Today’s interview is another deep-dive into the relevance of collective resilience within a particular sector – in this case, project management.
Our guest is Jennifer Vollbrecht, a Marine Corps veteran and project manager who heads up her own consulting firm, J. Vollbrecht Consulting, Inc. Jennifer is also a board member of FIX’D, one of the nonprofits we have featured in our Giving Back series.
Hi Jennifer! Thanks for chatting with us. Tell us a little about who you are and where you’re from.
I grew up in San Jose, CA and now live with my family in Manteca, CA. I joined the Marines in 2004 and deployed to Iraq in 2005; my husband was also in the Marines. We have two children, who are five and seven. My husband is a firefighter, and I own a Project Management Consulting firm called J. Vollbrecht Consulting. I do government contracting; my experience running government projects spans over 15 years. I love being an entrepreneur, it has been the most fun journey and I love working with great people on important projects.
What can you tell us about the journey of your education and career background?
I have spent my career in the defense and government contracting industry. Starting out in aviation, I learned about project management as a career while I was learning to build and deliver upgraded aircraft to the Army. I learned the importance of meeting delivery schedules, coordinating multiple trades and managing cost and I figured out how to navigate this career field to best suit my interests. After receiving my BS Degree in Aeronautics from Embry Riddle, I decided to pursue my MBA so that I would have a more broad understanding of the business and how to deliver the best value for our customers. I also obtained my PMP Certification as I started managing larger projects. I’m currently pursuing a doctorate in business from St. Mary’s.
How were you introduced to project management, and what drew you toward it as a career path versus some of your other experiences, such as flight testing and engineering?
On large projects, the engineer is often the assigned as the Control Account Manager (CAM) and they are responsible for the scope, schedule, budget of a specific product in a larger project. So, it’s like mini-project management. I started out as a CAM on a $200M + Program and I excelled in the delivery phase. This led me to bigger projects and eventually into construction project management. I most enjoy interfacing with stakeholders and solving complex technical problems.
Working with interdependent teams across an organization – each a part of the whole but also having their own goals – can present a challenge for project managers. What your own tips for navigating those relationships?
Be humble. As the project manager, it is so important to recognize the skills that each team brings to the table. Each piece of the puzzle has to integrate into the big picture, and a humble leader knows how to lean on the experts to ensure the job gets done. Project management is mostly about relationships, rather than technical expertise. A good project manager knows their team well, knows their limitations and when to push for excellence. One of my favorite things about this part of the job is getting to know my teammates and developing long lasting professional relationships. Developing trust and respect while performing the important work and delivering highest quality.
In your mind, what is the most important skill that a project manager can or should master to excel in the position?
A project manager must value relationships first and foremost to become successful in this field. The project team, stakeholders and supporting organizations, like safety, quality and contracting all play integral roles in the performance of a successful project. Making sure everyone knows how crucial their role is to the ultimate success of the project will ensure these organizations are ready to support the project to the best of their ability.
What aspects of project management do you feel are the least understood in terms of what determines success?
A common pitfall that I see in project management is the requirement to also be an engineer. It’s not required! Engineers with great leadership skills are a good fit for project management, but I think the least understood facet of being a great project manager is the ability to put your ego away and lead with humility. Technical competence comes with time and experience, but an arrogant project manager will not gain the trust and respect needed to overcome complex technical challenges while leading their team to success.
How is leadership – specifically, the ability to lead and understand people – important to success in project management?
I do a lot of projects in the Silicon Valley, where there are many active projects and competing priorities. The ability to lead and understand people greatly affects my ability to perform as a project manager in this environment. Being able to communicate the priority of my project and ensuring people understand the mission we are supporting ensures that we are able to meet deadlines and perform to expectations.
With the clients that you consult with through your firm, how do you approach incorporating this more human, less technical side of project management in an instructive way?
I try to get to know my clients in a personal way. In a pre-COVID environment, I would travel to the site when I was working on a high visibility deliverable, so they could see me focusing on their project. Through COVID, this has happened more naturally: We are meeting each other’s children on Zoom, and we are sharing this experience together. Not only do my clients become more human, but I also do my best to be vulnerable when I am having a tough time. I find that relating to the team on a personal level really allows you to gain trust and they know they can count on you because you have their best interest in mind, not only as a professional but as a human.
What are the three most important aspects of RBLP, in your opinion, that you would convey to your fellow project managers to as examples of why it is a valuable training resource?
My favorite part about the RBLP curriculum is demonstrating leadership through storytelling. This is the most effective way to relate to people and to communicate expectations. The curriculum has many foundational aspects that are based on military leadership. The curriculum is also research-based and backed by data!
You mentioned earlier that project management is mostly about relationships, rather than technical expertise. Would you say this is a prime example of how a PMP and a leadership certification like RBLP can work hand in hand?
Yes! The PMP teaches in a textbook way that the Project Manager’s job is 80% communication and 20% technical. I would argue that it’s 95% communication and 5% technical, because a charismatic leader who understands the final end result can lead a project far better than someone who is very into the technical details, but is not a strong leader. The RBLP program places emphasis on the importance of communication for a successful leader. Storytelling with a purpose to drive the mission and engage the team is invaluable.
It was fun to go through my “bank” of stories and experiences, following my career and learning how these situations applied to leadership scenarios. I had good and bad examples of leadership, and they are all valuable to my story as a project manager.
In your capacity as the president of your own company, how has leadership certification allowed you to reflect on the best methods for launching a new endeavor?
The leadership certification shows my commitment to lifelong learning and professional development. I encourage my team members to pursue technical certifications and leadership training, so I think it is important to set the example. In my opinion, the certification will be part of my company’s foundational values to provide the very best solution for our clients through leadership.
What is one of your own best personal experiences in your career that has influenced or inspired you in your career path?
For me, it is very important to work on meaningful projects. I have found much career satisfaction by working on national security-related projects and programs. My career path has consistently aligned with my personal values and mission. This link between personal and professional drives my ambition to keep striving for the next goal and has been instrumental in my successful career, transforming from engineer to project manager and most recently as an entrepreneur.
One of your other projects is serving as vice president for the nonprofit organization FIX’D, which provides behavioral health services, accredited life coaching and peer support to veterans. How did you become involved with them?
We hosted FIX’D during a Veteran’s Day panel at a previous employer. I met the team and was impressed by their mission and their progress. I wanted to get involved as a board member because of my experience with grant writing and leading organizations through growth phases. It has been such a rewarding journey as a board member and positively affecting the lives of veterans.
Pivoting a little bit from the program – tell us a little about yourself outside of work! What other activities or hobbies do you love?
I love to get lost in a book. That is my favorite pastime! I notice that this is being passed on to my children, who are both avid readers and we share this as an evening activity. I love to go outdoors, go camping with my family and hiking, or even just hanging out in the backyard. We enjoy travelling and my favorite thing to do on vacation is to just wing it! I spend my life planning and calculating risk as a project manager, so sometimes it’s fun for me to let go of the project manager in me and just be spontaneous. We often head out of town with no agenda an no reservations and see where we end up.
Can you give us a quotation that you feel really inspires you to continue inspiring others?
I am working on becoming the best version of myself and I am deeply connected to my story and my mission. This has been a journey and I am having fun every step of the way! It is my hope to inspire others, especially my children to see what you can really accomplish when you set goals and make a little bit of progress toward them each day.
RBLP leadership certifications are about Building Resilient Teams™ that overcome adversity and then can adapt and grow! As always, we are #StrongerTogether.