You can have all the responsibility you want – even when you’re still young. Nelli Schwabauer is a great proof for that. Read more to learn what got her to lead commercial projects at only 25 years of age.
Nelli is a project manager from Germany. She holds a degree in industrial engineering that she acquired part time while working for an automotive supplier. This already tells you a lot about her ambition and work ethic and why she climbed the ladder so fast.
A Fascination For Project Management
After completing her studies and joining her current company, Nelli was first assigned to the marketing department. She quickly realized that this was not what she wanted to do. Her company suggested to take a look at project management.
Nelli had been observing the project managers at the company and she enjoyed being around them: “I liked these people. They were go-getters and team players like me. They wanted to get things done. Not like the other people … the bystanders who just talk. I also wanted to move things forward and lead projects.”
There were more reasons why Nelli was excited about working as a project manager. She wanted to grow a wide range of skills and not end up as an expert. Most importantly though, Nelli loved being part of a team and talking to other people.
Gradually moving into project management
So how did Nelli become a project manager?
For the first 6 months at her company, Nelli was just shadowing senior project managers. She joined every project meeting and observed how the experienced PMs ran their meetings.
She also got familiar with the project management tools used at her company. And she got to see how to manage people. Of course, Nelli didn’t just stay passive. She gradually took over smaller or bigger tasks like hosting meetings or following up on work items.
Seeing that she was doing a great job, her company gave her a first project and made Nelli a junior project manager.
Fortunately, she had a mentor who guided her during her initial steps as a project leader. This was a great advantage, because during your first months you have a lot of questions and doubts on whether you’re doing your job right or not.
Nelli’s first steps leading projects
Even though Nelli was under the guidance of an experienced project manager, her first months leading projects weren’t easy.
As she says: “It was a near death experience for me to guide my first project team. I was really panicking even though my team was only 3 or 4 people”.
So, what did Nelli do to stay confident in the tough first phase? “I just followed the principle of ‘Fake it till you make it'”. I tried to act confidently and carry myself as if I had all the answers, even though I was shaking from the inside.”
I asked Nelli if she knew what she was getting herself into. Like all of us (including myself), Nelli had no idea what to expect before she took over the job.
Of course, she had learned the basics in her studies of engineering – creating Gantt charts and that kind of stuff. But this is only theory, and you don’t know what the day of a project manager really is like.
As Nelli says: “Even if you’re doing a PMI certification like the PMP, all you learn about is the perfect world stuff where everybody does their job and there are no delays. But reality is always very different.”
Managing people isn't easy
Realizing what the project manager job actually demanded from her, Nelli was willing to learn and adapt quickly. There was one area in particular where she wanted to improve in: Managing people.
Being a top performer, Nelli was used to delivering high quality work and always meeting deadlines – and this was the kind of behavior she expected from other people as well. But then reality kicked in. Sometimes people wouldn’t show up for meetings or a job wasn’t finished by the agreed deadline.
This is when Nelli understood she had to change her management style and factor in the individual working habits and goals of her team members. She read tons of books about leading people and studied the different personality types.
Nelli also improved her communication style and learned to influence people using techniques from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Her effort began to pay off, and she became more effective and confident in managing people.
From Junior to Senior Project Manager
After two years learning the ropes of project management in a junior project manager role, Nelli ultimately became a senior project manager.
This meant a higher salary but also more projects (she was leading almost 20 in parallel), and her projects became bigger in size and responsibility. The company was very impressed with her work and she always got excellent feedback.
What stood out about Nelli’s way of running projects? She says the automotive sector is very competitive and so businesses have to move very fast. Her company valued Nelli’s ability to drive projects forward at high speed.
Exploring other industries
Being an ambitious person, Nelli reached a point in her career where she felt things looked too familiar and she wanted to achieve more.
She wanted to get to know other companies and work in other industries. So, after 3 years in the company that she had joined after college, Nelli decided to try another company and took over a project manager role at a renowned engineering contractor. This is where she is working at now.
In her current job as project manager, Nelli manages projects as a contractor for other companies. This means she has a regular employment contract with her company, and she’s being assigned to lead technology projects for her clients – typically companies in the pharmaceutical or technology sector.
Working as an external project manager is quite different from being an inhouse project manager. “You have to be very diplomatic because there’s always the risk that the client doesn’t like you or your work and simply chooses someone else.”, Nelli says. But that’s not something she’s concerned about because she puts a lot of effort into building trust with her clients and providing great results.
Speaking to Nelli for this interview was a lot of fun for me. She’s so driven and full of energy but also very down to earth and authentic, despite all her success. She’s just at the beginning of her career and I’m sure she’s got many amazing successes ahead of her.