When asked why she is passionate about project management, Rhonda Rathje, APR, answered without missing a beat:
“The devil is in the details, for goodness sake.”
Rathje, whose 35-year career spans across industries and three major Fortune 500 companies —Verizon, American Airlines and Walmart — attributes much of her success to her sharp project management skills. When developed properly, these skills, she explains, can elevate the communication professional to a level that allows them to think holistically about the business and ultimately gain the trust and respect of executive leadership.
It should come as no surprise then, too, that Rathje is the instructor for the IABC Academy Course, “The Art of Project Management for the Internal Communicator.” We spoke with her to learn more about her dedication to this skill set and why it’s an essential for communicators.
What led you to become the instructor for an IABC Academy course focused on project management?
I’ve worked in corporate communications for a long time and have done a little bit of everything — community affairs, internal communications, executive communications, media relations, employee engagement. Today, I’m a consultant for several companies. Everything I do now incorporates an element of project management. I couldn’t do any of this work without it.
The reason I chose to do the project management course is because I wanted to pay it forward and share what I’ve learned during my career. I’ve built a lot of different planning matrixes along the way, and I have a lot of tricks of the trade I want to share. I’m a big believer in delivering results and making a difference for the business, and I think that can only happen with strong project management.
What are some of the key project management skills a communication professional should hone?
It starts with communication. You need to effectively articulate your project and then be able to convey that vision and strategy to your team and leadership, while also clearly helping them understand the impact the project will have on the business. Then throughout the project, it’s just as important to communicate across all parties — from colleagues to vice presidents, communicating horizontally and up and down.
The second skill is leadership — being able to lead and accomplish work through other people, inspiring them to do the work and knowing how to build a team. You need to understand the organizational dynamics and all that it entails.
The third skill is listening. I know communicators sometimes like to talk, so it’s important to practice this skill — to really listen and be in the moment.
And while these aren’t skill sets, I also think goal and objective setting are incredibly, incredibly important. To me, your North Star is always “Why are we doing this?” As communicators, we like to get right to the tactics, but it’s our loss if we don’t take a step back first and determine what we’re trying to accomplish. That comes with setting goals and objectives, and you learn that through project management.
And then there’s vision — it’s not necessarily a skill either, but it’s important to have a big picture view. Get up out of the weeds and look ahead, look all around you and know how your initiative fits into the business. Look around the corner for things that are coming your way, too.
Why is project management as a whole an essential skill for communication professionals?
Process applies to everything. No matter what it is, you have to apply a process and that’s project management. It’s a forced discipline that will help you save time and money, and deliver results.
As a communicator, you want to demonstrate that you’re a well-rounded business person. I think project management allows you to have more informed conversations about the initiative because you have that big picture view, you’re looking at the process and you’re determining how to work with teammates across different functions. It’s taking an interdisciplinary approach, rather than just a communications approach.
Project management is a discipline that will help you understand risk, as well. You need to think about what can go wrong: “If X is going to happen, you’re going to do Y. So plan accordingly.”
Lastly, I think as communicators we tend to finish a project and call it a day, because we’re just so busy. But we don’t often close the loop. Good project management forces you to look at the results of a project and determine if it stacked up against what you set out to do. This can be done through surveys or simply collecting feedback from teammates to learn how to improve next time. It shows your business that you mean business.
How does one build a project management-focused skill set over time?
Practice makes perfect, then plan, plan and plan some more. You can start by learning more about different kinds of scheduling or organization-type matrixes to see what works for you. Then learn from your mistakes and move forward. Establish goals and work to achieve them. There is nothing more rewarding than achieving a goal you set for yourself and your team.
Of course, planning is good, but communication remains critical. I read somewhere that two out of five projects don’t meet their organizational goals because of ineffective communication. Overcommunicate to build that skill, and ask for feedback. I don’t think we do that often enough in the business world. Don’t be afraid to do so — the best leaders do.
Most of all, have fun and enjoy your work.
The IABC Academy provides online professional development for business communicators to help advance their careers and generate real business results for their organizations. Learn more about these online workshops, and how the IABC Academy offerings support the Global Communication Certification Council (GCCC) certification program on the IABC website.
Rhonda Rathje, APR, is a seasoned veteran with over 35 years of communication experience in the telecommunications, airline, retail and automotive industries. She is a passionate communicator and storyteller who helps companies discover compelling and original ways to speak about themselves and their work. Rhonda’s expertise is in strategic planning and leadership development initiatives, as well as developing internal/external communications/engagement programs and building marketing and social media plans for various companies and clients. She is known for moving forward and making things happen. She’s a master at project management. If you want something done, ask her. And, when it comes to dotting I’s and crossing T’s, she is the master of details. Rhonda’s legacy is to leave things better than when she found them. Rhonda holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Iowa State University, Ames, and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson.