Essendant’s Director, Program Management, Shares Career Advice with i.c.stars Graduate

Essendant’s Director, Program Management, Shares Career Advice with i.c.stars Graduate

i.c.stars graduate Tina Rodriguez speaks to Essendant’s Director, Program Management Office, Kathleen Wittleder, about her career.

Kathleen, How did you get into Program Management?
I started my career as a developer and was on a project where things were a little disorganized. So, it was born out of a desire to have more focus on how we were operating as a team, and a clearer roadmap….I felt we could have been more effective with project management. It evolved from there.

What is your favorite aspect of PM work?
What I enjoyed most about project management was the organizational aspect and to have a plan for execution. Most plans are almost defunct the minute you get them done, so I think number one skill of a project manager is flexibility. Nothing more satisfying than putting something into production and seeing it go live.


Could you share a professional challenge?
Project managers typically like things to be fairly well organized, but projects by definition are messy. So you have to approach project management as organized chaos.You have to keep things between the bumpers. There’s no science or formula that will make you be an effective project manager. PMP gives you guidelines, but ultimately project management more of an art than a science.

The best project managers are really good at understanding the biggest threat to the success of their project….and sometimes this happens at the beginning of a project. Failure results when you don’t have strong support, a strong business case and a leader that can do the blocking and tackling - to get right resources - or to get to the bottom of issues. Recognizing this threat early on is a tough thing and can be a really difficult conversation to have. Often this leadership is expected to come from IT, but the most successful projects are those that are approached as business projects.

What advice would you have for someone like me, who is in discovery mode, and seeking more business experience?
As a PM you need to get familiar with business capabilities that you’re building and how it affects the business. Your job is to be a facilitator and bring the resources to the table, but it is not always easy to know who the right people are. I call them ghost stakeholders because sometimes a project will start in another area of the business. Sometimes your primary sponsor may be reluctant to seek input from other areas in the interest of time, internal politics or whatever. As a result, you may deliver exactly what one group wants; but, when it is implemented in the larger organization, it may fail as a result of not understanding the broader implications.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring Project Manager?
It’s more difficult to be a leader than a manager. In many organizations, PMs don’t really manage, they lead; they have to influence people. It takes more maturity to do this. The number one job of a PM is communication and to ensure that the project is understood far and wide. To be a really good pm, you have to be inclusive and transparent. The best PMs are servant leaders. They approach their job as a facilitator even if this means being the “note taker” at every meeting and sending out those notes, ordering lunch for the team or making sure they are fed during “crunch time”.

Now let’s talk to recent i.c.stars graduate, Tina Rodriguez.

Tina, why are you interested in a career in PM?
The people aspect is what I’m interested in because I’ve always seen myself as strong in interpersonal skills. When Kathleen described it as organized chaos… that really resonated with me because that was kind of how it felt for me. So, I was glad to know that this experience, though I am “green” in the project management, was not so far off the mark.

Tina, what’s something that you learned about the role?
I enjoyed learning about the nuanced ways of interacting. You have to navigate channels and relationships, i.e. needing to identify key people in an organization to get things done. I also like what Kathleen shared about adaptability.

Any other thoughts?
Something that I have learned about project management was the concept of “ghost” stakeholders. The idea that there are other weighty opinions/perspectives that affect a project was somewhat new to me. I am glad to learn this because this awareness is something I will carry forward with me.

“Find the biggest threat to a project EARLY” is also a piece of advice that stood out. Again, it seemed novel, but it also really seemed logical the more I thought about it.

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