“Don’t be afraid to make decisions” - Interview with Stefan Mülstegen, IAPM Project Manager of the Year 2015
IAPM: You’re Project Manager of the Year 2015. What advice can you give to other project managers? Have you got any tips for effective project management?
Stefan Mülstegen: First of all, let me say how delighted I am to have received the award. It’s a very coveted award in the project management industry.
I’ve always believed it’s essential to develop an open and transparent communication framework in the project team. Once that’s in place, the entire team perceives achievements as a positive and motivating signal, and they can also deal more effectively with the setbacks that inevitably happen in any project. I think both aspects are equally important.
Obviously, no project manager starts out with extensive expertise and experience. That’s why continuous learning is essential, even in stressful project phases. Successful project management isn’t just about theory. You also have to keep up to date on trends.
Here’s an important piece of advice: don’t be afraid to make decisions - it’s your project!
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out a career in project management?
Beginners often find it difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on in a project, even though they want to. Projects often involve all kinds of different business units and people - and the more there are, the more complex the project is. I’d advise any person who’s new to project management to take a cautious approach initially, and to find a mentor who can provide advice and support. Mistakes in the project start-up phase are often very difficult to correct in the stressful implementation phase. It’s important to prevent things going wrong right from the outset.
Did you always want to be a project manager? What made you choose this profession?
I didn’t really ever intend to be a “project manager“. Actually, I don’t think you can call project manager a profession, it’s more a role that you assume in many different professions. I was very interested in project management during my logistics degree course, though. Over the years, I’ve built up my project management competence and my employer entrusted increasingly large-scale projects to me. So project management isn’t a choice of profession, it's a process of continuous education that involves learning the necessary skills to effectively manage projects in your organisation.
What do you particularly like about project management?
I like working on different tasks and working in a team from different departments and sometimes with different nationalities. It’s very motivating.
Why did you choose to obtain your certification from the IAPM?
Compared to other organisations the IAPM is very international. I’d also met Dr Roland Ottmann through his project management courses. That’s why I chose the IAPM.
What do you consider to be the main functions of a project manager?
Having a detailed knowledge of a specific field isn't as important as many people might think. Project managers aren’t specialists in the areas covered by sub-projects. It’s more important that they coordinate the project activities and steer the project towards the agreed objective. This involves focussing on regular communication between all project participants. I also believe that the project manager should have good motivational skills, in addition to being a coordinator. And he has to be willing to shoulder the blame when things go wrong or a crisis occurs.
Which project management methods and tools are particularly important to you?
Definitely the stakeholder analysis. You have to keep an eye on the people who might have an interest in the project. Sometimes, you just have to cater to the sensitivities of different people at different levels of the hierarchy.
And you have to find out what their take on the project objectives is before you start because that’s what you’ll ultimately be measured against.
You’ve already worked in various projects. Was there one project that you particularly remember and why?
I was involved in a project to set up an automotive logistics centre. It was pretty complex and very demanding for the project team. The automotive industry’s concept of time is entirely different to other sectors’. It’s also unique because it expects incredible precision and extremely high quality.
This project involved many milestones that couldn’t be measured in terms of construction progress alone. Over time, these milestones came to be very important and they kept us motivated. One particularly good memory of the project is the customer’s positive attitude and constructive collaboration, even when we experienced unexpected setbacks. And the project’s 2-year duration also made it a very special project for the contract logistics sector.
What personal traits should a project manager have in order to manage teams effectively?
Project managers should be open and honest with their teams. Not just in communications, goal definition processes or strategy changes, but also by being willing to take feedback from all directions on board.
A project manager should have an empathy with his team and be able to listen. If you involve your team as much as possible in the definition of objectives, they'll be more motivated to achieve them and team dynamics will improve.
What kind of a relationship do you have with your team? Are you close or do you keep your distance? What do you think makes a good relationship?
There’s no black and white in project management. You have to think carefully about your relationships with team members, and they can change from phase to phase. It’s important that your team knows where it stands and that it can always depend on you in tough situations. You always have to try and see things from the team members’ perspectives.
Do you think a person is born a project manager or that everyone theoretically has what it takes to be a good project manager?
If you have a good theoretical knowledge, you're half way to being a good project manager. But I think soft skills are often even more important. You’re working with other people in a team under pressure and often in stressful situations. Dealing with all this yet still keeping the team motivated is very challenging. But, as they say: practice makes perfect.
How do you switch off after a stressful day? What advice would you give to colleagues who are at risk of becoming burned out and how can they prevent themselves being overworked? How do you manage to relax, despite all the challenges you face as project manager?
Sport and my family really help to keep me grounded. I still find it difficult in some situations to put my smartphone away and forget about what’s going on in the project, though. But, as you say, it’s important to do just that.
Is there a project management book you’ve read that you’d like to recommend to other project managers?
Definitely: “The Critical Chain” by Eliyahu Goldratt. It’s a fantastic book that turns project management theory upside down.
What three trends do you think we’ll see in future project management?
E-learning is definitely becoming increasingly interesting for project managers. There are already a lot of e-learning courses on all kinds of subjects on the market. They are a quick and inexpensive opportunity for project managers to further their knowledge.
I also think that project management offices will become more firmly established in medium-sized organisations. Many projects run out of steam because the necessary tools and work platforms aren't available. By pooling resources and transferring experience, a project can be far more efficiently managed and is more likely to be successful.
It’s possible that interest in agile project management will increase in coming years, especially in the software development industry. This method makes it possible to adapt quickly to changes in the project and it's perfect for this fast-moving industry.
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