Make Reality: Questions With Katie Sowers
Katie Sowers made American football history when she joined the San Francisco 49ers as the second female, full-time assistant coach in the National Football League (NFL) and, in 2020, the first to make it to the Super Bowl. A former women’s football player, she broke through additional barriers as the first openly gay coach in the NFL.
Speaking to PMI at a recent session of the Virtual Experience Series (VES), Sowers discussed how a project management mindset helped her to thrive and achieve success in a high-profile industry as well as a future project she would like to make reality.
PMI: What's the most challenging project you're managing right now?
Sowers: The most challenging project I'm managing right now would be our team’s response to this pandemic. The San Francisco 49ers had 69 players this season who actually played in games. That's the most in the NFL. With that comes a lot of moving pieces. We have players who are constantly in and out and we're teaching new installs [offensive plays] every week. Being able to make sure that they have the information they need to be successful has been more challenging than in past years.
PMI: What is the most significant project you've ever worked on?
Sowers: The most significant project within my career was when I first entered the NFL. I had no idea what an NFL offense looked like, so I knew I had to learn the offense—to know it inside and out. Because I never had the opportunity to play in the NFL, I was already coming from behind, in my opinion, in terms of experience and being around the game. I took it upon myself to actually create a learning tool that encompasses every single concept in the team’s offense, including the rules that apply to each position—if you're inside of a specific route and what you do when this concept is called. I've continued to build it throughout the five years that I've been in the League and it now has over 130 concepts. It's now being used when we bring new players in, to help train them to quickly learn the offense, as many of these players have to master the concepts within the day that they learn them.
PMI: Working in a highly competitive field, what was a key lesson that you learned—especially with the mindset of project management?
Sowers: The main thing I learned, and I think it applies to every job and business that is out there, is that, when you have a goal that you want to reach, you have to take it upon yourself to make it known that you cannot be replaced. You have to ask yourself: “What do I bring to the table? What can I bring that is more valuable?” I'm coaching on a team that's one of only 32, and it's one of the most sought-after coaching jobs and there are thousands and thousands of people competing for it. So, what are you going to do to separate yourself? What are you going to do to make sure that you hold yourself accountable to know what you need to know to really jump to that next level?
PMI: When it comes to project management, can you share one piece of advice with this community to help manage projects better?
Sowers: I think it always comes back to confidence. Sometimes we suffer from imposter syndrome—this idea that everyone else is better or has it better and that everyone else is thinking that we can't do something. Regardless of who you are, I think we all have that self-doubt. And with that comes, first of all, what are you doing to help raise your game, to help build your confidence? But, secondly, it's understanding that there's a difference between the facts and the story that we tell ourselves. Oftentimes, we take the facts and we create a narrative, but it's important to differentiate between the two. Ask yourself: “What's the story I'm telling myself and what's the true narrative?” If you still don't know, communicate. Communicate and really ask yourself those hard questions to evaluate where you are in the workplace.
PMI: What's your moonshot idea that you would love to assemble a team around and make reality?
Sowers: I have tons. But the first one that comes to mind is in response to the COVID pandemic. We had to do a lot of virtual learning, so I was actually dreaming about how nice it would be to create something that is greatly needed—an app of sorts to help implement an offense. Players could visualize with it. They could use it as an interactive learning tool. I was trying to Google something that we can use to help quiz our players and I could not find one foundation. So that was something that I think could be useful in the football world, but also, it translates across so many different careers and avenues. That was my COVID dream of what could make our team better.