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Inside the Mind of a Project Manager: Stakeholder Engagement in a Virtual World

By Elizabeth Harrin 07 Nov 2023
Inside the Mind of a Project Manager: Stakeholder Engagement in a Virtual World

Elizabeth is a project and programme manager and has put her practitioner and research skills to use in writing practical books. She’s particularly interested in how people influence project success, which led to her book Engaging Stakeholders on Projects: How to Harness People Power.  

In the interview below, she shares her experiences and insights into building successful stakeholder relationships and building your career at the same time. 

Q: What specifically motivated your interest in stakeholder engagement? 

I believe that projects are all about people. Project management is about getting work done through other people. We need people to complete the delivery, even if that’s just you, in a team of one.  

I often say when I’m training or mentoring that most stakeholders won’t care if you have a messy risk log. As long as you are working with them and they trust you, you’re getting the job done; they want a safe pair of hands for their project. You can have a brilliantly put-together Gantt chart, a full WBS, a masterful stakeholder analysis document, but if you can’t speak to people and get the work done, then it’s all wasted – nothing is going to happen. 

Knowing that people are our most important and often most undervalued asset in project delivery, I feel that we should be spending more time on the human aspects of project management.  

I was also motivated to spread the word about engagement (as distinct from stakeholder management) because I believe project managers should be strategic partners for the sponsor. I think when we 'engage' stakeholders, that subtle language shift focuses us on being partners, equals, and builds collaboration in a way that ‘managing’ a stakeholder does not. When APM asked me to write a book about stakeholder engagement, I jumped at the chance! 

Q: Could you share some of the key challenges in project management and how you’ve navigated through them in your career? 

From a people perspective, there are always challenges with negotiating for resources or time, unpicking requirements from stakeholders who don’t seem to know what they want but do know what they don’t want, and dealing with conflicting priorities. 

In my experience, most stakeholders are reasonable, professional and considerate when presented with options. In the world of project delivery, we can make pretty much anything happen with enough money, time and the right resources. It’s simply a case of balancing competing demands: do you really want to spend that to get this done? Do you really want to delay this to add in that?  

Good communication skills and being able to present options, facts, and recommendations really help deal with some of the stickier conversations.  

Q: How Has Stakeholder Engagement Changed as the Industry Has Become Increasingly Virtual? 

Working with non-co-located team members and colleagues has always been a challenge for project managers, but now, even more work is carried out in a virtual way. This has had two effects. First, the need for stakeholder engagement is greater. When people are out of the office environment they can’t see posters and desk drops, and their work environment and priorities might be different to yours – and you’re not top of mind. That means we have to focus even more on engaging stakeholders in the journey and the deliverables so they know what is expected of them and what priority the work is. 

Second, doing engagement is harder in many respects. While I quite like a quick Teams message, it’s not the best way to engage all stakeholders. We have to work harder to build relationships with colleagues, especially if we don’t see them in person. When you can’t pop round to see someone at their desk, you have to be more creative about ways to find time with them. I frequently check people’s calendars to see when they would be free for a quick call so I can pop up on their radar at a convenient time. And I rely on the ‘real’ phone as well as online calling, sometimes it’s a novelty to actually ring someone on the phone!    

So we need to do more engagement, but doing it is often harder… virtual working creates quite a challenge! Honestly, learning to touch type as a teenager has been invaluable and being able to take minutes and type out quick messages while working virtually saves me so much time. 

Q: From your perspective, how important is project management certification and what value does it add to a professional’s career? 

I think that project management certification is extremely important in that it helps bring a degree of professionalism to the role. It ensures project managers within an organisation are operating at a similar level, even if they have different certifications. It helps with understanding jargon and what’s important in the project world: the project managers I mentor tend to have a similar outlook on the work, making sure that business value gets delivered. 

However, people skills are as, if not equally, important. Many short courses don’t provide enough practical insights into the interpersonal (“soft”) skills that project managers need to be able to navigate governance structures and office politics effectively. There is much more to being a great project manager than knowing what documents to fill in at what point in the process.  

Certificates that require you to provide evidence that you have done the job also serve to show that you are competent in getting the work done and working effectively with others to do so. Leadership skills are essential, along with curiosity and the ability to know when to let the experts run the show.  

So many of the project managers I meet are worried that they aren’t subject matter experts in their field. I don’t think they have to be, although a little knowledge does help – you can learn that on the job. What’s more important is the ability to facilitate a process and a discussion, to let others contribute their expertise but to be able to synthesise it simply and explain it to others, pulling out the risks, actions, decisions and issues from a conversation so they can be managed transparently and actively.  

Q: Many of our readers are aspiring project managers. What advice would you give them for a successful career in project management? 

I think the role of being able to work effectively with data and technology is going to continue to shape project management. I don’t think AI will replace the need for human project managers in my lifetime, but I can see that individuals who are capable of working with data sets, understanding the story in the data, and sharing that with others will be able to communicate in a compelling manner.  

Learn the basics, get a certificate, but realise that project management doesn’t stop there. It’s an interdisciplinary skill, and the best project managers don’t limit themselves to project management knowledge. They bring other management disciplines, customer service, psychology, coaching and more into their practice.  

That might sound daunting, but the easiest way to broaden your knowledge is to read widely from a variety of disciplines and to attend conferences. Listening to case studies at Global Case Studies showed me the art of the possible and helped me realise that project managers around the world face similar problems – if you are struggling with something, you are not alone!  

Project management is a hugely rewarding career in so many ways. You will be able to find your home here and shape your career to meet your goals.