This year I’m interviewing 10 inspiring women in project management, to celebrate blogging for 10 years. Today it’s the turn of Monica Borrell, PMP and CEO and co-founder of Cardsmith, a visual planning, communication, and project management tool patterned after one of her lifelong passions: sticky notes.
Monica, it’s amazing to meet you. Not many project managers make the leap to CEO. How did you do it?
My story is a little different. In the early 90s, I became an accidental “CEO” when I began doing independent consulting to help manufacturing companies implement ERP software. The market was booming and I was getting more work than I could handle so I hired former colleagues to help meet the demand.
Then, as the owner of a small services company, I found myself having to manage projects all the time. I think of myself as an Accidental Project Manager because I was not trained (initially) in project management, but I had to do it for my clients and for my own company.
So, at heart, I’m an entrepreneur first. Secondly, and by necessity, I’m a project manager.
How did you learn more about project management?
I became really interested in getting better at project management once I had an awareness that there was a better way to do it than just by the seat of your pants.
I learned a lot from my clients and from a couple of mentors, and eventually I decided to dive into learning more. I had been doing quite a bit of business process improvement work and I started to see projects as just another business process that could be enhanced in a continuous improvement fashion.
It was only about two and a half years ago that I finally decided to get certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP). Going through the education to get my PMP was a valuable experience. I had already learned most of what was covered from doing it for so long, but it was great to finally be exposed to the framework of project management as a whole.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known about project management when you started in your career?
There’s so much. I really knew nothing about project management early in my career and I had to learn to manage projects when clients would say things to me like, “You are going to present us with an implementation plan, right?” “Right,” I would say, and then I’d figure out how to do that later that evening.
This was before the internet existed, so I would find myself calling a friend or family member for advice from the hotel, or even the airplane phone, later that day.
In hindsight, I wish I’d recognized project management as an actual profession and found someone to mentor me through the learning process.
Do you have a favourite project—past or present?
My favourite project memory is one from about 1995. My company was hired by a mid-sized manufacturing company that was family owned and operated, and which made irrigation supplies and equipment.
We were doing a full ERP implementation of all modules—Financial, Distribution, Sales and Manufacturing—for a company that used nearly every type of manufacturing process: from process to repetitive, to configure-to-order.
The variety was great, and I was really stretched as a project leader by the complexity of the project itself as well as the team–client dynamics.
Why does that one hold a special place in your memory?
The thing I remember so fondly is that my main client sponsor, the CFO, was such an incredible person. He had a way of asking me questions without judgement that guided me through the learning and fast growth curve required to be successful.
A great sponsor can make a huge difference! What do you like best about your current role?
I like the “meta” aspect of my role. I am the CEO of a software company that allows teams to be more collaborative and productive. And these are the same things my team and I are constantly working on. I love the growth process. I think starting a business on your own is an incredible journey of growth, and even a spiritual journey.
What’s the biggest challenge you are facing in your role at the moment?
The biggest challenge now is deciding which market and problem set to focus our marketing and business development on. We’ve built an innovative product that many different markets could find valuable, and it is difficult to narrow those down and choose one because it feels like saying “no” to opportunity.
And yet, we have to choose because we only have so much time and marketing money to get to a break-even or an investable situation.
Is that the kind of problem all startups face?
I think it’s much easier for a startup that finds a very specific problem for a very specific market and then goes and solves that problem. That isn’t what we did, and I think other companies that see an innovation that can be used in a wide variety of applications will face this same challenge.
Your website and your corporate bio talk about your love of sticky notes. What is it about sticky notes?
I could go on and on about how I love sticky notes. They are visual, tactile, and you can move them around. They are colourful and actually fun to work with (I love the designer colours that 3M puts out).
More importantly, I’ve found them to be incredibly useful in getting my thinking organized—either with myself, or with a team. The 3” x 3” size—often with a Sharpie as writing implement—forces you to be concise in articulating a thought, which is clarifying in itself.
Then, the ability to move the sticky notes into groups, or “chains” or “trees,” helps you to discover things you might not see otherwise.
They are great for working with teams too. How do teams play into successful projects?
I think what’s most important in delivering quality projects boils down to a few simple things that can be summarized as teamwork: a shared vision, clear roles and responsibilities, team members who are emotionally mature and self-aware, pervasive leadership, collaboration, and communication. If you get the team right, the rest is details.
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