09 May 2019

Ask a consultant: Why project managers stare at you on trains

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As a digital project manager with Ariad, Gilles De Geyter says some of the most valuable tools in his kit are people management skills, including coaching, communication, and understanding body language. We talked with him about what it took to get where he is now, including some awkward-but-effective ways to study your people skills.

Is consulting a state of mind?

Well, no, it’s definitely a professional activity… but a certain kind of mindset can help. As someone who loves learning new things and taking on different projects, Gilles is a great example. Throughout his career, he built upon his journalism skills, adapting and growing in digital marketing, managing projects, and leading others through coaching. These steps have brought him to his first consulting project with Ariad. In hindsight, his path seems linear, although he imagined a different trajectory from the beginning.

“I started in journalism which lead to marketing at BMW, and through that I got in contact with a lot of interesting people. So because of that, you see what other people are doing, and I was attracted to marketing. Life is all about luck sometimes--early on, they called and said ‘hey, we heard about this new thing called SEO or SEA or something... we don’t really know what it is, but can you look into it?’ So I studied and went to a lot of events like Google meetups. I also got to learn a lot about project management and building websites and product releases. You learn a lot about how to fail and be calm and keep working constructively, because it happens. The first time you want to cry inside, but you learn. I’ve learned a lot about marketing, and also coaching.

After a while, for me, when it gets routine I get bored. That’s something I like about being a consultant, I get control over changing projects when I feel like I’m ready to grow and take on new challenges that line up with my goals.”

"‘hey, we heard about this new thing called SEO or SEA or something... we don’t really know what it is, but can you look into it?’"

What are the other main benefits or consulting?

Gilles appreciates the attitude you’re welcomed with inside a company as a consultant, skipping the new-guy mentality and getting down to business. “In many ways, they treat you differently, they know that you have the skills, and you are respected for that. You have a lot of authority in your decisions. You’re hired because you have skills, and you are good at it. There probably isn’t a manual for your job, but if you want, you can write one yourself. Right now I’m in a luxury position, having the best of both worlds.”

As a digital project manager, you have to have a good understanding of technical skills, but Gilles emphasizes the importance of having a good understanding of people. While hosting a recent Ariad Community Night knowledge sharing event, Gilles shared what he’s learned about the human side of project management. What’s important? “How to ask the right questions. How to read people’s emotions when doing a project--that’s very, very important.

“Be mindful of yourself and how you talk to people. Learn how to change your behavior so that people listen to what you have to say. Definitely learn how to give feedback. There are really small changes in how you phrase things that can seem like a stupid thing, but you’ll see how people react differently.”

"I’m in a luxury position, having the best of both worlds."

What are some of the biggest challenges in project management?

“Stakeholder management. If you don’t know who your stakeholders are, even the hidden ones, your project will fail somewhere--meaning that you’re guaranteed to have setbacks.” Gilles elaborated that a common aspect of all types of project management is bringing people together and helping people work together. “The human side of project management is universal. You have a lot of the same patterns on every team, in every company, and ways to manage that.”

But can you learn the human side, or is it something project managers should have naturally?

“It’s like learning to ride a bike: everybody struggles at the beginning, but once you get the hang of it, basically anybody can do it.” Talent can get you there faster, and maybe get you a bit further, but most people with practice can do it well, says Gilles. And there’s a lot of trial and error involved.

“When I was young, I was extremely shy, the youngest of everyone so I grew up having to follow what everyone else did. I learned to overcome that, from very good bosses and also some not so great ones. You eventually learn not fall in line, and to say what you want to say. You do that, and then you realize ‘oh man, this is not turning out right. I should have said it differently’. And you learn from that. Then people give you advice, and you have the choice of taking that or not.”

"It seems extremely stupid but it’s one of the most powerful tools you have."

A good project manager has a very full toolkit, including communication and body language. What’s one of the first things to practice?

“Eye contact: it seems extremely stupid but it’s one of the most powerful tools you have. You can learn that even if you’re an introvert or you’re shy, if you never have eye contact with your team, it’s really difficult for them trust you or build rapport. You can train that--it’s really painful if you don’t know how to do it, but you can train it. You can practice it with your friends and family, and I find that you can tell them that you’re training and they will respect that. I mean, you can do it on the train. It’s kind of creepy, but you can.”

Really, practice with strangers?

“I always tried out things on trains, when I used to ride the train a lot! For example, the way people’s legs are. The way people hold their legs, position their feet, it can communicate a lot. Like feet pointing to a door might mean someone wants to leave. There are many, many tells, and it’s never foolproof, but it helps.

“For example, it’s extremely annoying to talk to somebody who has their arms crossed, because you feel like they don’t want to hear what you’re saying. These small things seems stupid but they can be more important than having a really good PowerPoint presentation and can help you more.”

Gilles is by his own admission not a behavioral coach, but finds use of a lot of behavioral practice while working as a digital project manager. Want Gilles' job? Check out our current vacancies, or get in touch to find out how you can become a digital consultant with Ariad.

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