Project Management Institute

A question of trust




  • img  When a project changes the way a client's employees will work with one another, project managers must develop strong, trust-based relationships with stakeholders.
  • img  The project always should be examined from the vantage point of the stakeholder.
  • img  To build credibility, the project team must reach out to the client and conduct trust-building activities.
  • img  The project team must provide a system where clients can easily verify that the team is doing what was promised.
  • img  Project managers that get to know clients on a personal level create a level of intimacy that lets clients ask difficult questions that otherwise may not be addressed.

IN FALL 2002,

National City Mortgage (NCM) Retail launched a seemingly impossible project to change the ingrained work patterns of almost 3,000 of its employees—behavior that had yielded many of them a great deal of success.

As a top ten residential mortgage company in the United States, NCM was riding the largest mortgage lending boom in U.S. history. At the time, NCM's loan officers worked with processors and underwriters to determine loan approval, but this relationship functioned differently throughout NCM's 300-plus branches in more than 30 states. This process variation was exacerbated by NCM's history of growth by acquisition—the company fostered an entrepreneurial culture where acquired companies could continue to use their established styles and processes, but in turn, this validated a whole other slew of processes that complicated standardization.

Buck Bibb, NCM's executive vice president, knew that if the company did not standardize its loan approval procedure, it could not measure, control or improve its business processes, and NCM needed process improvements to survive the market's inevitable slowdown. Normalizing automated underwriting at the point of sale for all of NCM's eligible loans would decrease the amount of time spent processing loans and make the job responsibilities of all loan officers across NCM's geographic regions uniform, thereby increasing overall business efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Remove Fear

Project managers had to institute change while ensuring NCM's culture and style remained intact. Despite the business benefits, resistance to change likely would be high within the company because the dynamic of the loan officer-loan processor relationship would change dramatically. Data showed that NCM's volume had tripled in a very short timeframe. Thus, the loan officers (many of whom had been with the company for 10 to 20 years) were enjoying unprecedented success and might be reluctant to take on the additional responsibilities required under the project's changes.

Many of the loan officers had close relationships with their processors who, in turn, feared they'd lose their jobs to an automated underwriting system. In short, the suspected response from the loan officers was, “This isn't my job,” while the processors would ask, “Why are the loan officers doing my job?”

img With the help of a consultant, the project team had to initiate the project and achieve buy-in from the sales and operations managers, starting with the type of environment surrounding the project.


of the NCM project, the process of building trust between the project team and customer team became a high priority. The project team leaders started with self-examination—looking at their own behaviors critically, and doing trial runs of presentations among themselves to anticipate customer inquiries and concerns. Then they began working on the four building blocks of the trusted advisor relationship: low self-orientation, credibility, reliability, and intimacy, according to David Maister's The Trusted Advisor.

Trust in Action

The first step toward realizing the project goal was to establish a project organization made up of two components: the project team that conducted analysis, created deliverables and provided solutions, and the customer team that drove the overall direction of the project. The regional operations managers from each of NCM's 12 regions, along with four regional sales managers deemed internal champions of the project, made up the customer team.


To gain buy-in from stakeholders, the NCM project team solicited feedback on its plans to efficiently normalize automated underwriting. Four workshops helped the team determine barriers to success and brainstorm solutions.

img The project team had to appear as a trusted advisor that took the emotional reactions of the stakeholders—everybody in NCM Retail—into account. These relationships became the cornerstone for effective and constructive communication between the project and customer teams.

The project team demonstrated how truly focused it was on the customer by using low self-orientation—the ability to ask open-ended questions, listen effectively and help stakeholders define the problem before offering solutions—to gain trust. Low self-orientation showed that the project team was more interested in the customer and stakeholders than its own thoughts and views.

The NCM project team held four workshops, each with 12 to 15 loan officers, processors and underwriters chosen by the customer team. The workshops were designed to help the customer team define barriers to project success and provide the appropriate solutions. In choosing the participants, the customer team chose a representative cross-section of employees in terms of rank and regional representation; in addition, they chose employees who supported the project initiative as well as those who exhibited more resistance.

At the end of the workshops, participants were surveyed on how well-prepared, organized and meaningful the sessions were to them. They were presented with printed summaries of their suggestions on the spot so participants would feel that the workshops truly accomplished something. “I like the idea of a project team that constantly strives to receive constructive criticism to better serve its customer,” Mr. Bibb says.

Participants identified a lack of trust, accountability and communication, fear of change and apprehension that the training process would be too time-consuming as potential roadblocks in the implementation. Among its many solutions, the customer team produced new clearly defined, written job descriptions for the loan officer, processor and underwriter positions, detailing how the job responsibilities of each position would be measured to ensure compliance. When the customer team began to roll out the implementation, it reinforced the job descriptions by giving each branch a trifold glossy map of the relationship among loan officers, processors and underwriters.

The customer team also created a standard branch meeting agenda for use at the branches' weekly meetings and established a loan package quality rating so processors could grade the completeness of the loan packages they received from the loan officers.

By allowing the branch staff to define the barriers and solutions, the project team truly saw the project through the eyes of the customer. The project team did not try to have all the answers on the first day; instead it listened and probed. “Our approach was to educate customers on their options—not just tell what they needed to do, but give them reasons why,” says NCM Senior Vice President of Operations John Bollman. “With these types of barriers, ultimately we knew customer champions had to drive the decision-making. The project team provided options and made recommendations.”

Lasting First Impressions

It is not enough for project managers to have the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification and expect that the credential alone will get individuals to trust you; the project manager must establish a trust-based relationship with the customer to gain buy-in.

img The NCM project team established credibility with the customer team members by meeting with them well before the first presentation. They became familiar with NCM's processes and terminology and talked to employees at various branches. When the first presentation came, the project team was able to present detailed facts about the organization, applying what it had learned from its research to paint the big picture.

In dedicating many months just to data analysis, the project team started to earn the trust of the customer team, which knew that the project team was dedicated to learning specific nuances of NCM's business rather than just applying its general mortgage industry background.



Where Promises Meet Actions

A change management project thrives on how well project leaders manage the flow of information between all stakeholders. The NCM project team set up a stringent quality control process with a new communication tool, the Excellence in Retail communication best practice. This standard consisted of learning aids and reports—varying from brief tutorial presentations to more advanced Web-based training and audio training—delivered through e-mail that outlined changes in policy, procedure and best practices initiated through the project.

After building a database of all NCM Retail employees, which covered dozens of titles and positions, the project team grouped employees based on what type or level of information they needed. Each group was branded with an animated character or graphic, and all communication pieces included the character or graphic of the relevant target groups—this helped people know if the message was applicable to them before beginning to read it and agreeing to the approach.

img To measure how well the changes were communicated and subsequently adopted, recipients had to reply to the message, indicate if they had read the message and demonstrate comprehension by answering questions or accepting a predetermined level of accountability to comply with the request of the communication. Once the data was collected, the customer team members were given reports detailing the results of their respective regions and expected to followup until their region reached the predetermined threshold. In applying this best practice, the project team created a nine-module automated usage at point of sale deliverable that was not only free of defects, but also easy to use.


I like the idea of a project team that constantly strives to receive constructive criticism to better serve its customer.

Buck Bibb,
Executive Vice President, National City Mortgage, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Excellence in Retail's communication best practice played a huge role in improving the project team's reliability. The customer team viewed the project team as consistently up to par and felt comfortable entrusting their business needs to them. In addition, the project team provided regular status reports, immediate feedback on all measurements and immediate follow-up—any inquiries that came through the e-mail system were addressed within 24 hours, regardless of the level of employee who sent the inquiry.

Every implementation activity was “metric-focused,” and whenever there was a discrepancy over a figure or piece of information, the project team researched it and made any necessary corrections. The project team also was willing to admit readily when the mistake was due to its inaccuracy or the way it presented the data. When stakeholders started to inquire about how the new automated system would affect different types of loans, the project team shared these inquiries with the project sponsors, Mr. Bibb and Mr. Bollman, to make sure they were not overlooking subtleties between loans that might affect the big picture of the project. Handling these inquiries through conference calls and off-site meetings established a continuous flow of communication that went beyond dry status reports and thrived on serious dialogue.

Courage to Go Deeper

Project teams often must address awkward, sensitive issues. In the NCM project, some of those difficult topics were the project's effect on compensation schemes or how to deal with key performers who would resist change.

img The NCM project team was able to have conversations about these issues because it developed an intimate working relationship with Mr. Bibb and Mr. Bollman, the customer champions and the key influencers outside of the retail division (in the production support, quality control, and risk and regulatory management divisions) that were not directly affected by the change but provided support throughout the nationwide network of branches. Rather than viewing the stakeholders simply as business partners, the project team spent time getting to know the customer team on a more personal level through four to five planned off-site meetings.

Here, over the course of dinner, drinks or on the golf course, members of the project and customer teams were able to discuss sensitive items in smaller groups that proved more conducive than a large-meeting setting. These discussions, and the ability to sense when to initiate them, enable the project and customer teams to develop clear, exception-free policies.

Courage and a willingness to take risks facilitate the high level of emotional engagement that is required in developing intimate working relationships. The project team's investment paid off when it came time for the customer team to implement the program in its regions. The customer team believed in what it had helped create and trusted that a competent delivery mechanism was in place to support it. This was crucial, as it would have to sell the program to NCM's 3,000 employees.

A Solid Payoff

The NCM project was a success, with automated underwriting at the point of sale usage fast approaching the company's goal of 80 percent across all branches. Overall, usage climbed from just above 30 percent in April 2003 to nearly 80 percent in March 2004—some regions and branches went from zero usage to more than 80 percent in just a few months. The reduction in time needed to make a credit decision increased processor and underwriter productivity and improved customer service.

Interestingly, the mortgage boom ended and the market turned back to normal loan volumes soon after the changes were implemented. This justified the initial need for the project and confirmed that the project team's timeline and execution were on target.

But more than the logistics, the NCM project succeeded because the benefits of building those strong, trust-based relationships were far-reaching. The relationships paved the way for smooth project team interfaces with customers, the sponsors and stakeholders. Less time spent on status reports, unplanned communication requests and other procedural sources of tedium left more time to focus on the change management process. PM

Jack Ferraro, PMP, is the president of Ferraro IT Management Services Inc., Manassas, Va., USA. He was the lead consultant on the NCM Retail project and has experience in the financial, manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries.

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