Be open minded, take some risks and change is a good thing says Kari

Here is my discussion with Kari Klein about her background and thoughts on project management. A practicing program manager, Kari is the Community Manager for PMI’s Learning & Education Community of Practice.



Do you want to start off by telling us how you got started in your project management career?  

Ha ha, how did I find it? I have a feeling that probably like a lot of people I kind of accidentally stumbled into project management. I have had a lot of experience and background in learning and I have been a trainer over time, managed projects with clients around learning and implementations. I kind of accidently became a project manager, probably around 1998-1999 timeframe. I was working for a training company, a small branch in the Mid-West, which provided instructor led training class, technical classes. Being a small branch we all had a variety of roles, when I started managing a program where we were reaching out to people who were interested in taking some training on nights and weekends to try to switch careers. I started building that project out as it went. If I think back that is the first time it dawned on me that I was actually managing the project. From there it evolved to where I joined SmartForce, and I became a learning consultant with them, with a role that was a combination of a project manager along with helping clients manage their learning implementations along with managing the client relationship.

And then when did you get involved with PMI?

I joined PMI originally around 2005. Initially I joined the Mass Bay Chapter out in Boston, because I was getting more interested in project management as I was getting more involved in it over time, but I never had any formal education or training in project management. I started out by going to some meetings to try to get a better understanding & exposure into the field. I think it was 2006 or 2007 timeframe I hit a spot in my career where I was doing a lot of the same things and I was getting a little burned out. So I decided I wanted to do some volunteer work with PMI. At that time I connected with the Women in Project Management SIG and I managed their eMentoring program for a couple of years. Somewhere in the middle of that I got connected with the Education and Training SIG and became a Director of Programs to join their board as a volunteer leader. That evolved as PMI transitioned the SIGs into Communities of Practice (CoP). And during the last year I took over as the Community Manager of the Learning,  Education & Development Community of Practice.

What is your vision for the future of project management?

That’s a good question. I see growth in project management; I see the need for a lot more focus on some of the softer skills that make project managers good and successful. Regardless of what kind of project management methodology and tools you buy into, that seems to be kind of a polarized area. People have the things that they love and things that they hate. No matter what you buy into there is a lot of information, guides, templates and tools that you could choose. In order to be a successful project manager or program or portfolio manager, I think there are a lot of people skills, business acumen skills that people need to have.

I think one of the big pushes for project management is that we all need to get better about growing and improving in those areas to be truly good at what we are doing and help companies execute. This is a big direction.

The other thing I will say is from a holistic perspective from where project management is today and what that means out there in the world. I think it is becoming more popular and more understood and more known as a profession. You hear a lot more about it in conversations. I talk to a lot of different organizations that really understand its value or are starting to understand how valuable project managers can be and what they are trying to do. So I think that’s positive.

I do think there is probably going to be substantial gap that is going to be coming along over the next few years as projects managers who are nearing retirement age will retire.   I foresee that there is probably going to be a gap and impact of people retiring. It may have slowed down a little bit with the way the economy has been in the last few years, but it is going to happen. There is a lot of opportunity where companies, organizations and leaders are truly staring to understand the value. But then all of a sudden they are going to be loosing a fair amount of their project managers. This is where we need to get better and ready to address it quickly.

What role do you think Agile has in the future of project management?

That’s an interesting one, as I am fairly new to Agile. People who practice agile were known as the “rebels.”  They were in some respect labeled as anti-PMI people. You kind of heard  “Ohh…they are the other people.” They are doing something different. I personally have been trying to get up to speed with Agile over the last year, for my own interest, as I always heard about it on the edges. I think that more and more people are getting into agile, and from what I have known so far, agile seems to be becoming more and more popular. I think it was kind of a grass roots effort; people in different software organizations would consult with other people and help them understand it. Now that agile has  officially gone mainstream with PMI offering a certification,  people will actually start learning more about the methodology. It’s going to grow in popularity at least from a project manager’s perspective. I don’t know how that will necessarily translate into the business world. Some of us will try a hybrid approach.

As there has definitely been a rivalry between Agile people and die hard PMBOK people. I bet a lot of people, whether they realize it or not, use some of each. It will be curious to see over time how this evolves in a truly hybrid approach or people truly follow one methodology or the other; this is sure going to be interesting.

Many project managers have stumbled into the profession. What do you think is the career path for project managers? I have met many project managers who are trying to figure out the “what’s next” in their careers.

That’s a very interesting one. It actually depends on the person. I have a background in organizational development and that world. It’s interesting, if I take a step back and look at this from an organizational development point of view, in theory we should sit down and say if you become a project manager and work your way upwards over time and then you get to the point of potentially crossing over to a program manager and then evolving into a portfolio manager, then trying to identify some specific next steps or opportunities to become the Director or leader of a PMO, may be an obvious direction. Or the next step is the Chief Project Officer if you really want to take it to a senior executive level. I don’t think that is a very popular in companies yet.

Most companies are very matrix oriented. I foresee if you have a very good project management background and a lot of experience running teams & projects, I would think potentially you could parley that into some sort of operations manager role.

We as project managers tend to manage certain types of projects. A good chunk of project management skills, although technically they don’t report to you, you are managing people, everyday. I would sure think that translating some of that over into some level of management in the business outside the project management function would be a good move.

 Looking back at your career, do you think there were certain decisions or tipping points that took you to the next level?

If I think back to where I got started, the learning software side of the world. When I moved from the Mid-West toBoston, and left the brick and mortar learning company was a big decision. Where do you want to go, what do you want to do, were some of the big questions.

Another one that keeps popping up with me is the learning part. Because I am such a big learning person, I am a big proponent of learning and development no matter how it happens. About the time I began volunteering for PMI, I decided to go back to school and worked on a certificate in management as I wanted to get some background there. Doing that program with Harvard opened up the door for me being the performance manager at Nuance Communications. My experience at Nuance Communications helping to start up some of the management development learning, managing performance management processes, gave me some hands on practical experience with a lot of the things that I had consulted and worked with clients. That gave be a great background to make the jump to become a program manager at SkillSoft.

I also decided to go back and do my masters; I am in the middle of that right now. The focus is still on management but also in executive coaching. I am in the middle of it right now, so I can’t tell you what it will be going forward. With my volunteering with PMI, working with various clients I have done a lot of coaching. It’s something that I like to do and is a big part of who I am.

What advice would you give to project managers today? What are some of the trends you are seeing?

Good advice would be to be open minded, always be open to learning new things. People get very comfortable with their current job, responsibilities.

Be willing to take a risk. Some people are able to take risks in different ways in different times in their life, at least entertain some ideas and take a chance now and then.

Change is good, may not always be easy, but change is good for your career, your life and job. I am a big fan of change, I get bored easily and I like to be challenged, so I like to change things up and I like to look at different opportunities and take on different challenges. To learn more, to try to do something better,  etc. People are scared of change, I am not saying change everyday, but give it a try.

I have noticed over the last couple of years with the PMI sponsored events like the PMI Global Congress or the regional meetings; I have noticed that there are not a lot of younger project managers; it’s mostly middle and older folks who tend to be very engaged. If I were to talking to someone younger and trying out project management, I would advise young PMs to try to be more engaged. And it need not be PMI, it could be any other organization. I don’t know if there is lack of younger people who want to project managers or younger managers who haven’t got involved. There is a lot of stuff out there in the world to learn about.

 What do you like to do in your free time? Any particular hobbies?

If money were no object, I would own my own professional sports team. I would love it, love it, love it. That will be a pipe dream for another day. I am an avid sports fan. My boyfriend and I are big sports fans, big Red Sox and Celtics fans. I am a Patriots fan, he is not, but that’s ok. We love college football; we love pro sports – the whole bit – on TV and in person and all of that good stuff.

Beyond that I love to travel, specially growing up in the Mid-West I always wanted to go out and see the rest of the world. I love to travel whether it is business, personal or otherwise, working my way around the world little by little.

I am an avid photographer. I used to be semi-professional. I got into it when I was a kid and got into photo journalism and have done it somewhat professionally. When I have free time I still love to do that. Love music, love to listen to music, and love to go to concerts, which are a big thing.

My family is pretty small, my family is important to me – being a part of the family, helping my family, taking care of them when they need help. I am big at helping others; I enjoy helping someone, not to get something but just to help them out.

About Samir Penkar

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