Do you enjoy what you do? Joanne Guennewig keeps asking herself this question and creating her own career path.

It looks like you have been in project management all the time and you are the President of the Chicago PMI chapter – one of the biggest chapters in the world. So you want to start off by telling us how you started your career, how you got into project management and how you landed where you are now?

Sure. Thanks. Let’s see. So how did I get into project management? Well, I think it’s like a lot of people who started around the same time as I did, we are talking probably about 15 yrs ago since I first got exposed to project management, not my intended career. I actually have degree in Economics. I went to work in banking and finance. I was working for a retail bank and at some point we were converting from our mainframe system to the windows platform which was revolutionary at that point.   I was what we would know today, as a business owner and the technology folks were working with me to say what do we need to do, how do we implement it and you know we just started working hand in hand and got the system up and running and that went well.

Over time the technology folks kept coming back to me, and as they enhanced the system and then started little by little, pulling me further and further into the process wherein I was writing requirements and the next thing they say you did such a great job with the work, “Why don’t  you move into technology group?”. The funny thing is I have no formal degree or training in computer science or engineering. I fell into it by accident and the skill, aptitude and interest was there.  At this time we continued with a number of projects, implementing new versions of our lending applications.

Then the year 2000 came and there was plenty of work for everybody. I really got hooked in on all those projects and from there I was enjoying taking an idea and a business need and turning it into project and planning the work.  I guess that’s one of the things about my personality. I am very planful, organized and detailed I feel I kind of married the two worlds. I enjoy managing projects and being involved in project management. The way I feel, its fun and that’s one of the things I think is important regardless of what your career choice is. You have to enjoy it and have fun; we spend a majority of our lives working, so we should enjoy it. That’s how I got there and continued doing project management for them.  Several merger and acquisitions later I was working with Credit Suisse First Boston.

In October of ‘04 they actually sold the division I worked in to another organization.   I found myself unemployed and had some time off to kind of reflect.   I think most project managers would understand the feeling of “Oh my god, I just got off a treadmill that been going 100 miles an hour for so long, now what do I do?  Do I continue to live like this, weekend migrations, late night calls, chaos, stress and all of that, oddly enough, I thought yes, this is what I love to do.

At that point I found a job at Hewitt Associates and was working with their consulting business, supporting their applications there and running projects. Ended up getting more responsibility, larger projects and in the end being a program manager on a really large $40 million dollar, multiple years, redesign of their tooling and software and business process. That was the big one and the interesting thing that happened for me at the point the project finished was that I worked on smaller projects; I started to think about what is next for me, what I want to do next.   You get to that point where you have to start taking ownership of your own career and I really decided I wanted to get into the PMO side of the house – helping project managers.

I have worked with organizations and PMOs who are the project police. They come in and tell you, “Here is the check list of all the things you didn’t do correctly on your project.”   I instead wanted to focus instead on the “How are you doing? May be you didn’t do this but that might be okay.  Are you making right decisions and judgments for your project?”  I have been successful at finding the balance in-between – here is the process and the methodology and evaluating what’s right for the project.  I wanted to help the project managers deliver instead of just checking off a list and saying how well the project is doing solely based on that.  That’s what I am doing now; I found a wonderful opportunity at CNA earlier this year and am really enjoying it thus far.

On the PMI side I have been a member of the local chapter and attended a few meetings here and there, got my certification. About five to six years ago I said maybe I should check this out; maybe I should give back a little bit.  I got involved  in the mentoring program at the chapter and had such a great time with that – I was  coaching some less experienced project managers and helping them achieve some of their goals. The people at the chapter, and I think project managers are in general good bunch of people to work with.

I got further involved after that experience volunteering as the Director of Volunteers.  I made my way through a variety of different roles on the board and in last June, 2010 the chapter elected me President.  On one hand it’s a lot of work, however I do get a lot out of it in return.  Its fun meeting different people and learning different things, seeing different perspectives is the best thing I think about working with chapter, it introduces you to things you wouldn’t do in your normal career. I don’t think I will be the CEO of an organization any time soon, nor do I want to be. In this context I can try and hone my leadership skills and benefit personally and professionally.

With your background in project management, PMOs, you experience with PMI, if I were to ask you, what’s your vision for project management, how would you respond to that?

I think there’s been a lot of growth in the view of project management as a career and understanding what a project manager does. When first I started people had no idea, they said,” What do you do all day? You just make plans and lists and tell people what to do?”

Now when you tell someone you are a project manager – in part thanks to Donald Trump – they do understand that project management is a profession and a key role in an organization.  Also, this is attributable to PMI out there building relationships and growing and as that happened, the world has recognized it’s a viable career and standalone kind of skill set.

One of the other big things that have happened is that at some point in the last 5 to 7 years I think people realized that the project management and business analysis skill set, while they can coincide, are two distinct skillets.   That is what we need to remember as well as continuing the evolution to recognize that different project requires different skills from their project managers.

I think the future of project management – from what I hear just in my own organization but also other organizations,   with the baby boomers getting close to retirement, a lot of really strong, experienced, project management talent is getting ready to retire. We are going to have that gap and I think there’s going to be lot of demand for those who are skilled at project management.  Those who have experience delivering solutions to business problems and really that’s the focus of project manager.  We will continue to navigate what the business needs are and turn those into projects – whether it would be new marketing booklet or software development.  Another evolution will be for businesses that have formerly not used project management to embrace the profession.   The legal profession is now using Project management for delivering of cases and matters.

Project Management no longer just applies to software development, where a lot of the focus has been, we are going to see a shift into other industries.

Another new trend is Chief Project Officers.   There are a few companies now with a CPO who sits equally alongside the other C-Suite roles, CIO, CFO, COO and the CEO.    These organizations will look at project management as way of doing business and not just a way to deliver initiatives in information systems groups.  It’s how they really manage the work of business and ensure the implementation and alignment of strategy across the organization.

I think that is when we are really going to see a shift, where project management has a seat at the executive level.  Everything that companies do can be a project that is not an operational item.

I think that’s where we are going.  There is going to be high demand for people that are trained, experienced, and ready to deliver.   That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to have a PMP certification; but rather they have experience delivering projects successfully.

You spoke about business value and that being the focus of the project manager and recently Agile has sort of taken hold a little bit more. PMI came out with their certification recently. What has been your experience with Agile? What’s your view of Agile?

I personally have not had any experience delivering an Agile Project. But that said I think, it’s going to be like any other methodology that’s comes along. It’s going to change everything and it’s definitely got its place and there are parameters under which it’s going to be very successful and it’s going to be an addition to project manager’s toolkit and to a company’s ability to deliver projects.

I think one of the big things that have happened is last year when PMI acknowledged Agile by developing the Agile Project Management certification, and now there is lot more interest in project management community.  Folks are thinking, “Hey I better get up on this skill as this is something that is really here to stay.”  We are going to see more of it and I think we are going to have to be ready for change and to adapt what we’ve been doing and look at smart ways to continue to build our skills. I think depending upon the type of projects you are doing we are going to have a selection of methodologies to meet needs of the project and requirements and be able to select the right methodology to recommend to our partners and then be able to implement it.

There’s a lot for us to get ready for in the future.  Some folk are already doing Agile very successfully. Unfortunately, I don’t have that experience yet. I know even at our PMO at CNA, we are investigating on how we implement Agile with our other methodologies. We have a waterfall approach and another we call iterative waterfall. Agile is going to be another addition to how we deliver.

You are working in a PMO now, and I am sure you have had to address this question. What do you think is a good career path for a project manager?

One of the best things about project management is that I think the career path is what you choose to make it. I think that there is lot of different opportunity. One of the things I found so far in my career is project management is the same skills set no matter the business you choose. The basic foundation is there regardless of the methodology and the tools and the processes that go with it. And I have made the transition from working in finance then to HR services to now insurance.  The business changes, business needs change,  and you always have to learn the business, but  the skills that you have around planning ,decision-making ,prioritization, leadership, and coaching stay the same.

Then, you have to decide what to do with it – I think a lot of people wait for someone to tell them, here’s what your career path is and here’s where you should go.  I think that is the mistake that people make. The one thing that I have found is when I take it into my own hands and I say, “Here’s what I want to do, maybe I can’t do it today, but what skills do I need and focus on developing myself and then working of-course in conjunction with my manager and saying – here are the things I am interested in and here is where I want to go lets figure out what opportunities I can get to get this exposure. That’s how you get more exposure and more opportunities.

You can’t just sit and wait for it to happen to you.  You have to proactively go out and find the opportunities.   If you don’t find them at your current employer you have to look elsewhere.   I really enjoyed working at Hewitt, I loved the people, can’t say enough about the company, but they didn’t have the opportunity I was looking for. So I had to go find it somewhere else. That’s one of the tougher decisions I’ve had to make.  It was nerve-wracking and a little scary as well, but you have to find what you are interested in and pursue that. I don’t think that there is a straight line that says – although there can be – project manager, senior project manager, program manager, portfolio manager is the career path.

There is also option to move either laterally into a business role if you find something working on projects with a particular business partner that strikes your interest or even moving into a leadership role within organization because the skills you build. The leadership skills from leading those teams are no different than the leadership skills that I am hoping someday will result in a Chief Project Officer position for us to strive towards if we are interested.  Project management is something that you can apply to anything, whether it is a business problem, a personal challenge or planning a vacation. It is really transferable to a lot of different areas of business that where we can be successful.

Looking back at your career does something pop up in your head that says you know because I did this, or because of these decisions, it took me to the next level?

I think for me it’s been gradual progression I would say it’s not been without some hard work. I have always put in whatever it takes to get things done. I think a lot of project managers are that way. We work extra hours and put in more time to make our project successful, and I think to some extent it’s been that, just the dedication and hard work.

I think one of the other things that helped become successful over time is not just telling people what they want to hear, having the hard conversation, knowing something is going to be unpopular and as a project manager, that’s what you are charged with, not hiding things, not making them appear just the way others want them to just to avoid someone being upset. It’s having the courage to stand up and say this is not right or things are not going well.

What I have also found to be true– leaders don’t want you to come and tell them just the problem; they are just going to turn around and say, “Thanks for the update, go back and figure out what you are going to do about it now.”  I think you need to have ideas and solutions and know when you need to ask for help and know it’s not a bad thing to ask for help if you need it.

That’s what the leaders are supposed to be there for is when things are not going right – they can provide the resources to help us be successful. I know it’s not always that perfect and sometimes people are going to be unhappy, however it’s our job to provide the facts, provide a recommendation and then allow the decision making process to happen.

You know the only other thing that I can think of that I have done is really throughout my career is thought about, “Am I happy?” Am I enjoying this?”, “Is this is what I want to do?”   Recently I decided the PMO was where I wanted to go and I didn’t just wait for someone to come to me and say, “Hey here’s the right position for you”.   I acted proactively and decided here’s where I want to be and defined a course to get there.

I was reading and I think it was in one of the blogs at @Task and they had an article today in fact which said that people who are happy are more productive all around. They were trying to say, if people are happy about life and generally happy about work, they are much more productive than anything else that you can do.

Yes, and you know what, I agree with that!  I think it’s a different mind shift that you have to make at some point. Okay, my manager isn’t always going to tell me the right next step and my manager may tell me what comes next for me, but really taking ownership is empowering.  To really know that I can do what I want to do. Maybe I am not doing what I want today, and it’s not going to happen overnight.  I can come up with my vision of where I want to be and use my manager to help me figure out the way. She might not always know, it’s really taking ownership of your career and knowing that you do have control of a lot more than you think you do.

I always ask all the people I interview about their hobbies and what are their interests other than project management?

Other than project management, PMI is what people always say I do in my free time!  But in all honesty, I spend time with my family and my friends. I am a very big Chicago Bears Football Fan, so I go to the games. I also do a lot of sailing when we get a nice weather here in Chicago, which is for a very brief period of time in summer.  I also try to stay fit by working out when I can and other times I just relax. It’s okay to take a break and do nothing.  I definitely stay busy all the time and it’s not always with project management!

About Samir Penkar

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