About 20 years ago, I was the junior partner in a systems implementation firm. In the category of “I’d rather be lucky than smart,” we were purchased for a decent sum four weeks before the market crashed in 2000. Four weeks. It didn’t make me a Silicon Valley millionaire, but those funds put my financial life on a very stable footing.

The firm that bought us bought another eight small firms. The merger of lots of different cultures and egos didn’t go as smoothly as folks might have liked. Shocking, I know.

To my good fortune, I became the “director of special projects.” Any situation – from the data center, to the consulting practice, to marketing communications – that wasn’t working, I was given to fix. And I did pretty well. So much so that after about a year, I realized that I had fixed most of what I could and that I didn’t want to keep traveling around the country almost every week. So, I moved on.

This was my best job ever. For several reasons:

I like managing smart people who know what they’re doing but need to get to the next level.

There are many consultants who like being “needed.” They like being the smartest person in the room or they like playing “mother hen” to a bunch of lost chicks.

That’s not me. While I’ve had many clients where I’ve been the “work around” and not the “work through,” it’s not what I like doing. I much prefer helping smart folks get to the next level.

Almost everyone I worked with was at least what I considered a solid player and many were really, really smart.

I like learning new things.

I’ve been lucky that my career has involved a wide range of clients and subjects. (Indeed, one of my claims to no fame is that I can make an accounting presentation amusing. Seriously).

And that makes it fun. Because while I believe in the importance of continuous improvement, I myself like new challenges

I like fixing a crisis.

While I like fixing a crisis, (more then than now), I much, much prefer addressing the underlying cause. 

My goal for running my projects was not only to get past the immediate crisis, but also to create the foundation for long term success. Which meant addressing people challenges. Sometimes, it was a question of coaching and better communication. Sometimes, we needed to counsel people out. Entrepreneurs don’t magically become good middle managers when they sell their companies. But in every situation, I had the opportunity to work out the problems, not just work around them. 

Over the years since, I’ve had some projects that were equally interesting. One client was involved in an international rollup and my team had to bring financial data together from 10 entities in 6 counties. 

However, I always found clients largely by displaying technical expertise and then pivoting to the more interesting role. By technical, I don’t just mean “developing programs,” but also solving problems where the issue was a lack of a particular knowledge – whether writing proper SQL, creating an exhaustive go live list for an upgrade, or fixing currency accounting issues.

Looking back, I went this direction for several reasons: 

It was an easier sell

It’s easier to pitch knowledge of Lawson or Oracle or SQL server or even currency accounting. People understand what you’re talking about.

I could call what I do project management. But 98% of the project managers I’ve met in my career can’t do what I do. 

People understood what I did

This may seem similar to the pitch question. But it is different. Like many folks, I wanted people to understand what I do even if they are never going to be my client.

It’s easier to hire other folks to do some of the work

At my high point, I had five guys working for me. And I had visions of growth and grandeur. If you’re doing systems work, there’s lots of work to give to other folks that you don’t have to do.

But as often happens, life has changed. 

I’m almost done paying for/saving for my son’s tuition. My retirement funds are in solid shape. Now, instead of growth and grandeur, I really only want to do things that I find interesting and rewarding.

I’m returning to where I was twenty years ago – interesting projects with smart people yes, but much more than that.

I’m interested in the kind of project where the organization is adapting to major change – whether caused by growth, acquisition, or a change in strategic direction.

Since everyone wants to be “data driven,” I imagine that some of my projects will also draw from my years of working with systems and databases. But I’m not limiting myself to data. 

I’m certain that some of my work will require coaching and people issues because, as I said before, if you want to make real change you need to work out your problems, not just work around them.

I accept that most folks who might be interested are folks who already know me. Certainly, not too many folks Google “strategic change project manager.” 

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because I sent you the link. You’d really do me a great favor if you could provide your feedback. Stay healthy and breathe deeply (when you’re six feet away from others).

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