Charley’s Story: Supporting a Team of Colleagues in Ukraine

Charley Miller, co-founder and co-CEO of OrgVitals, has worked with project managers at UDTech in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine through two wars. Thirteen years ago, Charley needed to build remote teams while engaged in product development for the toy company Hasbro, when an internet search led him to Ukraine. In Zaporizhzhia, home to a state-sponsored Engineering Institute, he found a ready-made workforce. “We really doubled down on recruiting,” Charley explains. “The gap between the U.S. Eastern Standard Time and Ukraine was very manageable for us and we realized that not only are these people engineering minded and very professional, but they're really nice people too.”

To strengthen this connection, Charley opened an office in Zaporizhzhia. “I wandered over there and visited, started to really know the people I worked with and their families,” he says. And then in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. “That was a scary moment because we didn't know how things would play out. We had people on our teams getting called up for the reserves. We actually looked at immigrating people to the U.S. and a few people ended up coming from our developer team.”

When things died down Charley started Unitonomy, where he began to develop culture-management software, and later launched OrgVitals, which seeks to understand how work impacts employee health, then leverage that information for better business outcomes. “The project manager becomes the lynchpin for the entire product success,” he says.

Charley singles out compassion as a quality he looks for in a project manager. “When I say compassion for the project, it's that extra 10%—it's the project manager that really cares about the project and is thinking beyond me,” he says. “They are catching my blind spots to help me be a better manager of the whole business. Someone who is thinking one step ahead of you makes all the difference in the world.”

Building OrgVitals, while continuing to work with a team coping with the pressures of the current war, has provided Charley a unique window to study work culture. “There's no magic key to make this work, but it's when you have people who feel very connected to each other, they all belong and they're performing well as a unit. But also, everyone has that sense of agency individually. It's very important in this day and age that people have those two things together—unity and autonomy [the source of the name Unitonomy]—then you have meaning and purpose and you're unlocking a lot of potential for that team to be fully engaged,” he says. “I’ve also learned that you could be doing those things really well, but if there's a lack of emotional capacity or too heavy a workload, the chronic stress can quite literally cripple people. It’s one reason we're looking specifically at disconnection and lack of inclusion at different companies as we try to understand the work determinants of health.”

“It's amazing to see when a crisis like this unfolds, people that perform really great work together, where there's a lot of trust in the collaboration,” Charley continues. “That relationship doesn't end when the workday clock stops. I know all of the people in Ukraine are supporting their friends and their neighbors and their family as best they can, but they can't be doing that all the time. So, the work has clearly provided an additional focus and some continuity. That's the magic of work. When you have great work cultures, you don't think twice about the sort of blur of work life and personal life and all that. Sometimes we forget about work providing that aspect of our lives when we need it.” 

Charley is eager to remind the project management community that even during a war, “People need work; they literally have to pay the bills. They are trying to rent new apartments in new countries and create new homes. They need work to put a security deposit down. And there's so many talented people out there—project managers, designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) people. I know people doing Internet of Things and physical hardware prototyping—that I hope companies won’t hesitate.” He recommends UA Talents, a job platform connecting displaced persons in Ukraine with companies in Europe; Upwork, which supports freelancers in Ukraine, or he offers to help companies make the connection himself.

Charley finishes with a final thought: “Never underestimate the value of a great project manager because they're using all of their skills as a project manager, literally, in the crisis right now. They're the rocks of their families, too. They're using their project management skills to keep that routine going, keep people focused on what's important and persevere. It's amazing.”

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Charley Miller

Charley Miller

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