4 Years At The Economist: What I Learned About Project Management.

Lessons in Programme Management learned from projects with Microsoft, IBM and Rockefeller

I managed a variety of campaigns over my four years working at The Economist, from the tech giants of IBM and Microsoft to foundations such as Rockefeller and Lumina. Although programme objectives, budgets and products vary by client, the tools to becoming a successful manager remain the same.  

So what’s the secret to being an effective Programme Manager at The Economist?

Timeliness builds trust – Regardless of budget or company size, each program is an investment from your client. To ensure your client feels that their investment is justified, an important part of one’s role as a Programme Manager, is establishing and maintaining their trust in the process. Timeliness is critical in achieving this.    

Especially with larger corporate clients, and more stakeholders involved, the process can slow down.  For one of the projects I worked on, I was responsible for scheduling and leading a 40 person global call…weekly!  Something always delayed the call. Double booked conference rooms, no power in the laptop, a broken link in the deck.  I saw it all.

Most of this was out of my control as a Programme Manager. But one thing I did control was the conference line and reminder email.  Without fail I made sure to send through a weekly agenda (PS: here’s a sample weekly agenda template) and dial into the call 5 minutes before the meeting just so the other end knew they were our priority.  

  • Pro Tip: “5 minutes early is on time; on time is late; late is unacceptable.” One of my old managers ingrained this into me and I still value the advice.

Always follow up – In similar fashion to a job interview, always send a follow up note. It doesn’t matter if it’s an internal meeting, client meeting or informational meeting, send through a summary email of the discussion, highlighting the actionable points and high level outcomes.  It becomes a great resource of the working history of the project, especially if you take handwritten notes.  Also be mindful of how you communicate in the follow up.  This doesn’t mean you need to be a micromanager (which I actually advise against) but be smart in your delivery.  As you’ll soon read in my next tip below, most people are over booked and on limited time, being pulled into many different meetings.  What you’re providing are the cliffs-notes to a conversation.  You may recall a viral article two years ago (You’re not going to read this), which claimed that the majority of shared articles were not read to their entirety before being blasted on social media. The same holds true with follow-up emails. The longer the email the less probability someone will read. So keep it short and concise. Summarise, don’t just transcribe.

  • Pro Tip: Assign tasks to individuals with due dates and keep track in your follow up emails  

Central point of contact – For the programmes I managed at The Economist, internally we would have anywhere between 5-15 staff producing or executing and between 3-40 clients weighing in on the production. I was the central point of contact for that whole buzzing network. This could be challenging, but it had a number of benefits.  It helped avoid internal productivity bottlenecks, miscommunications between client and creative and kept everyone honest about their responsibilities.  It made life easier both on the agency and the client side. If you’re a Programme Manager, think of yourself as a moderator and connector.  You know who to call in order to fix the site when it’s down and when to bring in an outside opinion to rework the strategy. You have a holistic view of a programme so if something doesn’t seem right you can redirect.

  • Pro Tip: You’re not going to have the answers to everything but, acknowledging the question and providing a response in a timely matter is key.

Organisation is key – Your team and client are relying on a successful delivery with a sound strategy and it’s up to the Programme Manager to make sure everyone is synced. This can be a daunting task. Working backwards from your delivery deadline and having to give firm milestones is a tough administrative role.  Especially when you’re working across many different groups or when counterparts may not understand the impact of a request, or the reality of a task’s lifespan.  For example, just because a slideshow is ready to be uploaded to the site, doesn’t mean the site has been properly QA’ed for that deliverable.  And the inverse, a site may be ready for launch but needs a certain amount of content in order to go live.  Plus keeping track of budgets and determining spend level. The good thing is there are now many tools to help make schedules, budgets and task lists.  SmartSheets for example, has dependencies so if an item is late the entire schedule will shift with the related content.

  • Pro Tip: Set a reminder to yourself to follow up on a deliverable two days before the item is actually due.  If the item is delayed you have enough time to explain to the client and if it’s early…you’re a hero!

Schedule less meetings – In a recent study from Atlassian, it was revealed that 31 hours are spent in unproductive meetings, and most employees are attending 62 meetings a month.  My rule of thumb is to schedule shorter meetings (15-30 minutes) and to add additional time to calendars if items weren’t covered.  Be sure you have a meeting agenda planned in advance with time allocations so individuals can prepare (here’s an example meeting agenda template).  After a programme kicks-off there is sometimes no need to include everyone in every meeting.  That’s why we send out those follow up meeting notes.

  • Pro Tip: Less is more.  As long as you are able to create a constant communication loop with your team or client, meetings can become lightning rounds.

As a Programme Manager you are the face of your organisation and internal motivator.  Your actions and tone will dictate how a programme will unfold so at the onset of any big campaign just remember TACOS:

  • Timeliness builds trust
  • Always follow up
  • Central point of contact
  • Organization is a must
  • Schedule less meetings

If you keep these points in mind, and maintain the trust of your client as you execute on their vision, you’ll win their repeat business – and soon you’ll be discussing where to sign on for the next, bigger project over Tacos!

 

Sam Silberberg
Sam Silberberg is a Digital Marketer at Qwilr

Sam is a native New Yorker with four years experience at The Economist, overseeing the successful execution of integrated campaigns across multiple business units. Prior to The Economist, she worked in strategy and planning at ZenithOptimedia and OMD media agencies. Sam has a B.A. in Advertising from the Journalism School at the University of Colorado and currently resides in Sydney.