Jenn Donahue, PMP, has led some of the biggest geotechnical projects in the world.
The United States naval officer, engineer, entrepreneur and leadership coach has built bridges over the Euphrates River during the Iraq war, led reconnaissance missions following earthquakes and tsunamis in Samoa and Japan, and designed seismic plans for a bridge over the Panama Canal.
She says the success of each and every one of those projects came down to one thing: teamwork.
“Your team is your largest asset,” she said.
Over the years, Donahue has learned what it takes to build a strong team and her top tips include:
Make it about the team, not you. Leaders must make sure they are shifting focus from themselves to the team and the project.
“As I've gone through my career, I've gone from managing four people to almost 1,400 people right now,” she said. “Looking at those four people and making sure that they were well taken care of is the same thing as looking after 1,400 people. I'm still responsible for them. I have the authority to make sure that they do the best that they can.”
Get to know them. Donahue believes leaders need to learn more about their team members than their names.
“I've actually been on projects where people didn't even know my name. It doesn't make you feel good, to be honest, it's like, why am I even here if my boss doesn't even know my name,” she said. “Get to know who the people are on your team. What is their spouse's name? Do they have kids? What are their interests? What are their aspirations? What do they want to be? Then use that to find out what resources they need to be the best that they can be.”
Be a selfless leader. Donahue believes in providing team members the opportunity to improve in areas they want to develop and to turn their weaknesses into strengths.
“When I was a lot younger, I was all about taking on the world and I could do it myself,” said Donahue. “I knew I had to take care of my team, but I wasn't putting in the right amount of effort that I should have. As I've gotten older, I've realized that I shift that around and start looking at ‘How can I develop my team?, How can I help these people?, How can I do more for others?’”
It is only when she became a selfless leader that Donahue believes her career started to take off, as it was more meaningful.
“That's been the most fulfilling thing that I have realized myself,” she said.
Understand your project — and have a backup plan. For the team to be successful, everyone needs to understand the different phases and pieces.
“Once you understand those phases, make sure your team is ready to go and that they fully understand those phases as well,” she said. “You need to have the right people in the right phase, doing the right things at the right time. That takes a lot of coordination and actually a lot of time on the project manager’s part to make sure that it's really well lined up before it even begins.”
Part of understanding the project also means understanding what you will do in the face of challenges that might occur. The way Donahue does this is to think through backup plans. She has not only a plan A, but also a plan B and C.
Donahue has been in situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where really bad things can happen if there are no backup plans.
“A lot of preplanning goes into getting prepared for any type of mission or project,” she said. “That's what I found works best to deal with some of these problems, is just always have something in your back pocket so that you can shift, you can go in a different direction if you have to as quickly as you can.”
Be a mentor. One of the best ways to help young project managers get ahead is to be a mentor who can help guide them through all the difficulties they may encounter.
“If we can help this younger generation of project managers to show them ‘hey, these are the pitfalls that we found,’” said Donahue. “This will give them a leg up.”
In fact, Donahue has found that it can be helpful for young project managers to have several mentors from different backgrounds. There could be someone who is really good at the technical aspects of a project, while others could have better managerial skills.
“If you start to build this team of mentors around you, that's going to make you a better person,” she said.
The Mission-Critical Importance of Teamwork (2022).