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Welcome to the latest installment of our PMO Spotlight series, wherein we delve into our customer’s PMO to uncover the personal histories and unique viewpoints behind the customer use case. Sam Fairfield of Businessolver sat down with us to discuss his background and journey into a Project Management career, as well as Businessolver’s customer experience strategy. Enjoy!

Sam Fairfield

Director of Client Onboarding

Please tell us about yourself, your education and background?

I graduated from Grinnell College here in Iowa with a degree in Political Science. At the time I was graduating, the economic outlook was very much in flux and nothing was certain. So, I opted not to pursue my original career plan of going onto Law School after my undergraduate education.

I found myself unexpectedly starting my career in Sales and Sales Management. My next step was moving into Technology Implementation and Project Management focused roles, which is where I have been for the last 8 years. However, my focus throughout these stages has always been on leading teams of people to achieve common goals. Whether they were Sales teams or Project Management teams, that has been a common theme.  Currently I manage a team of 15 people, in roles ranging from project managers to system architects to programmers for integrating data in/data out of our software for clients and other vendors.

What about Project Management and/or Client Onboarding most appeals to you?

I think what most appeals to me about this work is that each client is unique and so every project ends up being very different.  That certainly helps break up my work week, but on a deeper level it means that I cannot afford to become complacent with the skills and knowledge I have at any given moment.  Because there is always a new challenge to overcome, I have new opportunities to learn. It gives me a stronger foundation and understanding of new frameworks and lenses to apply to any given situation or problem the team is faced with.

Specifically, with client onboarding and the implementation-focused work that we do, I really enjoy helping our clients overcome the organizational obstacles which they are looking to solve by deploying new technology. Experiencing the success along with them as they implement and use that new software is very fulfilling and satisfying.

Do you think that your Political Science background has influenced your approach to Managing Project Management teams?

Yes and no, I certainly did not envision a Project Management career when I was younger, and I think many others in this field would likely agree.  While I do not use the specific topical content I was taught in my political science classes every day, there are certain skills and approaches which I do constantly employ.  For example, the communication and critical thinking skills that my liberal arts education was rooted in are extremely helpful in business and management.

With Political Science in particular, we developed our ability to distill large amounts of data into meaningful information for other’s consumption, separated the facts from opinion for whatever topic is at hand and practiced breaking down complex topics into short & consumable themes.  All of those are essential traits for a Project Manager and my background in political science gave me a strong foundation for each of them. The theoretical aspects of how to affect change within a group of people have certainly helped me as a Project Manager as well.

In addition, a lot of the soft skills taught in political science have helped me as a team manager–navigating the different relationship dynamics for example, being empathetic to others and seeing things from their perspective.

What do you like most about working at Businessolver?

What I enjoy most about working at Businessolver is the people. Both my coworkers and the great clients I get to work with every day. As professionals, we all spend a fair amount of time working, so it is important to me that I enjoy not just the work I am doing, but also the people who I am working with. I highly value the relationships I have built while working at Businessolver.

How has COVID impacted the way Businessolver conducts their projects? Do you see any longer-term impact or trends to the way business is conducted in general after the shutdown is over?

Businessolver has always had a large remote workforce (over 25% of our employees typically work from home on a permanent basis), and the Client Onboarding team is widely spread out geographically. Our team also works with clients on site or virtually often, so we as a company and as a team were well prepared with the technology and practices needed to operate remotely.  We were able to adjust quickly and become a fully remote workforce within a week and that allowed us to support our clients without skipping a beat or disrupting our commitment to service. 

It is hard to predict the future, but I think that pre-COVID there were a lot of industries which held the position that, “this work must be done in an office and there’s no other way to do it”. But the fact is that a lot of that same work is now being effectively done remotely. As a result, I think that it is going to be harder for those organizations that aren’t so remote-work friendly to make the case that the work MUST be done in office.

It will be a broader trend and a continuing conversation between employers & employees. I will not be surprised if we end up somewhere in the middle, where flextime or partial remote work agreements are made.  But I do think that the power has shifted a bit to the employee, where they now have more leverage to ask for greater flexibility from their employers in how/where their work will be conducted. The more forward-thinking organizations can use this to their advantage too and promote the fact that they allow for flexible work arrangements in order to recruit and retain the best talent.

When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?

I am competitive by nature and when I am not tied up with work this competitive streak comes out in the form of pub trivia with friends on a weekly basis.  We have a very diverse team across industries and talent. There is an actuary, a PA, social media marketer and others to help broaden our collective knowledge and improve our chances of victory.

I also do have our first child, a 6-month-old, at home right now and that has been an exciting learning experience for us. He takes up most of our free time these days, so my latest hobby is being a father.  I also enjoy playing golf as well.

How long has your organization been using Clarizen and how does it fit into a bigger vision for the Customer Experience? 

Businessolver has been using Clarizen since 2016, and from a client experience standpoint it helps us deliver consistency for every one of our clients. Clarizen provides us with the proper framework for an organized and consistent approach to our business.  We have an implementation template which we can start from for each new engagement and that saves us time on repetitive work, but the PM’s can quickly customize that work plan to meet the specific needs of that client if they need to as well. 

The platform lays our tasks out in a such a way so that everyone knows what they are responsible for and by when.  Each data point is trackable and reportable too, so we have a clear historical record of all our projects that we can review afterwards if needed.  The in-context collaboration features are also something we use a lot in our projects. They are a great way to get quick answers for any queries and our team uses them often to bring in colleagues if help is needed to deliver a task on time and with quality for our clients. 

Do you have a favorite Clarizen feature? What makes it your favorite?

It would have to be the In-Context Collaboration features, I think that the discussion features on the task and project levels are what we all use constantly and to great effect. Especially in this environment as we discussed previously, being able to communicate with everybody on your team quickly while working remote is incredibly valuable for us. Having the discussion boards built natively within the tool has significantly cut down on supplemental email traffic for myself and my team, not to mention the time and attention needed to keep that organized and find that same information in the future.

Have you seen any Project Management trends developing in your industry? Within the bigger marketplace in general?

From my perspective, I have seen a general shift to a more Agile framework and methodology overall.  Within the technology implementation space, the mindset that “it’s OK to shift focus midstream if necessary” has gained momentum.  As opposed to the traditional, more rigid project plans which Waterfall employs.  I have seen a change too in that, project plans these days are not necessarily designed for perfect, unchanging execution because we (including clients) generally know now that unexpected circumstances will occur along the way.

That being said, whether it is Agile, Waterfall, Scrum, or some combination thereof, we as a PM community understand that these are all simply different tools within a toolbox which we can pull from and use to complete different jobs.  So, depending on the project at hand, we may choose one tool over the other, there is no single method which should be applied every time. Looking at it this way, a great PM realizes that each of these tools deserves to be fully understood, in order to deliver with quality, delight stakeholders and minimize risks.

Can you share an example of a specific project which you have worked on that stands out from the rest?

The projects that standout to me the most have always been the big, enterprise-wide transformation projects that organizations undergo. For me now at Businessolver, that means helping organizations deliver the right health and welfare benefits at the right time, when their employees need them most. Using technology so that the enrollment experience is seamless and easy.

Employee benefits can be a confusing and stressful topic for individuals.  It is rather rewarding for me to demystify this complex and very important element in the relationship between employer and employee.  The types of projects where an organization shifts from using a non-configurable, very cookie cutter solution which does not work for them, to a SaaS-based platform which delivers a delightful user experience for their employees–that is the type of project that stands out to me.

What advice do you have for your PMO peers who are looking to replicate your success?

I would say, do not overlook the soft skills of being an effective leader or Project Manager. I think of it as “individuals get the work done, but teams accomplish projects”.  Managing expectations downwards to your team, but also upwards to your executive-level becomes critical to project success. Influencing others effectively is an important skill to have.  I use the word influence not in terms of manipulation but instead in terms of guiding them in the direction which is most beneficial to the organization.  These soft skills are really about building strong relationships with your colleagues, peers and clients to achieve long-term success.

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