You’re Ready for That Huge Project
By Mike Raia Posted April 7, 2020
Everyone’s been put in a make-or-break situation, asked to step up and manage something that may be beyond them. You may be more ready than you think.
On August 29th, 2005 one of the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit the United States struck Mississippi and Louisiana with sustained wins blowing at 175 m.p.h. The impact of Hurricane Katrina was devastating and many of those affected are still dealing with the aftermath 15 years later.
At the time of the hurricane, I was working at the American Dental Association (ADA) in the digital marketing department. Our leadership wanted to help the relief effort in some way and was starting to pull people together from around the association to see what we could do. ADA member dentists had lost entire practices, while citizens in the affected areas still needed urgent care and had nowhere to get it.
The quickly-forming ADA hurricane response team needed a project manager and they tapped my coworker, Shaina Boone for the role. Looking back on the pressure she had to deal with and the job she ultimately did, I have always been impressed, even amazed. Whenever I have a project to manage or talk to our customers about the projects they manage day in and day out, I think about Shaina managing the hurricane response project at the ADA.
I decided to reach out to her and ask some questions about the experience fifteen years later. I think her answers can help anyone who takes on a complex, high-stress project (willingly or not). Especially when the project itself may be outside their comfort zone either in scale or subject matter.
What was your normal role at the ADA at the time of the hurricane response project?
I had cross responsibilities as a web dev, project manager, content developer, website analytics lead, and an account manager for ADA.org.
How would you describe your personality/work style at the time?
Aggressive. Motivated. Perfectionist. This resulted in problems with inter-team relations, that I fixed as I moved forward in my career (laughs).
Describe the fateful evening you got the call from then ADA president Dr. James Bramson about becoming project manager for the response. What did he ask of you and how did you feel about it?
It was late in the day and I was nearly alone in the office. I heard the phone ring, and upon answering heard: “Hi Shaina, this is Dr. Branson. I have a special assignment I hope you can help with. I’d like you to lead our Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.” There was a moment of silence as my brain tried to catch up, and then I said: “Of course!” He said “Great”, we’ll talk tomorrow about details.”
I felt honored and empowered to do something so important, concerned about what was to come, and determined to do the best job I could, whatever that needed to be.
Was there a clear goal for the project? If so, what was it?
The goal was to support both Dentists (ADA members and beyond), and their patients. To solve the following issues:
- Many patients were in the middle of multi-stage treatments that could not be completed
- Many patients lost their partials, dentures, mouth guards, etc. in the haste of the evacuation
- Some Doctors were lost in the emergency (meaning they were uncontactable for some time)
- Doctor’s offices and equipment were destroyed in the emergency
So, ultimately, the support we provided was for patients, through our mobile dentistry unit to try to give patients on-the-go support for their emergency needs and direction through written and voice support helplines.
For dentists, we found volunteers for the mobile dentistry unit, helped them locate patients lost in the evacuation, and helped them recover their practice as the water receded.
How much project management experience had you had at that point?
At that point, I had six years of work experience managing over a hundred different client projects through my prior work at Edelman and Proxicom. Those projects ranged from small to very large complex technical projects.
I had also managed teams of up to 10 employees – website developers and coders primarily. So, a good amount of experience despite so few years of overall work experience. This was all due to the Internet boom. At the time no one knew how to manage Web projects so we were all placed in positions of authority much earlier in our careers than would have been the case in a more established industry.
How did you prepare for that first big project meeting for the hurricane response?
I sprinted every day to keep up with the unfolding needs of the patients and Dentists and identified all the key stakeholders working with Dr. Branson and Mary Logan (ADA VP). I tried to get as organized as possible on the mission, so I would be able to direct the staff.
What do you remember from the first project meeting? How did it unfold?
I remember sitting at the head of a board room table with 20-30 senior staff members. They were all 20-40 years my Senior, given I was only 27 years old at the time. It was an awkward moment for me, and I can only imagine how they all felt. But Dr. Branson gave his executive support and told them all to do what I said. I felt empowered and tried to push any emotions and self-doubt aside to push ahead with our mission.
Seeing the team was largely more senior than you, how did you "manage up?" How was it received?
It was received surprisingly well. I think if the staff were younger, more in their 30s it might have been more problematic. Given they were more mature, and many toward the end of their careers vs. the beginning. There was no competition or real ladder-climbing happening with that group of people, so they all did what they were supposed to do. I don’t remember a single bit of drama. If there was, I blocked it out! (laughs)
As the project matured, what were the key ways you kept things on track?
I recall the volume of email being overwhelming and Dr. Branson saying he just couldn’t keep up with all I was sending to him. There probably could have been a better way to stay organized, but I was too junior at the time and was sprinting every day vs. thinking about better ways to work. We were reacting and did not have time to be proactive. I believe we set up a server location with folders and that sort of documentation organization, but most of the work was done via email, phone, and meetings. There are certainly many tools available these days that would have made it a lot easier.
What unexpected situations threatened to derail you and the team?
Again, the volume of problems. The missing people. The destroyed dental practices. There was a lot of emotion from the people down there, and it was hard to help fast enough or effective enough.
What were the results of the project?
Hard stats have gone out of my memory at this point, but we helped:
- Patients get their treatments completed through the mobile dental unit
- Dentists eventually get reunited with their patients when communication channels were available again
- Patients get to new dentists if theirs had not been located or had their practice destroyed
- Dentists get organized to get their practice back together and process insurance claims and get new equipment donations etc.
What did you learn about yourself from the experience?
- That I can rise to an unknown challenge.
- That an extremely challenging project is one to learn and grow from.
- That I can be a leader to people who are Sr. to me in their careers when it is necessary.
- That I can manage people older than me without feeling inadequate.
How do you think your experience helped your career?
It gave me confidence that I could rise to a challenge without fear if I had the right support from the top down. That became critical when seven months into my next job, I was offered the opportunity to create a digital analytics service offering from scratch, but first had to figure out everything that was wrong with analytics at the company, and then pull it out of an existing department and start over.
The result was a new global service offering, Marketing Science, which I then ran for 8 years with a team of 40 staff globally across 30-40 accounts as part of the Executive team.
From there in my next role, I took a leap into the unknown again shifting my career into media advertising, for which I had very little experience. Again, existing relationships with executives led me to that opportunity, and those execs believed I would figure it out. I had to manage my ego and take two steps down in my level to do it. I struggled for the first couple years to “get it,” but after three years felt ready to take a step back up to an office lead role. after 5 years, I now have a team of 60 people across only four accounts in one office.
The Katrina Project was fundamental as a steppingstone to prepare me for both of these career challenges, each one building on the next. Core to it all is having confidence, asking for executive support, being brave to step into the unknown, and perseverance to get it done.
What would you recommend to others who take on a large project for the first time (willingly or unwillingly)?
No matter how painful or exciting it is, you will grow and you will get something out of it that will benefit your career and you will likely have no idea what that is going to be at the outset. You have to be an opportunist and keep your mind open to the possibilities.