Show Me: How a coach can assist an IT project

This IT project manager was skeptical about taking on a personal coach. Six months later, she's a believer.

They don't call Missouri the Show-Me State for nothing. People there aren't easily taken in by claims and promises; they want proof. So it isn't surprising that when IT project manager Destiny Moneysmith found out last fall that she was about to get a personal coach, she was less than enthusiastic. "I was very skeptical," she recalls. "My past experience with consultants on projects had been less than satisfactory."

Why was Moneysmith, who had worked in IT at Truman Medical Centers Inc. (TMC) in Kansas City for three years, getting a coach? CIO Bill McQuiston had selected her to lead a three-person team in an organizationwide information needs assessment.

"We would be asking executives, administrators, directors and managers throughout the business about information needs, ranging from data and systems needs to information to take care of patients, to information needed to run day-to-day operations -- basically any information that flows," Moneysmith said, describing the start of the project.

But McQuiston noticed that the team had a hard time getting started.

"There was some intimidation about working with the highest people in the organization and some confidence issues about whether they could accomplish a project of that magnitude," he says.

McQuiston decided to engage a coach to walk Moneysmith and the team through the process. Enter consultant Gwen Walsh from Bedford, N.H.-based Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc., a firm TMC had had good experiences with in workshops and related services. Here's how the coaching engagement played out:

Truman Medical Center's Destiny Moneysmith (right) and Ouellette & Associates consultant Gwen Walsh
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Truman Medical Center's Destiny Moneysmith (right) and Ouellette & Associates consultant Gwen Walsh

Image Credit: Scott Indermauer
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October 2004

McQuiston asks Moneysmith and Walsh to talk, and they have the first of several phone conversations about the project and what Walsh can bring to it.

Walsh immediately picks up on Moneysmith's hesitancy about being coached. "I'm getting that you're not trusting me," she tells the project manager, who confesses her lack of enthusiasm for the idea.

Walsh responds by talking about her experience with similar IT projects, and Moneysmith agrees to give it a try. They follow up with several calls and e-mails before the engagement begins.

In those early conversations, Moneysmith talks about what she wants: help with the project charter, strategies and work breakdown structure. "If we had extra time, I had other things we could work on," she recalls. "I wanted to make sure we got our money's worth."

November 2004

Walsh begins providing TMC's team with the nuts-and-bolts skills required to manage the needs assessment. By late November, the team is documenting requirements, strategies and the project charter and plan. And Walsh is broadening her contribution. "We saw that she had all these other skills, so we tapped her for all the resources we could get," Moneysmith says.

Walsh begins working on each team member's personal development, offering tips and techniques to practice on one another.

"One of the things was body language," Moneysmith says. "When we sat in meetings, we tended to nod that we understood. But Gwen coached us that this is often perceived as 'I agree,' not just 'I understand and am listening.' She pointed out that we might have been sending mixed signals. So now when we have conversations among ourselves, we say, 'Hey, you're doing it again -- are you understanding or agreeing?'"

December 2004

Walsh works on getting the team members to be more assertive. "We realize we need to be more verbal in meetings," Moneysmith says. "My personal challenge is to 'blurt.' When things come up that bother me, I can't sit back and think about it while nodding my head. I need to bring it out on the table."

The team members begin to speak up at departmental meetings, and they see results almost immediately. "It's been very positive," Moneysmith says. "When we have something to say, we say it, and people are listening to us."

January 2005

As Walsh sees opportunities for development, she suggests tips and techniques, including the following:

  • Assertiveness: Recraft e-mails to be more direct when communicating with the boss. Instead of saying, "Can we do this?" say, "This is what we want."
  • Empowerment: Instead of asking for permission to proceed, feel confident enough to move forward with your ideas and then send your manager a note.
  • Communication: Be firm and straightforward. Instead of sending wishy-washy messages that ask for help but give the recipient an easy out, say, "This is what I need by this date."
  • Difficult situations: Present the facts, even if they are harsh, then work out a solution. Focus on the data, process and fix.

As the team becomes more comfortable with Walsh, they add their own items to the coaching agenda. "We've opened up and asked for assistance," Moneysmith says. "For example, in the hallway someone said, 'Hey what do you actually do in your job?' I took it as insulting, but Gwen said, 'This is an opportunity for you to market yourself.'"

Walsh then helps the group to fashion "marketing lines, tag lines and comeback lines" to use in various situations.

February 2005

Team members have gained enough confidence to try stepping out of their comfort zones. Previously, Moneysmith had run the meetings with business people, but now the others try that role. "It's safe because the other two are there to jump in and back you up if you need help," she explains. "You're not by yourself."

Walsh continues to help the team improve its project management skills and personal skills in tandem. For example, they begin work on a project prioritization matrix by asking the IT directors how the company and IT prioritize projects. They find that the process is neither formal nor documented.

The team members formalize the process the directors describe, adding weights and values to rate and score any project through hard data rather than gut feel. Then they practice their soft skills. "When we took it back to the directors, we had to present that tactfully so they would accept it," Moneysmith explains. "We didn't want them to feel we were telling them how to do their jobs."

Moneysmith is stepping into her leadership role. She realizes that she has taken the coaching agenda out of Walsh's hands. "In the early meetings, I'd be rushing around making sure I got my action items done," she recalls. "Now, I usually have an agenda."

"Blurting" has become so second nature that during departmental meetings, attendees turn to Moneysmith with an expectant "Aren't you going to say anything?"

"When she learned to blurt it out, it was like a light switch turned on, and she hasn't turned it off since," Walsh says.

March 2005

The project is nearly done. Walsh coaches the team on how to analyze findings, document their analysis and get buy-in from the departments on their methodology. Once the analysis is complete, they practice presenting the information to better handle difficult questions from the audience.

In this final round, they are still simultaneously working on personal growth. Moneysmith's new focus is delegating project tasks.

"Gwen has helped me realize I can't do everything," she says. "She showed me how to stay connected but not do the work -- how I can still check up on it, but I don't have to own it."

April 2005

The team gives its final presentation. "It went great -- very smooth, and nothing they threw at us caused us any concern," Moneysmith reports. A week later, after focusing on lessons learned, the group is ready for a new project.

CIO McQuiston says the engagement was a big success. "I see a physical difference [in Moneysmith]," he says. "I see a person who is more confident and more able to confront issues and ideas. She shows a lot more boldness, in a good way.

"[The team] served up an end product that was on time, well organized and very useful," McQuiston adds. "There's no question the project was a success. It will serve as a guidepost for us developing our capital expenditure plan and everything else."

Everyone was impressed with the team, he adds. "And when I started to get 'Can they work on my project?' I know there's something positive happening."

Moneysmith knows it, too. "When I started out, I was kind of scared of the project; I hadn't done something in this manner before. I questioned my ability and how everybody would react," she recalls. "Now I don't think I'm scared about tackling anything they throw our way."

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