Lockdown Economy World in Project Management Coaching with Heather Gates

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Deepti Sharma

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview hosted by Rosie Allison, we meet Heather Gates, founder of PM Rehab, a project management coaching service based in Amsterdam. Heather discussed the challenges she faced in starting PM Rehab in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. She found there was a great need for her service but struggled to manage the overload of demand for different types of coaching. In order to deal with this overload, Heather focused on her roots in IT and honed her business process and marketing strategy to ensure PM Rehab’s strategic aims were consistent.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Tell us a little bit more about what exactly you do as a business and how long have you been doing it?

Heather: PM Rehab is a Project management coaching business, started back in 2017 initially with a focus on general consulting services like managing projects and helping businesses in organizational transformation. But towards the end of 2019, I decided to find a niche in advancing skills in project management along with scaling up my capabilities to take up more clients and help them improve their project management.

Although predetermined to launch PM Rehab before the onset of the pandemic — I actually launched it in July of 2020. It gave me the opportunity to put out a service that provides project insights to the companies challenged with resources having low project management skills — people having to wear multiple hats to run projects, be it in sales or IT or anyone having to run projects without much training. PM Rehab is the one to bridge this gap and upskill people besides providing insights on their projects.

How does PM Rehab work and what’s its business structure?

Heather: It’s an online business and provides virtual coaching. We start the engagement by getting familiar with our clients in the form of a questionnaire — following it up with a free kickoff meeting. This allows us to establish a foundation encompassing the challenges faced by the employees as a project manager, their experience level, what organizations they work for, and how they’re expected to manage projects within those organizations. Thereafter, we put together a coaching plan based on their pain points and expectations. We bundle up hours every month- allow the resource(client) to schedule on our coaching platform -and we’re ready within 2 hrs notice. They can use their hours every month as per their daily job responsibilities and get someone unbiased who helps them- prepare for meetings, communications, and handle ongoing escalations.

The difference between us and traditional training is that we help people through real-time projects and use cases thereby improving their skills and maintaining their credibility if that’s an issue. We provide the required oversight and share the projects with them.

We’ve built our platform on Zoho one cloud system- a highly integrated application- our customers can collaborate on it with us- schedule and view their coaching plan as well as their hour consumption pattern throughout the subscription period in real-time. On the whole, it works via subscription-based hours that can be used by the resources and companies towards projects or activities needing support.

Does sound like an interesting and innovative approach to business coaching. I understand you started PM Rehab amidst the pandemic, which must have been challenging for you and your clients. Any advice for small businesses on how you stimulated your business during the pandemic to stimulate your clients’ businesses in turn?

Heather: Yes, It’s been quite challenging. I had actually established my business plan pre-pandemic — but implemented during the pandemic- so still facing many challenges. Since it was always online to start with, that didn’t have much effect. What really affected me was: there are various coaches available in project management, doing things slightly differently than I am. But I think it’s been a really positive space because it’s pretty much required across all industries-all companies have projects to manage at some level if not formally then at least in certain aspects.

Opportunities have been overwhelming-I’ve been so busy trying to understand the challenges of my customers and how I can help them. A lot of them have even asked me to adopt more services or provide support with, unaligned with the ones we already have. Also, I’ve to decline requests for running projects directly, since I am there to help their resources run the same. I’ve been into remote management for the past 15 years- quite used to bringing people together virtually and don’t need them necessarily in front of me. Lots of companies are currently in transition and requiring this experience. So I’m working to exercise my services & get my customers to buy into my strategy of upskilling their existing resources to be able to better manage their projects as opposed to the old strategy of taking the easy route out by having somebody come in to take over, upon being overwhelmed by challenges.

On the other side, now that everybody is home- sitting in front of a desk or on their phones- one really has to have amazing content and a good message in their marketing, which is another challenge. I’d really encourage startups and new entrepreneurs to have in place an effective marketing strategy and plan. Honestly, I admit that when I put my plan into action in January 2020, I didn’t put much emphasis on the marketing aspect of it or social media. Personally, I’m not really into social media, but I’m trying to be better with my team helping me get there. One really needs to make sure to have a solid and consistent approach towards marketing. It’s one thing I’d surely recommend to people starting up, especially if they have a good product or service, they need to consider how to market it. It’s really difficult to get the attention of the people sitting or waiting at home, with so many others trying to get it.

Like few things you mentioned, I think almost every business is feeling the emphasis on overload during this period, with everything going online, the sudden emergence of so many platforms and opportunities and opening of different avenues for businesses. How did you deal with the overload and narrow down your target market for PM Rehab?

Heather: Project management is a vast space and I’ve been doing it for 20 years across many industries. But I had to be honest to myself and open the door with my bread and butter i.e., IT. For the majority of my career, I was a technology project manager- started off doing developing and programming. Initially, I wanted to shy away from it and do more things given that as the business owner I could do any work I wanted- while it might be the case but one needs to be realistic. One can diversify or scale up once they’ve been in the game for longer and have a solid foundation.

My credibility with people has been built off IT projects and transformations. Anything to do with technical space — professional services or project management- has been the foundation of my career. I kind of figured out that just because I want to do something else doesn’t mean I should shy away from what I know and am good at. So, I started honing in on the IT companies especially in the middle east and Africa, which may not be having access to lots of training or services either because of their location or the way their procurement cycle goes. I’ve worked in the Middle East for about 8 years, so I understand how their culture works and what they’re used to- having people sitting across from them and being able to see them working. But those days are now few and far in between if not completely gone. I believe they need people to understand them, how their projects are run, the level of communication required and their expectations- these are the things I really want to bring in my services. I am therefore focusing on customers who are counting on partners to deliver services in the IT sector.

Having said that, I just had to be honest with myself and not try to do something that I can’t as well as don’t have the long term credibility or network for- IT, that’s where my network is, so that’s what I decided to focus on. You need to understand where your passion is and where you can get your foot in the door with the credibility that you’ve established and you can spread out from there.

Very valuable information: get back to your roots and focus on it during this time. Tell me more about PM Rehab in the current scenario and how’s it going?

Heather: As I said with PM Rehab, I’m very busy. One of the exciting things is: since July- because I didn’t have a strong marketing plan from the beginning- I needed to and hired talent to help me. From there on I’ve been able to grow significantly and get probably around 4–5 one-on-one networking or collaboration opportunities every week. Currently, I’m the only one doing the coaching so I’m trying not to take on too much too fast because it’s just myself right now. I definitely want to be successful but before that, I want to have a solid foundation not only in my coaching services but also my business processes. One of the things that I really took time for during the pandemic was to establish my business processes- from building my content and marketing it to having a road map for rolling out the services. Besides making sure to have as much automation as possible, so that I don’t have to manually send emails myself all the time when there are particular use cases which can be automated within my business operation- that’s something I focused on. Although I’m trying to grow small, yet getting a little overwhelmed by the number of opportunities coming my way. But it’s all exciting since I know it’s just a matter of time before all the wheels come together.

I recently spun a new service- a two-and-a-half hours master class on getting started with fundamentals of project management- owing to the inputs from people that they want to change careers during the pandemic and get into project management or now have to manage projects to keep their jobs. The target group includes people just starting out in project management or those who have to do it for their jobs. They get the hands-on-knowledge of different methodologies, certifications and skills they need- some already existing within them. I try to bring out the transferable skills, so as to make people more confident and informed to take on the challenge and also to further their education afterwards.

To give them a good start so they feel capable, we take them end-to-end through a project with simple use cases and a project management tool. Within an hour they are able to understand how to deal with certain challenges — resource management, budget management or change in the scope of a project- giving them a good hands-on feeling of what it’s like to be a project manager with all the right data points. It can result in them realising if that’s what they want to do or maybe do not want to do. We offer this fundamental- career-boosting -live course twice a month at a smaller price point than our other more enhanced services. People can benefit by collaborating with or being part of a community of other people learning project management, which we’re trying to build within PM Rehab and they can always come back to it. Due to instability right now customers are not as willing to spend on training & development, that’s why in the meantime we have spun up this class with more opportunities coming up in 2021 when they’ll be more ready to take the next step to continue the business.

Those are some great insights you’ve given us. But small businesses always have things they need help with. What are the three things that you need help within PM Rehab to get to the next level?

Heather: Being privately owned and self-financed with a perfectionist attitude towards work added to that, I think first would be to pace myself and not scale up too quickly. If I can have more time that’d be great, not that I can help it. The other one is raising capital in 2021 to continue growing while upscaling and trying to do more at PM Rehab. And I want to bring brand awareness, getting out what PM Rehab is all about, keeping project management at the forefront of marketing, not to say that one has to be a project manager in the title. It’s about projects of any type albeit moving to a new home and it’s about crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. I want to make these things happen without sacrificing the quality of service, for that I need to have time.

About the Guest

In 2020, Heather left her 20-year corporate career of leading global programs and transforming professional services teams, and launched PM Rehab to dedicate the next chapter of her professional career to coaching the next generation of project managers on their interpersonal and project management skills. Inspired by Peter Drucker quote, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”, Heather created PM Rehab to bring a new and fresh approach to improving the quality of projects and the professionals who manage them.


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