In the 4th year of the Master’s I’m attending, we have a course called Project Management Laboratory (LGP, in Portuguese). In LGP, students are divided into 5 virtual companies of 40+ students from different areas each. There are students from computer engineering, multimedia, design and even service management. Each company is then divided into 4 teams, each working with a real company for a real project, as if this companies were the students’ clients.
The purpose of LGP is to teach students how the lifecycle of a real project works, as well as how to manage it. This means that the management of companies and projects is not done by teachers, but by students.
For that, a management structure is created for all LGP companies. At the top of the chain, there is a CEO that is in charge of the entire company, and has frequent contact with his teacher supervisor who keeps track of the company’s work. For each department, there is also a Chief Officer, for example the CTO who is responsible for all the computer engineering students. Finally, each team elects a Team Leader, who manages the evolution of that team’s project in a more direct way, ensuring agile practices.
As I’ve wanted to learn project management for a while, and I have the future wish to have my own company, I wanted to be CEO in LGP for a long time. Because of that, I volunteered to be CEO, and I’m writing now to describe my experience – the good and the bad – and show some of what I’ve learned during the semester.
The first weeks
Chaos. Total chaos.
That was the feeling I had for the first couple of weeks as CEO. This happened because all of a sudden, there was a group of 40+ students who didn’t know what to do, and I was the one everyone was looking at for guidance. At first it was really stressful because even I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something to get the company rolling, and thankfully I had great people around me to help. The first tasks were not that hard: gathering everyone’s contacts, creating a Slack, establishing roles in the teams. Although simple, these small things can help organize such a large group rather quickly.
We came up with a name and logo for the company – devenire – which means “reaching” or “achieving” in latin, and we decided to use that as a focus point for the company – “reaching tomorrow”, our slogan.
But then, other issues rose. What was the identity of our company? How should we present ourselves? What were we as a group?
We didn’t establish that group culture early enough, and this was, I think, one of my first and biggest mistakes as a CEO. Looking back, I realize how much more united I could’ve made the company if I had thought of team-building actions right from the begining. This could’ve made the entire company more focused into achieving a common goal, and instead I felt like only the core members of the company were interested in that.
Also, by having more “team” activities and less “company” activities, people got the feeling that they didn’t know what the rest of the company was up to, and I also think I could’ve made that better early on.
However difficult, we managed to organize the company in a way that was effective, and the companies were producing content at a steady pace. It was not the best we could’ve hoped for, but it was a start.
Around the middle of the semester, there was an LGP intermediate presentation, in which the point was for companies to present the projects they were developing as if they wanted to get the attendees to invest in the company.
This doesn’t seem that hard even though there were over 200 people watching the presentation. However, exactly 1 week before that all teams were supposed to deliver a set of management documents. With the stress and planning of making sure those documents were produced and delivered, everyone – including me – forgot that the intermediate presentation also required some heavy planning and work ahead. Because of that, all the work and planning was stacked in that last week prior to the presentation.
This was, for me, the worst moment as CEO. People got really tired of working on that week, including myself, and everyone got the sense that we could’ve done better. Don’t get me wrong, we did a pretty good presentation compared to the other companies, but I do realise everything could’ve been much better if only I learned how to plan ahead sooner.
After the intermediate presentation, I struck a reflection point in my early CEO career, and looked back at what I had done so far, looking for points of improvement. Some of this points were brought to me by other people, but I realized some of the things I had to change in order for devenire to do great until the end of the semester.
First lesson – plan ahead. This was more than obvious by the time of the intermediate presentation. Things need to be planned with calm and time to think. With that in mind, I “forced” the rest of the company’s board to develop a structured plan of what the company had to do all the way until the end of the semester. For each deliverable the course required, we assigned one Chief Officer who should make sure that deliverable was produced on time. This “divide and conquer” strategy proved great as not only it allowed for individual organization and responsibilty, but also made the company much more “self-managed”. Another advantage of doing this is that we had even more time to plan for the LGP closure event, which I will talk about later.
Second lesson – communicate. Even the people who are not directly managing anything in the company like to know what the company is up to, what is going on. I understood the importance of bringing the company even closer, of creating ways for people to communicate outside of their work groups. After the presentation, we created a few ways for people to do exactly that, and the feedback was good.
Third lesson – people are people. Working with other people is usually hard because different people always have different ways of dealing with things. In this case, as I was managing a group of people deciding what the company should do and how to do it, I had to deal with a lot of different opinions, clashing personalities and other conflicts. There is no way for me to explain what I have learned, but dealing with this sort of issues is something you cannot be taught and only learn from practice and time.
The closure of LGP is a presentation called LGP Challenge, a presentation to maybe over 300 people, with the purpose of having the LGP companies presenting the work they have done in a show and sales-pitch way.
This requires a lot more preparation and planning than the intermediate presentation, but thankfully we could put the lessons learned back then to good use.
The preparation for the LGP Challenge began a lot earlier, and we had a lot of good ideas that we could actually make true – wooden brackets (referencing the company logo) on stage, free popcorn for attendees, goodies (stickers, pins, flyers, …), and other stuff. The week before the presentation was also a bit chaotic and busy, but because things were much better organized it was much easier than the intermediate presentation. Obviously, there were setbacks that, as a CEO, always came to me at some point, but eventually everything was sorted out.
Thanks to all the lessons we – and me personally – had learned before, the final presentation was an overall success, and we improved a lot over the intermediate presentation. There was still much room for improvement, but I was very glad to see the results of so many hours of work being truly appreciated by the attendees.
I “forcefully” learned something about managing inter-personal conflicts as we had some in our company (don’t all companies have that?), but I prefer not to dig deep into that to protect the identity of those involved.
I guess the biggest lesson I learned from being a CEO is the one I can’t really describe – how to manage people. After 3 months of managing a 40+ people company there is a lot I learned about how to work with and manage people, however, there is no good way to describe exactly what I learned because management isn’t about concrete rules that say “when X happens do Y”. It’s rather about a gut feeling that makes you feel which is the right decision, even if it isn’t the best choice.
With this experience I improved my gut feeling. I learned some things that work, and some that don’t, and most of all learned how to better lead a group of people into working together for a common goal. Obviously this doesn’t mean I could be a good CEO now because I don’t think I could, not yet…
…but it brought me much closer to that.