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Project Management

Introducing PM Matters: A Q&A Series

Brett Harned
May 14, 2015
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People are talking about project management, but it’s rarely personal. We talk about the analytical, process-driven topics quite often, but we sometimes forget that it’s the people behind the projects who make them happen. So, what’s the best way to crank open the conversation? We’re going to talk to them one-on-one about the issues that matter to them.

Welcome to the first episode of PM Matters, a new Q&A series that explores the issues that matter to project managers--and the larger project management community. I’m thrilled to have the chance to work with TeamGantt to produce this series, because I know that it will not only bring to light some of the issues--and more importantly, the solutions we devise--but it will give the community a more personal voice. Each interview will be tailored to the interviewee’s interests and background. I’m having conversations with these folks to get to know what makes them tick, and to get them to share their knowledge with you. I hope you enjoy the series. If you’ve like to be interviewed, or have recommendations for topics or questions, please get in touch!

Episode One: Rachel Gertz

Rachel Gertz is a trainer of digital project managers and co-owner of Louder Than Ten, the school for creative people who manage projects. She’s quite active in the digital project management space and brings a whole lot of awesome online and in person. Currently she is:

Give this episode a listen to hear us talk about the issues that matter to us, including digging in and being the real you as a project manager. Rachel also provides some great advice for PMs who are just getting started, and those who find themselves in tricky situations. It was a great conversation--one that I hope to pick up in a future episode.

Read the full transcript:

Brett: Hello everyone. This is Brett Harned. I'm here with Rachel Gertz and her furry microphone. Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: Hi. How's it going, guys?

Brett: We can see it. It looks like the head of a Muppet at the bottom of your screen, and I love it. Rachel is a self-professed lover and trainer of digital PMs. She runs Louder Than Ten, which is a school for people who run creative projects. Rachel's a good friend of mine. She is in Vancouver, British Columbia, and doing lots of great work for the digital project management community. How are you, Rachel?

Rachel: I'm doing great. Thanks so much, Brett. How are you doing?

Brett: I'm doing well, thanks. So good to have you. I get to talk to you a bunch but never in this more formal setting.

Rachel: Usually we're sending giphys back and forth. This is kind of nice.

Brett: Let's jump in. I know people like podcasts that are super short. I have a bunch of questions for you. Let's have a good conversation. I have never asked you this question before, so let's kick it off with this one. What was your path into project management?

Rachel: I think I started, just like a lot of digital project managers, by accident. My story is I ended up in the belly of a Winnebago traveling North America when I first started digital project management. The hubby and I decided we were done with picket fences and done with condos, and we sold everything. We bought a Winnebago and ended up doing digital projects from the road for about nine months.

Brett: That's awesome. What are you doing now?

Rachel: That's kind of evolved a bit. Now, we're actually running a school for people who manage creative projects. Specifically, we're focusing on the digital side, but the ultimate goal is to have an end-to-end school that allows people to come in if they've never heard of digital project management, and leave feeling like I got this.

Brett: I guess you get asked this question every once in a while. What makes you a good project manager or a good trainer of project managers?

Rachel: I think probably 80% of it is the ability to listen and to connect with what they're giving you with their guts, the vulnerability side, that soft-skill side. And being really emotionally intelligent. I like to think that I'm really emotionally intelligent. Hopefully you're not going to say no. I think having that level of empathy to understand. We have a common goal, and that every single person is going to be coming in from a different angle with different needs, and different interpretations. It's like a tree that has all different sides. Every side you see is the correct side.

Brett: I absolutely agree with you. At the heart of it, you've got to be empathetic, and a good communicator, and kind of a people person in some ways.

Rachel: I think you've got to like people a little.

Brett: Definitely – and process, but more people, right?

Rachel: Yes.

Brett: What do you love about being a digital project manager?

Rachel: I love the ability to create something that starts out small, that has a big idea behind it, and something where you can actually rally and cheerlead your entire team, and get them all excited. And understanding that you're all doing that same thing together. All the little parts coming together. I love talking about the clients, and getting them excited because they can see maybe I can't afford all of that now, but maybe in the next two years. That's the plan down the road. That's cool, when you see their eyes light up.

Brett: I love that too. What's a bit of advice you give project managers when they're first getting started, or helpful tips you might provide in your courses?

Rachel: I think the biggest thing I realize is that there is no one way to do this job. There's just starting now to be a lot more support and resources available. So I'd say the first thing is make sure you have people who do what you do, that you can reach out to for support. That's the first thing.

The second thing is a lot about how you interpret your own power dynamic. I think the biggest thing would be to realize when you talk into a room or are on a call with a client, your tone, the way you use your nonverbal cues, your size, everything about you is communicating a message. And you are a lot more powerful than you think you are.

If you come into that, even if you're faking it a little because you have the nervous icky feeling, most of the time your clients, and the people on the other side of that won't know. If you can back your team up and put down boundaries in terms of your schedule, and making sure people are going to keep you on hold for a 15-minute wait while you are waiting on your call, you hang up. You say respect my time. We're going to reschedule, and thank you for respecting that we're doing our job. I think making sure you've got clarity and boundaries and support.

Brett: I think you make a really good point in that a lot of project managers, whether in the digital space handling client interactions or not, don't realize the kind of level of power that they can embrace in their role. I don't think that should be taken in an evil, manipulative way. PMs have the power to own a strategy, and push a project forward. I think that's really good advice you've giving people there.

Rachel: Yeah, I think we probably feel pretty similarly about that.

Brett: I think in general, in life you've got the power to make those decisions, and push things along. If you transfer that feeling and emotion from your personal life to your professional life, you'll probably be a much happier person.

Rachel: That's a really good point. That was one of the things I was thinking about with brand new PMs. That confidence you and I have is not because we're 20-years old. We earned that. We had to go through a lot of hard things in order to even get that level of confidence. I think it is realizing you're not going to be able to come in and be like "Whoo! Look at all this amazing, oozing confidence that I have right now." It's got to develop, and you have to trust yourself and learn how to trust yourself. I feel like you get better and better as you go with this job, and that's why I think it's important to have some other people looking out for you.

Brett: I agree. I think that trust comes in micro interactions as a PM. Especially when you're working with new clients. Just showing them how much care and thought you put into the work that you do gains trust.

But we always hit speed bumps. We always hit issues, no matter how seasoned you are. I'm wondering what do you do in a scenario where your client's really nice, good people, you get along with them; there's no issues there. It feels like there's trust, but it feels like maybe they're starting to take advantage, maybe starting to miss deadlines, and expecting your team to make up for time. And then they start asking for things that are out of scope. How do you handle that kind of situation?

Rachel: That's the classic nice client situation. You think you go in and it's all going to be rosy. I think what I tend to do is I will immediately assess the situation and think to myself what could be going on, on the other side of this, on this client side. My guess would be maybe this person isn't actually the one calling the shots. They're the point of contact, but maybe somebody else is saying we need this, this, and this. You're not getting it. You need to go back to the agency and ask for those kinds of things.

If they're nice to you but all of a sudden they start missing things, or missing deadlines, or all of a sudden asking for more, there is a bigger picture that is not visible to your eye. Your job as a PM and your team's job is to actually suss that out together. That's by asking very gentle questions, but getting information like finding out are they spread too thin; are they actually working the role of three people? Now that's why they're not available but they're asking for more things because suddenly there's more pressure being put on them.

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Most people aren't a-holes to begin with. They usually earn that throughout the project if the trust level goes down in that project, and you suddenly give them a reason to doubt you or the team.

Sometimes that's not the case. Sometimes it's just all on that one side. But I definitely like to have a real conversation. Go off the normal setting. If you're in person, if you can get a meeting with them to say let's go for a coffee and chat about this. Things are feeling weird, shifting, and they were tighter before. I just want to find out; how are you doing? Asking them as a human being first, because they've got families. Maybe their dog has a wicked case of diarrhea. You don't know. Making sure you're sensitive to that, first and foremost, before assuming the worst about that client.

Brett: At what point do you pull out things like your scope or timeline and make things a little less personal? I'm all for the personal what's happening, asking questions, and that approach. I think that's the best first approach. But at what point do you say no, this is what we have in writing?

Rachel: I think that's a really important part. I think the white glove initially and then you have to gauge their response. If you're getting a bit of pushback – even when I am talking about the soft step, I'm always going back to the business goals. What are we doing? What was outlined in that initial scope document, project plan? What did we agree to?

That doesn't make it like I'm being the boss and saying you can't have that extra functionality in your e-commerce site. You're saying this is what we outlined to protect the timeline we talked about, and your budget. It's a safety net.

I try to refer back as soon as possible, but not in a threatening way, until you have to bring out the big guns. That gets nasty. Sometimes it happens but if you can sidestep that by just bringing it back to facts, and backing up everything with a business case – it's amazing. That's what they want. They want to know they're in good hands and that you're going to deliver.

Brett: I totally agree. Kind of switching gears, you and I are pretty involved in the larger digital project management community, writing, and speaking. I'm wondering what topics do you wish people talked about more?

Rachel: I think we've really started to break open a lot of the topics about again the softer side, and knowing you do have more power than you think. But the things I think we need to maybe work on is understanding – for me this is a huge thing, because I see it happening over and over in different agencies. You get somebody who comes to you for support, and they have some advice now, and they're like okay, I feel pretty good about this. They go back into their environment and they're like someone took a total crap on their heads. They don't have the support they need from management, or their team. So they're really running it alone.

They might be the best PM in the entire world, but if they're not set up for a successful environment, they're not going to succeed. Then you're going to lose someone who's really good. I think the topic is that I want to see ways we're talking about how to actually reinforce that power we talked about, in the environment. And how do we get people on board, pulling the same direction. A lot of times you go involved, and suddenly you're not even talking about that same topic anymore. You're talking about peoples' personalities and people wanting to make sure they're dictating the process. And it's for the sake of the process, not because it's actually working.

Brett: I think that's great. There's a lot to be talked about within the role of the PM, and the title of the PM, and what those two different things mean. And how you can really support the role or title in your organization, and set somebody up to do a good job.

I just wrote an article on the TeamGantt blog about the argument for project managers. I do think that comes up every once in a while. Really, what it all comes down to is having the support to be a good project manager, and the framework to be a good project manager.

In some instances, I do think that people do need rules or guidelines to do the right job. If you don't have those, you're setting someone up to fail, particularly in the PM role. Unfortunately, I think that's why there are "bad" project managers out there because they're set up to fail.

Rachel: That's all their team ever sees. Their team or management is like oh, I don't like project managers. They're all ___. And it's like you've probably only met two, and maybe they were ____ because they weren't set up for their job to actually go anywhere. I think that's a good conversation piece, too.

I want us to tackle that big time. Let's go out there and start changing the way people are viewing project managers.

Brett: I think we need people to embrace this community and everything that we can do, and start writing, and talking more about it. Which I think is happening, which is really cool.

Rachel: Yeah.

Brett: I think just at about time, but do you have any parting advice for people watching this: project managers, people who are interested in managing projects?

Rachel: I'd say I think if you're interested in it, the way that you can decide which pathway to get on is to understand you are going to get it from both ends. When you have this role you're kind of that person that keeps everything together. You have to be okay with feeling like you might have a lot on your shoulders. But at the same time, the reward of being able to keep your team buttoned up is hugely important.

I find that most project managers are natural people pleasers, natural communicators. They are fun at parties, like Karaoke, PMs are hilarious. They're good people. And I think if you're thinking about going into that role, first and foremost you've got to feel really comfortable with tough conversations, or at least get familiar. Be okay with the discomfort of all of that awkwardness. You're basically coming in and filtering everything for everybody else.

I'd say that the biggest takeaway for me, the thing that I learned again comes back to we teach people how to treat us. We might not even know the things that we're doing that are causing behaviors to unfold in a certain way, where people might give us grief, or come down harder on us.

As soon as we again realize that power dynamic that we teach people – we taught that client to not respect our time, or we taught that team member to not understand our role. In a way, if everybody has that same feeling, I think we strengthen our roles, and we really can come together and be fighting for the same things on the project.

Brett: Great. I completely agree with everything you just said.

Rachel: No, you don't, Brett.

Brett: If I didn't, I would tell you.

Rachel: Yeah, you would.

Brett: Thank you so much for joining me. This has been awesome. You can catch up with Rachel on Twitter @TheStrayMuse,, which puts out a monthly magazine, correct?

Rachel: It's actually bimonthly.

Brett: We cannot forget about, where Rachel and I are co-blogging daily about project management. Check that out as well. We'll see you next time. Thanks so much. Rachel.

Rachel: Yes, thank you. Bye.