We had the pleasure of doing an interview with Elizabeth Harrin, a project and programme manager, an award-winning writer and author of the famous and established blog A Girl's Guide to Project Management. With over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services, she is also the Director of Otobos Consultants Ltd., a consultancy that focuses on project management copywriting. She is the author of a number of project management books, including Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, a book published by the Project Management Institute. On occasion, she serves as a speaker on conferences and events, which is one of the many ways she shares her expertise with others. In 2019 Elizabeth was named as one of the 18 most influential people in Project Management, which attests to the fact that her contributions to the world of project management are quite significant.
PMTips: We would like to open this conversation by focusing on experiences from your past. How was it the first time you started working as a project manager? Do you have an interesting story from that time that you would like to share?
Elizabeth Harrin: I didn't know that project management was an option - it was certainly never discussed as a career when I was thinking about what to do after university. I joined American Express as a graduate trainee, and one of my placements was in a team leading projects. I had a junior role on the team, mainly helping the project managers with admin and organising travel, but I loved the idea that a job existed that played to my natural strengths and interests. Basically, I saw people making lists and organising things and thought, "I could do that!"
During my time in that role I learned a lot of about working in a team and what it means to be a good manager. For example, despite being straight out of university and only with the team for 3 months, I always felt I was treated as a full part of the team and appreciated for my contribution.
PMTips: With A Girl's Guide to Project Management, you have built a community that aims to help aspiring project managers to be able to distinguish between what is written in a textbook and how things are in the real world. With that said, what should future project managers expect once they become part of a professional environment?
Elizabeth Harrin: There are a lot of great techniques in project management books - and I've written some, so I can say that! However, projects are all about people and books can only go so far.
I'd say that my top tip is to apply your professional judgement to situations, always. If it doesn't feel right or won't work, don't do it, even if the book suggests it! Adapt to your environment and your people.
PMTips: To some people a project manager sounds like a rather fulfilling job title, but there must be more beneath it all. In your personal opinion what are the positive aspects of working as a project manager?
The best things for me are:
- Being able to work with diverse teams across the business. I have learned so much about how business operates simply because of the individuals I have met over the years who have shared their experiences with me on projects.
- Seeing something through to completion. I don't think I'm alone as a project manager when I say it's satisfying to see something you have worked on come to a close. You know you've made an impact and delivered something useful for the business.
PMTips:Some would say that the work of a project manager is not easy and that the position comes with certain obligations. From your experience, would you say that there are any common difficulties that every project manager must deal with head on?
Elizabeth Harrin: It is a challenging role. Often, it's not easy to get the things done that you need to get done, because the authority you have as a project manager isn't the same as what a line manager would have. While I have worked on projects where my project team directly report to me, in the main it's more common to not have a team of direct reports. Instead, you have to get things done in a matrix and that can be tricky.
PMTips: The main purpose of a project manager is to make sure that the project he manages is successfully closed, but that is always easier said than done. Are there any factors that determine the success of a project, ones that any project manager must always take in consideration?
Elizabeth Harrin: The biggest thing I have found that determines whether the project will be a success or not is whether there is a clear vision for what the end looks like. When you know what you are delivering, everything else falls into place! Projects without a clear remit, clear goals or a defined outcome are always harder to deliver successfully, mainly because people haven't given any thought to what "success" looks like.
PMTips: You wrote your first book back in 2006 and since then you have published a number of books. How did you decide to become an author of project management books?
Elizabeth Harrin: It's less impressive than you might think! I always wanted to write a book, and my goal was to write one before I was 30. I looked critically at what I was knowledgeable enough to write about. I decided my job was the thing I'd have most success writing about, so I approached publishers with an idea for a project management book.
Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World was published in 2006, the month after I turned 30, so at least I can claim it was written before I was 30, even if I didn't get my hands on a copy until a month later.
PMTips: As a representative of women in project management, what would your advice be to all women in leadership or to any woman who aspires to build a career in project management?
Elizabeth Harrin: I don't think I represent women in project management - but as a woman in project management that does affect how I write and what I write about. It's true that I do aim my blog at women, but it's not overt and from my analysis, at least 50 of readers are men!
However, I am often asked what advice I'd give to young women who want to make a career in project management.
I think being taken seriously as a young woman was a challenge for me, and still is a challenge for women today. In a role where you are a team leader, you have to prove that you know what you are doing, and get others to trust you, despite the fact that they have more experience and are a lot older.
Imposter Syndrome is real! Confidence in the workplace is so important at every stage of your career, and it's something I end up coaching people on nearly every week - there is always an email in my inbox asking for advice about that.
You can read more about Imposter Syndrome here.
PMTips: What advice would you give to all the young people and professionals that wish to advance in their career and become successful project managers?
Elizabeth Harrin: I don't think there is one particular formula for success that works in all situations. What is important is knowing the culture of your organisation and the people in your team. Then there are some simple tools and techniques that you can use to manage your time and tasks. After that it's all about relationships, and what I write a lot about on my blog is communication, stakeholder engagement and teams, because that's what I think is important and will make a real difference to project success. If it were as simple as following a prescribed process, we would all have projects that were 100% successful all of the time.