low: Oh, but just you wait, just you wait.
We've been talking a little bit around it, right? And I think it's pretty common, especially in a more like capitalistic framework. I think it's pretty common, this notion of ambition being like the only sensible option. In other words, get promoted, climb the ladder, become a leader.
But I think we're now at a point where, that's not the reality for everyone. We realize that's not for everyone. So I'm going to flip the script a little bit. I'm going to ask you as a leader, what advice would you give to someone who feels pressured to climb the ladder into a management or executive role, but just isn't sure if they'll really enjoy doing the job?
Julia Rajic: Oh, I mean, trust your instincts, trust your gut. You know 'you' best. You know, I feel like, that pressure is coming from outside of you. And the only person who's going to know what's right for you is you know, and you have to consider all kinds of things. There's like a work-life balance that you need to think about.
And depending on the organization you're in, depending on what that ladder looks like for you, work-life balance might not be something you get if you climb that ladder, who knows, right? That's something personally that hits home for me, you know, there's a point in my career where I just work work, because I was like, I want to be great at my job.
And I want to get promoted. And I worked and then I worked myself to the bone and like, that's not good for me. And I knew that, and I was like, this is not the place where I'm going to be the most happy, like, and you have to just re-evaluate. I think it took me to look inside. I had to look inside myself to trust and go, is this what I want? Is this the role I want? Is this the experience I want? And you know, don't let anyone sway you.
Galen Low: I like that because I think that is the big thing. And I think we, you know, we talk about things like, I don't know the halo effect, right? You're a great project manager, you'd be a great director of a PMO, which doesn't necessarily, it isn't necessarily true.
It's not this equals that, but I think that, you know, in a lot of work cultures, we're wired to even say these types of things as managers, right? Or as people around people who are good at what they do to be like, Ooh, yeah, you'd be great, like up ladder, you go, even though that person internally is like, I don't want to manage people.
I don't want to become a business leader, like, that's just not what I want to do. And it kind of feels like the only path. So I think, I mean, Listen, I was having conversations with some folks and like one of their metrics was actually time in role. So it's like, how long have you been at the same level in the organization?
And we were just, we were jamming on it. We're like, that is so in a way, I'm not going to say archaic. I want to say archaic, but just to temper that a little bit, like, it's just it's it only rewards one thing, right? It's like, oh, it looks like you've stayed in this position for a long time. That must mean that you're not very good, which actually might not be true at all.
In fact, I come across a lot of people every day who are the best at what they do, and that's why they stay there. But in some ways there is work culture where you're looking at it going, oh, that person's just you know, they're a lifer, they're just going to stay there and let's just ignore them or whatever.
But as a leader yourself, I'm wondering what performance metrics do you like to kind of put in place for your teams to create opportunities for people looking to climb as well as those looking to stay put and just deepen their mastery of their craft. Like can both be rewarded equally? What does that look like in your role?
Julia Rajic: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think, you know, one of the things I do when I meet a team or when I have a team of people that I'm working with or I'm helping them grow, growth does not automatically mean you have to climb a ladder. Growth means just like we started this and you were asking me, what am I excited about?
I'm excited to learn. I'm excited to learn about things that will deepen my abilities in the role I'm in today. And that's something that I would put in as a goal for somebody who says to me, like, you know, Julia, I'm super happy being a senior PM. I don't really want to go any higher than that. I like it.
I like what I do, you know? Okay. What types of things do you like about your role. I would ask those questions. Is there anything that you feel as a senior PM in the example that you want to do more of, do less of? What are those things, and then find opportunities for them to learn and join a community like the DPM community. Listen and hear from other people take a course or, you know, maybe you have run projects and you have project teams and there's one role on that team that you don't quite understand very well.
Like go and take a course on that. Learn about SEO, SEM, whatever it is that might be not as familiar to you. Those are opportunities for you to deepen your knowledge and be better at the job that you have today, without necessarily having to say, we're going to climb that ladder, you know, and listening to people like that and respecting their opinion. If they come to you and they say, I have no, even if I think they're going to be fabulous as a director of project management, if they say to me, like, that's not what I want.
Listening and respecting that is a key thing as a leader that you need to do because you want them to be happy and you don't want to be pushing them into a place that they don't want to be at. You do want to challenge them as people challenged to learn. I want to challenge you, but I also don't want you know, I don't want to force you into something that you're not going to enjoy.
Galen Low: Yeah. I'm like what I'm hearing and what I'm like, maybe teachable, right? And growth does not equal ambition and vice versa, right? So like, We can still, I think a lot of people are wired to grow and learn. Right? I think that's part of like that human condition of wanting to be challenged and expand your horizons in some way, shape or form, which is not necessarily what we call ambition.
Like you don't have to grow by climbing a ladder. You can grow by, you know, just deepening in areas where you want to be better. And I love that, like the sort of, you know, setting goals for folks based on their individual needs and not just sort of some blanket statements of, you know, what we have traditionally viewed as success within an organization.
Julia Rajic: Absolutely.
Galen Low: And then I think that leads us to our big question, delivering on a promise from the title of this podcast.
The big question is — can being a project manager get you into the C-suite? Or if we put it in another way, what would someone need to build knowledge and experience in outside of project management to help them become a strong candidate to end up in the C-suite?
Julia Rajic: That's a really great question. I think, yes.
I mean, I think, yes, innately as project managers, we understand quite a bit about different roles. And I think for me being curious early, understanding what people did, how they did it, what motivated them, those are all the pieces of this like puzzle that start to formulate. The more people in the organization you meet and speak to, the more diverse opinions you get, the more motivations you hear, you start to create a picture of like, oh, this is the organism that is the organization.
You get to understand it on a wider scale. And I think, you know, I think if we go back to sort of, Could you, can you get there to VP, SVP, C-suite? The answer is yes. You just need to be curious and you need to be true to yourself and figure out what am I good at and what do I enjoy? Because I think, you know, success for me personally has been a combination of those two things.
If I didn't enjoy it, I just wasn't really successful at it. And if I wasn't good at it, I didn't enjoy it. Therefore I wasn't successful at it. Like on some level, those things are connected. So you have to find something that you like, and it might not be a direct path forward.
It might be around about path forward, but curiosity will help you understand the answer to those questions. What do I like? What am I good at? What does the organization do? And do I believe in that? Curiosity will help you understand those things and then ultimately you can decide where you want to go or, or how, around or up or over, you want to go in your career? Does that answer the question?
Galen Low: I think so. I do think so. You know? Yeah. C is for curiosity, actually. I, and again, I'm like, this is not necessarily the destination. I think, where we've landed in this conversation is that yeah we're, we've kind of dangled a carrot of like, Hey, can project management get you into the C-suite, but what we're really saying, I think is that, yeah, you've got to find your own path, listen to where your heart will take you and grow in the direction that you want to grow.
You know, I think the biggest insight for me is that, you know, humans — we're wired to grow in some way, shape or form. Up is not the only direction and definitely the ladder is not always the same. And as you kind of grow, and if you do develop into more of a, like, like a leadership role within your organization, that leadership is creative and it's about wrangling with that ambiguity and making a path, not just following it.
And I think that for me throughout our conversation has been that like thread of steel that is like, okay, the mindset shift in some ways is going from a role where as a project manager, you can be quite reactive and be listening to inputs and just conducting.
But at some point, it's going to be into leading, it's composing. It's creating something from nothing and having that conviction to bring people along with you, and then having that conviction to make that the thing that you're living and breathing and bring an entire organization with you. And if that is, you know, what gets you excited and what's gets you out of bed in the morning, then yeah, absolutely.
It seems like there could be a path forward up, up the proverbial ladder and into potentially a C-level role. But again, not the only place to go. It's about growth and following your heart.
Julia Rajic: So good. That was, it was very good synopsis. I just was like nodding like this, yes. Such a good PM. Love it!
Galen Low: Well, maybe that is a good place to leave it.
Julia, I really enjoyed this conversation. Always love jamming with you. I hope that our listeners got a lot out of this. Again, really it's, you know, like the career path is not necessarily clear for a project managers, especially in digital.
But yeah, it is pave your own path. And Julia, I hope we can have you back. I think, I know there's so much that we can lift the hood on in terms of your experience. And we'd love you, would love to have you back on the show at some point, but thank you.
Julia Rajic: Thank you so much for having me. This has been so much fun.
It's always so much fun to chat with you, but this in particular was something that I think you and I both wanted to sort of hammer out and hash out. So I'm glad we had the opportunity to do that. And I hope it was helpful.
Galen Low: Awesome. I think it will be. All right, listeners — thanks again and we will catch you next time.
So what do you think? Is it reasonable for a project manager to set their sights on a C-level role? Or as broader experience and bigger transformation required to get there? Tell us a story. Do you know someone in a C-level role today that used to be a project manager? Let us know in the comments below.
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