How do you lead a project effectively? Managing projects can be overwhelming but necessary for your career. Learn how to lead a project from two women in the tech and energy field.
Aisha: Welcome to The World in Her Words where we inspire women to take control of their careers through sharing strategies, expert advice, and inspirational stories from women around the world.
Today we’ll be talking about how to lead a project effectively. What project management methods and tools can you use to lead a project effectively? What behaviors drive the best outcomes for you and your team? How can you stay organized and on top of your work when you lead a project?
I’m your host Aisha Suleiman and in this episode, I’ll be joined by two women working in the Energy and Technology field. Minal Mehta is a Managing Consultant at a technology company. She’s also currently working on launching an app that uses AI to enhance neurologic music therapy.
Oyin Talabi is an Energy Engineer who focuses on developing energy strategies for new and existing developments using low and zero-carbon technology. She is passionate about sustainability in energy and an advocate for diversity in engineering and making it accessible to all.
Managing a project can be overwhelming and daunting. Yet it’s something you will probably have to do at some point in your career if you haven’t already done so. Luckily, both of these women have managed projects and in this episode, they’ll be sharing tips on how you can lead your projects effectively.
Minal and Oyin work in male-dominated fields – Tech and Energy. I wanted to know about some of the experiences they’ve had working in these industries.
Aisha: So Minal and Oyin and you’re both very intelligent and accomplished women working in pretty male-dominated fields. What are some of the common issues that you face and do you have any funny stories for us? So let’s start with you Oyin, any funny stories?
Oyin: The one I can think of – and this happened when I worked at an oil refinery. Actually there’s two of them – my first day someone came up to me and said ‘I saw an email about you being introduced but I didn’t expect you to be a woman’. Well I am so okay don’t even know what to do with that.
One thing that always happened when I went out to the refinery was people kind of go past and then people do a double-take and then turn around and like ‘Wait what is that a woman?’. And that happened so many times you just come to accept it like okay fine this is gonna happen.
I guess, in my current job I actually don’t have as many funny stories. But I guess in terms of the issues you face – I feel like generally with jobs in engineering one thing that always happens is when you get your job, sometimes you’re like ‘Oh did I get that because I was female or black or did I get it because I was qualified?’
Sometimes you doubt yourself and a lot of that comes from other people doubting you as well. So for example when I got one of my jobs, I remember someone at university, actually coming up to me and said – he interviewed for the job as well – and he pretty much said ‘Well I didn’t expect them to give it to two Black Engineers and if they were to choose between me and you – he was also Black – ‘of course they’re going to choose you.’ So it has nothing to do with my grades, or my interview, just the fact that I’m female and black?’ Okay.
So things like that are some of the issues I think women still face in engineering as a whole. And there’s also an expectation that sometimes you’ll be the one to organize events, or you’ll be the one to take the notes and all those things and you’re like actually no thank you.
Aisha: Yes set those boundaries and it’s really interesting that he would think that you got the role because you’re a woman in a male-dominated field because surely he’s more likely to get the role because he’s a man. And actually the fact that you’ve got the role probably means you are really really good.
Oyin: I mean you’ll hope so but a lot of people tend to think that with a lot of companies they just want to fill some kind of quota. So they want to have this amount of female engineers, this amount of black engineers but it is not usually the case. A lot of times it just has to do with the fact that she’s great and she did amazing in the interview and they like her.
Aisha: And even if the company is trying to fill in a quota, they’re filling it with people who are great at their jobs they also happen to be black and female or whatever other group it is. So, in terms of assertion. One thing that I hear women often talk about is, they’re worried about asserting themselves because they don’t want to come across, you know, as bossy, or the other b-word which I’m not going to say, because it’s rude. But how do you sort of assert yourself Minal and if you’ve received negative comments how do you respond to those?
Minal: Yeah, I think that’s been one of probably the biggest learning points in my career because I think when I started off as a grad I would have been too afraid or lacked the confidence to have spoken up for myself and to have stood up for what I believe in and back up my opinions or thoughts.
So I would have felt or been made to feel inferior or not good enough. Which although sometimes now might still happen and there have been cases, I think I’ve now learned and I’ve developed to actually take that as a challenge and prove myself. And kind of give myself the credibility but in different clever ways. You know making the point without having to explicitly say it out loud, and it’s learning to. Sometimes it’s standing up for yourself but that doesn’t necessarily mean being really vocal about it. Sometimes it’s, you know, finding ways to make a point and get your point across, and show your credibility.
I think when you can really prove yourself, and people see that value, that’s the best way to shut them up, and I think it’s that confidence and that power that has grown is what is really key. But I wouldn’t have done it without mentors as well. That’s the biggest thing for me in terms of how I learned to navigate these negative comments, it was just having someone who I could speak to at work to help get me through that.
Aisha: That’s a great point Minal and this is why I love that it’s three of us. See I’m the complete opposite. I’m very direct I just address it head-on. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve toned it down a little bit but I still usually go the direct approach. How about you Oyin? How do you assert yourself? How do you respond to negative comments?
Oyin: Yeah a lot of it has to do with confidence and self-confidence. So usually if I want to say – and I mean a lot of this happens when I’m in meetings where there’s literally all guys or all directors. And you’re there thinking ‘Oh, gosh I’m the only grad or I’m the only engineer. Sometimes you don’t want to speak in those situations but what I found helps me is just thinking through what I’m about to say before I say it, and then that way, it means that I’m more confident when I do say it and my voice comes out a lot better.
Also thinking through I’m about to say, saying it anyway. Also, I find that you don’t usually need to raise your voice. Sometimes, you do depending on who your audience is right? So I think if you do, don’t be afraid to do it to get them to listen. Once they’re listening you don’t need to keep shouting. But make sure that everyone is listening to you. But you also need to just gauge your audience.
I think that’s really important. Also, it’s okay to be wrong because what I find is that a lot of times the reason why I don’t say things is because I don’t want to be wrong. It’s fine to be wrong, just accept it, learn from it and move on and it shouldn’t stop you from talking going forward.
Putting myself in uncomfortable situations has helped me because I’ve learned from those experiences. So I’m not always comfortable when I join a client meeting but it means that the next time I do it it’s a lot easier. So that’s kind of how I’ve learned to assert myself in the workplace.
In terms of negative comments, I try to use most opportunities as a way to educate people. So I’m like ‘This is a great time to educate you about something.’ So when I get negative comments usually I try to keep calm but it’s not always easy.
I try to keep calm because I know once I’m not calm I tend to not really know what I’m saying or I don’t come out as clearly as I want to. So try to keep calm and educate whoever gave the negative comment.
But also I think there’s something about taking it away and thinking about it and then going back to the person and saying ‘Can we have a chat about this?’ because that also helps you kind of think about the points you want to raise.
Also helps you think about ‘Well where did this comment come from, and how do I address it?’ Is there something you can learn from it as well? So it was a negative comment but was it true maybe? Taking it away sometimes kind of helps. Not always, sometimes.
Minal: Yeah it’s not what you say, but how you say it, which I think is really important in this topic. And I know that now as well I’m always a lot more conscious before just speaking directly I like to have to take a step back and just think of like four key things that a wise man once told me that just pitch pause pace and tone. And if I just now like think about those four things and how I’m saying something and the effect it can have. It’s just amazing how words can be just interpreted and come across in different ways.
Aisha: Yeah, I like what you said about taking a pause to reflect on what you said. But then I also think what you mentioned about not speaking up because you’re afraid of making a mistake – so I think yeah I think those two points together are great because we don’t want people to just never speak because they’re spending time reflecting right? But you’re right, you can always come back to the conversation as well.
Great. So, the million-dollar question. So a lot of women struggle with saying no, and obviously, when you’re leading a team when you’re leading projects, you will have to say no sometimes right? So I want to know, how do you both approach saying no, and we can start with you Oyin. I bet you do it with a smile on your face.
Oyin: That’s actually something I haven’t really struggled with. I feel like when I’m saying no, there’s a good reason why I’m saying no. Usually has to do with time more than anything. I just try to state that very clearly in my response like this is the reason why I can’t do it.
But also, it’s usually quite good to suggest an alternative where possible whether that is suggesting someone else that may have the capacity to do it, or suggesting to speak to them. For example, if it was a case of another project manager wanted me to work on their project – telling them to speak to my project manager and see if they can work something out between themselves to prioritize my projects, maybe.
Also thinking is it something another team that’s not the energy team, can take on, or is it something that someone else can take on where I don’t supervise them to do the work but just reviewing it. I think the benefit of giving an alternative is that 1 – they know that I’d like to help. Also, you also don’t get missed out on future opportunities. Not just ‘Oh Oyin always says no so I’m not gonna think about her for this.’ It’s a case of well, actually if she could help she probably would.
Aisha: Yeah, that’s a good shout. So basically, I can’t do it but maybe that person can. Thanks Oyin. How about you Minal?
Minal: I think Oyin’s hit the nail on the head with that. I also would say I don’t struggle with saying no, and it comes down to, saying no a lot – no I’m joking. But it’s always asking those questions like, could someone else be better placed to do it? Or is there something that is a higher priority for that in this instance, given where we’re at and finding that alternative way. And coming up with a solution is kind of a more effective way instead of saying, you know, just blank right out No. And it comes down to the point, we were talking about earlier I think as well thinking about how we say things and being mindful of the tone we use.
Aisha: Definately. You know, you say when you say no a lot, it gets easier and you laughed but it’s true. One thing I find is sometimes I don’t even use the word no. So say for example someone messages me and says hey can we have a meeting today at 3 to talk about this thing that isn’t urgent but for some reason you think it’s urgent, even though it’s not.
So I won’t say no I can’t speak at 3, I’ll say, I can speak tomorrow at 5. So that way, I’m not saying no, but I’m telling you when I can actually speak. I’ve found that works quite well. Hopefully, none of my colleagues listen to this.
Oyin: No I think that’s good actually. To be honest I don’t think I say no as such. It’s such a strange word to me, just the n-o full stop. There’s something else you can say to kind of cushion the blow. So might as well do it.
Aisha: I tend to say no for the extremes. You know like when you keep telling them and they’re not getting it then it’s like okay no.
Aisha: When you’re leading a team you’re dealing with different personalities and cultures sometimes. How do you navigate the differences? Diverse teams can be an asset if you know how to leverage them. Before starting any project, be clear on the requirements. Now, this seems an obvious point but being clear on the objectives will save you a lot of time.
Aisha: Alright question for you Minal – how do you approach, leading a team or a project?
Minal: So carrying on from that point, for me it’s all about building diverse teams, and the way IBM is structured as well – I’ve worked with global teams, we have our offshore teams, we also have a lot of development resources in like Czech Republic, Slovakia.
I’m working on a project which also has a client in the US. So, it’s the challenge of time zones, but it’s also kind of coordinating that diversity and making it come together and I think it comes down to my leadership style, and how I can bring teams together from different regions, backgrounds, etc.
Influence them and see the results in terms of how we can become a way more creative team and innovate a lot more. We have a lot more ideas brought to the table. And when I compare it to teams I’ve been in before which is where the majority of people all look and sound the same and all from the same background – you just don’t get that, it’s just you just don’t see it. So for me, that’s something that’s really key to embrace that diversity celebrate it, and encourage everyone to bring that to the work we do day to day.
Oyin: So in terms of my projects, to start with understanding what the client’s drivers are, and the objectives is really important because what I’ve sometimes found is I’ve done loads of work on a project and you go back and you think actually what was I meant to be doing on this? I’ve created an amazing product but has it actually answered any of the client’s questions?
So understanding the objectives and drivers is really important to just set the scene to start with. But also just setting out the aims of the projects so everything from what your fee is to how much time do you actually spend on the project? What do you need to do in terms of tasks to do it?
And what are your key deliverables and dates so setting milestones throughout the project so you can tick things off in a sense. And also allowing enough time for reviewing things at the end. I feel like communicating that to the team to start with is really important, because that way everyone knows what they’re doing, when they need to do it by and how much time they can actually work on the project because you don’t want someone designing this amazing energy center but all they had to do was put one boiler plan in and that was it. That’s how I generally lead projects.
Aisha: So one thing I just randomly remembered was when you talked about flexing how you speak depending on the audience. I remember this lady I was speaking with, so she came from a different culture. She was saying how when she came to work in the US, for example, what she found was, people would speak up in meetings interrupting each other and that was normal, she was shocked.
She was like, oh my goodness these people are all very loud you’re all interrupting each other. She said what she realized was if she kept waiting for her turn to speak, which is the case in her culture, she would never get to speak so she started interrupting them as well.
Minal: Yeah so true those cultural differences are just, they’re amazing aren’t they? Because I’ve worked abroad, quite a bit. I kind of forget how everyone has different ways of working. And then when you go into the office, even from lift etiquette – It’s like you know you’re getting up to a lift here in the UK and it’s just like look away look away do not make eye contact. In France, it’s just an instant bonjour and you know they’re actually talking to you.
Oyin: I’ve had that I mean growing up in a Nigerian culture. There’s this thing about respect which is obviously great, but then when I started working actually I was kind of quiet. So in project meetings, I just thought ‘Okay I don’t have anything to say. I’m too young to actually have anything valuable. So I’m just going to sit down take all the notes.’
So literally I was writing notes all the time. And my first feedback with my line manager I remember, he said ‘Well Oyin why are you always so quiet? I know you have the points because after the meeting, you come up to me and you’re like oh we can do this and this. But you just never mention it during the meeting, why is that?’
And I realized it was something to do with how I was brought up – how I was brought up to just respect whoever was speaking or whoever was more senior, as opposed to actually letting them know my views. And I think I took that on. What I tried to do in meetings – I tried to speak or sometimes it was just confirming what someone said.
But I was putting myself in an uncomfortable position where I was speaking. That really helped because now in meetings I can speak without really thinking about it. Where before I would practice like 500 times what I wanted to say before I said it. So yeah those cultural differences are so important. But also I think there is something about working with different people in your office and trying to understand the difference in cultures.
So you can then appreciate another person’s culture if you know about it. Some people say I come across really loud. But actually maybe in my culture that’s how people speak so I’m not loud – it’s just how I speak.
Aisha: There are so many tools available today for project management. It’s so easy to get lost in all of them, how do you decide which tools to use?
Oyin: To be honest I’m very simple with these things. I probably should do more. I used to have something called mind manager. It used to be really good at planning projects and making flow maps and all of that, but I’ve not used that in ages. I just use Excel.
It’s a simple way but I just pretty much set out what needs to be done, the subtasks as well, set out dates I want to achieve them by, and share that with the team. And then kind of say this is where you come in and this is where you come in and this is what’s dependent on your work time. So Excel is what I mainly use.
But in terms of communicating with my team, we tend to use Microsoft Teams. So you have the Teams channel where you have the conversation going which is really helpful actually because it means that you don’t have to wait for the next project catch-up call which could be in a week’s time. You could just put whatever you want on the teams chat and then get a reply. And you could have a one on one call with the person you need if you want to. So generally, that’s what I use.
Minal: Yeah I agree as well I think there’s almost too many tools out there, and you have to just find what works best for you and then just kind of stick to that core one or two.
Oyin: I think there’s also that risk of you spending forever planning the project and just not doing the project. So you spend like 3 weeks creating this amazing map. And then you’re like oh, okay, now I have another month to do it. Oh great! Quick and effective also is sometimes the way to go.
Minal: Yeah I think to Oyin’s point – I’m just too lazy to try and like build plans. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the patience, but what I do like is things like Mural. I don’t know if either of you have used Mural before?
It’s an online tool where they have templates on there so you can just unlock all of the elements and then it’s got like digital sticky notes and different emoticons and things like that. So you can build like a digital project plan, which actually looks visually appealing like loads of different colours and things like that.
But whoever I’m working with can actually access that as well so it’s an online collaboration tool, but it’s something really easy to use, and then that’s something that you don’t have to spend a lot of time getting your head around or setting something up its just kind of ready to go.
Aisha: Jeff Sutherland talks about this in his book Scrum – The Art of Doing Twice the work in half the time. A lot of teams spend more time planning the project than actually doing it. He preaches spending less time planning and more time doing as often the plan doesn’t go according to plan.
Speaking of Scrum, I recommend taking a look at different project management methodologies online. There’s the waterfall method, agile, scrum. These methods can guide you on how to plan your project to achieve the best outcome.
Let’s hear from Minal on how she uses both Agile and Scrum.
Minal: I do use agile and I use scrum. I think for me again going back to the point of how I lead my teams it’s a lot of fast delivery, fast-paced type of work, where we just have to get on and do it and we just have to deliver whatever we’re delivering.
Which kind of works well because we’re doing it in like 2 weeks sprints. So, we will have a bit of functionality agreed, and then we just kind of get on with that. And in terms of how I lead and influence my teams, it is very agile in the sense it’s very autonomous my teams are very self-sufficient they just get on with it. And you know I don’t check in with them every 2 minutes.
I can just leave them to get on with it. Which is why I kind of say a hybrid. I probably explained it really badly but that’s what I mean when I say day to day I use it as a hybrid. Scrum is kind of like the ceremonies, you have the meetings, you have the processes you have to underpin that delivery cycle.
Aisha: We’ve talked about the tools, the methods, how to plan. But what behaviors are best when you’re leading a project?
Aisha: So Minal what are some of the best behaviors that drive good outcomes when you’re running a project?
Minal: I think especially now, when we’re in, you know pandemic and people working from home, having flexibility is key. Being able to adapt to different situations being mindful of, you know, everyone has their own situation so if they need to take time out, if they need to adjust their working hours or day, then, ensuring everyone feels comfortable and we have the flexibility within the team to allow them to do that.
Because I know I’ve had like regular check-ins or retrospectives is what we call it, where after we built, or like we delivered a key thing we have a kind of team get together to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well. And having those open forums, has enabled my various team members to actually voice how they feel and me as a leader or project manager can then be empathetic to those changes and having that trust, I guess, and that empathy is something that helps to drive better outcomes.
Aisha: Absolutely. I think when you trust people, they will usually rise up to the occasion, and I also like what you said earlier about not sort of micromanaging people because when you give them that flexibility – I think I’ve read multiple studies that talk about how when you give people autonomy at work they actually deliver better results. So I think that’s a really good shout out. What about you Oyin? What are your thoughts, aside from making sure you’re IM-ing and so on. Do you have any other thoughts on that?
Oyin: I think communication is definately the key one. Nothing really beats that. I guess in terms of also just driving best outcomes thinking about the client and the users and consumers of whatever you’re making. I think putting them at the center of your design is just really important.
Because sometimes we – well in my job anyways I tend to do a lot of textbook design so that’s how to do it as a standard and then you just do it and don’t think about what the effect is long term. But thinking about who you’re designing for and bringing that into your design I think it’s really important.
Also creating time for people to also innovate. Sometimes you’re just like ‘Okay I have a really small fee on this I just want you to do it as quickly as possible and deliver’ but then also, it means that a lot of people are not better delivering the project as a whole.
Aisha: Yeah, definitely. You need to give people time to breathe. When I was in uni, when I was doing my Masters, I did this particular course and in one of the classes, the professor brought this man who was an artist. And this was a business class, by the way, and we all had to paint.
I mean I like painting so it wasn’t so bad, but I think at the end of the class, he got us to take a step back from the paintings. And what he said to us was ‘how does it look when you’re closer to it?’ And it was kind of like well when you’re so close to it it looks completely different and he was like ‘Okay so now that you’ve stepped back how does it look?’
It was like yeah it looks completely different, and his whole point was, you know, in business and when you’re working, you need to sometimes take a step back, to be able to actually see the vision clearly. When you’re too close to it, sometimes your vision is clouded, and yeah that somehow stayed with me, and I just thought it was a really cool story to share as well.
Minal: Sounds like a really fun class. We did something similar, actually, but using Lego, which obviously as a kid you use all the time and that’s like the fun aspect of it. But when you’re driving your career and everything, and you get told right you’re doing a training course but you’re going to be building Lego, you’re kind of like what?
But it was exactly that it was about thinking about things in different ways and they kind of said to build a bird or like build a model bird. And in your head, you’re like ‘Oh no, but it has to be perfect, it has to look like a bird and I can’t do it’ and you’re like, panicking yourself. But actually, it’s not about that’s just completely open to interpretation and it’s just about, you know, seeing things in different ways, which I thought was a really creative way of approaching it.
Aisha: I feel like, as we’ve gotten older, we’ve just stepped away from all these things we used to do as children, and you know lego, painting, all those things and we need to get back to those things because actually, they make life fun. Plus, we could learn a thing or two.
Oyin: I think it’d be so funny if you could get children to create workshops for adults, and just see what they come up with and you have to do whatever they say.
Minal: My magic secret is really boring, but it gets me through the week, and it’s literally just about each week starting off by just planning everything out because I am someone who cannot deal with last minute stress.
And I need to like stay on top of things that are coming my way and kind of anticipating potential things as well. So to do that I have to kind of from, like, Monday morning, log in and check my emails, make sure I’ve got a clear inbox and I’m well aware of the meetings and things I have to do that day, so that I can plan out what I need to do.
But I think it’s also about blocking time in my calendar especially now when I think of adjusting to working from home all the time. I definitely in the first half of lockdown was working mad hours because I just could not tell what time it was. I was just so like head down and stuff and had no idea how long I’d actually been working for.
But just blocking in my diary for just an hour for lunch or you know time like breaks in my calendar where people can’t put time in has helped to have that time away as well but still, make sure I get through the things I need to do.
Aisha: Absolutely love that. You said, boring, I thought efficient. Great. How about you Oyin, what’s your secret?
Oyin: To be honest I have the same secret as Minal. Having a diary where I plan my days – I even plan my evenings. Sounds sad but before I moved to London I used to find it strange when I’d say can I meet up with you and then my friend would say I just need to check my diary to see if I’m free.
What? Why is your life so planned? But now that I’ve moved to London I’ve realized time gets booked up so quickly. Like you have dinner with a friend and then dinner with someone else and you just have a full week. So sometimes I go for 5 days where I have something after work every day.
Whether it’s meeting people or going to a conference or going to a talk like time just gets used up so having some kind of diary where I can plan my time I’ve found really useful. It also means I don’t get stressed about forgetting things because I have this book or online diary where I can do everything. But also I think taking time out for yourself is so important.
I find a lot of people want to book a talk during lunchtime and it’s like ‘No at no point do I want to listen to a work talk during lunch.’ Doesn’t help me relax, but having a break whether that’s listening to music, running, exercise whatever helps you to just relax and kind of have time to yourself I think it’s just so important.
And then you can come back and do what you had to do for the day. The last thing I’d say is don’t just say yes to everything. And I guess it goes back to the question about saying no. It’s so easy for you to just want to say yes but also I think setting yourself up with different objectives that you want to achieve and trying to tailor what you say yes to is really important. Because that way you know you’re achieving some of the things you want to achieve as opposed to just kind of saying yes I can do that.
Aisha: And there you have it when you’re managing a project keep it as simple as possible. Don’t use too much of your time on the planning and focus more on execution and being flexible and adaptable because the plan will change and you need to be able to respond.
Use tools that work for you and your team and communicate as openly and as often as you need. When you’re building your project team, keep diversity in mind, and try to get different types of people on the project so you can really come up with innovative ideas. It’s not enough to have the diversity – encourage people to bring those different ideas to the table.
Sometimes you have to say no because you have to prioritize. Get comfortable with saying no – you can offer different solutions, give a reason so people understand where you’re coming from.
Most importantly know yourself and what gets you stressed. If you are a planner then plan your week ahead so you’re not always in a state of reacting. Use tools to help you stay organized and make sure you take breaks and switch off.
If you don’t have time to switch off, you’ll be tired and probably won’t deliver the best results. Taking a step back from things can really give you that fresh perspective.
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