“When you’re a project manager, everyone’s your client,” says Sheila D’Aniello, a web project manager represented by Aquent’s Chicago Office.
After initially launching her career in the world of broadcast journalism some years back, Sheila increasingly found herself taking on project management roles across a range of industries. She eventually entered the web/interactive realm in 2000, when Monster/TMP hired her to manage a variety of projects, from producing CD-ROMs to the development of high profile, customized corporate and university job-sites.
Along the way she learned an important lesson: the project manager is “client facing” wherever she turns.
“Aside from internal and external clients, account directors and account services people, my team is my client – in many ways, the most important one. The team is looking to me to manage communication with all the other clients and they have to trust me. They have to know I’m on their side. And, when something happens, they should feel like, “Sheila’s going to take care of this.”
Really just make it happen.
Web project managers are “managers,” but they are also mediators and facilitators, and that poses interesting challenges. “You’re managing people,” Sheila explains, “but you really only manage their time and their resources – that is, on top of managing the project budget, the time-line, the scope of the work, and all that.
“You manage them, but you don’t give people their reviews or have hire-fire power. This means you can’t get caught up in personnel issues. Your attitude with your team needs to always be: ‘How can I help you?’ and ‘I’ll make it happen.’”
Listen to what they don’t say.
In addition to being organized and resourceful, a web project manager has to be a “people person,” someone intensely focused on building relationships and creating alliances. This means developing a communication style centered around listening and understanding needs.
But uncovering the real needs of a client isn’t always easy when you’re simultaneously trying to understand their expectations, objectives, and pressures. How do you do it?
“Listen to what they don’t say,” Sheila advises. “The client may have a challenge with approvals, or with their manager. Clients don’t always tell you. You’ve got to listen between the lines.”
“I need a visual.”
Web project managers move between distinct communities with their own unique jargon and shared reference points. “You work with a lot of different people in different roles and at different levels of the organization. At the same time you’ve got to keep information moving between these groups. The people on your team may be very technical, but your other clients may not be.
You’ve got to keep the messages clear.
“You have to help your team make it more real, and that starts with explaining it to you in a way you can pass it on. You got to keep saying, ‘I need a visual. Make it plain. Give me an example.’ In the end, you have to understand, because you’re the one who has to go back to the client and explain it to them.”
When things are not going right, bring the solution.
It’s the nature of project management that the best laid plans sometimes go awry. That’s why Sheila says, “You always need to be doing your best to understand when things are not going right.
“Things can pop up,” she continues, “but you can’t just go to the client and say, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’ You always need to be coming with the solution.”
The key is building relationships.
“When things are not going right, the client will forgive you if you have the relationship with them already. If not, they may go elsewhere,” Sheila warns. Of course, the more people involved in a given project, the more difficult forming and maintaining these relationships can be.
“Who does the client have a relationship with? Managing that can be a challenge, and it means that you yourself have to build relationships with clients, both internal and external. Those relationships are really the key.”
Relationships don’t stop with the client, however. “You need to create alliances in all directions,” Sheila says, so that you have a reliable network of resources and can “gather information from wherever” as the need arises.
Watch out for burn out.
Thanks to the unique requirements and special demands of web project management, “It’s hard to find these people,” Sheila states. At the same time, it can be hard retaining them. “Project managers get burned out. If companies want to hold on to the good ones, they need some place to go, a next step, an opportunity to really grow.”
As she puts it, “Project managers need a different career path.” She adds, “So we don’t have to become consultants.”