Welcome to Clarizen’s PMO Spotlight Blog series. These interview-style articles strive to highlight the individual project management professionals. Their backgrounds, strategies, outlooks and experiences which shape the use of our product. This piece is all about Marcia Gipson, Vice President of Corporate Project Management Office at SITA. Enjoy!
Please tell us a bit about your early career and how you first got introduced to Project Management?
I have a unique career path beginning as a hairdresser, but then had the great fortune to work for Eastern Airlines when they had opened a new Reservations office in Boston where I was born & raised. I started in Reservations Sales in Boston and moved to Miami during the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike in the early 1980s. That led me to a special assignment in the Automation Division that set me up for a career in IT.
It was the early days of automating travel agencies and it was ripe with opportunity. Over the next few years, I executed a series of IT projects for various departments with the Automation Division, which became a tremendous learning ground in both business and IT. My education came through a sort of “school of hard knocks “not a formal education but one built from work experience through successful assignments and complex projects.
Eventually, I assumed responsibility for Management Information Systems and the CIO asked me to establish a Project Management Organization. At the time our business covered North and South America as well as the Pacific Rim. I spent a little more than a year establishing a Project Management Office with 16 Project Managers.
I’ve always been labeled as a “fixer” throughout my career. If there was any kind of business problem or process issue, some part of the business not functioning optimally, they would tap me to fix it. This is the heart of Project Management after all…analysis, planning, organizing and executing for results.
You’ve have built your career within the Airlines/Travel sector, what is it about the industry which appeals to you?
I was lucky to grow up in the Boston and have to opportunity to move to a suburban area that included many nationalities. I was always intrigued by each nationality’s language, food, and traditions.
So, going to work for an airline was a dream come true. It gave me the opportunity to travel more and feed my natural curiosity. I love the excitement that comes with a Spirit of Adventure, and the feeling of anticipation when experiencing the unknown. There is also an aura of mystery and magic around getting on a plane, then in 8 or more hours you are on another continent entirely!
The more I traveled to new and faraway places, the more I realized how similar we all are as humans. It’s fascinating for me to meet new people and learn about their culture, their politics, their way of life and their pursuit of happiness. While my personal experiences may be different, ultimately, I’ve seen that we are more alike than we are different. That the world is in fact, a much smaller place than it seems.
So, it’s exciting for me to be a part of this industry that has helped shaped modern living and changed the way that humans think about their place in this world. The invention of the airplane and proliferation of airline travel has opened previously closed boundaries and it has connected the world like never. It is part of what keeps me excited about my day job.
In your career path, I see a mix of Project Management, Sales and Operations. Has your experience in Sales helped with your work in Project Management?
I think it helped starting in Sales and running operations functions during my early career. As the end user of the systems gave me a unique perspective. I loved being in Sales, though frankly it wasn’t natural for me. I had to work much harder at it to be successful while being in IT seemed a much easier fit. My time in Sales gave me important perspective into what challenges Sales organizations face daily. It has allowed me to deliver on what they are selling, and they can then sell what I deliver. It’s all connected.
The commonality there is certainly the customer. As an organization, we’re all building and executing on a customer lifecycle, each team contributes to that cycle in their own way. I’m a big believer that it takes only about 5 minutes to lose a customer and it takes about 5 years to win them back if you have a bit of luck. I also subscribe to the idea that the customer is always right, even when they aren’t!
So instead of saying “no,” organizations must offer alternative solutions, which brings us back to Project Management. In this line of work, you don’t have the luxury of saying “we just won’t do that anymore.” If things are hard, PMOs still must find a solution one way or another…having a solution-oriented mentality has served me well throughout my career.
When you are not working, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Well it would come as no surprise, but I love to travel and experience the world. This past year it has been tough to be grounded. I do spend a lot of my free time outside, lately that means being in the garden. I have an herb garden I’ve been tending, and I’ve been baking and cooking.
Gardening is very much in-line with my personality. It has that planning & organizational aspect to it. But baking & cooking are a different type of satisfaction because it provides more instant gratification and it’s working with my hands more than my head. I can start and finish a project within the same day and enjoy the results right away. My day-job is NOT like that at all. Our projects can take months before you see the tangible results, so it’s nice to have hobbies outside of work that differ.
This holiday season, I’ve been making lots of preserves and Italian cookies for family and friends. When it’s all said and done, I’ll have made about 50 dozen cookies including my favorites – pizzellas.
I also had the pleasure of meeting my first grandson this year. So, I’ve been a bit busy with those new and exciting responsibilities, though not as busy I’d like. There have been some home improvement projects that included converting a large closet under my staircase into a playroom for my grandson.
Please tell us about your journey at SITA, moving up the ladder to Vice President.
In 2000 I had moved from Miami to Atlanta to work for SITA. I received a call from a headhunter for a Sales Director role. I had spoken to a colleague about working at SITA, and they were a bit surprised because at the time there weren’t too many females in senior roles. This was not uncommon in the industry, nor in the IT space.
I was originally asked to take a Sales leadership position, but when I joined the company, they were undergoing a large re-organization. So, when it all settled down about 6 months later, I joined the Passenger Division to lead the development, project management and operations teams. It began as a 90-day assignment that turned into 4 years.
During my tenure in this role, we drove many large shifts in the operational model. Throughout the team there was little alignment of priorities. Our immediate focus was centered on priority setting and alignment, opening communication channels throughout the organization and driving performance improvement. Everyone moving in the same direction.
For the next few years I moved into the Commercial Group, managing a Services Operations team that was responsible for managing the international data networks for SITA’s airline customers in the Americas. That team was then consolidated with the Airport Operations Group and I was invited to lead the combined team. I led those groups for more than a decade year, and in 2017 our new CEO asked me to start up a PMO within SITA. I was delighted to accept the job and here we are!
What is your approach/strategy at SITA to build a customer-focused Services team?
It’s not just my approach but also SITA’s corporate approach handed down from our CEO. Every internal meeting should have an empty chair representing the customer. It’s not really a skill you can teach but a mindset that you can help instill as a leader. Things like this help us keep the real objective in mind; it orients our work around a shared purpose.
Another tactic was to conduct an assessment on our Project Management maturity level. Our starting point was Level 1…completely reactive and firefighting everywhere. While it was somewhat effective, it was far from optimal and consumed a tremendous amount of effort and energy of our teams.
Thanks in part to systems like Clarizen, we are solidly in Level 3 and moving towards Level 4. By reducing the number of databases and systems that were being used by different departments onto one PPM platform, we took a huge step forward. It also enabled to better understand the shared issues across the company in how we managed our projects. This drove process improvement projects that ultimately streamline how we approach our technical implementation and transition activities.
As a PMO, we aren’t directly customer facing, but the job we do impacts the way that the customer facing teams at SITA do their work. So, we collaborate with the Project Management community especially those that face the customer. As a result, each of our initiatives happen with consultation and input from those who are customer-facing. That collaborative approach has helped build a customer-centric PMO.
I mentioned this before but what has helped keep the customer front & center within our work is that we try not to just fix a problem’s symptoms, but to identify the & fix the root cause of the problem. This connects the PMO directly to the customer’s needs, and ultimately it helps the organization run smoother.
What are your priorities heading into 2021? How are you measuring the success of those priorities?
We have quite a bit of work lined up in 2021. I would say there are three key things we’re looking to accomplish. We’re in the process of deploying a time reporting mechanism throughout the entire company. While that isn’t necessarily in my wheelhouse, it is a predecessor to resource management, so I took it on. We have an aggressive plan to have 50% of the org using it before the end of January, and the rest to be using it by the middle of the year. So far, we are on track.
The second piece is the design and implementation of our corporate practices for systems integration. Today, everything comes in our sales pipe the same way, whether it is a straight product sale or otherwise. We’re trying to improve how we define customer requirements for these integrations, so that we can scope it properly and deliver on those expectations within budget. We have developed a process handbook that is hot off the press, and ready to go. Next steps include implementation of the supporting processes and training our employees.
The third Big Rock on our plate in 2021 is the implementation of a financial management module for the Project Management community. This will automate our revenue and cost budgets, actuals and forecast for all projects. Today we are managing this with many hands manually, so this is a major change initiative.
Our Executive Team believes, and I agree, that data is the ultimate deliverable for us to improve and optimize our business performance. We must increase the quality & volume of the data we provide ensuring a single source of data throughout the enterprise. We strive to provide business clarity, and from my perspective, you cannot do that without increasing knowledge and information and ultimately user adoption.
What is your favorite Clarizen feature? Why?
This relates to our department’s goal of consolidating data streams. The fact that we have teams across SITA using just one system to execute and measure their work means everything. The Executive Team then has access to the portfolio view which is very powerful.
We just implemented risks and milestones practices in Clarizen, so now the Project Managers and Portfolio Directors have the data they need in one place to stay on track. In 2021 we will baseline our milestone performance to further drive our ability to generate revenue as planned.
Clarizen has helped us provide a consistent set of practices, which has driven adoption and the necessary controls. Without user adoption, we do not get the data we need. So, having a tool which is widely used is also crucial.
Who are some of the influencers you follow, who inspires you?
One of the people I’ve followed for quite some time is Warren Buffet. Obviously one of the wealthiest men in the world, but what I admire about him is his pragmatism. I’m sure he owns more than 1 home, but he still owns and live in the same home that he bought in 1982, and he has stated that he is not leaving his wealth to his children. He is pushing them to find their own way in life and become successful. Now, they will always have the benefit of education and wealth from the outset, but it’s those types of down to earth things that I like about him.
I also like his attitude towards taxes. He believes that when you earn the kind of wealth that he has, you should give back, and you should pay your fair share of taxes.
Another example of this is MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife. She is now the second wealthiest woman in the world, yet she has signed a pact that she will donate most of it to non-profits throughout her lifetime.
More recently I started following Sharyl Sandberg and I love what she has done to inspire young girls and women. It is not an easy road for women, I believe this is still a man’s world and we must work harder, deliver more and deliver with better quality in order to (maybe) be seen as equal. Sharyl is looking to change that for the next generation.
What are your favorite cities or countries to visit?
Asia at Large
I absolutely love visiting Asia, full stop. When I retire, I’d love to spend a substantial amount of time, at least 3 months, touring. I’d love to go back to Vietnam, for example, and I’ve been to Beijing and Bangkok numerous times, but there’s still so much more to see there.
I love European cites too like Prague, but if I had to pick just one city in Europe to go back to again it would Palermo. It really stands apart in my mind. It is so ancient! Sicily has more Greek ruins than any place aside from Greece. It is this melding of people, culture and has wonderful food. Being an island in the Mediterranean, it benefits from many different cultural influences throughout its history. Not to mention how picturesque the scenery is…farmland, vineyards, beaches and Mount Etna always hovering in the background.
As much as I have traveled the world, I still put my hometown of Boston, MA on my list of cities to visit. I live in Atlanta now, so I am more of a tourist than a local. But I love the people there, it just feels like home whenever I visit. The food is fantastic, and because it is right on the ocean you can get such fresh seafood, and nobody does fried clams like Boston.
Do you have a #1 Tip to share with us as a professional traveler?
Oh yes! If you check your main luggage, always take a carry on. Your carry on should always have your toiletries, a set of pajamas and spare change of clothes. That way, if the checked bag gets lost, you will have something to wear and you can survive a few days without needing to shop. I learned the hard way. It is an easy trick to accomplish too, it does not take any fancy lists or involve any company club membership, just be prepared and save yourself the headache.