Does your project need a classroom teacher?
May 28, 2019
Having had the chance to be an educator - where I worked every day to change the trajectory of children's lives - and having had the chance to manage projects in my role at Vulcan, I've learned a little secret:
Being an educator is excellent preparation for being a project manager.
Little did I know when I was running a classroom that these skills would one day serve me in my role at Vulcan; that good classroom management would prepare me to help save the world's corals and end Ebola as a significant global threat.
Is being an educator THE path to success as a project manager? No, there are so many paths to becoming a Vulcan team member; one of the great things about our team is that we have so many different perspectives, sets of expertise, and backgrounds here at Vulcan. But it was my unexpected path and one I have found incredibly valuable.
And no, I am not arguing that my brilliant colleagues are students needing instruction (though it is a constant learning environment and I do enjoy a good prank). But as a former educator, I learned some important lessons that I apply to our work every single day:
You have to deliver for multiple stakeholders: Working in a federally-funded elementary school, the requirements for reporting were endless. As teachers, we were the lead for everything: we reported to the school, to the Department of Health and Human Services, to Teach for America, to the PTA, to parents, to social workers, and most importantly, to the children. This never-ending cycle of demands strengthened my organizational skills and allows me to easily track multiple workstreams and timelines for different stakeholders within Vulcan.
Have a clear goal and deliverable at the forefront at all times: A good educator is a ruthless planner. You start with the learning objective (e.g., “students can reach five-word sentences by April”) and then you build a plan backwards from that. You set milestones and dependencies along the way that shape the eventual day-to-day instruction. This has been immensely helpful to me in everything I do as a PM. A project team needs to have a clear vision and objective in mind and a successful project manager can plan backwards, identifying dependencies, approval gates, exit ramps, and tasks that will shape the day-to-day work to propel a team forward.
Adapt quickly: In a classroom, nothing ever goes according to plan. Requirement are always shifting, often growing, and an educator must be ever prepared to adapt to the changing needs of children or new obstacles thrown in by the administration or lack of school supplies in an underfunded district. Adjusting to the unpredictable nature of a school environment allowed me to flex that muscle in my later work as a PM. And a large part of project management requires working seamlessly with people, many different people. A vibrant classroom is filled with many "personalities," (special “thanks” to Ernesto who covered his body in Elmer’s glue just before we started state testing) and so is a project team. In my master's program, we were taught the importance of recognizing and adapting lessons to each and every "learning style." Just as every child is unique, so are my Vulcan teammates ;) But each one brings something essential to our strategy and execution. And just as I did as a teacher, I adapt practices and processes to incorporate all team members in the process and work to establish a culture of trust and open communication.
Stay focused: An educator faces a dizzying array of distractions: parents, phone calls, cries, spills, pets, fire alarms, bomb threats (yes, bomb threats) and recess bells all perforating the learning environment. Through it all, good teachers keep a clear head and open-eyes, focused on the priority: students. Similarly, a good PM can see through the weeds and constantly track the critical path of a project to make sure everything is progressing forward on time and while maintaining the integrity of the project.
Measure Results: My earliest appreciation for measurement and evaluation came from Teach for America. The organization has an entire team dedicated to this and disseminate best practices in MEL across the country through their corps members. They diligently taught us educators how to implement this by collecting consistent metrics on our students in order to monitor their growth and identify areas for improvement. This dedication on their end pays off with a clear distinction between classrooms measuring results and those that were not. Applying this practice has been critical as a PM in order to make data-empowered decisions for the benefit of the project.
Teachers are often undervalued in our society, but a good teacher is so much more than a sitter. It takes highly specialized organization, communication, managing stakeholders, clear goal setting, fervent planning, adaptability, focus, and strategic thinking to manage a classroom in order for all students to achieve results. When those results mean saving lives in the DRC, then the role of project manager is all that more important. Similarly, when those results means the difference between a child dropping out of high school or finishing college, a "project manager" is absolutely critical. I am therefore thankful for the skills teaching taught me to prepare to work at Vulcan.
Stay tuned for my next post to learn why both students and projects need multidisciplinary teams to succeed.