The to-do list. We all have one. For some, it’s a compulsion. For others, a necessary evil. But have you ever written a task down on your list that you already completed, just so you can have the satisfaction of crossing it off?
“I was always that woman,” said Sarina Arcari, PMP, laughing. Sarina currently runs the project management organization (PMO) for Wellpoint, a Fortune 40 health benefits company.
The generic term “project management” can mean lots of things, but generally project managers are tasked with achieving a specific project on time and on budget—something many of us do every day, even outside of our professional lives.
Successful project managers must have good communication skills, be flexible, and able to see the big picture while simultaneously managing hundreds of details. These skills aren’t unique to women, but many women do seem to be born multi-taskers.
“Most women who are mothers are project managers extraordinaire,” pointed out Sarina. “Life is a project.”
LEARNING THE ROPES
The difference for a professional project manager is scale. Sarina, for instance, has made up to 875 decisions in one day. (Yes, she counted.) Or, take Rachelle Ingram, PMP. She recently executed a $19 million contract for the U.S. Army, which involved moving 1500 soldiers from Ft. Monroe to Ft. Eustis.
“It’s a lot of breaking down big problems into actionable pieces,” said Rachelle, who’s president-elect of the Hampton Roads chapter of the Project Management Institute, a global organization that certifies project managers.
“The business world really has begun to recognize the value of project managers in the organization,” said Rachelle, “It’s really kind of almost impossible to run a department and to run a major project at the same time.”
However, not all project managers are the by-product of an official certification. Traditionally, PMs came to the position out of necessity within the organization and learned through on-the-job training.
“Education seems to be very specialized now,” said Suzy Cheely, director of Design and Engineering at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA. Suzy oversees construction projects at both parks, but when she came to the organization over 20 years ago, she started out with projects on a much smaller scale. She learned the ropes from her boss.
“Until recently, you learned on the job,” she said.
So, are all project managers created equal? Let’s find out.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Sarina Acari, PMP, whose official title is Staff Vice President for Business Solutions, says she is a born project manager and attacks nearly every aspect of her life with the same drive and laser-like attention to detail she brings to her projects. “I think I was one of those people who would be a project manager no matter what,” she said.
Her department began six years ago with six project managers. Today, Sarina oversees 70 and is responsible for $4 billion in potential revenue for the company. She credits her PMI certification with ensuring she is able to handle high growth along with demanding project schedules.
“Growth can destroy a company or it can make it blossom,” she said.
By all accounts, she knows what she’s talking about—her organization was recently nominated by her executive team for Project Management Organization of the Year, a prestigious accomplishment, and a global award.
Sarina admits she was skeptical of the PMI certification process at first—she had been performing the functions of a PM successfully for years without it. However, she did see the benefit to learning a common language and framework so that her skills would truly be transferrable.
Conversely, another key to her success has been her ability to rely on her intuition, a trait many women share with her. “I can’t say that men don’t have intuition because they definitely do,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re as comfortable relying on it as women are.”
FORMAL BUSINESS DISCIPLINE
Rachelle Ingram, PMP, is happy that the business world is officially recognizing the list makers of the world. Project Management is a formal business discipline and career path. A PMI certification signals to peers and potential employers alike that one is well versed in the common language and practices that make successful PMs.
“We know the recipe to the cake,” she joked.
Though her daily duties include hundreds of decisions, she says the project management process is a lot like baking a cake. You have a specific goal, and you must follow a specific set of details in order to make a good cake. You need money for ingredients (budget), you have a time frame for how long it will bake (schedule), and you need people to stir the ingredients together.
“If you really lay it out in project management terms, it would take about three years to bake that cake,” she said, laughing.
As a PM who has worked on various government contracts with different agencies, Rachelle’s expertise and background is in IT. All good project managers must be subject matter experts in their field in addition to possessing that unique ability to see the big picture while simultaneously accounting for details.
She identifies the triple constraints that every project has—schedule, scope, and budget—and points out that in order to make all three of those components work together, you must thoroughly know the environment you’re working in.
Another key attribute is superior communication skills, and women excel in that area, according to Rachelle. “Women tend to listen a little bit better, I think,” she said. “We ask more provoking questions and ask questions in different ways depending on the audience.”
She, like Sarina, also credits her intuition for a large part of her success. “Never underestimate the power of intuition,” she said. “If something feels wrong, then it probably is.”
Rachelle also finds most women are born with a skill set crucial to successful PMs. “Just that attention to detail—noticing that the shoestring on the kid is untied,” she pointed out. “What’s going to happen next?”
FOCUS ON THE TEAM
Suzy Cheely came to project management the old-fashioned way—she learned it on the job. She hones her craft by attending seminars on project management, and she uses tools most PMs use, such as Microsoft Project. But, she credits her success to the environment she works in.
“We definitely focus on the team,” she emphasized. “We try to develop the relationships with the people.”
The same project management theme of hyper-attention to detail and extreme communication applies to Suzy, even though she builds things, rather than managing more abstract projects. Leading by example and giving each member of the team a voice is important for a successful project, Suzy says.
“No one person is any more valuable than the other,” she said. To that end, Suzy ensures landscapers are involved from the beginning when it comes to creating a new ride for one of the parks. It’s the reason Busch Gardens has been voted Most Beautiful Theme Park for 24 years in a row.
Fulfilling the needs of a variety of age groups is also a key factor in designing new rides. The new ride at Water Country, Colossal Curl, a project Suzy managed, is a family thrill ride, meaning it includes some excitement, but is still tame enough for the whole family to ride together.
Another key piece that must be addressed before a ride is opened to the public is, of course, safety. After the ride manufacturers complete their testing process, both parks employ a variety of methods—sandbag dummies can be used at Busch Gardens, but live people are typically involved at Water Country. Employees often volunteer to be guinea pigs for new attractions, and they help Suzy’s team know to tweak the water level in certain areas to ensure a smooth, safe ride.
She stays in continual contact with all the folks involved in her projects and pays particular attention to their needs. For instance, if she’s working on a restaurant in Busch Gardens, she communicates with the culinary staff to ensure she delivers what they require. “Really valuing every person on the team is important,” she said.
Suzy can read a blueprint and know what the end product will look like, but she realizes not everyone can visualize the way an engineer would. So, sometimes she goes out to the job site and places tape to show where things will go in order to make sure everyone is on the same page.
It’s communication like this and being able to track several details—and different needs—all at once that she says tends to come more easily to women.
“I do think women tend to multi-task a little bit better than men,” she said. “Men are very good at focusing on something and getting it done.” In this way, men and women have complimentary skill sets, according to Suzy.
Sarina, Rachelle, and Suzy work in unrelated industries and have followed different paths to reach their current positions, but they agree that being a project manager is very fulfilling—just like crossing that last item off your to-do list: Check. Job done.
Learn more about the Project Management Institute at www.pmihr.org, the local chapter’s website. Upcoming meetings will be held 8/12 and 9/3.
Selina Foreman is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother of two.