From Idea to Reality

Carolyn Frazier, Project Management Practice Lead, VSA Partners, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Carolyn Frazier, project management practice lead, VSA Partners, Chicago, Illinois, USA



Creativity isn't always one genius magically coming up with a brand new idea. At most organizations, it's a collaborative process. To ensure that process always ends with a happy client, branding and marketing company VSA Partners two years ago picked Carolyn Frazier to lead its project management practice.

Whether it's helping a global hotel chain promote its meeting and event-planning services or helping a major corporation constantly reinvent itself, it's Ms. Frazier's job to foster creative and strategic thinking from start to finish.

“My role is to elevate the reputation of the project management team and to help the project managers jell with their teams,” says Ms. Frazier, who has almost two decades of marketing and project management experience, including five years as a vice president and project management lead at DigitasLBi in Chicago. She oversees 34 project managers spread across three locations; together, they manage between 400 and 500 projects each year.

What kinds of projects do you and your teams oversee?

I oversee new accounts until I assign a project manager to them. Whether it's creating a brand narrative for a startup or a digital annual report, we treat everything we do for our clients as projects. Most notably, we've recently completed an integrated commercial program for the Kleenex brand.

“We want to elevate the project manager beyond an administrative role to become a strategic-minded team member. The leadership team's support helps accomplish that.”

What does project management entail at VSA Partners?

There's the tactical part of project management: establishing our best practice project toolkit and processes, streamlining what we do and reassessing to ensure continuous improvement. Then there's the human-centered part. In project management, hard skills are necessary to be good, but soft skills are necessary to be great. You have to be an excellent financial manager and create excellent project plans, but you also have to understand your team and be able to bring people together.

How do you develop project managers’ people skills?

I focus on understanding our team members and the environment each one needs. Every role and every person functions differently. Our project managers have to create an environment where their team members flourish. For a team to really work, its members must be comfortable together. The project manager helps people do that.

What's one way you've improved those skills?

We did an improv workshop, which was excellent. I wanted to give my project managers the ability to think on their feet, to be a stronger voice in a room and to be a little more flexible. Some project managers tend to grab on to the hard skills, but then they're not so good off the cuff. The improv class took them out of their comfort zone but in a safe environment to help them all grow.

What process improvements have you spearheaded?

One project that I'm particularly proud of is composing our standard offerings playbooks. We're in a business where it's crucial, especially in a new business situation, to customize what we do for each client. We also realize that this can be extremely time-consuming. Especially with a new client or prospect, we want to show value up front and we're often on a short timeline—we needed some type of standardized offerings that also allowed us to be nimble and personalized at the same time. I led the team spearheading these efforts, ensuring we have a playbook that says, “Here's what our standard procedure is, and here's how we make it unique for this client.” Since launch, it's proven to be an invaluable tool used across the organization.

How do you know your changes have made a difference?

Other people see the value of the work my team does, and they request it. Whenever there's a new project, people say, “The first thing we've got to do is get a project manager on this.” Now, every project has a project manager.

How does having a seat on the leadership team help?

It makes a big difference to my project managers that I am a member of the leadership team, that their group is seen as equally important as the strategy team or the design team. I always say that the client-services person is the CEO of every project and the project manager is the COO. We are on equal footing with other members of the team. So we want to elevate the project manager beyond an administrative role to become a strategic-minded team member. The leadership team's support helps accomplish that. PM


Small Talk

What's the one skill every project manager should have?

Positive attitude and the ability to connect with other people, to bring people together.

What's the best professional advice you ever received?

Interpret everything you hear with positive intent.

What book has special meaning for you?

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by the Heath brothers. It's a series of stories about how positive change was effected by someone who had neither budget nor authority. That's often the role of a project manager.

What's your favorite off-the-clock activity?

Gardening. It's very similar to project management: You're creating an environment where your team can flourish.




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