“As PMs, we are downplaying our soft skills and stifling our personalities. It’s time to take up space.”

Jenna Trunzo, Globant project manager and Digital PM Summit speaker, became a project manager by accident. In this guest post, she shares her journey to finding her niche in the tech industry and her decision to embrace personality over process and protocol in order to create a strong presence for herself and her teams.

Read on to explore soft skills as a valuable asset, and five tricks digital project managers can use to get better at their jobs without feeling like they’re two different people in and out of work.

We are afraid to be BIG.

I’m not talking about size. We are afraid to use our personality to lead and innovate. We have been taught that we have to really sell our hard skills to be taken seriously in this industry, that our value is derived from these tangible skills.

I Did This to Myself

When I started working in the tech industry, I had no direct background in the tech world or in project management, per se. That sage wisdom of “fake it till you make it” was not going to work for me; I don't know how to fake anything… subtlety and filters aren't in my bag of tools. I knew to be perceived with authenticity, I would have to take a different kind of approach: announce loud and clear that I had no idea what I was doing and then ensure that I’d work and listen hard enough to prove myself quickly.

I am small in stature at a mere four feet 11 inches, but big in personality, so I loudly and confidently proclaimed my ineptitude in hopes that people would recognize my authenticity and that it would help them establish a level of trust in me. As a project manager, that really should be one of our main goals. We need team support. We need buy-in. And no one will buy in if they don’t trust that you will be an honest leader. Period. End of sentence. Game over.

So that was me, entering my job with guns of inexperience blazing. Big. Ready to grow bigger.

But then, as it often does, insecurity crept in. I feared I would come off as indifferent, or worse, incompetent. I came into the role strong and BIG and started receding at an alarmingly fast rate. My coworkers were smarter. They were faster learners. They were so experienced. They knew everything about everything and then some. That’s how it felt in my head. And so I began to project those feelings onto them and onto my role, which is exactly the kind of self-defeating attitude that gets you exactly nowhere.

My insecurity and fear told me that there is a right and wrong way to do things as a digital project manager. Black and white. Their way was right, mine was wrong. They were process and protocol and I was personality and soft skills. If I wanted to fit in, I couldn’t be BIG. I couldn’t lead with the asset I felt most comfortable with—my personality—because that wasn’t the standard. That wasn’t what my coworkers were doing, and therefore, it must be wrong. I felt boxed into ceremonies and PM tools and things that I just didn’t know much about. Let me be clear: this was only my perception, but it was enough to keep me prisoner to formalities.  

I remember getting my first project and going into daily scrum and conducting a very regimented conference room assembly line of “yesterday, today, blockers” and then promptly wandering from the room with a list of things I hoped the Google could teach me. I felt the doubtful looks and heard the humoring tone of their comments—the signs that they just weren’t convinced I could cut it. Worse yet, I knew they could tell I was being disingenuous. I left every meeting with a very tentative, “Do any of you need any help?” all the while thinking what an empty offer it was. What could I possibly help them with since I didn’t have extensive technical knowledge or hard skills?

Then something happened. After daily scrum, one of my team members responded to my question with the reciprocal question…“How about you, Jenna? Do you need any help?” And I realized I did. I needed help returning to my big self. I won’t bore you with details about how that coworker soon became my “big brother” and a forever friend (cue the Kleenex commercial), but I made a decision right then to care less so that I could care more.

It’s Time to Take Up Space

I stopped caring about process and protocol to the point of excluding the things about me that made me good at my job. I stopped caring if my coworkers were more experienced or smarter or better. I stopped caring if team members thought I could cut it.

I started caring about being a strong presence for myself and my teams. I started caring about how I could use what I value in myself to produce value for my teams. I started caring about being unapologetic. And I started caring about using soft skills—really digging in deep with them—to produce the results and deliverables that I needed from my teams.

My place in space began to grow. Not only was the work I was producing improving, but so was the work I was getting from my team. I began developing amazing relationships with my peers by showing up with my real personality and finding ways to connect. I knew I was on to something. As PMs, we are downplaying our soft skills and stifling our personalities. It’s time to take up space.

What Does BIG Look Like?

In short, it looks like you at your fullest, most robust energy level. It looks like you filling a room, despite your physical size. It’s about bringing yourself to the proverbial table with no apologies and as few insecurities as possible.

I once had a team of very different personalities working on the same project. I had ALL the types—from eccentric to tough guy. I needed to create team cohesion and personal connections. No amount of technical skills could accomplish that. But soft skills…they could! Personality tactics, they could!

I needed something from the UX designer on the project. I wasn’t getting it and pinning down this designer was like a game of “catch me if you can.” So, I came upon him sitting at his desk. I promptly sat on the floor in front of his chair so he couldn't get up until he gave me a commitment on when I’d have what I needed. My team was amazed. “How did you get him to agree to a deadline?” Well, friends, I was big.

My architect barely spoke, never smiled and was the type you would hesitate to cross in an alley. He was my mark. If I could win him over, I surely could with the others as well. I hid funny (if not inappropriate) pictures in spreadsheets like little Easter eggs I knew he’d find. I loudly proclaimed that I was his best friend to anyone and everyone until I’d see the corners of his mouth start to turn up. I’d force him to acknowledge me until he willingly did so with genuine intention. “Wait, you got him to have lunch with you? He doesn’t speak to anyone.” He speaks to me, cause I’m big!

It feels good to take up space, to let your energy lead and to be big. It feels like you gain by giving. It feels genuine and authentic. The result is teams that are happy to do the work for you (and maybe a friendship or ten along the way).

Why Is It So Hard to Be Big?

If we go back to the idea that we are taught to value hard skills first, well, therein lies one heck of a huge roadblock. Just as one example, consider what you have listed on your résumé. Likely, new software you learned, presentations you gave, designations you earned…That’s all well and good. Those are necessary, and you worked hard for those little indented dots. I get it.

But how many of us list things like the following..?

  • Make my team laugh daily

  • Hugged a colleague

  • Listened to my team’s needs

Likely none, because it is ingrained in us that these things hold less value than our knowledge of code or prototypes. I’m not saying that our technical knowledge and hard skills aren’t important to doing our job well on a project management level, but undeniably, having the soft skills to work with a wide range of personalities, work styles, opinions and experience is crucial to succeeding in this role.

Our ability to diffuse tough situations with effective communication is one of many skills that DPMs generally carry in their arsenal. These soft skills are so much more relevant to what we do on a day-to-day basis than, say, our knowledge of the latest data science to affect the training of artificial intelligence. Since demonstrating expertly honed soft skills isn’t often touted, it makes it hard for us to be big without feeling like we are outliers.

To be fair, being big also means an implied comfort level in both self and surroundings that not everyone possesses. Words like vulnerable and exposed are not always comfortable to demonstrate in a work environment. Many people tend to wall up in groups. Their sense of individualism is oppressed by peer opinion and fear of rejection, isolation, etc. While this is more present and surface in some than others, it’s a normal innate human component to most of us in some degree. That is why it is our job as DPMs to be able to adjust our soft skills to enable our team members to perform at their peak ability. If we haven’t first gained an acceptance of our own ability to be big, how can we expect our teammates to grow into this way of thinking?

Paving a professional path by using personality as your concrete has risks and variables, just like anything else. There is no one-size-fits-all to being a really excellent DPM. Maybe you come from a developer background and you rely heavily on using your hard skills as a foundation for your soft skills—a way to relate.

Maybe you risk turning someone off by being too overt; sometimes it can be intimidating for others. Not every project or team or day of work is going to be led to success by your personality alone. There will be times when your soft skills are what falter and cause strife. There will be times when you are misunderstood. Those times will make you doubt the journey. Those times will send you back to continuing education trying to enhance your other “more marketable” skills. Those times will make you reevaluate all those little bullets on your résumé.

So yes, it is hard to be big. And yes, it will require its own type of practice and training to balance the necessary job functions and your own brand of BIG. But humanizing the process outweighs the risk. If you don’t want to take my word for it, look at the skills employers actually reported as valuing the most. According to Job Outlook 2015, a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employees (NACE), when employers were asked to name the attributes they desire in candidates, they responded with a staggering amount of—you guessed it—SOFT SKILLS:

  • 77.8% Leadership

  • 77.8% Ability to work in a team

  • 73.4% Written communication skills

  • 70.9% Problem-solving skills

  • 70.4% Strong work ethic

  • 68.0% Analytical/quantitative skills

  • 67.5% Technical skills

  • 67.0% Verbal communication skills

  • 62.2% Computer skills

  • 62.1% Flexibility/adaptability

  • 60.6% Interpersonal skills

If you arm yourself with the facts (like this one) and disregard perceptions or learned behaviors that are full of fallacies, you support your BIG with an unshakeable foundation.

Get a Little Better by Being a Little Bigger

It has taken years of self-evaluations and peer feedback for me to really feel confident that this approach is one worth sticking to. Let me save you some of that exhausting analysis. Here are five BIG tricks I learned that allow me to be both better at my job and also help me avoid feeling like I’m two different people in and out of work.

1. Don’t be afraid to get personal. (But not too personal.)

When I take on a new project, I start by having an internal kickoff where every member of the team has to answer a specific question in order to get the invite for standups/daily scrums. It could be anything from, “What’s your go-to karaoke song?” to “What’s the first concert you ever saw live?” to “What name better fits your personality than the one you have?”

What does this tell me? A fun fact about my team members that likely gives me additional insight into who they are/what they like. It also tells me their willingness or lack thereof to play along.

What does this tell them? That I’m interested in them beyond their code. That I’m human and relatable. It also tells them what their colleagues are like and if there is any initial, albeit superficial, common ground.

Take your teammates out to lunch. Nothing builds rapport and opens up conversation like food! Fact is, though we may not all like attention, we all like to be seen, so see your teammates!

2. Use your funny for the serious stuff, too.

The most frequent compliment I have received since starting work as a project manager is that I do a really good job balancing humor with demand to get what I need from my team. At a yearly review, one of my coworkers gave the following feedback, “She uses humor to get folks to move things along…”

“You’ve missed the last three standups, and that is unacceptable. If this continues, I’ll have you taken off the project,” sounds a lot more authoritarian and more likely to get a defensive response than say, “If you miss one more standup, I will brand the team calendar on your forehead (winky face). This team’s counting on you!” The message is still received, but allowing yourself to be light-hearted can get better results than trying to act like you call all the shots. That type of shot-caller approach is often met with resentment and inevitably produces the exact opposite of what you are asking.

3. Be honest. Blatantly, transparently honest.

In many ways, you enter into a relationship with your team the moment a project kicks off. If you are hiding something from your team (refer to my tale of insecurities), they will sense it. If you are giving information so that you seem “in the know” when you really have no clue (refer to my tale of seeming disingenuous), they will see through it. If you need more from them than you’re getting and you don’t speak up, they will resent it. Basically, if you don’t embrace honesty and transparency and all that it means to a project, the team’s trust in you will falter. Once you allow that crack into the seamless mold of your project, it will spread and grow until you are no longer valued and respected as someone managing their project and its success. Here’s where your ability to be vulnerable and readily communicate will ensure you are trusted and respected.

4. Smile. Then smile bigger.

I smile. Often. And when I don’t, I usually offer a little explanation to my teams as to why I’m not smiling.

The idea here is positivity. You become instantly unapproachable when your body language shouts, “I’m in a bad mood! Is it Friday yet?” To have a successful team, to be a successful DPM, people need to feel comfortable talking to you about anything at anytime.

Represent yourself as a positive energy in your work environment. It will do wonders for you and your teams. Your positive outlook will become contagious. This is one of the few times being Patient Zero is perfectly acceptable.

5. Stop talking.

Someone really important and influential once said, “The best answers can be heard in silence.” Then again, maybe I just made that up, in which case, go me…’cause that sounds pretty profound.

So many times we ask questions and then don’t bother waiting to hear the answer before we continue talking. We talk so much and for so many reasons. We talk to hear ourselves talk. We talk because we are uncomfortable with silence. We talk because we fear that being quiet gives the impression we don’t know something we should. And yes, sometimes we talk because we have something of value to contribute.

As DPMs, we are responsible for facilitation, which by definition means, “make (an action or process) easy or easier.” Nowhere does good old Merriam or Webster use the word “solve” in that definition. We are not there to solve problems exclusively or singularly; often being present but quiet helps your team to work through issues without solely depending on you. It gives them the confidence to handle future concerns when they present themselves rather than when they become a greater problem. It provides unity as a team by removing any implied hierarchy.

Moreover, your intentional silence affords you the ability to listen, really listen, and pick up cues from your team. Watch faces, posture, attitudes. Learn triggers and motivators. Be present and participate; talk when you need to, but when you don’t, pardon me for saying…shut it.

You’re Ready to Be BIG

We often hear in the news, on shows, in the media, “We’re all just people.” At its core, that is why soft skills are so important in life, but specific to this article, as Digital Project Managers. We’re all just people, so act as such and treat others as such, and the weight of the work and hard skills will rest easier on the platform you have laid. Recognizing the need for soft skills and the most effective way to make it part of your own journey is your key to BIG, and you’re ready. If you’re afraid to really put yourself out there, you don’t have to go from zero to 100. Try a little joke here, a little befriending there…When you start seeing the immediate difference in the way your team responds to you, your brand of BIG will start flowing more naturally. Look at you now…You are taking up space, unapologetically. You, my fellow DPM, are BIG!