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In the spotlight: Gareth Lewis

Last month at ILX we celebrated our 30th birthday, and with that we thought we’d have a look at some of our customers who are in their 30s and what sort of things they’re getting up to in their roles.

So, on that note, meet Gareth.

Hi Gareth – can you tell us a bit about yourself and what role you’re working in?

My name is Gareth Lewis – I’m based in the Middle East, and I work for a humanitarian non-governmental organisation called the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is helping to provide basic services to refugees in camps out here.

I’m currently the project manager for a team of about 30 people, called ‘Shelter and wash’, and we do everything from providing tents and bedding for refugees, to setting up toilets and water tanks and removing rubbish from the site. There are various other departments that we liaise with, such as the finance, logistics, and legal teams; and we also work a lot of the time with contractors, to help us with trucking water into the camps and removing all the rubbish. We are also in constant communication with other organisations in the country to coordinate with them and let them know what’s going on, because sometimes there are problems in other camps that we need to help out with.

What sorts of projects do you manage?

When it comes to humanitarian work, the projects are often very short, with work only spanning across a year or so, and an average budget of about $10 million. On our current project in the Middle East, our focus is on getting refugees set up in the camps and covering their basic needs – there are a lot of processes in place to register people, check that they’ve received everything etc. But last year I was in Greece, trying to find 300 rentable apartments to move the refugees (who were coming through from Turkey) into, and we only had about 6 months in which to do it. It was just me and one other guy essentially figuring out how to set up an estate agency from scratch, so that proved pretty interesting!

And before that I was in Haiti, following on from the earthquake there, and that project was all about construction – it started with an emergency response of building about 500 timber homes for people to move into, and then it developed into rebuilding schools, clearing rubble etc. So, each project is often completely different to the next!

How did you get into project management? And what qualifications have you done with us?

I used to be a structural engineer, but then moved into project management from that. I did PRINCE2® Foundation & Practitioner and MSP® Foundation & Practitioner with ILX, both as e-learning, when I had some downtime between jobs a few years ago. By that time, I’d been working on projects for about 3 years, so I decided that I should probably learn something about project and programme management!

What made you decide to get some formal training? And how do you use your qualifications in your day-to-day work?

In my line of work, most of the projects are pretty similar at the core but the outputs are completely different for each one, so you have to adapt to each new situation – you have to get up to speed very quickly with the pace of the work and work out what level of quality you’re working towards with the resources that you have. Because of this, I found that every time I started in an organisation there was never a methodology to use – they just told you to ‘got for it’. It was good in a sense because I could set the project up how I wanted to, and focus on the parts that I liked, but after a while it was frustrating not having a clearly-defined way of working. That’s when I started looked at PRINCE2.

In all honesty, I did PRINCE2 because I wanted to keep up with what was popular in the UK, but I was also drawn to its clear methodology. I first started to use it in Haiti on some school projects, and then moved onto Greece and used it there, too. I began by playing around with the tools and techniques, seeing how they worked for me – for instance, in Greece I had a team of about 25 people, so I used the different roles that are set out in PRINCE2 to establish team leaders and the like. Now, in the Middle East, I am making more use of the exception reports and the areas that focus on dealing with bosses. And, because it’s worked well for me, I’m now trying to get other project managers in my organisation interested in PRINCE2, by gradually introducing tools that are relevant to them into their work.

How do you feel that the qualifications you’ve gained have helped you and your team?

I mostly use the methodologies in both PRINCE2 and MSP to help my staff understand what is expected of them, in terms of their roles and responsibilities, but I also use them to help me keep track of everything in a more organised and structured way. I kind of want to see more of the project managers in my organisation use it because I can see where they struggle sometimes, and I know how they could benefit from these methodologies. I think that if we had a good framework that spanned across the entire organisation then the confusion between what is expected of each team and what’s actually going on would disappear. For example, I currently have two team leaders, and when I introduced PRINCE2 to them they started to say how good it was, and how they now understood whose roles were who’s etc. and why I was asking them to do certain things. They can now see the ‘bigger picture’ more, so to speak, and how everything fits together.

What do you enjoy most about your role/what do you find most interesting?

The most enjoyable aspect is definitely the team I work in – seeing people learn new things and seeing them grow into their roles is really fun. And, of course, the work we’re doing is amazing because it’s really important – it’s helping people and it has an immediate impact; for instance, in Greece we visited the people living in the apartments we’d set up for them, and you could really see a complete change in how they were.

As for the most interesting part, there’s always something interesting going on! Sometimes it’s the kind of projects you’re working on, other times it’s the outputs. The nature of the context we’re working in is also very interesting, because you meet people who are going through some really awful stuff – you’ll watch the news and see what’s going on, but then you’ll go to work and you’re living it as well.

The timescales for the projects also keep it interesting – often they’re very short, which can be frustrating, but equally they keep you on your toes too. The work also varies so much from project to project; for instance, we were working in a camp and at one point we had to move about 800 people out of the camp really quickly and into hotels because it was too cold. However, we couldn’t afford to do that long-term so had to quickly find another accommodation solution straight away. But in contrast, in Haiti, we were working on a much more long-term construction project. We were speaking with the government to decide which schools to rebuild whilst trying to introduce stronger, more modern methods of construction. So, there’s plenty that keeps it interesting.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I find stakeholder management quite tricky – trying to implement and plan something when you’ve got people saying that they don’t want it like that or they don’t like it, and having to adapt to different stakeholders’ needs is quite hard sometimes. It doesn’t come very naturally to me and I often get quite frustrated!

Also, trying to understand what is required from bosses isn’t always very clear in the context of my current role. Things change very rapidly, with new arrivals of people and locations changing a lot, so having a responsive project that can deal with those things can be difficult – you end up being pushed towards more short-term stuff that you can pull out of if needs be.

Looking to the future, do you have any career goals or ambitions? Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I’m not sure at the moment. I found MSP really interesting in the strategic planning of my projects, so I’d also be interested in learning about other methodologies, like Agile maybe.

The next step up for me would logically be to work on bigger projects, to become a programme manager or to start to specialise in a specific country’s needs instead of a whole geographical region. But I enjoy my role as a project manager and I don’t necessarily want to change that, I just want to get better at what I do. I’ve been doing it for about 7 years but there’s always more stuff to learn – I want to expand more on what I’m doing and learn how to influence people who are affecting my projects.