Project Management Institute

Straight Talk with Brantlee Underhill

Participants
Sunil Prashara, PMI President & CEO
Brantlee Underhill, PMI Director of Chapters & Volunteers

SPEED ROUND QUESTION:
Louise Fournier:
So this is a question for Sunil. In terms of project management, obviously you have an amazing career. I've watched your videos with Murat and Michael, and I read your bio online. What's your most surprising thing about project management so far?

Sunil Prashara:
Hi, Louise. The most surprising thing about PMI since I joined, I think, has been the level of passion across the entire globe when you start talking about PMI and project management. Actually, it's beyond passion. I think that it's also our secret sauce. It's what makes us different. We're totally different from a for-profits organization. We really are a purposeful, meaningful organization with a mission that's very noble. So that's the one thing that I've found is amazing about PMI.

Sunil:
Hi everyone. Sunil here again. It's another time for us to have a Straight Talk, and I'm here in Philly. We've just announced a new organization structure, meeting lots and lots of people. Today, I'd like to spend a little bit of time talking to Brantlee, who is joining me today, and we're going to talk about chapters, and we're going to talk about volunteers, and the world of chapters around the globe, and what volunteers do to help make PMI an amazing place. So welcome, Brantlee.

Brantlee:
Thanks, Sunil.

Sunil:
Just a little bit about Straight Talk. I'm going to ask some questions and some of them might be quite difficult questions, but I think the principle of Straight Talk is literally that -- to have a straight talk. Many of the questions that I've got here now are ones that have come from the chapters. And so whereas before, when I was coming up the learning curve, I was kind of making up the questions. Now I've actually got questions where people have come to me and said, "Hey, you know, I'd like to learn about X, Y, and Z, and so therefore we use this forum here to reach out to the community and straight talk about what we're doing. Is that okay?

Brantlee:
Yeah, let's do it.

Sunil:
What do you think…has there been a common theme from when you first was introduced to PMI? What would you say is the secret sauce of [PMI]?

Brantlee:
Well, when I came into the organization, I started in chapters. There were two people working in the department. Today there's approximately 30 people in the department. It's always been about the volunteers. So over that time, I've met so many great people who have taught me a lot about project management and how to use the tools in my day job. But they've often told me that they get so much more out of it than they put into it. And that's just amazing to work with people that are so giving and selfless of their time and talent.

Sunil:
And do you get a chance to go out to meet the chapters? How do you get feedback from the chapters? Do you go out yourself? How much time do you spend here in Philly and how much time do you spend around the world? Because we've got 300 chapters around the world.

Brantlee:
Yeah, 300 chapters globally. I would say that the chapter team, which is based here in Philly, Singapore, Dubai, Brussels and Latin America; they're spending more of the day-to-day opportunities with chapters, helping them with annual planning, helping them with professional development events. I support the chapters through our Leadership Institute Meetings, sometimes regional meetings. We have region mentors and a Chapter Member Advisory Group, a group of volunteers that support the department. They are like an extension of who we are to be able to help the mentoring and the coaching aspects of running a chapter. So that equates to six to eight meetings a year that we're providing leadership development training to volunteers who are project managers in their day job. They're so passionate about PMI, they raise their hand or they say, "I think I could make this better," or "I want to bring project management into my local community. I want to strengthen the practice of project management in my community." And so therefore a chapter is born and they don't always have the skillset to be able to run a nonprofit membership organization. So that's what we on the professional staff here at PMI help them do.

Sunil:
So I've got some questions here.

Brantlee:
I can't wait. [laughs]

Sunil:
I'm going to chuck these over to you, so let's have a go. So if I was to ask you in three sentences, what is your role and what does good look like for you and the team that you manage, what would that be?

Brantlee:
So my role is to facilitate and strengthen the relationships that PMI has with its chapters, with its chapter leaders, chapter members. And we do that through a partnership. So the professional team and myself develop those relationships not only with a chapter president but chapter boards, volunteers. And our goal is to help perform, help the chapters deliver value to the members. It's all about the chapter member who joins PMI and expects to further their own development, professional development, as well as belong to a community, connect with people who are like them. So we measure that through membership growth, and retention, and satisfaction.

Sunil:
So interesting about satisfaction, because one of the feedbacks I've been getting is when you look at the split of membership fees that are paid by our members, that it's disproportionate, the amount that comes into group, if you like, versus the value that they're getting back. I get comments like, "Well actually, we're doing all the work yet we only retain 18% of the membership fee, so with the rest of it all going centrally." So there's this perception that's out there that there's not a lot of value for money. They're doing all the work. They're creating all. They've got volunteers who don't get paid, they're all local, they all do stuff to put events together, et cetera, running the operation. Yet the significant proportion of the membership fee is going into central. What's your response to that?

Brantlee:
PMI Chapters are separate, independent, affiliated organizations. So we are two separate organizations. So the member pays the $129 fee to PMI and then they pay a separate fee to our local chapters. PMI collects those dues and disperses them back to the chapter on a regular basis. So the chapter sets its own dues and definitely could say that there's a perception that, especially as a volunteer, they do a lot of the work to bring awareness to PMI and strengthen the brand. So yeah, I hear that argument a lot of, "Why don't we get the $129 and PMI gets the chapter dues?” So we try to balance that through the services that we provide the chapters. Not only are we a parent organization, but we're also a service provider. So we provide the services and forms of training and development, like I mentioned Leadership Institute Meetings, providing election and balloting services. We subsidize chapter insurance. So we try to defray the costs of operationalizing the local chapters, but also maintaining the right protections in place through the compliance and governance processes to protect the volunteers should there be anything that could happen locally that would bring risk to the local chapter, the volunteers, or PMI's brand. So we continue to look at the different services that are most needed within chapters and try to fill those gaps. Over the past five years, we made tremendous progress around, let's say the marketing area. A lot of project managers really struggle with marketing skills. They told us if there's any role in the chapter board that is the biggest challenge for them, it's marketing. So we've created marketing toolkits. We have regional marketers throughout the globe that help the chapters be able to put a marketing plan together to be able to help them with their annual planning or, in fact, for a particular event, help them get better with the social media. We have brand toolkits that will help them align to PMI's brand and imagery, and be able to use them in their own collateral on their websites and other events that they may hold.

Sunil:
So I hear that, but the perception still is there's not a lot of value add that's coming out. And what about things like providing accounting systems or licenses for ERP systems to help chapters? Why wouldn't we provide them with tool kits around helping them operate the actual chapter in the first place? Or are we doing that?

Brantlee:
We do that in many instances, like how to hold a chapter election, how to put together a nominations process and execute the election process, along with the service to actually conduct the election. We'll provide those types of things, how to plan and execute a chapter event, which a lot of time takes up an immense amount of volunteer hours. Sometimes it might be the only thing that a chapter does over the course of year is executing one professional development event because it's a revenue generator for them. And it also offers members PDUs, which is a big reason why they participate in the local chapter.

Sunil:
And is there a way for you to receive feedback about best practices that certain chapters have? What I've seen, there are some chapters that are really struggling. They're small, they don't make a lot of money. So it's difficult for them to get funding yet they're in an area that could grow significantly, and they struggle. And they're left pretty much to their own means to figure out how they're going to be able to handle this problem. And then there are other chapters that have been through that same journey, and have come out the other side, and have got lots of lessons learned. And how do you cross-fertilize? And are you facilitating that cross-fertilization? Or are they just left on their own to just figure it all out?

Brantlee:
Yeah, so we look at the data. How are they performing membership-wise? We try to break that data down a little bit. So for example, first year member retention is really volatile for PMI. A lot of people come to PMI to get the certification. They obtain it with the membership because they get a discount on the certification and then they're not aware that they can participate in local chapters or that they can take advantage of other PMI services. So if we can get someone to come into a local chapter and actually participate, their chances of staying engaged and retained is much higher. So in the last couple of years we broke down the membership metric. We looked at first year member retention in chapters. We went out to the top 15 performing chapters in this area and we said, "What are you doing? What are you doing to drive such a great performance for first year members?" And they told us and they gave us all of their information, their programs. We packaged that together and we actually just created a new video for our chapter leaders to understand the best practices, to help make PMI, help build better awareness for first year members and help them stay engaged. And we do that with the chapter Member Advisory Group who is a group of volunteers that works directly with us to conduct that work. So we have this workforce of volunteers that help us be able to say, "Hmm, how are we performing in this area, whether it's retention, or growth, or volunteer pipeline is another one, and what can we do? What are the gaps and how can we fill those gaps?" So we've been able to do that effectively in the past few years around membership retention and around volunteer orientation. We understand that a lot of chapters aren't orienting their chapter leaders, so we felt we needed to take it upon us to try to fill that gap.

Sunil:
Right, that's a good idea.

Brantlee:
And we launched a chapter leader orientation three years ago. It's online. We have a live program that happens one day in February, but anybody can access the orientation at any time during the year. And we want chapter leaders to access that material because it makes them better in executing their member value delivery, but it also makes them eligible for other services that we may offer, such as a travel grant to be able to attend a Leadership Institute meeting, which helps defray the cost of going to an event.

Sunil:
And do you track the performance of this, these events so you can see whether they're having an impact?

Brantlee:
Absolutely. For example, Leadership Institute Meetings, our goal every year is to get 100% of chapters to go to at least one Leadership Institute Meeting. We have three of those meetings per year. Our performance is around 92% of chapters will attend. There's usually a handful that might not, and the reasons why they might not is seeing the value. So there tends to be a little bit of a disconnection with some chapters that don't see the value of participating in the PMI community. And that's really where our team is trying to focus our attention on building those relationships to help show the value. And by attending a Leadership Institute Meeting, you're going to better serve your member.

Sunil:
One of the things I've noticed as I've been going around the globe is the immense passion that exists in the community, all the communities of PMI. The volunteers especially, I mean, it's beyond passion, right? So they really are vocal about their opinions and their views, and I find it really tough to figure out whether it's an individual person's view, because they're so passionate and they've put so much effort. And they don't get paid for doing that, so it's their own free time they're giving up. So when things don't go the way they want them to go, they're very vocal about it. I struggle to know whether it's an individual view or it's a view of the masses. Let me add another layer. The same thing applies at the chapter level. So you've got some chapters that are very vocal and very engaged and have a strong relationship, and leverage as much as they can centrally from your organization, my organization. There are others that just point fingers, and I can't work out whether they really do have reason to do that or not, because it gets lost in the emotion. You know what I mean?

Brantlee:
Oh, yes.

Sunil:
So because that emotion is there, I can't figure out whether it's the individual who's really got a good point of view and is representing the chapter's point of view or whether it's his own personal view because of the emotion. How do you handle that? Because I've struggled for 90 days with this challenge.

Brantlee:
Yeah. Well, you're right about the passion. I always say that PMI volunteers bleed PMI blue.

Sunil:
Right. Right.

Brantlee:
Right? And in terms of figuring out exactly what the issues are locally, it's important for us to have and build a relationship with members of the community. Not just one chapter president -- but the board of the chapter, the previous leaders, the up and coming leaders. Our team participates with chapters and annual planning meetings. In fact, it's something new that we've instituted this year is that chapters need to put together an annual plan that outline their priorities. And then we come to the table delivering value and what PMI can offer them to help them meet their objectives. And so those conversations with the board and with the community help us really understand what is the state of PMI and project management in that local community and where we are best going to be able to serve that community. So it's important to have conversations, not just listen to one voice, but engage the community one-on-one and in groups in those conversations. Prior to this year we had about 65% of chapters doing annual planning so it's not something that's consistent across the board.

Sunil:
And they don't have to do it. It's like you said, they need to, or [is it mandatory]?

Brantlee:
It is. As of this year, it's a new requirement. So we're aiming for 100% of chapters having an annual plan this year.

Sunil:
And the reason why you ask them to do this is so that you can then come in with our thought leadership, and experience and understanding of what other chapters have done, and best practices to help them achieve it? It's not like a tax that they have to do?

Brantlee:
Absolutely not. It's to help improve the value to the members that are there to interact and get value for what they [receive].

Sunil:
Wouldn't they just think it's just more work for them that you're asking them to do?

Brantlee:
Well, potentially, but one of the lessons I always share with chapters is you get elected to a volunteer role and you want to do things. You want to leave your mark. You want to leave a legacy. Probably the way that you can do that most effectively is choose two, maybe three things that the entire board can sign up to and make sure they're all interconnected. Make sure that there's integration between those initiatives, that there's very clear metrics that they're shooting for. It's when that happens that we could say, "Hey, we have products that will help you be able to reach that particular segment of your audience." Or, "We can help you in putting together your professional development event. We have these types of services or this type of knowledge." Or "We can bring in this chapter or this volunteer leader who has done this really well and they're willing to help you do it." So we try to really provide wraparound support to the community, and one of the ways we know how to do that is through their annual plan, and sitting at the table with them, earning that trust that we can deliver value for them and their members, and working up from there.

Sunil:
Okay. So there's this annual plan that they have to do. What else do they have to do?

Brantlee:
There are certain compliance criteria that, as separate nonprofit organizations, they need to adhere to. We call it charter renewal. So we have this phenomenon that we refer to as groundhog day. So the first couple of months of every year are kind of the same. Chapters are transitioning chapter boards. They need to complete the charter renewal, which is a compliance document. It tells us that they've had board meetings, annual membership meeting, elections, their bylaws and their governance documents are up to date…that they haven't expired. So once they complete that checklist, then they also tell us “What is the value that they've delivered to the members? How have they performed? Have they fulfilled their promises to the membership?” And when those two things are validated, then they're considered a chapter in good standing. They're eligible for chapter awards and recognition within the community. The other thing I want to mention is that we turn over 30% of chapter leaders every year just through the elections process. So out of 4,000 chapter leaders, 30% are turning over. So that's a lot of knowledge to keep repeating, to keep orienting chapter leaders to. We want to keep those that are leaving the chapter engaged in volunteer roles throughout PMI, whatever that might be, or continuing to support the local community. But the members elect the chapter board and it's important that fresh and new blood continues to cycle through that chapter to keep it healthy, to keep it engaged and inclusive of the community. Sometimes everyone wants to have a piece of the chapters because they see them as a very broad extension of PMI. And our goal is to keep them focused on the individual member and those in the community. So if we're asking them to complete more surveys or do research or execute a program that has nothing to do with their member value delivery, it's taking away from their primary goal.

Sunil:
So then that also could then put you into the line of fire when it comes to things like a conflict of interest? I'll give you an example. I get lots of REPs ringing me up saying, "X, Y, Z chapter is offering courses at a third of the price that they've been charging, therefore they're taking money away from me. Why are they doing that? Why are you endorsing that?" And at the same time, the chapters are autonomous to go and try and build their [plans]. So in their mind, they're reaching out to their members and adding value by offering those courses. Right?

Brantlee:
Yes.

Sunil:
But then that's in direct conflict with what the local R.E.P.s are doing and therefore we get caught like piggy in the middle. How do you handle that? That's happening a lot, right?

Brantlee:
We promote chapters as small businesses, and in some cases, larger businesses, but they need to, as a volunteer leadership, they need to look at running the chapter as a business and that means knowing who your customer is and what they need from the chapter. And then the chapter has to find ways to be able to deliver against that value and meet that commitment. When it comes to, let's say Registered Education Providers, our position is that we want our chapters to work collaboratively with R.E.P.s. We encourage them to issue an RFP to find the best training provider in their network and utilize that training provider. It also reduces the need of the Chapter Board to have to put together training and deliver that training. They're there to deliver value to the members in different ways, and becoming a trainer not only takes away from some of those other priorities, but as you said, could introduce a conflict of interest.

Sunil:
I've heard the argument come up several times, "Why aren't we getting more involved to monitor the quality of output from the chapters and the R.E.P.s jointly?"

Brantlee:
R.E.P.s do go through a quality control process. And, in fact, if a chapter is not using an R.E.P. to deliver training specifically around certification preparation, then they do go through a quality review with our R.E.P. team. So we have a set of chapters that do administer their own type of training and they go through quality review -- just the same as the R.E.P.s. It's the same exact process.

Sunil:
So now I'm going to turn the tables a little bit. What do you think are, from your perspective, the three things that me and my organization, and my leadership team and PMI centrally, could do to make your role and what you do more effective? What are the three things that have not been done but the chapters are asking for?

Brantlee:
So, I believe that we are addressing many of these things in our transformation program. Being easier to do business with PMI, I'm sure in your short time here you've heard about the need to be able to transact in local currency or be easier to do business within using local bank cards in Brazil, for example paying monthly -- that's the way of doing business in Brazil. And we don't do that, so having different options…

Sunil:
We're going to. I committed to do that, right?

Brantlee:
Yes, you committed to do it, so having those options would really alleviate some of the pain along with regional local pricing that is really predominant outside of North America. Also data and technology, so chapters may contract with anybody to do their website, and one of the initiatives within our transformation program is to be able to set up and launch a chapter digital engagement platform.

Sunil:
Yeah, it's a great idea.

Brantlee:
We're going to start piloting that beginning in July with four different chapters. We're really excited about that because not only is it alleviating the website administration challenges that some people have, but also pushing data back and forth. Chapters have a need for better data, but so does PMI. We want to get a 360 view of how our customer is engaging with PMI, and today we push data to chapters, but we have no idea how our members are engaging locally at the chapter level. We don't know if they're going to events. We don't know if they're voting in elections, we don't know much of what they do at the local level. So we want to build a more enhanced customer experience and we need data to be able to do that. So more robust data reporting capabilities that are shared between PMI and the chapters is part of this digital engagement solution. I would also add content because chapters are really hungry to share the great stuff that PMI produces and it needs to be able to resonate with different audiences. So for example, thought leadership might be really great for the C-suite, but how do you help a project manager within his organization be able to take that information and apply it or even get the attention of his manager? So we hear a lot of things around content being available. The last thing I'll add is…

Sunil:
So that's four things.

Brantlee:
Yeah, a fourth one. [laughs]

Sunil:
So there's more, is there? You don't ask for too much, then, do you? [laughs] Keep going.

Brantlee:
It's collaboration. As PMI is transforming, the chapters are also transforming, and it's being innovative around member value delivery. And this is really putting pressure on us because we aren't necessarily set up to be fast, and nimble, and responsive to the needs of our market, and particularly to the way chapter leaders want to interact with one another. We've had a really great collaborative initiative going on in Europe for the past couple of years. They call it the European chapter collaboration and they want to be able to have things like a membership passport that go across Europe. So if you're working within Europe, you could go from France chapter to the Czech Republic chapter, and participate in events and meetings. And today, the limitation is you have to be a member, you have to pay separate membership fees. You can belong to as many chapters as you want, but you're going to pay a separate fee for each chapter. So make it easier to be able to engage with the local community.

Sunil:
That’s a great idea. Yeah. So let me just summarize. So on some of the things that you talked about there that, where I could do, I think the transformation is going to address a lot of what you're talking about and I need to share with the community what are the key elements of the transformation. I'll be doing that very shortly, but I think things up around the commercialization of the memberships…at the moment, there's a single fee. It's a standard fee globally. $100.00 in the U.S. doesn't translate to $100.00 in India or in Indonesia or in Brazil. So we've got to fix that issue. Secondly, paying in dollars is tough, so we’ve got to fix that issue as well. And then thirdly, I think, paying as a one off annual fee is tough. It's not just in Brazil. In some of the other developing countries it’s also a big problem. That's a lot of money. So I think we have to fix that issue, and the transformation is trying to do that. I think content also, one of the things I learned, when I came here, in the first 30 days was content production is spread all around the organization. And so we've brought that all together in one area and you saw that yesterday in the org structure, which, again, is something I'm going to share with everyone. So some of those areas that you talked about we're starting to address, and some of the others, I think, like collaboration, working across geographies, I think that's really important. The org structure, hopefully we're now starting to regionalize. One of my big agenda items is globalization. And I talked yesterday about voices from far afield, by the time they get to us here in Philly are like little whispers. We've got to change that. The voice of the folks out there In Indonesia and Singapore [should be] just as loud as the folks in Washington. They're the same. So that's something we need to be able to address, and I'm all over that one at the moment. And you saw some of that yesterday, right?

Brantlee:
Yeah.

Sunil:
So I think that's good. I think we should have another session. So I think we just touched on a few areas, the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other areas I'd like to talk about and maybe we do another Straight Talk f you don't mind.

Brantlee:
Yeah, not at all.

Sunil:
The areas that I really like to touch on…I'd like to really understand what makes a volunteer tick. What is it really? I buy into the passion, I buy into what PMI is and what it stands for. I've seen it with my own eyes. It's amazing. I worked, before PMI, in a lot of organizations where project management was crucial for the work that was being done, so I get that piece of it. But the passion is beyond the passion from these volunteers. And in some cases I do see some degrees of vested interest. They use PMI, and the brand, and what it stands for as a way to help fulfill other needs that they have. Some of them are running businesses and then being a prominent person in the PMI organization helps that business. So there are these interests as well. I'd like to get to the bottom of that with you. Not today, but we'll have another session. And look, I think we're out of time. Loved that session. Really, really good. Thank you very much for coming along.

Brantlee:
Thanks, Sunil.

Sunil:
I hope that the audience gets a good feel for what we're trying to do and how we're going to go forward. We'll have another session where we'll talk more about the volunteers, as I said, and our plans for the rest of 2019 and 2020.

Brantlee:
Thank you.

Sunil:
Cheers.

SPEED ROUND QUESTION:

Morten Duesund:
Well, Sunil, I had a lot of questions for you, but during your talk together with Randy, you got the one question that your answer fascinated me. You got a question of whether the price of membership should be changed in order to reflect the different countries and currencies. And your answer was yes. And at that point I kind of realized that, that you're doing this. You are changing this, so good on you.

Sunil Prashara:
Hi Morten. Thanks a lot for your question. And just to reconfirm, we're doing a lot to see what we can do to make sure that we have the right pricing of our membership in different parts of the world. As you know, $100.00 in the UK or in the US is very different to $100.00 in India or in Brazil. So we need to get that right. Also, we need to get right the timing of payments. So at the moment, everything is just paid annually and in some parts of the world, people like to pay on a monthly basis. So we need to get that right as well. And the third thing is we need to get the right currency. We collect everything right now in US dollars. We've got to figure out a way how we can start to collect dues in local currency as well. So all three of those are important. All three of those are initiatives that I'm working on today.

-- END --