Ever found yourself struggling in a toxic corporate culture? You’re not alone.
Join us as we share our experiences navigating the choppy waters of project management and how to adapt, survive, and thrive.
Our guest, Karen Chong, is a seasoned digital project manager and a respected DPM community member. With her background in psychology, she brings a unique perspective to our conversation—sharing her journey from understanding human behavior in a clinical setting to implementing it in project management.
Karen offers insightful advice on the art of dealing with cross-cultural teams and the hiccups that language barriers can create, along with the importance of adapting project management to fit the team and project at hand.
- From Psychology to Project Management [00:45]
- Karen reflects on the diversity within the project management community, emphasizing how professionals from varied backgrounds come together to organize project chaos.
- The importance of adapting and finding one’s calling in project management, even when it diverges from initial career aspirations.
- Karen’s initial interest in psychology and how it unexpectedly aligns with her role as a digital project manager.
- The advantage of a psychological background in understanding and navigating team dynamics, reactions, and behaviors.
- Adapting to Different Roles [01:25]
- Karen shares her experience in a smaller ad agency, where she seamlessly juggled roles, illustrating the common occurrence in smaller teams.
- The challenge of wearing multiple hats and the necessity to balance client satisfaction with project management responsibilities.
Every single role helps a person collect experience along the way. My most impactful experience was in a toxic company where negativity prevailed. It helped me anticipate pushback, defend cases, and learn to work with naysayers.Karen Chong
- Learning from Toxic Environments [07:38]
- The invaluable lessons gained from working in a toxic company, emphasizing the importance of anticipating pushback and implementing changes collaboratively.
- Karen’s emphasis on the significance of understanding the impact of new practices on different areas within a company.
- The process of formalizing project management methodology through classes and certification, realizing the consistency and efficiency it brings to project planning.
- The relevance of these formalized methodologies in larger organizations, ensuring accurate and realistic timelines.
- The Importance of Tailoring Methodologies [12:04]
- Karen’s approach to tailoring project management methods based on team dynamics and project specifics.
- The importance of flexibility in execution, adjusting strategies to different personalities and project types for enhanced effectiveness.
I tailor the standard, adapting to the team and culture. That’s what I do a little bit differently – I don’t kick off every project the same way. While I use a template for the kickoff deck, the specifics depend on the team, project, and attendees.Karen Chong
- Delivering Projects: Successes and Challenges [13:38]
- Karen shares a recent internal implementation project success, highlighting the company’s commitment to prioritizing quality over deadlines.
- The positive outcomes of delivering a tool that streamlines a manual process, showcasing the importance of well-thought-out internal projects.
- Managing International Teams [15:08]
- Insights into Karen’s unique international background and experience working with colleagues from various cultures.
- Practical tips for effective communication in diverse teams, emphasizing the importance of simplicity, adaptability, and keen observation.
Meet Our Guest
Karen Chong is an esteemed DPM community member and senior program manager. She had originally planned on pursuing a career in psychology. However, found herself naturally drawn to the practice of optimizing processes. This led her down a path that has allowed her to combine her skills of organizing chaos and understanding behavior, where she now deals with managing cross cultural teams.
As a project manager, effective communication is crucial. Whether interacting with developers or senior executives, tailoring information to the audience and keeping it simple ensures successful outcomes.Karen Chong
Resources from this episode:
Related articles and podcasts:
- About the podcast
- How To Become A Project Manager
- What Is Project Management? Everything You Need To Know
- 5 Expert Brainstorming Best Practices For Better Brainstorming Sessions
- How To Become A Better PM Through Peer Mentorship
- Ultimate Guide To Change Management: What PMs Need To Know
- How To Run An Internal Project Kickoff + Expert Agenda Template
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.
Michael Mordak: Hey, it's Michael from the Digital Project Manager and welcome to today's Member Spotlight! We managed to string together the biggest and baddest collection of project managers who are out there creating change and challenging the paradigms that exist in projects today. What I love about this community is that it's full of people who probably wanted to do something totally different with their lives.
But, while we all come from a diverse set of backgrounds, roles, and industries, we found our calling organizing the chaos, that is—projects. Our unique stories have been shaped by the lessons we've learned, the skills we've developed, and the people we've met along the way. If you want to join, or just learn more about membership, check out our website at thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership.
Today we're speaking with esteemed community member, and senior program manager, Karen Chong. Karen had originally planned on pursuing a career in psychology. However, found herself naturally drawn to the practice of optimizing processes. This led her down a path that has allowed her to combine her skills of organizing chaos and understanding behavior, where she now deals with managing cross cultural teams. We'll hear about Karen's journey as a digital project manager, the struggles of working on small teams, how toxic companies can make you a better PM, and why it can be best to approach each project differently.
So Karen, thank you so much. It's so good to see you here. I know that our listeners can't see you, but it's nice for me to get to see you as we chat. Let's jump straight into it because you have a very wonderful background and where you get to work with in a very international settings.
You mentioned to me that you've been working with people from all different types of cultures dealt with language barriers in different ways. But before we get some of that stuff, I would love to know what you thought that you would be when you grew up, like when you were younger, what kind of your dream job that you were hoping to achieve one day?
Karen Chong: Well, thank you for having me, Michael. I'm very excited to be sharing my experience with our members community. I was thinking back on what I want to be when I grew up. And then I realized I've only really thought about one thing. It needs to pay me money, I don't need to go to school forever for it, and it needs to be legal.
I think those were the three things that I have actually thought about. Other than that, it has never really been an occupation that I felt strongly enough to write it in an essay, whatever we're asked to. So even when I was little, I just wanted to do what needs to be done.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, that makes sense. I'm curious, what, was there anything that you had in your mind that you wanted to do that was ruled out because of one of those rules?
Karen Chong: Yes, I want it to do psychology. I consider psychology for a little bit. I rolled it out in college because I didn't like writing essays and there were lots of essays writing. And I thought if I need it to stay in school or if an undergrad doesn't help me and I need to get like with the masters or anything, that would make me stay in school longer. And I think where I ended up right now, I'm more in the marketing side of PMing, and that has to do with psychology. So I think that's like the weakest link I can draw.
Michael Mordak: Yeah. I mean, I was going to make that same comment that I think a background in psychology actually gives you a pretty big advantage when it comes to project managing, because you have to understand the way that people work together and the way that they don't work together, for example.
And a lot of that comes back to just psychology and understanding behaviors and humans. Do you find that you use that background in psychology quite a bit when you're working on your projects?
Karen Chong: Absolutely. I think it helps me put myself in the other person's shoe. It can be a client, it can be a coworker, but I try to think about what their next step is going to be.
And then I can just guess what the reaction is going to be to what I'm about to tell them or what they need to do and kind of frame my request or my statement to them differently. If I know that I'm talking to someone who tends to react immediately, then I'll tell it in the most calming way possible and kind of like a doctor about to tell you, you have some issues.
But if it's someone who understands who wants all the information, then, of course, I prepare everything in my pocket before telling them anything or approaching them.
Michael Mordak: I would love to know, so you had this kind of desire for, to pursue something in psychology, but you ended up straying from that a little bit and went down a different path.
Could you give us a bit more insight into kind of your journey and how you accidentally ended up becoming a project manager?
Karen Chong: Yeah. I think all of my jobs have been around coordinating, making sure that people who needs to do their work or needs to make decision have what they need to do their job. So it has always been like in an enabler type situation.
And I think the job that I had that most closely related to program management or project management is when I was an account manager at an ad agency. And I realized I gravitated more towards making sure all our campaigns are run properly, all our projects are done properly, more so than building a relationship with the client.
So I think that's just my natural tendency to see things through and I care more about everything needs to be done right. So I think that's when I really started to have a job that relates to that and then it wasn't until the next career opportunity that my title is actually project manager and it's project manager digital marketing in a financial institution.
So, quite a bit different from an ad agency setting, but the skills that are required is the same. You got to be on top of things, that I communicate well. You have to make sure everything is done right, especially in a financial institution environment, because there's a lot of regulations. And even marketing, you need to be able to pass any sort of audit if you have to change records or just have your ducks in a row if anything is audited.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I want to jump back to the role you had before that was on the, in the ad agency space. Did you find that you were kind of PMing in your account management role? And was project manager like role that existed at that agency, or did you invent it as you went along?
Karen Chong: So it didn't exist. And at that time I didn't even realize account managers and project managers are two different roles, because I was just doing both. So it definitely did not exist, but the account manager basically just, you just need to make sure that clients are happy and that are the team are delivering.
So that's very much a project manager's role too. So at the time it was only one and the agency was also a smaller office of a bigger omnicom agency. So we cannot afford to have one person for one role, so that was why.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, that is such a common occurrence. And I hear people talking about that all the time in the community discussion about how it'd be so nice to have just a single person to run the PM role, a single person to run the account management role.
But, you know, realistically, when it comes down to it, especially in smaller teams, you have somebody who's running all these multiple roles. And in your case, they might not even understand that they're leading multiple roles.
Karen Chong: Yeah, I certainly did not understand that.
Michael Mordak: Yeah. Well, I'm glad that it worked out. And then when you got to the financial institution that you were able to actually have PM in your title and but more of an identity associated with that position.
I would love to also find out, so when you came to this PM role, I mean, I know that you kind of said that you had a bit of a natural tendency to want to organize people and organize things and make sure that everything was following a schedule. Were there any other ways, any other skills or concepts that you picked up from past experience that you felt gave you an advantage coming into project management?
Karen Chong: I think every single role helps a person collect experience along the way. But I would say the experience that helped me most was actually in a very toxic company. And by that I mean everything is responded with a 'no' or something negative. It's a very closed mindset environment. And I think it helped me anticipate any pushback and be ready to either defend the case or make, learn how to work with the people, the naysayers.
And also, I think, being in that environment, I also learned things the hard way. For example, if I need to implement any new practice, new changes, new procedures, you need to talk to the people who are impacted by that. Instead of just rolling something out, I should have either brainstorm with them or at least float the idea and understand how they will be impacted and how we can make this better. Because I was just basically working with the president of the company.
We brainstormed something, came up with this new practice that we think will make our projects better, roll it out. And the next thing I know, somebody tapped me on the shoulder, like his ears are all red because he was so angry reading the email. And then, if I would have talked to different areas and understand, okay, we want to do this.
What do we need to support that? Like there are different, there's five different areas in the company. Not that big, but still, if you have a small company, everyone's doing everything. So if we need to enforce something new, the people are already like 150% booked. There's really no time to satisfy that.
So I think it's just natural experience and being in a very harsh environment kind of helped me hone in my skills.
Michael Mordak: Well, I think, I mean, a lot of what you're saying too, just speaks directly to understanding change management and how to isolate the people that you need to speak to. And again, we're going to circle back to this idea of psychology, but understanding how they're going to react in those situations and how they'll feel about that.
Yeah. That's so interesting. I love the way that you tied all that together. And then I'd love to hear, so those were kind of areas where you were able to bring in skills and things you learned over the years. But when you came into your role as a project manager, where did you understand or realize you still needed to upskill?
Where were the areas where you were lacking and you knew you still needed to work on those things in order to really be able to make an impact?
Karen Chong: I think it's formalizing my methodology. So it wasn't until I think 2 jobs after my digital marketing project manager job, where I took project management classes and then ultimately got certified.
I think the certification is more just having the title, but it was the actual class that I took that I realized, Oh, these things that I have been doing all these years, it's actually a real process. And kind of just gave me the idea and taught me how I can do it more consistently every time, because I know that I need to plan a timeline, for example. But I can rely on these inputs so that my timeline is more accurate or more realistic.
And then understanding how, what process I could go through to make changes so that I'm not just pushing it out because of the web designers that he needs to more days, I think. So I think that solidifying what I already know, but I'm just doing it because it feels like the right thing to do. I think that helped a lot and it's just in larger organizations where that really comes into play. If you're in a really small, say 5 people start up, then those things get brushed to the sideways.
Michael Mordak: No, that's wonderful. I think that's great insight. And then I want to just jump back on something that you mentioned using the things you've learned, whether they were skills that you brought over or areas where you were able to upscale and things that you were able to work on once you got into this, into the role.
I'd love to know how you're applying those things and what I'd love to hear from you is, so using the areas that those natural skills and concepts that you had learned from previous roles. And then also the areas where you were able to work on once you came into the role.
I'd love to hear from you, like, how are you putting those things together and how you're changing digital project management? But I guess, is there a way that you feel that you're actually changing digital project management or is there anything that you're doing differently from the standard PM ways, the standard way of doing things within your company right now?
Karen Chong: Yeah. Oh, I think maybe instead of saying changing digital project management, like just changing, yeah, I don't know. Like we can think about how to phrase that a little bit too.
Michael Mordak: I mean, I guess the question really is, are there any processes that you do differently that are maybe out of the norm based on things that you've learned from previous experience?
Karen Chong: I think it's tailoring the standard, kind of adapting to who you're working with and the team culture. I think that's what I do a little bit differently. I don't kick off every single project exactly the same way. I use the same template to build the kickoff deck, but other than that, it all depends on who the team is, what the project is about, and who's gonna be in the kickoff.
So that, like I tailor that, and then also how I interact with the team. Because it depends on both project types and the personalities that are in the team, whether like a daily stand up is useful, or you can see that people dread the daily stand up and it's not really adding value. So I think that approach is slightly different.
Some PMs, they may just do the exact same way. It's nice that it's consistent, but if it's a consistent method with different players, then it may or may not work fine. If you're training the company to follow this exactly for everything project, we want everything to be consistent, then yes, I may need to do things in a less tailored way. But as long as the general is consistent, how you execute your day to day, I think I take a different approach for every project.
Michael Mordak: That's wonderful. That makes a lot of sense and I think that I can really hear how that aligns with your background in psychology, just understanding and knowing that people are going to take and receive information differently. And so being able to just quickly adapt and tailor things to the team and project that you're working on. I think that makes a lot of sense.
And it's a really neat approach. Amazing. Well, before we wrap up, I just wanted to give you an opportunity if you wanted to share any exciting wins that you've had in your role recently, what's the coolest thing you're working on right now or anything that you've delivered recently?
Karen Chong: Oh, yes. So I have been working on this internal implementation project since the beginning of the year.
It was supposed to be launched in New Year, I want to say and I just launched it the beginning of October. So, because it's an internal project, the company values doing it right more so than simply just hitting a deadline. So that was really good because there had been some internal changes. So to put it simply, it's a contract life cycle management actually.
And because we have workflow changes internally, we need to make changes to the implementation so that it will still meet the needs of the business. So prioritizing and doing it the right way and making it useful rather than hitting a deadline, I think that was a really great decision. And we have rolled it out by like three weeks already now. The user seems to be happy. There are obviously issues that need to be worked out, but we have gotten into a good rhythm for the company to actually adopt a tool that help us streamline a super manual process. So I think that was a win.
Michael Mordak: That's awesome. No, that's so exciting. It's always a win when you finally deliver. Also, I'll call it the finished product. Obviously, you know, there's always iterations and things to improve upon and bugs to fix, but yeah, getting it delivered. And even if it is a bit behind schedule is always a big win. That's awesome. I'm glad you got that.
And actually, there's one more thing I wanted to tap into before we go, because you had mentioned you have a really unique kind of background working with in an international setting. I was wondering, is the role you're in right now, a role in which you're working with people from different cultures or speaking different languages? Okay, so is this project kind of had to manage that internal project while communicating with people that maybe don't speak the same language or have the same values that they bring?
Karen Chong: The project that I mentioned, it was mostly just in the U.S., but it's the other projects that I'm in right now. So my company, we have colleagues in Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Israel, and Canada, and U.S. So you're talking about a whole lot of different populations. And even in the States alone, you have all these different people in different backgrounds.
They could be, it's not just culture either, it's culture and what field they're in. The combination of both really trains someone on how to communicate with different parties effectively. So a little bit about myself personally, I grew up in San Francisco, but I was born in Hong Kong. And since then I've moved to Japan and I've lived in Hong Kong as well.
And I moved back to San Francisco and now I'm in London, UK. So I've lived and worked with a lot of different people. And then some cultures, there's like a low context and a high concept. Some cultures, it doesn't matter, it's less to do with ethnicity, but how their brain works. You don't need to spell everything out as long as it's clear.
Some, you really need to give them step by step for them to really answer your questions the way you ask it. So understanding that helped me keep things simple, because it doesn't hurt if your sentences are simple. Like stick to the, if you're trying to convince a stakeholder, then that's different.
But if you're trying to convey, this is the outcome of the meeting, and this is what people need to do, I think keeping it simple is better. So being a project manager, communication is key to our success. You need to talk to developers, you may be talking to senior executives. So those are really different roles and the level of information you tell them is totally different.
And having the exposure to talk to different people and from different cultures in different settings. So if you compare a developer from Colombia and a baker from Japan but working in New York, the way you talk to those two are completely different. So it's kind of, nobody will know right away how to talk to people unless you're like a linguist and you're very well spoken in different cultures all over the world.
But it's like picking up on cues and maybe just observing the first few times you interact with them and see how they react. Or if you ask them a question, they answer something that is not what you're asking for kind of just instead of repeating what you said exactly the same.
What I do is ask something slightly different to understand why they answered me that way. And then that sometimes makes me realize, oh, he thought I said this word. But no, it's this other thing. So then I will try to elaborate more on what I ask, instead of repeating the question the exact same way. The confusion just goes on.
Michael Mordak: That's awesome. Well, I mean, I really appreciate that. So what I've gathered from that is that if we have anybody who's working with an international team or working with people from across different cultures, then you'd be a great resource. Maybe I can send them your way now if they have any questions about how they can best communicate across their different teams.
Karen Chong: Yeah. Like I may not be able to give them prescribed action plans, but I can help them understand of like, instead of saying it this way, you can cut down half the number of words that you use and it means the same thing.
Michael Mordak: And that's amazing. Yeah, awesome. Well, I'm so glad we're able to share that. I just wanted to thank you one more time for taking your time out of your day.
I know that it's a little bit later where you are in London right now. So I appreciate you meeting with me after hours just to be able to talk a little bit about your experience and what you've learned and to give people an opportunity to get to know you better and know that if they have questions about these things, then they can approach you in the community.
Yeah, and I really appreciate all the insight that you share in there as well. It's amazing. So thank you for being a really helpful person in the community and sharing your knowledge and also the time today. I appreciate it.
Karen Chong: Thank you very much for having me. I love sharing my experience with the community.
Michael Mordak: That's awesome. All right, we'll chat soon in Slack.
Thanks for tuning into our Member Spotlight with Karen. She has so much more knowledge and insight to share with you, so come chat with us in the Slack channel, along with our entire community of digital project managers. You can learn more about membership on our website at thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership.
Until next time, thanks for listening.