I was officially introduced to project management in the early 90s while serving in the Army Special Forces (as a Green Beret). At that time, I was not exactly aware of what project management entailed, but I was expected to deliver results. I received no formal training and was told to do what had always been done before me. The Army provided me with some basic tools, such as Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, and Gantt charts. The only direction I was given was to fill them out and be ready to brief. I felt very unprepared. If you are a project manager, does this sound familiar?
Over the years, I continued to hone my skills as a project manager. I led many different projects overseas, such as building medical clinics, schools, base camps, and housing for host nation soldiers. I was afforded the opportunity to try different techniques, which allowed me to decide which ones worked for me and which ones did not. Although this helped with my understanding of project management, I still had a significant number of questions as to why we did certain things. Whenever I tried to get an explanation, I received the canned answer: “Because that is how it has always been done.”
In 2004, I started my first business with two other individuals building custom homes. The business was in existence for approximately five years before we closed it down because of the economic downturn in 2009. Even though the business was profitable, it became apparent that we could not replicate the same profit on each project. This became a significant point of contention between me and my partners. The root cause of the issue was that my partners had no idea about project management or developing a plan; they did not understand the need for procedures and continued to be reactionary to delays and expense overruns. I knew immediately: I needed to get formal training to be able to manage these projects and backstop any issues we were having with valid responses. I also realized they needed to be trained as well.
A couple of years later, I attended the University of Central Florida (UCF) to get a master’s degree in industrial engineering. Part of my curriculum required me to take a project management class. During the course, I realized that previously, I had only been scratching the surface of what project management entailed. As the class progressed, I understood much more thoroughly why specific tools and techniques were being used. I started to implement these tools in the business and immediately began to see improvements. These tools helped me identify gaps, monitor the project in greater detail, and reduce delays. This is when I realized the power of having formal project management training instead of just on-the-job training.
In 2009, we closed the business before I had the opportunity to fully implement what I had learned. I was eager for the opportunity to continue in business, so I started my second company, which focused on project management. Within the first month, I received a contract to manage a program in Iraq for a defense contractor. This contract was an excellent opportunity to fine-tune my project management skills. While on this contract, I managed 55 personnel for a strategic effort worth $85 million. This major contract came with a steep learning curve. One day, a senior-level commander asked several of my employees some tough questions about the projects they were managing, and they failed to answer him with relevant information. He commented that my project managers had no idea what they were doing, and they needed to be better leaders. This made me realize I had expected my employees to automatically know how to project manage without any formal training, just like I had been thrown in the fire previously. The task of providing formal project management would be a significant challenge in Iraq, so I started training them in what I had learned. In the end, it paid off; everyone was on the same sheet, understood how to develop a project plan, and was able to convey expectations, answer questions, and ensure their stakeholders were informed.
A few years later, I purchased an underperforming restoration company with cash flow and leadership issues. During my initial assessment, I saw that there were some employees who cared, and wished to provide a great service and deliver an amazing product. However, they had no formal training, and that was a major reason why the company was underperforming. They were unaware of how to develop a project plan, manage the project, track their performance, and ensure customers were satisfied.
The executive leadership and all the project managers had worked in the industry for several years but did not understand the simple concept of establishing a performance baseline to track their project performance. They were being reactive instead of proactive, which was a major contribution to their projects not being profitable and generating the cash flow required to cover their overheads. It reminded me of my business partners in my very first company. I immediately knew it was a high priority to train the employees in project management if this company were to survive.
Upon delivering the first project management class to department managers, estimators, project managers, field personnel, admin personnel, and even our receptionist, I saw an immediate buy-in; their thirst for knowledge was incredible. Everyone attending the class experienced a series of aha-moments within the first few hours – just as I had, a few years earlier. The instruction led with questions that, once answered, gave them an understanding of why the concepts being introduced were necessary. Employees and departments started to communicate, learned processes, identified the need for procedures, and began to solve problems together. It was amazing to watch their development.
Upon completing the training, approximately four weeks later, I saw tangible results. Communication increased, project plans were developed, resources were scheduled, and customer survey scores increased. As small a victory as this may sound, it was a giant step toward the company’s turnaround.
In conclusion, my biggest take aways include,
- Project management is anything but boring and it is not something one learns overnight. To be successful, those involved must have a basic understanding of the “why” behind processes and procedures.
- Owners, general managers, and senior leaders must have enough knowledge and understanding to engage with project managers and the project team to provide leadership and enable their teams.
- Within the restoration industry, project managers and their project teams must be viewed as true subject matter experts (masters and scholars) instead of as individuals who just get the job done.
- A project manager is a leader, coach, motivator, and mentor to their team of employees, subcontractors, and vendors. They are a force multiplier who is entrusted and expected to perform at the highest level.
- Teaching project management skills and principles at all levels within a restoration or construction company is the future if you want to remain relevant. Being able to relate to the scope, schedule, budget, problems, and conflicts requires highly trained and quality personnel. It is not an overnight phenomenon – it must be learned, practiced, and earned and if implemented correctly, it is the biggest needle mover, and undeniably, the best and most effective way to increase company profits.