Why It’s So Essential to Get Executive Sponsorship: A Conversation With Josh Blackwood, Principal Technology Solutions Consultant at ADP
This is the second post in our new series on experts who have mastered modern work. Subscribe to our blog to get on-the-ground advice from work management experts like Josh Blackwood, principal technology solutions consultant at ADP (featured below).
Josh Blackwood has always had an interest in problem solving and exploring how things work. At the beginning of his career, this interest surfaced in his efforts as an IT manager, eventually morphing into his role in project management and work management.
In this interview, Josh talks through his process for obtaining executive sponsorship on company initiatives — a process that he sees as perhaps the best indicator of success. “It's the first thing that I go after, or ensure is really strong, when I start a project,” Josh says. “If it's not there, then I tend to move away from those projects.”
We also talk about career advice, the difference between project management and work management, the best books to read for you career, and more.
How did you get into project management?
Initially, I was an IT manager with a team of more than 20 Tier I and Tier II support engineers supporting about 70 tools and applications. It was a lot to keep up with.
Over the natural course of the work, I got involved with a lot of projects. I earned my PMP certification and, after countless projects as an IT manager and as a project manager, I realized I was most interested in managing work efficiently and effectively.
Why is that?
I've always been interested in how things work and how to fix them. I also picked up an interest somewhere along the way in Six Sigma and processes improvement. Over the course of my career it's kind of naturally led me to figure out how to do it better. That's what really appeals to me about it.
What unique skill sets do you have that qualify you to be a project manager?
I think the primary skill is always learning something new from whatever I’m doing. If I’m not learning, I’m not growing.
I was given advice early in career to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That advice always helps me push the boundaries and avoid complacency. It has always served me well, since the beginning of my career. If I’m cruising along and everything is easy and I can do my job asleep, with 20 percent effort — well, that's not really work, right? So, any time I catch myself getting too comfortable or finding things too easy, I search for something new and try it out.
What challenges did you face when you first started?
When I first started, I was challenged by constant change. I started out doing administrative support type work, websites and stuff like that. I then moved into a support engineering role, and then I was a lead, and then I was a manager — you know, just going down that course. And I just really liked project-based work.
What’s an example of a time when a project didn't turn out the way you wanted it to?
One time I was involved in a project where we tried to build a portal so team members could submit ideas about issues that they wanted to improve or fix. To do this we initially wanted to use one of our systems that ran on an intranet collaboration platform, but we kept running into problems with the way it was set up. So, we decided to use Workfront instead. We got everything set up and it was pretty slick — with bidirectional updates, status sharing, and more.
Then the whole project died on the vine. We lost our executive sponsor for the project, and we couldn’t get another leader to take it on. Everybody still thought it was a good idea, but no one took ownership for it. The whole thing became a failed project.
That’s tough. Do you have an example of where things went well?
Yes, we have many, but I’ll share just one.
We went through a massive transformational project here at ADP, where we changed our frontend platform and our backend database for our main HCM product. While we were in the process of doing this, we also reimagined how all the different processes and groups work together. You could kind of think of it as a platform change, but with a ton of BPI initiatives mixed into it.
It affected the entire business, every aspect, and it was really successful. I think the main reason why is that we had very engaged senior VPs, in the weeds every day, working with all the different groups. Because of that ownership and attention we didn't run into any of the problems with prioritization and competing needs. Everything moved smoothly.
You're saying that success or failure in both cases had to do with getting executive sponsorship, right?
So what advice would you have for a young person starting out in their career — particularly when it comes to getting executive sponsorship?
I honestly think it’s paramount. In fact, it's the first thing that I go after, or ensure is really strong, when I start a project. If it's not there, then I tend to move away from those projects because unless it's something that's quick and easy, at some point you're gonna run into a fork in the road where you have to make a choice.
I’ll say this, by way of advice: If a project is not important to your boss or your boss's boss, move on. If it's important to them they'll give you the time and the resources you need to succeed.
So, how do you know if you have executive sponsorship?
You know, that's a tough one. I mean, beyond talking to people and just kind of feeling it out, I don't know if there's a hard-fast rule. I would say, though, that the more engaged sponsors are, the more successful projects tend to be.
There's no service-level agreement or contract you would sign, and it's not like you can give them a polygraph test. It's just an informal, soft-skills sort of thing, almost like developing an intuitive sense for commitment.
What's the single biggest thing that people who aren't in work management get wrong about work management?
I think people don’t understand the difference between project management and work management.
Project management is a time-boxed activity with a specific start and end date.
Work management tends to be more focused around continuous and operational activities.
Do you think of yourself as a project manager than a work manager?
It depends on what the activity is. In some cases I'm very much still a project manager, and in some cases I'm very much a work manager. I happen to get involved in lots of different stuff, so some things tend to be more operational, continuous, and ongoing, while other things are a one and done activity.
So, it really goes back and forth. And some projects seem to drag on forever, to point they feel like a continuous feature of the business.
What do you think is the most important work skill to help people succeed in the future?
Tenacity. If you keep working at something, and you don't quit, you'll eventually accomplish your goals. You may not achieve what you envisioned initially, but you will always be successful.
That seems to fit with the advice to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Yes, that's right.
What aspect of work is currently being overlooked today?
I really like what Alex Shootman observes in Done Right about the work performance indicator of mix. He invites businesses to think about how they balance the operation factor versus the innovation factor.
In my opinion, that balance is constantly being overlooked today. It's different, obviously, for every business and every situation, but you've gotta figure out the right blend of keeping the lights on while still innovating to find the next new thing.
Finally, any books you’d recommend to somebody who is interested in project management or work management?
These aren't specific to project management, but they’ve been helpful in my career: The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and The Effortless Experience by Matthew Dickson.