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These 4 Things Have Helped me Become a Better Project Manager and Better Trail Runner
Project Manager Norma Caballero shares a personal account about how trail running has allowed her to practice and improve skills used in her work with Base22.
I love running. Like many people I know, I picked up this hobby in my late 20s. At that time, I shared an office with a coworker that ran, and I wanted to know what that was all about. Without any specific training, I ran (while gasping for air) my first 5K and got hooked. I had found a new pasttime and before I knew it, I was training for and running 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons.
After a few years, I started to do more trail and mountain running. And as with road races, I also started going longer on the trails. And when you’re out for 4, 5 or even 10 hours, your mind starts to wander, and you start thinking about many things.
As I was enjoying my last trail race, the views and the feeling of being out there, I started thinking how lucky I was to be there and how much more confident I feel now than I did on my first race. There are so many things I’ve learned (still have a long way to go), and suddenly I found myself comparing my job to trail races. I am currently working as a Project Manager at Base22, with responsibilities ranging from gathering requirements for new projects, analyzing and estimating them to present a proposal, and when the proposal is accepted, I’m in charge of putting together a team and a plan to deliver the project. I’ve been a Project Manager for more than 10 years, almost half of those with Base22.
Considering what I do, it did come to me as a surprise all the similarities I found in being a Project Manager and a Trail Runner. But I started asking myself if there are things I learned at my job that help me while out running, or if there are skills I have acquired as a result of hours on the mountains that have helped me on the PM front. Although I’ve been a project manager longer than I’ve been a trail runner, I think both activities allow me to practice and improve certain skills in very different, yet similar ways.
Do something that no one is expecting you to do
When I first started running, one of the things I appreciated the most was that I was doing it for me. I still do, but now I appreciate it even more. No one told me I needed to train, no one told me I needed to work hard and certainly no one was expecting me to get up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the gym to train and then run. In our lives we do many things, we enjoy them, but someone is still expecting them. As a parent I enjoy cooking for my kids and playing with them, but it is expected of me. At my job, I enjoy talking to my peers, talking to the clients and the adrenaline of starting a new project, but as a Project Manager, I am expected to do these things.
With running, no one expects it. No one is telling me I need to do it. Likewise, in my job, there are the expected things, and the opportunity to go an extra mile. That is what makes a difference. It may be with a client needing additional assistance, with a teammate going through a rough time or it may be helping the company in other activities not directly on your job description. In a company there are countless opportunities to give that extra and we must never stop looking for them.
Trail running (or any other sport) takes commitment, being a good co-worker, regardless of the role also takes commitment— commitment and responsibility to yourself and your team.
Be prepared to deal with the unexpected
There’s this story I tell at the office of when I got lost during a trail run. I had planned to do only 10K and ended up doing around 25K to find my way back. That was unexpected. But I was prepared both mentally and with the required resources, so nothing major happened.
In the context of a trail run, my resources are hydration, food, a lamp, sunblock and a whistle (cell phone might or might not help you). Mental preparation is something that I have and continue to acquire as I get more and more used to being alone in the mountains and understanding the different scenarios of what could happen and how I should react. At that point, I was able to sit down, assess my resources, the time of the day and my options. I didn’t freak out, and I mapped out what I would do and analyzed the possible outcomes and then the decisions that would follow those outcomes.
In a project my resources are a solid team, a good understanding of the scope and the client and understanding of the processes and methodologies that need to be followed. If we go down even further, we can consider templates, lessons learned from previous projects as valuable resources as well. When the unexpected happens (it will), assess what you have in terms of knowledge from the team, knowledge of the client and the scope to think of possible scenarios.
Clients change roles, team members may have emergencies and even severe bad weather can impact a project. I could go on with things that could change during the project execution but the idea here is to not panic, assess resources, plan out different scenarios and make a decision.
Set small goals without missing the big picture
The emotions I feel when a race is about to start are indescribable. For some reason I get more excited at this moment than when I’m about to cross the finish line. At the same time, it can be daunting to be standing there, before dawn, and knowing you have to run/walk/hike 50K and that it is not going to be easy.
The beginning of a project can also be daunting for so many reasons: new team, new technology, challenging requirements… personally you may not feel ready for it. As I’m typing this, I am thinking that I need to prepare a deck for the kickoff of a project with a client in China and Taiwan, and that I have no idea what my schedule will look like for the next 3 months!
Projects have plans broken down by phases and then by weeks, so we start with a high-level timeline that we break down even further. Every team member must be aware of the end goal and by having a timeline and milestones to reach, we make the project manageable. And in those cases where we have long design phases and even longer development phases, we must break down the project further to allow us to gauge progress and understand if we are on track or if we need to adjust something to get back on track.
Same as on races where thinking about running for hours and hours can be intimidating, I start by breaking up my final milestone, which is getting to the finish line. I think of a high-level plan, breaking up my race by check points established by the race organizers and then by kilometer. I also have an idea of what I am going to do once I reach each milestone: maybe I need to reapply sunscreen, take off my windbreaker or get something from my backpack.
The race or the project might be intimidating, or maybe you’re not having a great day so by setting small goals, you start to feel a sense of accomplishment while getting ever closer to your goal. And in those cases where even the detailed milestones don’t seem to help you, it never fails to take it one step at a time.
Keep on going when you feel you’ve exhausted all your resources
When you are out on the mountains for more than 8 or 9 hours, not every moment is going to be pretty. At some point, you are going to feel tired, question why you are even doing it, and maybe want to give up. But guess what, you’re in the middle of nowhere so you must push through.
Projects can get delayed; things can get tense at points, but just as if you’re in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a project you must keep going. Eventually you will see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I feel tired, maybe a little sunburned or maybe cold and wet from an unexpected storm, I may slow down my pace, but I continue walking and then think back on how far I’ve come. Thinking about how many kilometers I have covered or how many milestones I’ve passed gives me encouragement to go on and maybe even pick up my pace.
In our job we may get discouraged or tired at times. We may have to deal with issues with technology and feel we are not making progress fast enough, we may have to deal with difficult situations, or other things that we simply do not enjoy. At times like these, when all we want to do is go home, we have to take a moment to appreciate the challenges we have overcome in the past, the milestones we have reached, and the amazing things we have created.
Thinking back to a time when you received positive feedback from a teammate or a client is another tool that can help you continue moving forward. You may need to search your memories because when you feel you are going down it is hard to appreciate the good things. But you must try and think that if you’ve gone through previous challenges before, who says you can’t go through this one in front of you? We are much more capable than we give ourselves credit for, so no matter what we go through in work, there’s always some previous story of success that will help us get through a rough patch.
All (healthy) hobbies make us better people, and in turn, we can become better employees, better teammates, and better at our jobs in general. By leading a balanced and fulfilled life outside the office, you can contribute to a healthy work environment and healthy professional relationships. By committing yourself to something, whether it’s a project at work or a personal pastime, you practice having discipline and by overcoming obstacles, you become mentally stronger. This is something that happens naturally, but maybe we don’t pay too much attention to the actual process of becoming a better person as a result of our hobbies. And maybe we don’t pay too much attention either to how our job can help us outside the office. That is unless you have a few hours alone in the mountains —or in your favorite place— to analyze the many different aspects of your life.
At Base22, we have the opportunity to grow as professionals and as individuals. Our expertise is Digital Transformation, but we are much more than that. We genuinely care about our teams and our customers, their business and their processes, and we share the desire to learn and to help the company to prepare for the future. Working in digital transformation projects requires sensibility and flexibility at understanding users and stakeholders needs, as well as will and commitment to create real processes, products, platforms or services that are modern and relevant. And as avid learners and ever curious people, we value acquiring knowledge from any discipline, at any given time, and finding ways to use it and apply it to our everyday challenges.