Guest Column | July 22, 2020

4 Skills An Exceptional Project Manager Can't Survive Without

By Christopher Ohms, director, supply chain, Rigel Pharmaceuticals Inc.

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Project manager can mean many different things to many people. To some it means passing a Project Management Institute (PMI) accredited test and being knighted into project management. To others it means running cross-functional meetings, issuing and following up on minutes and action items, and managing GANTT charts. And to others it means meeting key project milestones and budgets. Well, it is likely all of these and much more.

A good project manager is tactical and strategic in their philosophy and actions. They shepherd or drive a project. But the better project managers respect the interplay of the functional areas in a project, endeavor to learn about the nuances of each department, and perform as a partner in the project. An exceptional project manager learns and tries to understand the key drivers and helps to socialize complex tasks into smaller bite-size nuggets and represent the team as a sterling captain.

To avoid repeating the construct defined by the PMI and Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), and assuming the project manager has a foundation of this knowledge, below are four features of an exceptional project manager. These include (1) earnest respect of others, (2) knowing when to speak and let others speak, (3) understanding the details driving the project, and (4) taking the time to self-assess and maintain focus.

1. Respect For Others

Using a stopwatch approach in meetings and being terse to others in the spirit of managing a project is inappropriate and should be avoided. Managing a team requires a velvet touch. All projects consist of people working to produce a unique product or service. The moment a project manager imposes over-bearing principles and techniques to keep things moving, they will typically lose more than they gain. People process things at different rates and with different base understandings. It is important to keep the team aligned and moving, but it is equally important to respect the range of the team’s familiarity with and understanding of the project’s aspects. For example, when dealing with contracted organizations over the phone or in a Zoom meeting, you may need to give people a bit more time to explain an update or respond to a question rather than adhering to a rigid schedule. Interrupting somebody or stopping them in the middle of an update is off-putting to the speaker and it ripples through the other participants.

In my past, I can think of three individuals who either led project management groups or were project managers themselves who were rude in meetings, rolled their eyes when team members asked questions, or ignored feedback from the team to preserve an impossible end goal to make them look good (for a fleeting moment) to senior management. Additionally, an experienced EVP reveled in disruptive, disrespectful, and bully-like actions to “manage” projects. Some of these behaviors are subtle and others less so by design. These individuals were better suited to the back office rather than in project management.

2. Knowing When To Intercede

Have you ever been on a team where the project manager speaks over the subject matter experts (SMEs) to preserve a highly prescriptive agenda in terms of topic and time? Sometimes meetings take various twists and turns, and discussions can lead to new discoveries. If the meeting is based around exploratory research or technical matters, these technical discussions are often given time allowances. When the project manager recognizes the meeting may be changing, it is important to acknowledge the shift and assess whether another meeting needs to be scheduled or the current meeting needs to be extended. One of the most enabling things to do is to stop the natural dialogue and not pick up the pieces.

For example, in a meeting between a sponsor and contractor largely focused on CMC-related discussions, there was a good dialogue between the members of the scientific team. Given that the attendees consisted of a technical team, they wanted to continue these scientific/technical discussions; however, the PM wanted to hold to the agenda, which included other topics. The PM kept needling the technical team to finish so these other topics could be covered. What the PM did not and could not understand is the technical discussions were leading to an innovation in the formulation and process chemistry that would prove to be profound for the project.

3. Recognition That Details Drive Successes

It is completely acceptable and reasonable not to know everything about all details within a project if you have a specific role on the team. However, the more a project manager can learn and expand their knowledge about the project and what goes into accomplishing the targets, the better they can manage the outcome. This open-minded approach will serve a tactical end goal and form the building blocks of strategic measures. For example, as a project manager assesses the effort and cycle time to complete a repeated task, they may see an area for improvement in future projects. For example, if the issuance of a purchase order for a part or service requires a multitude of approvers regardless of cost and this hinders project deliverables, they may suggest a stratified approval process based upon value. Further, if the project manager sees a gap in how or when a technical decision is required, they may see opportunities/risks to execute some tasks in parallel or serially to meet the project’s goals. 

As part of preparing investigational medicines, companies need to generate a label to be placed on the primary and/or secondary packaging containing the investigational supplies.  This is generally a two-step process that involves developing label copy and then proofing it. Approving the copy typically involves several different functional groups, and in the absence of a sophisticated e-document system, having the necessary people sign the documents can involve a paper chase.  A project manager I worked with saw this inefficient process and took a different approach to the task. The solution was to schedule a meeting with all the reviewers, with all the relevant guidances, clinical protocols, etc., at the meeting for reference. In the meeting, all team members could review and discuss the text elements and tease out questions. If any changes were required, the label copy could easily be modified and reprinted and returned to the room for approval; the review of the copy was real-time and collaborative.

4. Checking Your Work And Maintaining Focus

As much as projects are progressively elaborated, it is good if a project manager checks their own work. It is never a good defense to hide behind being a “scientist” or “mathematician” or “engineer” to act or behave in a particular manner or avoid the possibility of being better.  An exceptional project manager rises above these monikers. Equally, the lack of academic or professional credentials is not an acceptable excuse for being mediocre. The team and the organization employing the project manager expect and deserve an individual who strives to improve on each project. It means something to set the expectations and hold to them. This is much more than starting/ending meetings on time or issuing meeting and action items within 24 hours of a call. It means ensuring what you have is accurate and clear for the team working on the project. 

The PM or lead is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of meeting the deliverables. If something should have been put onto an airplane to expedite a delivery and it was put onto a barge instead, thereby delaying the delivery, the PM is responsible. While the PM may not be an expert in shipping logistics, they need to look ahead, identify pinch points, and provide a forum to discuss solutions.  When the proverbial ship has sailed on a task that could result in a delay, they need to get creative in finding a solution.  In one situation, I used FedEx to ship some investigational product in winter. The box was stuck at a holding depot due to inclement weather. Because the medication needed to get to the patient, I dispatched a special courier to retrieve the box and hand-carry it to its destination. Did the shipment end up costing more than planned?  Yes. But the cost of a patient not getting their medication was greater. 

Conclusion

Most projects in the biopharmaceutical and biotechnology space are centered around making a better deliverable to help patients; this could be producing a component for a medical device, overseeing the steps leading to a new piece of equipment, or manufacturing active pharmaceutical ingredients. It is important for a project manager to keep the project deliverables in mind and how the result can ultimately help the patient. Individually and collectively, having respect for others, knowing when to speak and let others speak, understanding the project, and continuous self-assessment help sculpt exceptional project managers. When the combination of these intrinsic skills is coupled with the formal approaches of project management, the results can be pleasantly rewarding.

About The Author:

ChrisChristopher Ohms is a San Francisco Bay Area native and serves as director of supply chain at Rigel Pharmaceuticals. Prior to joining Rigel, Ohms held positions at Gilead Sciences, Patheon, Stanford School of Medicine, Pain Therapeutics, and ALZA. His 27-year career in the medical and pharmaceutical settings has been in quality, project management, research, development, commercial operations, manufacturing, packaging and labeling, supply chain, sales and operations planning, and global clinical/commercial contracted relationships and oversight. Ohms has co-authored eight patents and holds a B.S. in biology and an M.A. in English literature.