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The Life of a Project Manager: Herding Cats

What do you want to be when you grow up? This question comes up a lot when you’re a kid.  For me, when I was young and teachers or adults asked me this, I remember thinking – who KNOWS? Do I have to pick just one thing? What if I change my mind? It didn’t really seem fair to me that A- I had to have a decision of this magnitude figured out at 12 years old, and B- that there were kids my age who had indeed figured this out already and, in some cases, had their future career paths carved out for them, down to what electives they should take through middle/high school to nurture those goals. This was not my family, and certainly not me. I have always been a “go with the flow” type of girl, which has not only followed me into adulthood, but has served me well in terms of my career. What I do think is important, and probably something I discovered a little later in life than some, is structure… or guardrails, and biting things off in smaller chunks so that the end goal seems more attainable.

With no particular career goal in mind, I kind of fell into my profession and have found this to be similar for a lot of my peers and folks I’ve networked with along the way. While I may not have had the overarching career goal of being a project manager, each step of my career has led up to this role, and I am grateful for those experiences, because they’ve made me the project manager I am today. My go with the flow attitude makes it easy for me to shift priorities or scope, be flexible and adjust when I need to, and continue to push forward when things happen outside of my control. These qualities, along with relationship building and networking, and of course mastering the actual technique of building and maintaining project plans, have helped shape me into the kind of PM that people like to work with. Of course, every day isn’t sunshine and rainbows, but whose job is, am I right?

For my projects to run as smoothly as possible, there are mandatory pieces that each project has to encompass in order to be successful. We often joke and refer to leading projects as herding cats, but there are just so many ways a project can go awry, and so many different people and moving parts of a project to manage, that that terminology can feel 100% accurate at times. These are the rules I live by when it comes to how I “herd my cats”:

  • Research – Before any project kicks off, I like to learn as much as possible about the company, the project initiative, topics, you name it. Get familiar with it so you can speak intelligently about it.
  • Kick-off – this is going to set the tone for your project. Make sure you kick it off right by including all the right stakeholders, aligning on the project objective(s) & scope, and of course, completion date. There are other things like assumptions and risks that are also smart to include, but if you had to narrow down the imperative parts to a kickoff, these are it.
  • Project plan – This is the heartbeat of a project, and it needs to be kept up to date. How do your stakeholders know what they own, when its due, what items are late (if any), what the deliverables are, etc.?
  • Status & visibility – Along with keeping your project plan updated, you must make sure that every stakeholder always has access to it. Even better, is if you can create a dashboard with key highlights such as items in review, delayed items, or any outstanding issue that might be preventing your project from progressing on time.
  • Communication –I always say, poor communication is the main ingredient for failure. This is true in life, relationships, and in this case, project health. You have to communicate with your project team clearly, concisely, and regularly. Find out how your team prefers to communicate and roll with it. Not good with emails? Schedule weekly check-in meetings. Prefer a phone call? Great! Reach out directly to your stakeholders and do whatever it takes to make sure people can’t say they didn’t know, or they weren’t informed.


There are of course other components of a successful project, but in my experience, if you ace these aspects, the odds will be in your favor. Whether you’ve aspired to become a project manager your whole life, or fell into this world like I have, there are just some steps that can’t be ignored. There is however room for all types of people to find success within project management and as long as you herd your cats in the right direction, that space is vast and one of the reasons I love what I do so much.

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Listen to Sarah, Jeremy and Tara talk about herding cats on April 21st on the “Lessons from Terrible Students” podcast!

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