work management for introverts

Work Management for Introverts: An Interview with Cameron Masters, Project Manager at Workfront

This interview is part of a series with masters of modern work. Also see our interviews with Scott Shippy, Josh Blackwood, and Greg Stine.

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Cameron Masters studied communications in college and then worked in digital marketing. Like others we’ve interviewed for this series, he didn’t initially intend to be a project manager (perhaps no one does!). He started his career at an agency as the customer liaison to Microsoft. After doing that for six years, he realized that the requirement to be orderly, follow up, and get tasks done on time appealed to him even more than digital marketing.

“Work management was certainly something that I never really planned on getting into,” he says, “but I gravitated towards it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Cameron gravitated toward the role (with all its focus on interacting with people) even though he’s a self-described introvert.

“When I meet somebody new,” he says, “I don't love to talk at them. I would prefer that they speak and I listen. I could happily sit and have somebody just talk and talk and let me just ask questions to keep them going.” He adds, “If I find a fellow introvert, somebody who doesn't want to talk, and we're comfortable being quiet, that works just fine to me.”

In this interview, we discuss Cameron’s experiences and how to succeed at work management, despite of (or perhaps because of) his introverted personality.

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What skills have helped you deepen relationships when leading modern work?

Personally, I'm introverted. So when I meet somebody new, I don't love to talk at them. I would prefer that they speak and I listen. I could happily sit and have somebody just talk and talk, and let me just ask questions to keep them going. So, if I'm able to meet somebody, and ideally, that would be kind of the relationship there. If that's not the case, then being able to sit down and ask them questions about themselves and maybe try to get them to open up – if I find a fellow introvert, somebody who doesn't want to talk, and we're comfortable kind of being quiet, then we have an understanding there.

But if it's the alternative, if it's somebody who is a little bit more social, I feel like the skill that I am able to demonstrate is the ability to show them that I'm listening and that they're heard. And I want to build the relationship from the perspective that I'm always here if you want to talk to me. I may not have an immediate resolution for you, and I need them to understand that I can't just snap my fingers and have everything solved for them immediately. But I can hear them and I can listen to them, and I can demonstrate to them that I'll understand what they're saying and what their problem is or what their concern is, and be able to take next best actions to be able to help mitigate that.

What challenges did you face when you first started in work management?

I struggled to figure out how to meet customer expectations within the limits of scope, timeframe, budget, and the capabilities we were able to provide.

Learning how to walk the line of being a customer advocate, but also being able to be a representative for your team is really tricky. Your team wants you to meet with the customer and limit the scope so they can continue to work with other customer requests at the same time. Meanwhile the customers are looking for the PM to be an advocate, to give them what's best, to make recommendations, and to go above and beyond to make them exceptionally happy. So, being able to find that fine balance and really feel like everybody thinks that you're their representative is extremely challenging.

What has helped you navigate that challenge well?

Learning how to set clear expectations upfront.

There's always a learning period where you discover the way that a company operates as well as the way that a customer operates. You have to figure out how to meet the demands of both parties — how you strike that balance. Once you understand that balance, it helps tremendously to set clear expectations — including outlining common risks — right from the start of any project.

How do you know what the expectations are?

You need a lengthy upfront discussion about what everyone is looking for from the project, and then you have to document that somewhere. That way when the project is complete you can say, "Here's what you requested, and here's what we delivered." You have to compare the two and see if there are any discrepancies.

What else leads to success?

Building customer relationships and maintaining the human element. This is an important thing to keep in mind, especially for introverts like me.

A lot of work is done digitally now, and it's often done with multiple people who are not in the same location, or perhaps even in the same time zone. With everything going online, it's still important to realize that digital tools will only function well if there is a human element. 

Having a system of record for work doesn’t replace meetings. It doesn’t replace the need to have conversations. It doesn’t replace the need to get on the phone with somebody or to send an email and ask for clarification. As an introvert, I'm happy being in my own space, but I cannot succeed at work management without bringing the human element into my communication.

A system of record for work can enhance the capacity to bring people globally together. And Workfront does a really exceptional job at that. But we still need to have, at a fundamental level, exceptional communication.

How do you know when you should communicate in person or via phone?

When you need to show a level of urgency and care. Talking with somebody directly shows that you care enough to listen and respond right away rather than, in essence, shrug them off via a digital tool. 

That said, I personally like using digital tools to maintain a history of communication and have a centralized area where people can revisit the agreed upon scope and agreed upon deliverable services. From there we can have casual conversations back and forth via digital tools, phone, and face-to-face interactions.

With Workfront, we're able to comment on tasks, and we're able to discuss items directly in the tool. But if there is a critical risk, I don’t write a lengthy essay and post it as a comment on a task, hoping the person I’m writing to sees it and responds. That can be very impersonal. Even just being able to talk with somebody in person and hear the tone of their voice, or see their body language on a video call can help prevent needless disagreement. So much gets misinterpreted over text or over email that it's never a good idea to get into a conversation that maybe stems from a disagreement over a digital avenue.

Would you say that leading modern work requires people to develop the intuition to understand when communicating via a tool is best versus face-to-face?

Yeah, absolutely. And it depends on the level of the project manager and what they're specifically tasked to do. Really big organizations and agencies will have a senior project manager, an associate project manager, and a project coordinator all on one project. And they have different responsibilities, and they all have to navigate that process in their own way.

What do you do to bring the personal element into your work so that when a conflict happens, it doesn't disrupt the project, potentially?

It truly depends on what you are enabled to do based on the organization that you work for. So some organizations will have the financing and the bandwidth to be able to have a project manager handle one account. And if that's the case, then you're expected to be very strategic and oftentimes onsite with the customer, face-to-face, multiple times per week.

Some project managers at huge enterprises are hired full-time to sit onsite with the customer for six months or a year, and they have a contract position. Other project managers may be overloaded and have a bandwidth that's such that they're never able to connect with their customers in person.

Is there any advice that was helpful to you when you first started out?

The advice that I remember was that if you are given the opportunity to do something and you feel like you can't do it, you should still attempt it, even if you fail. One of the very admirable traits of successful project managers is that they can go back to a stakeholder or to a customer and say, “I have to be really honest with you. We didn't do this correctly.” Or, “hey, I feel like we could have done this better, done this differently.” They're able to offer constructive criticism to themselves and to take ownership of a shortcoming or something that they recognize that they could have done differently. Because it's always going to be a learning opportunity.

If you feel like you want to grow, take an opportunity where you feel like you have shortcomings, and go for it — and be very transparent. People who are humble and confident enough to be able to say, “I dropped the ball” stand out. As long as they then say, “Here's how I propose we resolve it.” I think people find that very refreshing and trustworthy, and that's something that I would definitely recommend.

Any books that have been particularly helpful?

One of my favorite books, in terms of helping me from a career perspective, is Quiet by Susan Cain. It's about introverts. It helped me from my career perspective because it helped me realize there's nothing wrong with my personality at work.

It showed me how to play to the strengths of my personality and how it is that I can use my personality to better engage with individuals who are both extroverted, introverted, or ambivert, a mixture of both.

It helped me build confidence in my character and realize that there are extremely valuable personality traits that I have that other gregarious people don't have that can be showcased and can be valuable in certain situations, and to focus on those as opportunities to shine. It's also just really well-written.

What do you think is the difference between project management and work management?

I think project management focuses very granularly on a specific set of deliverables. And from a project management perspective, it should be that way. The project should be clearly defined, with specific deliverables, specific steps, specific tasks, and phases that define the work that will be done.

Work management differs in the sense that work often involves more people than a specific project might. So work would kind of be the broader term, and work is comprised of multiple projects, which could be owned by a project manager. Work management is more of a process-driven focus, where you're trying to figure out the best way to complete an aggregate number of projects, or help a large group of project managers or a large department figure out how they are going to fulfill all of those projects better.

Multiple projects make up work, and work is change management — or to enhance the way that you work includes change management, process development, strategy, and buy-in from senior leadership for a department as a whole; whereas the tactical projects and the day-to-day tasks that are being completed are what project managers would be looking after underneath the guidance of the work management processes.

What do you think that people who aren't in work management most often get wrong about work management?

I think people are too often afraid of work management, especially change management.

I think they're afraid of allowing their employees to work remotely, or empowering their employees to be able to live in a different country or do something like that. It's a huge change. Work management and developing the process around change management is extremely difficult, and there are massive consulting agencies and consulting firms — McKinsey, and Deloitte, and all these other firms — that have thriving businesses that just focus on helping companies with change management. Because it's certainly not easy.

So what do you think is the most important skill to learn for the future in this area?

It depends on who you're talking to. For people who are mature in their careers, it's important to embrace the fact that young team members can be a source of knowledge.

I'm thinking about an executive of a company, who is much more experienced and who has several more years of experience, and who maybe didn't initially start out their career working digitally and is a digital immigrant. I would say the best thing that they could do would be to be extremely open-minded and almost humorously candid towards the fact that the people working for them likely have more experience working in a digital manner.

If it were somebody who was green in their career and immature, my advice would be this: Don’t come into an organization thinking that you know everything about what you should be doing. Be open-minded and ready to learn for those with .

So there's a parallel to the advice I’d give an executive. That is, no matter what stage you're in throughout your career, be open-minded and willing to learn.

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