PMTips: This time we are interviewing Vanessa Guimarães, an experienced project manager who designs creative projects for business solutions, and is focused on people and business development. She is more of a people’s person than a projects’ person, but as the founder of the company Elas Projetam, which is Portuguese for Women Doing Projects, Vanessa has managed to build a strong network for women who aspire to develop a career in project management.
Vanessa, welcome and thank you for making the time to do this interview.
Vanessa Guimarães: Oh, thank you for inviting me, Ana.
PMTips: Can you tell us more about your view of the project management profession? What are the personal benefits you have gained so far from being a project manager?
Vanessa Guimarães: The thing is that it's very empowering. I come from a background in linguistics, so it's not the typical background in project management. But I did realize that once I started immersing myself in the project management culture, I actually got things done, so that's the biggest benefit, I think. You can get things done, not that I couldn't before, but then you actually can measure the progress, you can actually have some sort of fulfillment for doing something, because you know where you were before, where you are now. So this is like the tools that you get, they are very empowering. So once you realize that you can get things done, you basically feel like a superhero somehow. So this is the main benefit in project management especially for someone that was not from the technology field. So my expertise came from education and international cooperation for development, which means that getting things done was, in the end, helping people. So when you see that happening, you just feel like you can do anything.
PMTips: After graduating from the University of Brasilia in the Department of Literature and Linguistics, you started your career as a publisher, and then you were assigned to coordinate 200 language schools. This was the stepping-stone that steered you into the field of project management. Can you tell us about the way you immersed yourself in the field? What challenges did you face when you were assigned to your very first project?
Vanessa Guimarães: Yes, definitely [this] was when it all started. It actually began by understanding – when I was coordinating 200 schools, the expectation, because it was a pedagogical coordination, was that I knew everything about teaching and learning, but then soon it became something more structured because people wanted me also to help them with the business. So connecting, teaching and learning with the business was back then some sort of a difficulty that people find sometimes putting technology and business together. So I realized that the first thing was the process before the project. I actually got involved with process management. So when I saw that there were processes going on, and then we realized “Oh my god, so we are not just teaching and giving the content to people and passing on the knowledge, we're also engaging them in signing up to the courses.” We also have to follow up their commitment and progress in learning, we also have to understand where they are after studying everything and see where they are going afterwards, and if they're becoming something, I don't know, like a reference in their fields, so they can become prominent alumni for us. So it was all a full process, but by then I thought that there were only processes. I didn't know it was project management. And then I realized that each student was a project as well, then each school was a project as well, each teacher was a project as well. But that was a very, very naïve kind of look to project management back then, but that was when it all started.
So the first challenges I found were actually, first, to understand that that was a project. That was very difficult, actually, for someone who did not have the background. So understanding that we had several projects going on – that was the main challenge. Once I understood it clearly, the challenge was: okay, although everyone is a project, this is not the business approach we have to give. So making them understand the tools that could actually make this business approach something profitable for the business itself. It was very complicated, because I was coming from teaching and learning to actually figuring out problems [from] low signup rates for the school teachers coming and going, to high turnover for teachers. And this was not seen as a project, nor as a business problem. It was all seen as a teaching and learning problem, so making the shift into “Okay, so this is actually – we can design a project to solve all of these problems and attack all of these problems by understanding the business and connecting everything,” this was not easy. It took months for me to just realize this, so this was the main challenge: a mindset towards project culture; that was the biggest thing.
PMTips: You have quite an extensive international profile, having worked for six different embassies and lived in a number of countries. Did this global mindset help you in becoming a visionary leader? What are the effects of having this type of global experience when it comes to your work on projects?
Vanessa Guimarães: Definitely, definitely. Actually, in the project management world, but especially here in Brazil, where we live in a country here that you don't find foreigners everywhere. It's not like in Europe – wherever you go you can hear some different languages, and you actually get to have foreign co-workers – this is not a reality in Brazil. So we live in a bubble, even with our neighboring countries, we don't even speak their languages, they speak Spanish, we speak Portuguese, the only country speaking Portuguese around here. So it’s like we live in a cultural bubble, so diversity is understood from a very political approach, I think. So having this global view, and understanding several backgrounds, and being open to different histories, different stories as well and different ideas, so building up this not tolerance, but this open-minded profile, it made all the change for me.
Actually, I do think that the only reason why coming from learning and teaching background, or linguistics if you want, in moving to project management, where they were mostly from technology background – I came with very different ideas towards everything. It's no coincidence that I founded Elas Projetam, it's really like probably it could only have been me, because I come from a very different background. Not only from the expertise knowledge background, but also I lived in many places, I saw many things, I understand not just from living in other places but also speaking other languages, it also changes the mindset. I'll give you just one example: English is a very objective language, and in Portuguese you can say one thing, like one sentence can have, I don't know, six lines as a paragraph, things that you cannot do easily in English, so it changes the way you think. As I started working in English, I changed the way I thought, because I had to be more objective, I had to be less creative in a way, because in English you have one word for one thing, [while] in Portuguese you might say the same thing like with 10 different words, so it changes everything. It also helped me understand how people think in a different way. And then in Spanish [it’s] the same, when I learned Spanish, it was later on, so [it] also opened my mind, oh my god, so I have to go back now to being more poetic about the language, and more poetic regarding the decisions we make. So it's very challenging when you think that having different perspectives – we're talking about this now again in 2019, because innovation is a thing and everybody says, oh, the more diverse profiles you have to get ideas from, the more likely you are to innovate. And it was always true, even I don't know 20 years back when I was starting my career. So everything that people are looking for now in the project managers, people who not only put projects in practice and actually realize benefit, but also who come up with creative solutions, innovative approaches. This has been a thing for me, like for things, I don't know, really back in time. It did give me an advantage, and because it made me a very people's person – this whole global profile – it made me a very people's person. Now we're talking about soft skills – I mean this has been a thing for me since I understand myself as a professional. So the timing was very good for me to have this global profile, and when it became a need of the market, of the industry, I was two steps ahead, so yes it did give me a competitive advantage, definitely.
PMTips: You are the CEO and founder of Elas Projetam, a network for women involved in projects and management leadership. What inspired you to create a network that helps women in promoting and empowering themselves in the field of project management? Can you elaborate further on the organization’s plans and possibly share some of its success stories?
Vanessa Guimarães: Okay, the idea – it wasn't actually an idea, it was a feeling – the feeling of having to create something to empower women in project management, especially through project management, – came from – [it’s] somehow connected to the previous questions. Because I had a very different background, I saw things from a different perspective, and I saw that things could be better for women in this field, and I saw some women complaining about a few things. And I realized, oh, this is not you complaining, this is a structural, this is a conjecture, you know. We should be doing something about it, not just accepting the fact that okay, so on every specialist panel we would have four, five, six men discussing something, but where were the women? Sometimes one woman talking about leadership, usually, or soft skills, but never attacking the strategy, or the technical side, and my background did not allow me to see that as something normal. I mean linguistics is mainly female, so I was like no, there's something wrong, we have a lot to say. And I knew the women, because I’m also a very people’s person, so I was also talking to them all the time, I met them, I knew their profiles, I knew their story. So with that I was like okay, so why didn't you call this person, I mean she's so much better to talk about this, why is that guy over there as if he was the only specialist? I mean, I know I can name three women right now, just like this. So there was some representation kind of problem, but this was not the main thing. It was really the way I positioned myself, not being, I'm not going to say ashamed, but not excusing myself for being a woman, and actually using that, because I'm a woman this is why I could do a few things, I was not afraid to say that and speak up. So I figured maybe I can share my strength with other women that for some reason they're also saying “Excuse me, can I come in?” No, just go in, you know. So that was mainly the drive for everything: I understood that I had a different profile and that all the women could benefit from that. So it became just as a supporting kind of system for women. It did not start with the intention of becoming a company, let alone something national. So the 100 Women in 100 Days challenge – it was like there are many women counting on me and it cannot be me, it has to be something bigger than me. So I had to create something that would give them this notion of okay, there is something bigger going on, it's not just Vanessa, it’s bigger. And the 100 Women in 100 Days challenge came to okay, so let's do something that will show to the industry that there were many women qualified, many women internationally certified. That we have an argument for at least something, a project that would give us an argument to be out there talking about this, the fact that there are women out there in project management, for at least six months, so 100 Women in 100 Days, I think it's catchy, let's see what we can do with that. And voila, we made it. So it was a mix of feelings, it wasn't really an idea, or even I believe the projects come from feelings, not ideas. So yes, it came from a feeling, and it turned into a project, now it's a company, and we'll soon, next year, we'll be launching what we have actually designed to be our operation, so yes.
PMTips: You just mentioned that your first project in Elas Projetam was called 100 Women for 100 Days. The goal of the challenge was to help 100 women get the PRINCE2 certification in just 100 days. With the initiative you have brought together women with different levels of experience and given them the chance to improve their professional development. Why did you chose to focus on this certification and what were its effects on these women’s career development? Also, do you plan to launch a similar project in the future?
Vanessa Guimarães: Yes, yes, yes to everything you asked. But the idea of using PRINCE2 came from – I needed something that could be quickly learned, so other certifications that took longer to prepare people were not on the table as an option. So I had something that could be done in a weekend or one week tops, and also that was internationally recognized. So it could now be something trending, it had to be something well established and in the industry, so PRINCE2 is like the first thing that came to my mind actually, so I actually looked away for a while saying should I do this, is this what I should be doing? But it made sense from every angle, so the results were very good, because since in one weekend we could train women to prepare them for the certification exam. Obviously, they were studying for longer, I mean 30 days before the exam they already had access to an e-learning platform etc., but the immersion for the preparation was a weekend only, so you could see the difference. I mean they were already project managers, they were already delivering value to clients out there, but they needed something to reassure them and to validate them as project managers and when I thought well you don't need anything to do that, I mean you are already, but if you need a certification, I will help you with that. So it came like – I wish it didn't have to be a certification project in the beginning, but it was, because that was – the validation was necessary.
The industry still does not understand how – I blame Human Resources usually, but they still don't know how to filter, how to screen candidates by results and achievements only. They still need certifications just to put a – when you open a project manager position here Brazil, we're talking about a 210 million population country. Obviously, only a small part of that is highly qualified, but still when you open one position you're talking about, I don't know, at least 300 people running for that same position with you. So usually you might get from 300 to 3,000 people trying one single position, and then how do the human resources screen that – you have to have a degree, you have to speak English, even though English is not used in the job, it's just a way to screen the candidate, you have to have these certifications. Sometimes they don't even understand what they're asking from the candidates, they don't even understand, but it's there – you have to have one thing, you have to prove that you know this, and then we come down to 30 people for the actual selection process. So yes, certifying was very important because it was empowering for them, it was a very quick process, because PRINCE2 is a method, so we could actually tackle it from beginning to end within two-three days. It was what was requested from our network at the moment and next year we will do it again, but we already are thinking, we already have a plan to do it a bit differently. It will not be a challenge [like] 100 Women in 100 Days, because we didn't make it in 100 days, we made it in 200 days, but we made it. So yes, it's coming, but not as a challenge, because the challenge itself was not to certify, it was to make them understand that first, they were capable of getting certified, second, they did not need the certification to be the great project managers they already were, and, third, yes, you do have a support system here, you do have all the women to use as a reference, you're not alone. So this was the challenge, whether they got certified in the end or not, that was not our goal, but yes it was a good name [for] the project, it had a purpose in the goals achieved. So it was a success, but not measured by the number of women certified, but measured by the empowerment process that we got them through. That was the indicator of success for us.
PMTips: Listening to you speak, I believe that you are doing an amazing job with Elas Projetam.
An interesting aspect of your career is that you design creative projects for business solutions. How do you get people to use creativity to fulfil their strategic goals? Is it challenging to propose a creative approach when working on projects or do companies accept creative solutions with an open mind? What methods have you used to overcome any barriers or opposition you might have encountered?
Vanessa Guimarães: Oh, not at all. It's very difficult, but I mean when you come up with a solution that is like a first time they’re seeing that sort of solution, they don't even see it as a solution. So the challenge is like yes, open your mind, you will understand that this is actually a fit for what you were asking. They don't want to talk about people, they want to talk about business, but people are the business, so if you come with a very creative solution that will [use], for example, simulation games or embedding the management 3.0 sort of approach in the business – that's simulation games. What are you talking about? Yes, because you have to practice your leadership skills, you have to practice with real people. It's not just learning the vision about the concept, it's not about that, you have to be able to engage people and bring them on board with your idea. So it's not easy at all. Actually, I get more NOs than YESs, but I don't mind because the YESs that I get, they're life-changing, so I'll keep doing what I'm doing. But these creative approaches, they're not very – I call it creative because it's a buzzword somehow, but it's not that creative, the foundation of what I do is very basic. I work with principles and values – that's it. So once we align principles and values, and everybody is on board, on the same purpose, you can do anything, actually. So it's very complicated, it’s too poetic for companies to understand this, but the sooner they do, the quicker they will solve their problems. So I'm convinced that this is the way to go, but it's very, very overwhelming when you think that every time you have to explain the same things, like it's about people, but when you say it's about people, they want a workshop that will solve everything: okay so give me a workshop, okay, can you do that in like eight hours? No, it requires, in a perfect scenario, eight months at least for you to just get everybody on board, because it's not just selling an idea, it's beyond that. It’s making everybody align with the same principles and values, and it's not just an institutional page on your website that will do that, saying “These are our values, this is our mission.” This is not going to do anything, so you have to come up with creative approaches for them to get on board first of all. And second, [the] creative approach is for them to do what they're doing in a different way, so they can actually realize where the problem is. Understanding the problem is probably the game-changing point. But yes, I try my best, but still it's not easy. For example, I would love to, and I will, probably next year, but maybe [in] 2021, have a congress, or a very professional event where the focus of the event is not necessarily managers talking about management to managers. It's beyond that – I need to put arts involved, I need to put music involved, I need to have theater involved, I have to have these humanities in the congress, in the event, because that's what arts does for us, it makes you rethink everything, it makes you see things from a different perspective. So I do believe that this is something that we need to do. It's more than just putting someone – this is not innovation when just because you made it as a fishbowl format, it's not innovative, it's what you should be doing from the start. But then bringing different components to the equation – that's going to make people see from different perspectives, and all we can think about is giving people insights. I cannot give you solution project like on a tray for you, but I can give you insights for you to change your business, so this is what I try to do. It's not easy, it's different from what we see out there, but every time I got to put it in practice, it worked, so I’m still going to do this.
PMTips: Vanessa, you have a lot of experience as an event planner, and you are also a public speaker in the field of project management. Considering that you are experienced as both organizer and speaker, what do you enjoy doing more? Has your involvement in events enriched your practice as a leader?
Vanessa Guimarães: I like to get people out of their comfort zones – that's what ticks me. So organizing the event, and more than organizing, conceiving an event is what really – I don't like to see myself as a public speaker, I'm not a speaker. I have a few things to say, and if you want to hear them, fine, but I would prefer to just take everybody to a bar and have a few drinks and discuss rather than speaking at an event – that's completely better for me, that's a lot better, that's more effective, but this is not possible every time. I don't see myself as a speaker, so what I like about events is conceiving different types of events. I'll give you a spoiler here – I'm trying, I'm not sure if it will work, but I'm trying to build this event next year where people will have to find a match during the event because they had only one match at the event. So you have another counterpart at the event that has the same number or same symbol or whatever, you have to find this person during the event and if you do find each other, you get to do a rappel – you know, rappel, like climbing down [a] very tall wall – so you have to do this together. I do think that creating this bond towards [a] punctual challenge that overcomes the fear of heights, and putting these two people to do this together in an unexpected context, they will necessarily give each other great insight. Especially, if they're coming from a seminar about strategic management or whatever, if they go from this place to doing rappel together, I know for a fact that they will conceive great things together. The same way, if they're attending a workshop for soft skills, or, even better, Agile or whatever’s trendy at the moment, but right afterwards they leave their workshop and face a presentation or dancing, but dancing with – like contemporary dancing – with movements that can actually trigger something in the audience, they will come up with great insight, so I want to mix all of this. It's complicated because people don't see the value, and they don't see the value so much that the only thing people read nowadays are these books, guides or whatever, and then you become whatever. These are the only books that people are reading, and they should be reading literature as well because it gives you insights. You have to process the way people – you don't get the information, you have to process and put yourself in the story, so it gives you a completely different perspective for everything. So I'm trying to mix arts and business and management and etc. But the idea, the feeling of the event already exists, the idea is in process, the designing is already in process. Once I get people on board, then you’ll see something coming, probably next year if not 2021.
PMTips: As a representative of women in project management what would your advice be to all women in leadership and to any woman who aspires to build a career in project management?
Vanessa Guimarães: Be empathetic, because we tend to judge people by their mistakes when we should be reaching out saying: Why was it so difficult for you that you had to – that this problem was created around you? Why did you not get? How can I help you? Are you going through something? Is it the only reason? I mean usually it’s not intentional, so we have to help people. If you see someone struggling before you think what a problem that I'm dealing with now, this person is such an issue in the organization. Don't do that, be empathetic, go to this person, talk to this person, especially if it's a woman. There're usually many stories behind that, and the more stories you'll get to learn, the more stories you get to understand, the more people you're likely to help as well. So that's it – just be more generous, be more comprehensive, be more understanding of different profiles, different stages in life and share your knowledge, share your time, share your energy a little bit. It won't hurt you. It will make you stronger.
PMTips: What advice would you give to all the young people and professionals who wish to advance their careers and become successful project managers? Which skills do you think they should focus most on developing?
Vanessa Guimarães: If I say soft skills, that's almost a cliché, but I'll say something different – curating. Like curating what you learn; this is probably what you learned, what you get involved with, the environments you go [or] you put yourself in. Curating, I think, should be the focus now, because we have too many options, we have too many inputs every day, we have too many triggers, so understanding the context, seeing the context in the bigger picture, and curating what it should be getting involved in right now, that is the key. So there's no formula that would work for everybody, but you have to understand your context. And, for example, I had a coffee these days with a lady, she said “I feel so anxious about all of the great events, great certifications. I want to do everything, but I just don't do anything because I don't know what to start with.” So you have to take a moment, just understand what's out there and try to do some curating process. Think of everything as a museum – what would you be exhibiting out there, this is the role you should be in, screening what is good for you and what's not good for you.
So right now, Elas Projetam is changing from being a social project to an established company, but also we are changing the core business, we are changing from training to solutions, but very soon to a curating process. So we will help you understand what is out there. And I think this is an advantage nowadays, if you can understand the context and see the text that you have, see everything as a pathway. I like a lot the approaches from vocational education and training – they build everything as a pathway, a learning pathway, and this is how we should be doing now. So, it's not about what, it’s about how and how are you going to learn the things that you need to learn. This is going to be a game changer, I think, but I'm not a future predictor so…
PMTips: Vanessa, that was our last question. It was a great pleasure doing this interview with you. Thank you for making the time to speak with us and share your experiences with our readers and listeners.
Vanessa Guimarães: I hope I can be of any help to anyone out there, because it was a lot and lot of speaking. If there is one insight, one great insight that can come to someone and just make a difference, mission accomplished. So thank you for inviting me, thank you for believing in such a different profile as a possible, I wouldn't say influencer, but as a possible substantial content for your interviews. It also says a lot about you, and yes, thank you for being so open to diversity.
PMTips: Thank you as well. I believe that our readers will find your interview very valuable.
*This interview was recorded on December 5, 2020.