PMs in the boardroom!


Managing Partner, Valense Ltd.


Not so long ago, picturing a project manager in the boardroom would have sounded a bit like a “rags to riches” tale from Disney. However, with the recent developments in program management, project managers are increasingly expected to justify how the profession ensures that it drives benefits and value through its projects and programs. This often involves actively maintaining a “credible voice in the boardroom”; hence, a new role has been added to the register of skills of the “modern program management.”

In this paper, the author looks at how our “frogs” have progressively been reinventing themselves and slowly emerging as “princes.” This is not a far-fetched concept or a new one. It is one that has been in the making for a number of years.

Almost 10 years ago, Bill Smillie, from IBM, published an article called “Bringing Project Management to the Boardroom” (Smillie, 2002). Smillie advocated that project management is “now the stuff of boardroom agendas” and that we were “not far from seeing a new role emerge in companies, that of Chief Project Officer (CPO)” (p. 2). More recently, practice has shown the emergence of a progressive transition from project to program management as well as different career paths for project managers, some of which can be perceived as a “frog to prince” continuum.

However, in the context of a large volunteer organization like Project Management Institute (PMI), project managers have been “in the noardroom” for many years, occupying roles that varied from being on the PMI Board of Directors to a multitude of diverse roles within the numerous PMI components, such as Chapter and SIG Boards.

This is the sometimes happy, and sometimes sad story, of two particular cases (one SIG and one Chapter) where the “board members are all project managers.”

Historical Context

Wikipedia defines the expression “rags to riches” as referring to any situation in which a person rises from poverty to wealth, or sometimes from obscurity to fame. These stories give the poor hope “that they can rise” and are most popular in societies such as the United States, where confidence in the ability to move between social classes is an important part of the national identity better known as “The American Dream” (Adams,1931).

Early in life, most of us are made aware of this classic scenario through tales like Cinderella and Aladdin, and classic literature and history abound with examples like Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and Anne Boleyn. The dream is further kept alive through the media that makes a point of documenting the lives of celebrities who have personally experienced a rags-to-riches life, such as Bill Clinton, J.K. Rowling, Ralph Lauren, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and movies like Rocky, Citizen Kane, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Slumdog Millionaire share this common theme as well.

How does this translate to our general work environments, and how does this translate more specifically to project managers’ opportunities and dreams?

The term “glass ceiling” seems to have been used since the late 1970s to refer to situations where the advancement of a qualified person within the hierarchy of an organization is stopped at a lower level because of some form of discrimination. Since the concept has grown in popularity, we hear many expressions such as a “bamboo ceiling,” which describes the exclusion of Asian-descendants from executive and managerial roles based on subjective factors such as “lack of leadership potential” or “inferior communication ability” (Fisher, 2005). Another interesting expansion on the concept is the “sticky floor” syndrome that refers to women who are trapped in low-wage, low-mobility jobs in state and local government (Noble, 1992). The glass ceiling effect has even inspired a Broadway musical written by Bret VandenBos and Alex Krall and titled Glass Ceiling, which examined and parodied the idiosyncrasies of both males and females in the corporate workplace (Mays, 2006).

In 2005, Thiry and Duggal asked “Is there a project management glass ceiling? Is this glass ceiling preventing project managers from moving up the ladder…?” (p.1). In this paper, the authors mention that project management has typically been viewed as a tactical, execution, and project delivery role and that this prevents it (and project managers) from being an integrative link between strategic objectives and results. Thiry and Duggal presented this material in a “Forum” discussion at the PMI Global Congress 2005 in Toronto, the discussion was particularly interesting, because in 2005, many project managers who were present at the conference expressed their contentment at being “good PMs” and not necessarily wanting to “climb the corporate ladder.”

However, without formal research, it is difficult to conclude if this was a general trend of the time or only particular to those present. According to Thiry and Duggal, these are some of the barriers to the rise of project managers in organizations: the supply barrier (lack of qualified capable project managers to take on management roles); the difference barrier (conscious and unconscious stereotyping, prejudice, and bias that project management is tactical); the organizational barrier (structures that prevent report and communications to strategic echelons); and the corporate climate barrier (culture that alienates and isolates project managers from management roles).

The last five years have witnessed many interesting changes in the project management profession, namely the publication of the first The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006). Here, project managers are taken from the tactical level of product or service delivery to a benefits level and this includes “elements of related work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program (e.g., managing the program itself)” (p. 5). This publication stated, “The program manager coordinates efforts between projects but does not directly manage the individual projects” (p.7). In the comparative overview between project and program levels, at the project level, success is measured by product and project quality, timeliness, budget compliance, and degree of customer satisfaction. At the program level, success is measured by the degree to which the program satisfies the needs and benefits for which it was undertaken.

2005: A Case of “PMs in the Boardroom”!

In May 2005, the director-at-large, professional development resigned from the Education and Training Specific Interest Group (EdSIG) board as he felt that “both personal and professional responsibilities prevented him from investing the time needed for the SIG.” His responsibilities involved coordinating the endorsements of education and training papers for the four PMI® global congresses and providing professional development activities to the EdSIG members. However, during a face-to-face strategic meeting in February of that year, the professional development director had also been tasked with a special “strategic” project called “customer research and development.” To this effect, when I took his position, I was handed over a still very sketchy draft of the project charter that needed review and eventual approval from our board.

In the posting for the position, the number of hours estimated for the position of director of professional development was “approximately 12–14 hours per month” that included a one-hour board meeting the first Monday of each month. Of course, my first thoughts wandered along the lines of questioning why and how the additional R&D project had been added to the role, how it had anything to do with professional development and how from wanting to do “too much” in too little time, people eventually came to resign or quit?

My first board meeting with the EdSIG was scheduled for the 6 June 2005and on the first of that month, I had already recommended a long-term friend to take on the R&D aspect and asked that a director of marketing role eventually be created. The reasons for me suggesting these were numerous: My understanding of this customer R&D project was that it related more to marketing than professional development and, also of great importance, was the unrealistic time allotted to the diverse tasks associated with this 12 hour per month director’s position. Most of these tasks were operational and had little to do with what I understood as being a professional development board director’s role. The problem was not so much the number of tactical tasks expected as the fact that with a 12 hour per month description, in the real world, it was not realistic and certainly would leave no time for a director to attend to any strategic issues. If anybody tried to meet these requirements on top of a full-time job, he or she would certainly quit as my predecessor had done.

In response to my numerous questions, the chair of the SIG explained, “Each board member had a number of operational duties and one strategic project.” In my case, my operational duties were sorting the congress papers for endorsement, finding and organizing volunteers to introduce speakers at congresses, planning a learning event for the PMI® Global Congress—North America and planning ongoing programs of development for our members. The strategic project that had been identified for my role was in customer research and development.

For those who enjoy a short walk down memory lane (and how things evolve over time), 2005 was a time when SIGs still received a list of all their members attending a specific congress and would organize volunteers to introduce the presentations our SIGs had previously chosen to endorse. (We would receive all the full papers a few months before the congress, read them, and choose those that had content of specific interest to our members, in this case: educational). Part of my role was then to contact attendees asking for volunteers to introduce the different tracks and speakers and prepare them: Had they read the paper? Did they know the speaker? Could they share an informative message concerning our SIG? This required a lot of time and it was demanding work; it has been replaced by numerous solutions over the years. First, the “bring a buddy to introduce your track” system was implemented at congresses, and then it was replaced with a “DIY recorded intro” that speakers could just activate themselves. However, at the last North America congress, we were fortunate as Gary Goldstein from PMI volunteered to introduce many speakers, and I must say that he is a real pro at doing this, a sheer delight. He knows most speakers well, he is witty, lively, and a natural born speaker. Thank you Garry!

Back to the EdSIG concerns, on 2 August 2005, our co-chair (who also held the post of volunteer activities) resigned for very similar reasons to those given by my predecessor: “Personal and professional commitments…unable to give the SIG the amount of time needed to do the job.” At that point, our chair took on the co-chair’s responsibilities in addition to her own. By now, it was late summer and as the 2005 Global Congress—North America approached, the world was struck with a natural disaster. This was a very sad time for many families and businesses in New Orleans, LA. People were happy to be alive in their cars with only the clothes on their backs. This set the scene for the fall 2005 Leadership Institute Meeting (LIM) in Toronto, Ontario during which most discussions revolved around the central theme of disaster recovery. The second most popular issue being discussed at the LIM that year was “How PMI components (chapters and SIGs) could mature” and “How could their boards and board members become more strategic?”

Historical Context (Continued)

Each year, the population of project managers migrating to a program orientation (and certification) continues to grow, and these project managers are asked to link strategic decisions with business benefits and asked to create value in organizations. October 2009 statistics from the Project Management Institute showed 313 Program Management Professional (PgMP®) credential holders making an average of 13 new program managers per month. If the statistics were predictive, we should now have about 500 PgMP® credential holders. Project managers have moved from the once tactical role they were confined to and are increasingly understanding and helping executives and sponsors in tangible ways. Through program management, project managers are no longer confined to the “product-centric” role of selling features and attributes when executives want to hear about “results and benefits” as the situation was described by Thomas, Delisle, Jugdev, and Buckle (2002).

This concept is far from new. Ten years ago, Bill Smillie (2002) was already promoting the idea that project management is “now the stuff of boardroom agendas” and that we were “not far from seeing a new role emerge in companies, that of chief project officer (CPO).” In 2003, Debbie Bigelow described the eight critical responsibilities of a CPO, with “strategic input and direction” at top of the list. When describing the skill requirements for a CPO position, Max Wideman (2005) stated that “strategic planning, departmental management, group motivation and discipline, imagination and diplomacy” are the important ingredients to look for when choosing a candidate.

As stated by Piazza and Baweja (2006), not only are most corporate structures still void of a CPO in 2011, and while marketing, operations, and information technology have strategic focus, project management still seems to be missing equal strategic visibility (p.1). These authors described the importance of the CPO role as being responsible for “the alignment of project management with the strategic decisions made by other executives” at the same time as “relieving other managers throughout the corporation of the burden created by carrying project managers’ requirements to the C-level.”

By 2008, the concept of “having a CPO” was already well enough accepted to find such practical information and papers being published as “Where should you start as a Chief Project Officer?” (Enterprise Project Management, 2008). This is an interesting document because it describes how most new project manager CPOs have a tendency to “throw” project management training at the staff hoping that “if they just know more about PM, enterprise PM will become easier” (p.2). The paper then describes the many facets involved in deploying enterprise project management (EPM) and the many directions it can take. One can contemplate implementing resource capacity planning, empowering teams, document management, and collaboration. This paper suggested “taking some highly leveraged time in the first few days and getting a meeting facilitated by an outsider” then working through a short list of aspects that might produce the most rapid and best return on investment. According to the author, this will ensure the continued survival of EPM as a corporate standard and produce sufficient credibility to launch future stages that are more complex. The conclusion being that: “It is not how much you do, but how much you do well that will count” at the C level (EPM, 2008, ¶16)

Nicolas (2008) summarized the mission of a CPO as two-fold: (1) ensuring the corporate-wide alignment (to the enterprise’s strategy) of project delivery, and (2) perpetuating project management efficiency in the organization. Nicolas noted that the CPO’s master project portfolio authority can be a source of peer executives’ resistance to the role because, in reality, the CPO role should be an apolitical function when funding decisions are based on the merits of either the business case or the project’s performance to objectives. In contrast, without a CPO, project decision making is often a highly politically motivated process and the project portfolio does not reflect the strategic direction of the organization. This view of the CPO’s role is closely related to the definitions in The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI, 2006), and one could argue that a portfolio approach could compensate for the lack of a CPO in some environments. However, governance, which seems relegated to the C level, is not part of the publication’s definition (Thiry & Gozzard, 2006, p.5) and it differentiates the role of the CPO from portfolio management (PtM).

The Standard for Portfolio Management classified its processes into two main categories: (1) aligning processes, and (2) monitoring and controlling processes. The CPO’s role being at the C level involves adding governance issues such as the forming of the corporate mission; improving the performance of the corporation; and ensuring conformance to the stated mission and strategy (De Wit & Meyer, 2004 in Thiry & Gozzard, 2006). For lack of development of a CPO role back in Thiry and Gozzard had rightfully described the case of GTelecom’s need for portfolio management that supported the organization’s strategy and had labeled this the “portfolio direction” aspect of portfolio management. They further described that project categories are then identified and a share of the annual budget should be allocated to each in line with the corporate strategy. These authors were ahead of their time by describing much of the content we now understand as the CPO’s role.

Work Environment

We can now ask ourselves how the theoretical evolution of this concept of chief project officer has translated to the work environment of real projects and how this has affected today’s project management opportunities? Was this trend of thought just a rags-to-riches fantasy, a C-level dream, or has this translated to real life enactment?

In 2009, the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority posted an invitation for applicants for the position of chief project officer (Andersen, 2009). This is informative in the sense that the very fancy (and costly) six-page, color brochure devoted to this posting described the opportunity, the community, the authority and then described the position as follows: “The Chief Project Officer is a member of the senior management team and reports to the Chief Executive Officer…” (p. 3). The ideal candidate is described in detail as having exceptional leadership skills, outstanding managerial skills, being a proven effective communicator, having a minimum of either a bachelor's or a master's degree, and at least five years of top management experience. The starting salary was from US$146,913 to US$220,369 (€108,156 to €162,237 or £92,738 to £139,123) depending on experience with a retirement and an executive benefits package. On page 5, the brochure provided a full organizational chart and it ended on page 6 with more general information concerning the Foothill Extension.

The Metro Gold Line example is not an isolated case; an interesting tangent is the gradual emergence of a variation on the same theme, but new and unpredicted in the literature, that of “chief program officer.” In January 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation posted a job opening for a CPO (chief program officer). It is even more fascinating to note that this first evidence of a CPO dates back to the same year that The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2008b) was first published. Without going into elaborate details, the top CPgO responsibility The Wikimedia Foundation outlined is to “Develop and implement a strategic plan for the program area, with the goals of increasing reach, broadening participation and increasing quality in Wikipedia and its sister projects.” The top two required qualifications were as follows: “A history of leadership experience in increasingly responsible positions, ideally including management of teams of 10+ people,” and “Experience developing and implementing strategies and plans”(Wikimedia Foundation, 2009).

Again, one could think that the Wiki example could be a one-off of this new terminology rather symptomatic of an innovative Wiki environment than the testimony of a growing trend in the profession and the everyday lives of project managers. Nevertheless, when a Google search for “CPO” or “Chief Project Officer” 10 years ago may have “no results,” now results occur and testify for quite a bit of change in terms of our “frogs” slowly moving and evolving towards a “prince” configuration.

As a last example, considering that the Metro Line case could be symptomatic of the construction industry where budgets are sometimes quite imposing and the fact that the Wiki case might be restrained to a very progressive environment, the last example I will provide is the Auberle job announcement for a chief program officer ( ). Auberle is a nonprofit child welfare agency that has provided support services for more than 50 years. They are based in Pittsburgh, PA. In this case, the chief program officer (CPgO) oversees all service programs and provides strategic programmatic leadership and direction to over 200 employees with a program service budget of US$11 million. This position reports to the CEO. Five core competencies are required from interested candidates for this position: (1) be a highly effective leadership; (2) be an innovator, capable of creating or seizing opportunities and build strategic partnerships with other organizations; (3) understands and values quality improvements, is adaptable and reliable in face of conflict, crisis, or changing priorities; (4) able to lead a team in managing multiple and often simultaneous tasks; and (5) have a demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion. In addition to these core competencies, the candidate should be business “literate” and politically astute and tactful, and attentive to the perspectives and competing interests of various internal and external stakeholders.

Granted these three examples are all from the United States, and to my knowledge, I have not found or heard of any comparable ones here in Europe, but it is not unusual for us to witness trends starting in the United States and then moving around the globe. We could certainly argue that this seems to fit the “American Dream” model described by Adams (1931); however, maybe it will stay confined to the United States.

Groundhog Day

The three examples provided certainly show that the project management community has progressed on many plans, however, let us revisit the everyday hurdles faced by project managers in the boardroom through another component example from the Project Management Institute.

In December 2009, I was elected Director of Program for the PMI U.K. Chapter. The description for the post as publicized by the election notice sent to members on the 26 September 2009 said: “The director of programmes shall be responsible for the development of a varied programme of events that support the chapter’s aims. They shall also ensure that all chapter members are notified of all chapter events.” The notification contained all the open board positions for 2010 (membership, professional development, marketing, administration, and communication) and position responsibilities and commitments for “all board members” followed the list of openings. Other than specifying 4 to 6 face-to-face board meetings (8 hours duration) and 4 to 6 teleconference board meetings (1 to 2 hours) per year, no time commitment (per day, week, month) was mentioned.

When I attended my first board meeting, the board consisted of eight directors (president, administration, professional development, membership, communication, volunteer coordination, outreach, marketing, and program director [me]). In March, the administration director resigned and the outreach director took over the responsibilities associated with this role along with his own as outreach. In May, our professional development director resigned and one of our regional chairs took over the position with the intention of staying until the end of the two-year mandate. However, by the third quarter, he informed us “he felt that both personal and professional commitments made it difficult for him to devote the time necessary for the chapter.” After my experience on the EdSIG several years earlier, I felt as if this was “Groundhog Day”! Was this typical of any volunteer organization?

In my three years on the PMI® Registered Education Providers (REP) Advisory Group (AG), I could not remember anybody leaving, quitting, or resigning, although this involved a large group of very busy REPs who were expected to travel to attend various meetings and deliver on quite a number of different tasks. What differentiated the REP AG from the EdSIG and the chapter? All three groups consisted of unpaid volunteers who had busy lives and full-time jobs. What was similar between the SIG and the chapter board positions? And, what were some of the contributing dynamics at play?

Common Issues SIG, Chapter, and REP AG

It is true that volunteer organizations battle with all the issues that other organizations face, in addition to the fact that adding leading volunteers who are not paid can be difficult. Among the comments that are stated as complicating things when it comes to volunteers we sometimes hear is that they might not be the best suited or qualified to do the job they are tasked with. However, in my experience, I would argue that volunteers sometimes share the same characteristics as clever people. In Goffee and Jones (2007) provided a comprehensive list of seven things you need to know about clever people. These authors believed that leaders should be aware of the characteristics most clever people share which collectively make them a difficult crew to manage:

  1. They know their worth (you cannot transfer the knowledge without the people).
  2. They are organizationally savvy (they can move or engage in politics to advance).
  3. They ignore corporate strategy (promotions can be met with distain but they will insist on being called “Doctor” or “PhD”).
  4. They expect direct access (to management, CEO because they think their work is important to the organization).
  5. They are well connected (who they know with what they know increases their value to the organization).
  6. They have a low boredom threshold (if you do not engage and inspire them, you will lose them).
  7. They won’t thank you .

Goffee and Jones (2007) concluded by saying that “If you try to push clever people, you will end up driving them away. As many leaders of highly creative people have learned, you need to be a benevolent guardian rather than a traditional boss” (p. 79).

The issue of leading a group of volunteer project managers who sit on a board and need to make strategic decisions was common to all three groups. However, the REP AG was different from the two other groups (SIG and chapter) because the chair was a PMI® full-time employee and, the SIG was allocated PMI resources for a number of more tactical/operational tasks. Those who sat on the board were not necessarily expected to perform on both tactical and strategic levels within this environment. Sometimes just making the expectations simple and clear helps and perhaps this was the major difference.

Common Issues SIG and Chapter

I will not pretend that I have the answers to many of the questions I have raised, however, I do have a few observations of which I will share two that contribute to the discussion.

Observation 1

When I started with the chapter, I was handed a document with 31 strategic objectives that had been developed during a workshop toward the end of the previous year. The 31-point list contained a mixture of tactical operational issues along with some strategic ones. This was strangely similar to the “everybody has operational and strategic” I had been dealt some five years earlier at the SIG, and, quite different from the REP AG that seemed to trace a line between strategy and tactics.

Observation 2

The number of hours for my post (and all the others) was not mentioned, nor did I have a job description when I started (nor did anybody else on the board). As my predecessor had very little time for handover (this is often the case), it was through a process of discovery that I started understanding the various expectations of my post. As director of programmes, I had five regional teams of volunteers spread across the United Kingdom (this involved approximately 35 people) to organize some 30–35 evening events (and half days) for our members. On top of these, I was responsible for the International Project Management Day (a one-day event) and for the launch of a webinar series. I did not quit there and then simply because I could not see myself handing the lot over to any “normal” volunteer who had a life and most presumably another full-time job. Similarly to what I had done at the SIG with the customer R&D, I divided the post, and we now have a director of commercial events. Several of my former responsibilities come under this new person.

Here we could argue that both the SIG and the chapter have followed the classic dynamic aspects of board development that reflect the views of well known sociologists like Fama and Jensen (1983). These theories argue that board structure is driven by the scope and complexity of an organization’s operations. This is typically referred to as the “scope of operations hypothesis” and is coherent with the fact that both the SIG and the chapter were growing, times were changing, and consequently, they were increasingly doing more and more different activities. As Boone, Field, Karpoff, and Raheja (2007) said, “The significance of the size and age of a firm as well as its number of business segments validates that the complexity of firm operations has a positive impact on the size and independence of the board” (p.70). Thus, it was normal to see our boards grow and witness the creation of new positions.

The chapter now has job descriptions for each director position and a number of expected hours are specified. This exercise has certainly not convinced about me about most project managers’ competencies at evaluating time for a given task realistically, which should be something project managers normally have a great deal of experience in and excel at. I wonder how they do this in their projects because they are not the best at doing it for the board. Most try and do too much, given resources allocated (here, I am referring to time, but this also seems true with money).

I have not shared these personal experiences to be critical nor of the SIG or the chapter, but rather for us to try to understand what happens to project managers when they sit in the boardroom? Albert Einstein was once asked, “What would you do if you only had one hour to live?” He responded, “I’d spend fifty-five minutes to figure out the appropriate question. Once I had the proper question, the answer takes only five minutes.” I am not saying that the question I am asking is the “right or appropriate one,” but it is through the voices of those I have already quoted in this paper that I will try a tentative answer.

What should project managers focus on when they finally get to the boardroom?

• PMI clearly states “The program manager coordinates efforts between projects but does not directly manage the individual projects.” Operational and tactical lists of tasks may not have a place on the board’s agenda. (PMI 2006, p.7)

• At the project level, success is measured by product and project quality, timeliness, budget compliance, and degree of customer satisfaction. At the program level, success is measured by the degree to which the program satisfies the needs and benefits for which it was undertaken (Thiry & Duggal, 2005). As we climb, the focus needs to shift towards “needs and benefits,” which sometimes means letting go of other issues.

• The most clever people are a difficult crew to manage, if you push them, it will drive them away (Goffee & Jones, 2007).

• Finally, “Take some highly leveraged time, get a meeting facilitated by an outsider, it is not how much you do, but how much you do well that will count” (EPM, 2008, ¶13)



The Metro Gold Line, the Wiki, and the Auberle examples demonstrate that in the last 10 years, the project management community has changed. We can only imagine how most project managers from the 90s would have reacted if they had been sent the Metro Gold Line posting and told that this was the “future of project management.” Perhaps they would have thought this was a joke, or a Disney rags-to-riches dream come true? We are now in 2011, and “The future of PM” is the topic of many conferences, papers, and articles. These are often either very well-documented academic research pieces. Unfortunately, these tend to be somewhat disconnected to how exactly this transfers or translates to real project managers’ work environments or present opportunities. On the other hand, a number of practitioner presentations on the topic explore the realities of project managers’ experiences without properly documenting the past. Both leave us with a gap, similar to the gap we often complain about between strategies and projects. This paper is an attempt at bridging the gap in order for us to gain some understanding of our documented history, our observable gains in the workplace and our present experiences as developing project management professionals in the workplace. Perhaps the next title out there we should be looking out for will be “chief integration officer.” But this might sound like “Scifi” to many project managers at the moment!

In order to meet its mandate, this paper presented two case studies that span the last 10 years with project managers taking on the role of “board directors” in PMI component activities from the Project Management Institute. How has the theoretical transition from PM to CPO evolved in a real life setting, and how can our lessons learnt on a PMI Board of Directors translate to the corporate setting? Perhaps project managers need to make a conscious effort at not bringing too many tactical issues to the Boardroom setting because it can detract them from concentrating on strategic issues, not to mention, that at C level, perhaps it is not about how much you do anymore, but how well you do what you do that makes a real difference.



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©2011 Manon Deguire
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2011 – Dublin, Ireland



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