Episode 2 – Leading, Not Managing, Projects

I’m so excited to share with you today’s guest for Upright and Better’s second episode. Here’s Monica Borrell, a dear friend and mentor. Monica Borrell is currently the CEO of Cardsmith, a visual project management tool patterned after Sticky Notes, and the co-founder of Project Elevate. Fun fact about Monica, is that she’s been self employed since 1992. She’s founded seven companies including Go East, Matrix, Corner Star, LoveJoyFood, Cardsmith and now Project Elevate. She’s also a PMI Certified Project Manager and a theory of constraints Jonah. Monica is way into Sticky Notes.

In-between creating companies, she’s held various positions on contract with large organizations in change management, product management and product leadership roles. She’s also a Project Leadership Consultant, Practicing Team Leader, Mentor and Coach to project managers, helping them become more strategic and stronger leaders. Monica writes about project management on the Project Elevate blog and about visual project management and team collaboration on the Cardsmith blog.

Something I found especially cool about Monica is that she helped forge the revolutionary project management system that supported BP’s clean up efforts after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Her team solution notably involving multi-colored construction paper and yarn proved that low tech is sometimes the right tech. Now she’s bringing her new and improved digital version to the masses with Cardsmith.

She said that at heart she’s an Entrepreneur first and secondly and by necessity, she’s a Project Manager. 

Good afternoon, I have Monica Borrell who is the Co-Founder of Project Elevate here with me today to talk about the difference between project management and project leadership. How are you doing Monica?

Monica Borrell: I’m doing well Kristen, how are you?

Kristen: I’m well. Thank you so much for joining me today. Can we get started by talking a little bit about what you’ve been up to recently?

Monica Borrell: Sure. Last spring I co-founded a new business called Project Elevate and it’s with a Co-Founder of mine and good friend, Colleague Terasoma. And what Project Elevate is is an online training and coaching company for project managers that want to become more leadership focused.

Kristen: I want to get to what that project leadership means in just a minute. I know you talked about the idea of good project leadership being a concept of thinking of everything as a project within a portfolio. How do you define project leadership and how do you define a portfolio of projects?

Monica Borrell: Right, so as a Project Leader myself and having consulted for companies as both a Project Manager and a Project Leader, there’s a lot of gray area between what those two things are. I think the strategy of the company becomes very important as you start to move from managing an individual project to becoming a project leader.

Kristen: You defined for me what the difference between project management and project leadership is.

Monica Borrell: Yes, as far as how I view it at least, I think of the difference between leadership and management first and then put the project on top of that.

Kristen: Okay.

Monica Borrell: Leadership tends to be more vision oriented, more direction, more strategy and management is around operating something, controlling something, making sure an outcome gets provided. Project management tends to be really geared towards making sure a project, accessible outcome meaning that it’s on scope, it’s on budget and it’s delivered on time. Whereas project leadership gets into things like are we doing the right project or projects? How does the project tie to the strategy? How can we use the strategy of the business or the organization to help to motivate the team and you know, integrate stakeholders with the team and how can we develop people within the project?

Kristen: That’s actually kind of a huge departure from your garden variety project manager and maybe it’s my own bias and I’m wrong to think this. In what you’re saying I would think that project leadership is really associated with the C-Suite or with the people in a company who are actually steering that company and kind of associate the project management philosophy with the line managers who are actually getting things done. Not that one is better than the other but it sounds like you really need to have both.

It sounds like you’re advocating for companies to learn how to integrate this project leadership thought process. Is that what Project Elevate is all about?

Monica Borrell: It is but it’s also at every level so I’m not thinking so much of a large hierarchical organization where you have project leaders and you have project managers. It’s also a mindset so I believe that any Project Manager can have some components of project leadership and they’re going to get better project outcomes. It’s very much of a gray area, there’s no job title as far as I know of; project leader versus project manager out there as a definition that I can point to.

I’m sure at certain companies they might have separate job titles and they might mean certain things but that’s why I put that caveat around my definition of what a project leader is versus a project manager.

Kristen: Right.

Monica Borrell: It is very much a mindset and I do think to your point you need both so you obviously can’t be all vision and all team and human development, you have to get things done right?

Kristen: Right.

Monica Borrell: You do need both. I just believe that in the market and in the training that’s available to project managers, that the leadership piece is a missing piece and that’s why we created project elevate.

Kristen: Right, right, ti does seem like the training at least from my experience around learning and development is you know, here’s how you go and do this project. Here’s how you understand and use and develop Gantt charts right, but it’s more than that and that’s the leadership piece. One thing that you’ve also talked about is this idea of projects within a portfolio and that portfolio being really tied to the company strategy. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how you came to that understanding?

Monica Borrell: I started to look at what strategy was and I had been a Project Leader for a change management project in a very substantially, a fairly large sized company. As part of that I had to get into changing the company strategy or working with management to try to create a new strategy and the change management process that goes into you know, changing from one strategy to another. And because of my project management background, it became apparent to me that the two things are just so over related. I mean a strategy really is what are we going to do that’s unique to the market or how are we going to get to a big goal using a unique approach? And a portfolio of projects is really how you get there.

And a strategy isn’t just one thing. You can’t just say this is my strategy. Strategy is here’s the goal, underneath the goal are approaches that we’re going to use to obtain that goal. I think of it like a big tree or hierarchy where you drill down to finer and finer levels and along the way there are projects. The portfolio really encompasses the whole suite of projects that you’re doing to achieve a strategy.

Kristen: Not to simplify it too much but it’s like if I’m going to say well I’m going to clean my house this weekend but I don’t write any of those pieces down, not only am I not likely to get it done, I’m also probably going to stall out when I’m not sure what the next part is. If I said, you know, clean the house is the strategy but we’re going to start in the kitchen and then in the kitchen there’s going to be the refrigerator and then the sink and all that, is that kind of the way that you’re thinking about building these strategies out with projects?

Monica Borrell: Yeah, I mean in essence you’re talking about breaking down a goal of getting a clean house and I might ask you, well why do you want your house to be clean?

Kristen: Primarily because it’s gross you know. [crosstalk 00:08:56] those kinds of things.

Monica Borrell: Right. Do you want to be the cleanest house on the block Kristen or do you want-[crosstalk 00:09:02]

Kristen: I’m not sure.

Monica Borrell: Are you satisfied with just being 80%?[crosstalk 00:09:04]

Kristen: That’s a little bit more neurotic. I think the 80% sounds good, yeah.

Monica Borrell: Right right. Those are the kind of questions I would ask if I was a project leader or a project manager on a fairly important sized project. I ask a lot of questions and I try to tie what we’re doing to the why.

Kristen: Right, I got it. That makes a lot of sense and eventually you’d probably find out, well she’s moving and that’s why she wants it to be clean and there are other pieces there. Then you start to uncover people’s motivation and maybe resistance to change or the reason that they’re responding the way that they are. I know that from a learning and development side, oftentimes the lack of understanding of what the real motivation and the real concerns and fears are becomes a huge blocker to actually getting projects completed so perhaps it’s the same in project leadership.

Monica Borrell: Yes, absolutely. I think that covers it very nicely. It’s not just taking, when you’re a project leader you don’t just take things at face value. You don’t just say somebody comes to you and says, “We need to implement this software package.” You say, “Yes sir I’m going to go do it.” You say, “Why is this important? How does this impact other areas of the organization, et cetera, et cetera.” You learn a lot more and you can provide a lot more value to the organization at the highest levels, be seen as more strategic and perhaps get promoted.

Kristen: One thing that I find really interesting about project leadership is that it simultaneously feels really common sense and also revolutionary. It’s kind of why hasn’t somebody thought about this before. Why do you think there needs to be this push in the market and why is Project Elevate closing that gap in the market? Why hasn’t this shown up in companies yet?

Monica Borrell: I do think that it is there and leadership is certainly a market that exists and there’s plenty of leadership training that happens within companies. I think what is new here is really looking at project managers as key to the organization and viewing them as leaders and not just as I guess, Administrators or Managers to achieving a particular part of the puzzle.

Kristen: Right.

Monica Borrell: I think there’s kind of like this idea that a lot of leadership skills are very soft skills and project managers and project management tends to be very outcome driven, there’s just usually a lot to get done. There’s a lot of balls to juggle and so there’s the sense that God, we got to get going. We don’t have time to worry about some of the softer things.

Kristen: You know those softer things are where I think the meat and potatoes of actually finishing that project on time and under budget and to the right goal and the right outcome actually lives in those soft skills.

Monica Borrell: Absolutely.

Kristen: One of the things I find really interesting about your background is that you founded several companies. Is it seven?

Monica Borrell: I counted the other day, yes seven companies.

Kristen: Wow. Can you talk a little bit about how your experience as a Founder and a CEO brought you to Project Elevate and brought you to the concept of wanting to bring project leadership to other founders and other project managers?

Monica Borrell: Yeah, I’m definitely an Entrepreneur. I love having new ideas and thinking about how to create something in the world that doesn’t exist. I tend to be I guess on the creative side of things. In-between doing companies I’ve done consulting and a lot of that consulting has been project management roles or I was a product manager for example so I was kind of interweaving throughout my career being a CEO or a Founder and being a contract Project Manager within a larger organization. It gives me kind of an interesting I guess career path.

Kristen: How does your experience bring you to Project Elevate?

Monica Borrell: I think it’s really seeing both sides of things. It’s seeing the strategy piece from being a CEO and seeing how difficult it is to make choices. I have a lot of empathy for CEO’s, especially with small companies because there’s so many ways you could go. It’s very very difficult to make choices and also coming from the project management, I was side as doing that as a contract Freelancer, seeing that challenge as well and so I’ve kind of brought them together I think in a way.

Kristen: I think that idea of bringing it together is a really unique one in the world of entrepreneurship in the world of startups, especially tech startups because oftentimes what I’m seeing is people who have their product idea and don’t necessarily know how to build that ecosystem around the product or around that idea to launch it successfully. Or they do launch it successfully but then they find themselves in need of actually having folks to lead those projects that are part of the portfolio that you’re talking about.

The fact that you can bring both sides of that coin and the empathy of you even being a CEO I think is really interesting and really crucial. Considering that, what do you think the biggest mistake Founders and CEO’s make around projects of any kind?

Monica Borrell: The biggest mistake is trying to do too much and not making choices. Then at the getting things done level, the biggest mistake is multitasking your people. It’s really not productive to have people switching between one thing and another and so the more you can focus individual people on doing one thing, starting one thing, getting it done and that thing adding value, you can move on to the next thing. And working in a body of work called theory of constraints really was what showed me that but it’s become more and more popular and you can find all kind of articles, blog posts about how multi-tasking is so bad that it often comes from above.

It comes from not have clear strategy, clear priorities and the willingness to start something, get it done, get the results and of course you can iterate, you know you learn from every project that you do, especially with a startup. It’s not that you have to know everything in advance but if you can get into the habit of create something of value, see what value it added, test your assumptions, then go on to the next thing. And get that cycle time very very quick, you can start to ramp up your productivity.

Kristen: My experience being a Founder, I have definitely suffered from not making the choices when I needed to or suffered from having too much on my plate and that’s always a hard lesson to learn. I think the creative entrepreneur in each of us wants to do a lot of different things and that can really cost us from the kind of more strategic perspective. With that, how do people actually access Project Elevate and this concept around project leadership? How did they work with you?

Monica Borrell: I have a website, it’s projectelevate.co and they can find us there. There’s information about our course which is a seven week online course that includes some group coaching and some one on one coaching as well.

Kristen: Are the classes completely online or are any of them running here in Portland?

Monica Borrell: Right now they’re completely online. We are looking at doing some live courses and that is an option so emailing me, Monica@Projectelevate.co is a way that you can get a hold of me and we can put something together if there’s need for it.

Kristen: That’s good to know. Again for our listeners that’s Monica@Projectelevate.co and ProjectElevate.co to see the courses on the website. Monica I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with us about project leadership. I’ve learned a lot, I need to go Google theory of constraints and maybe we’ll have a helpful new episode about that, sounds fascinating.

Monica Borrell: Sounds good.

Kristen: That’s all for today, thanks so much for listening to me, your host Kristen Gallagher and to Upright and Better, the podcast that shows you how to take your company up into the right and up and better. Got questions, email us at hello@uprightandbetter.com or Tweet us at uprightbetter and you can read the transcript of this episode. See extended resources and learn more about guest at uprightandbetter.com