Today on the Salesforce Admins Podcast, we talk to Emma Keeling, Salesforce Consultant and Nonprofit Community Group Leader. Join us as we chat about the skill of project management and some best practices to help you keep things organized.

You should subscribe for the full episode, but here are a few takeaways from our conversation with Emma Keeling.

Why everyone needs project management skills

Emma is one of our guests on our new “Skills for Success” video series, which breaks down the skills Salesforce Admins need to succeed in today’s world. And even though we brought her on to talk about project management, she actually doesn’t call herself a project manager. But she uses those skills all the time as a Salesforce Consultant, which is kind of the point.

When we think of project management, we imagine an array of timetables and Kanban Boards, and, indeed, there are some project managers who use those things to do big jobs at large organizations. What Emma does, however, is a little different. She keeps her team on task, on schedule, and working together effectively. And those are skills that every admin should have.

Start with the starting point

Often, your starting point is figuring out what you’re even starting with. Is this a new process or an old process? Has it been documented before or are you coming in to make those decisions? And what are the priorities for the organization? Sometimes someone is saying they need this feature or that feature but the problem you really need to be solving is something else entirely.

“One of the key things is people,” Emma says, “if you’re doing an implementation, you’re probably not the expert on everything.” If you’re adding a new feature for fundraising, for example, you probably need to talk to the people doing the fundraising to figure out the best way to do things.

Timelines for your organization and your people

Even if you’re not a Kanban Master, you need to be aware of what timelines are important for your organization. For the nonprofit world that Emma operates in, November 1st is an important date because it marks the start of the holiday giving season. That means you probably want to get anything related to donations squared away and tested before it sees heavy use.

You also want to be aware of how timelines affect your people. Is everyone busy at the same time, or are their schedules independent from each other? Who is going to make plans based on the timeline that you’re outlining? It’s crucial to communicate which dates are firm and which dates are flexible. And it’s important to build in flexibility in case the unexpected happens.

Be sure to listen to the full episode for Emma’s four key project management skills for admins.

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Full show transcript

Mike: This week on the Salesforce Admins Podcast, we’re talking with Emma Keeling about the skill of project management and some best practices that Emma uses to keep things organized. Emma is a Salesforce consultant and nonprofit community group leader. Now, before we get into this episode, which I know you’re going to want to check out, I want you to be sure you’re doing the following. So if you’re listening to Salesforce Admins Podcasts on iTunes or just wherever you get your podcast, make sure that you are subscribed or following the podcast. That way every Thursday you will get a brand new episode dropped right on your phone automatically, so then you don’t have to think about it. Boom, new episode. Yay. All right, so with that, let’s get to our conversation with Emma. Emma, welcome to the podcast.

Emma Keeling: Thanks for having me, Mike.

Mike: Well, I’m glad we had a chance to connect as part of the Skills for Success series. Jillian’s having you on, and I also wanted to talk too, because you are in the project management video I’ll say, but as you told me before I pressed record, you’re not a project manager. So let’s start there. What do you do in the Salesforce ecosystem?

Emma Keeling: So in the Salesforce ecosystem, I am effectively a Salesforce consultant. I started my life back in corporate hospitality where I was the expert of a product that wasn’t Salesforce, that then got migrated to being built on, and I was the admin for that and suddenly had to become the Salesforce expert and basically an accidental admin. And then after about three years, I kind of got to the point where I was the global product manager and they were starting to talk about moving me to onto other products that weren’t Salesforce related. And at that point I was like, no, because I want to do Salesforce and I also want to stay hands-on. I don’t just want to do product management as such. So that’s what I did.
I went freelance, started doing hospitality stuff and then Covid hit, and that gave me a real good opportunity to diversify and I jumped in full feet into the nonprofit world. And we’re now more than three years on and that’s going really well. And yeah, so I’m Salesforce consultant, but with that role comes a lot of project management, right?

Mike: Yeah.

Emma Keeling: So I am currently spend about half of my time working with one client where I am the project manager for their Salesforce implementation. And I’m actually working with another partner, which is really interesting. So there’s another partner on the other side actually doing the implementation. And when I was asked to do that role, they were like, “We’ve been recommended you for this and we are looking for a project manager.” And I was like, awesome. I was like, I have project manager experience, but not your typical project manager.

I remember project managers when I was in the big corporate hospitality world, and they were drawing their massive diagrams and they were timetabling it out to almost the minute. And I had more than one project manager telling me, “Well, you can’t now change your mind about that.” I’m like, what? That decision that you made three months ago and you didn’t really know what the product could do, but at that point you said you were going to do X and you now want to do Y. Well, you can’t do that because it’s not in the plan. And I was like, okay. So I’m like, I’m not one of them. It’s like I’m more, what I would say is a taskmaster, don’t get me wrong. I can run to a timetable. We can sit and look at timings and work out. Do they make sense? I can juggle diaries and that sort of thing.

I can work with vendors and help timetable that in. But to me that’s a slightly different form. I almost feel like I’m more of what I would call an internal project manager. I’m not that external project manager you bring in who all they’ve ever done is big projects that are really needed in some of those, say Fortune 500 companies. I’m sort of a slightly smaller scale project manager. I was told very clearly by somebody that there’s no way you’ll manage to project manage this project in two days a week. And I was like, well, I’m like, let’s see how it goes. And actually it’s gone very well and we’re actually going to deliver on time and on budget. So it’s working.

Mike: So you’re a good project manager. And I think that’s the reality of it. There’s different levels of project management. There’s the full on people that are dedicated. They come in, everything’s a Kanban chart, a swim lane, they’ve got Gantt charts, everything. That’s their world. Then there’s kind of everything in between, all the way down to admins that just have to manage a lot of tasks. And I think project management is, that’s why we include it in the Skills for Success series, one of those things where exactly as you put it, how do we manage all of these tasks so that we’re not overwhelmed and we get stuff done on time and hopefully like you on budget.

Emma Keeling: Absolutely. And that’s I think the real key. Like you say, there are people who do this as a full-time job at that high level. And interestingly, the partner I’m working with on this particular project, they have one of those people, but actually she’s also not full-time, she is working multiple projects, but she’s the person who’s already managing a Smartsheet where she’s got all of those dates, but then we just kind of dovetail in together because what I’m managing is those priorities. I’m managing a lot of organizational priorities and a lot of, you talk about tasks. So when I’m working with any of my clients on any of the work I’m working on, whether that is just supporting an admin with some of their questions and almost being there kind of, what’s the word? Their person to just go to just bounce ideas off almost… it’s a little bit like that.

It’s like consultant, but it’s like it’s literally consulting as in I’m not necessarily building stuff. I’m just helping them with their conversations. I’m helping them with their, is this the best way for me to do this? I’m an admin, I’m a solo admin, is this the best way to do this? And then so through that I’m managing tasks there and I’m very much, you need somewhere to keep your tasks that you’re never going to manage to keep everything in your brain or just on a notepad. So I use ClickUp, that’s kind of my product of choice. And in there I put all my tasks in there and they’re all by client and they’re there, ready for me to go through, add notes on, copy and paste emails in. There’s loads more it can do, but I kind of really just manage that.

And then I also have to being a consultant, manage my time, so I attach time to them. And I choose to use ClickUp just to be clear, rather than Salesforce, just simply from a potential growth perspective, Salesforce licensing, as we know, can get a little bit pricey, and I do get an org as a partner, but I kind of went, you know what, ClickUp works. Somebody suggested it to me, I’d seen it in action with somebody else, and I was like, do you know what? I’m going to try that. But you could easily do it in Salesforce, particularly if you’re a solo admin.

Mike: I was going to say, let’s start there at the basement level, as a solo admin or an admin that’s maybe just spun up an org or doing all the implementation themselves, what were some of the things as a project manager that when they put that hat on that they need to think about? Because there’s a lot to do, right? There’s new features, there’s existing features that they need to roll out and maybe bugs. When Emma jumps in and has to sort all that out, do you start by prioritizing things or where does your project management start?

Emma Keeling: So I guess it depends where you are and what you are handling. Because I would say no project ever looks the same, but one of the key things is people, right? Figuring out what people you’ve got. Because if you are doing, say, an implementation, you are probably not the expert on everything. Even if you are implementing a new feature as the Salesforce admin, you may or may not be the expert on that feature. So if you are implementing something for fundraising, you’re probably going to need to talk to the people in fundraising to find out what they really want.

Also, are you starting from totally new? As in no one’s ever documented any of this before to actually there’s a load of stuff here that somebody’s written down and given me. So really that starting point is almost figuring out where you’re starting. So like, I have all the stuff, let me take that away. Let me process it, let me validate it. Or you’re starting with conversations with people. And you’re really trying to understand the lay of the land, particularly even just with an organization, right?

Mike: Right.

Emma Keeling: You are going to have far more success with Salesforce, with exec buy-in. Exec buy-in, I used to, I’ll be honest, I used to scoff and be like, huh, yeah, really no, you really do. Having that exec, and I would say almost that probably level below, depends how big the organization is, but probably that level below, you want your exec to be on board, your top CEO. You want them to be well and truly on board, but you need a good foundation of people around that and you need to know who your players are. You need to know whether they’re pro Salesforce, anti Salesforce, whether they’ve got good technology knowledge or whether they maybe struggle a bit more with technology adoption.

You want to be trying to get all of that sorts of information and really understand your people. And then you want to start understanding what’s key here and you want to understand what’s key right at the top of that organization or as I say at that second level to really understand it’s not the person who came to you first who wants something most importantly, it’s not the person who shouts the loudest. This is where it all kind of dovetails almost into that product management role that I historically did. Because you’re really then kind of going, okay, so I’ve got somebody here in grants who says, all these things are really important, but actually when I talk to the person at the top, they’re saying, “No, no, no, our focus at the moment isn’t our outbound grants, it’s our fundraising and getting our funds in.” And that’s where you’ve got to manage your people.

So you’ve got to manage your people and be like, grants person, you are amazing. I love your energy, I love all your ideas. Let’s take all of that. And then you start almost building out things like roadmaps and you go from there. Now this is where the world of let’s say project management, product management, just being an admin all collides because whose role is that? Is that one person’s role? Is it lots of people’s roles? At least I would say if you are a small organization or maybe you’re not, but there’s just an admin and you kind of think, oh my God, we really could do with more people. You still need to do a little bit of each of those. Because you’ve got to have somewhere where you are documenting what’s important, where you are kind of reviewing what’s important, and then where you are almost getting down those almost business as usual type tasks.

And also then looking at things like timelines and dates. If you are being told that fundraising needs something for the holiday season, and if your holiday season, if it starts 1st of November, let’s say that’s a common date that’s battered around in the UK, it’s like 1st of November is when all this has to be in. Now, if you are in September and you are being asked for a massive piece of functionality, that’s where you kind of have to do the pause and the so what did you do last year? Oh, okay, so you do have a solution in place. Do we want to do this? I have recently witnessed somebody try and roll out brand new donation pages in the middle of their biggest campaign period, and they came to me and said, “Oh, this seems to be a problem.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t project manage this one. I was just on the kind of sideline.

And they came to me and they said, “We’re having problems with these and we’re really worried, it’s impacting our campaign period.” And my first question was, well, my first point, I guess it wasn’t even a question, was why would you do that now? And I think that is kind of also where your project management comes in. It’s sitting down and saying what else is happening in the organization? The organization I’m working with at the moment is going through, we have three really busy periods a year in programs, so you know you’ve got to work around them, but do you have to totally work around them? I actually found out that the key person I needed in that team does a lot of work at other times of the year. Her work is not tied to those programs times. And it was really key that I figured that out because I initially was trying to block out time, kind of going, oh no, we’re not going to be able to use this person during this time.

And actually when I started talking to her, she was like, “No, no, no, I can do that, as long as I know in advance.” So I think that’s a huge amount about project management. It’s getting all those people, knowing your people and getting them in the right place and knowing building relationships, being able to go to somebody and say, I need you to do this, and I know you don’t really have time, but is there any chance you can do this because maybe something’s moved forward in a project, maybe something was delayed, maybe something has just come up. The people are really, really key.

Mike: Yeah, I think that’s an important aspect to bring up is too often I think we forget when we’re doing a new rollout or even adding a new feature, what other things are going on in the organization at the same time and how will this adversely or not adversely affect somebody? Is it our slow period or is it our busy period? Because if it’s your busy time, everything’s got to work. Everybody’s stressed out anyway. And then if you’re rolling something else out on top of that, boy, what is the reception going to be like? I think that’s a really great point to bring up.

Emma Keeling: Yeah, absolutely. And only last week I was chatting with a guy called Tim who does the human stack, really interesting concept of not focusing on the digital but focusing on the humans over the innovation and how that works and really interesting. He’s on LinkedIn and people should go check him out. But what I saw, I was reading some articles and one of them was, it was basically a coffee cup where with an implementation or anything, like you say, it could just be a new feature. You are basically pouring more into that person’s coffee cup and actually what they need is a bigger cup. They can’t just keep taking on more and more. But I think sometimes as a project manager, it’s really key for you to ask that question. So ask the question of who is going to do this? Do we have time to do this? Do you have time to test this?

Those things that even though in a meeting, one of the things I will try and do is bring groups of people together so that I don’t have to repeat the same conversation over and over again. And you also know that everybody then heard the same narrative. So the project I’m currently working on, we’re about 10 months in. It’s going to have been about a 12 month project when it goes live. And we’ve probably had big meetings I would say about every two months where we’ve really, I’ve brought up a timeline and I’ve looked at the next couple of sprints and just called out what is happening, who is responsible for what, and that might be as simple as it’s our responsibility as the client versus it’s the implementation partner’s responsibility, allowing people then to call up and go, actually all my team’s on holiday that week, for example. And you actually have that.

But the other thing I’ve also cautious of doing is giving them a whole project plan and people going away and making full plans based on that when you’re like, actually some of those dates further down the line could be fluid. So being a little bit cautious and making sure that things are caveated. And as much as people say, don’t write everything on a presentation slide, still writing stuff on a presentation slide that says (TBC), next to certain dates. Just so that when somebody says, but you said the date for that training was going to be on that day, I can say, I did say it was to be confirmed and allowing you that space to breathe because actually a lot of what happens in a project isn’t necessarily down to the project manager, even if you are the solo admin.

So you could be the solo admin who’s working on a new piece of functionality, who then gets pulled into another piece of work that really is an organizational priority. So I know somebody who works in a charity to do with children affected by war. Now, you can imagine when the war in the Ukraine started, they got very much, their organizational priorities changed. So that isn’t the project manager’s fault or the admin’s fault when actually that piece of functionality doesn’t happen. That’s something outside of their control. We all face this with Covid, but that can happen on a lower level. People are sick. So you also need to bake in time. You need bake in time for what if somebody’s sick? What if somebody isn’t available to test? Is there a backup person? Can that backup person test and is there output valid? Because I’ve worked on many projects where one person will say, “Yes, that’s absolutely fine,” and they may be aren’t the main decision maker.

Main decision maker comes back and says, “Ooh, sorry, but I’m not happy with that decision.” And you kind of go, okay, well we asked and you said the other person could make the decision, but okay, this is real life and you have to be willing to pivot and you can’t be responsible for everything. When somebody’s son is sick and they can’t make it into the office that day, there’s nothing you can do about it. And I’m always very clear with whoever I’m working with, whoever I’m reporting into, let’s say whether that’s my client, whether that when I was internal, if that was my manager, I would almost make that quite clear of I can only be fully responsible for this to a point.

So especially when I work with clients, I have to kind of highlight, I can’t force your team to do this. I can give them all the tools to fish, teach them to fish. I can get on a call with them and sit with them while they do testing, say, but if they didn’t want to come to the call, I can’t. So there’s kind of a level where you have to say, there’s only so much I can do and also how much do you want me to do? Because when you look at a client, they might not want to pay you for all that time. And even internally, if you’re an internal admin, they might not want you to spend hours just sitting with users while they’re going through testing. So that’s kind of where you need that exec. You need that next level up. You need that next level where we say, hey, team, this needs testing. You’ve been sent all the information. You’ve been sent a deadline. Please work towards that deadline. Please let us know if there are any problems. You almost need that backstop, right?

Mike: Right.

Emma Keeling: And that backstop can’t always just be you. I talk a little bit about playing good cop, bad cop. I also find I kind of need to be good cop as much as I can be. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I have to play bad cop and I have to be like, no, sorry, that doesn’t work. And in some roles that’s more of a requirement than others, but sometimes you have to figure out who you need to keep on the side. And if you know that you need to have a team be really happy and you have to, maybe they’re under a lot of pressure. Maybe they’ve got people off sick, maybe they’re down a team member because somebody moved on to another role, you sometimes don’t want to be the person who has to say the final no.
And I don’t always think that that’s a bad thing that you need to bring somebody else in who maybe says, “Hey guys, I don’t think we can do it like that or hey team, let’s think about moving that back. Can we move it back a month?” You need people to help you with those conversations.

Mike: Yeah. When you think through the skill of project management, because you do this for as a consulting and admins manage projects a lot too, what would you say are the three most important things that you’ve learned that help you successfully manage a project?

Emma Keeling: Now, that’s an interesting question because I obviously did the video with Jillian that kind of goes with this, and I can guarantee that whatever I said in that video is going to be completely different to what I say now. And there’s a reason for this, right? Because there are that many skills that I had to pick out what skills I was going to talk about in that video. So I would say our top skills, at least how I feel today, let’s say, are I think people skills. And you can intertwine that with things like leadership.

I think strong people skills, being able to talk to people, being able to understand people, being able to understand what motivates people, even down to things like are the people in your team, people who are there early in the morning and that’s when they have great time? Or are they the sort of person who you’re better getting on a call? Or are they the sort of people you can just send a slack message to and they’ll just be like, “Yep, send over some more information in text form. I’m fine with that.” Really being able to understand people is important.

I think it is very important that you can understand time and budget. So being able to understand how long do I have for this piece of work? How much money do we have? And then be able to also convert that into what does that look like at the end? Because if I have a low budget, but we really need this sort of functionality, in what ways can we achieve that? Is there a lower cost way to achieve it? Can we build an MVP, that minimum viable product? Can we do that instead?

And actually if that isn’t going to meet our use case, do we build anything at all? Do we actually go back to the drawing board and we go back to the leadership and we either A, ask for more money or if you’ve already got to the point where there isn’t the more money, do you go back and say, Hey, do you know what, maybe we’re better to start with something else. Maybe we’re better not to do priority one on the list because maybe we need a round of funding for that. Or maybe we need to wait until our budget comes in for next year. Or maybe we’ve got another in-house resource who can work on that, but they’re working on another project. Try and figure out where are we best placed to use that money and use that time.

And then I think the last thing is probably, and I’m toying here between is it important to be able to use tools and software and that sort of thing, or is it important to have industry knowledge? I would say if I have to put it in a top three, I mean to both equally, it’s important, so I’m going to push it to four. So I would say you’ve got to be able to manage your time as a project manager. If you can’t keep track of your tasks and what you are doing. If you don’t remember to send out the email, if you don’t remember to chase somebody, if you don’t manage to collaborate effectively in JIRA or Google Sheets or whatever that is, you can’t really expect to be able to bring everybody else along for the ride. So you’ve got to be able to do that.

And then I think the last thing really is that industry knowledge. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some very, very good project managers who actually, their industry knowledge was much lower. But you end up caveating that with a lot of time spent with them, learning from subject matter experts to be able to have those questions, to be able to talk about a product or a solution or an industry, and particularly the industry, don’t get me wrong, it can work. And as I said, I’ve been in the nonprofit space now for about three and a half to four years. So I’m not going to say I know everything about nonprofits. I don’t. And I try and ask a lot of questions to learn more, but you really have to up that knowledge. And I think to be successful, you need to learn about that industry or at least be willing to learn. I find it very difficult with project managers who suggest they don’t need to know anything about the industry to be successful in it, because I just don’t think that’s the case.

Mike: Yeah, I would find that hard. I had some great discussions in community groups too about I want to be a Salesforce admin, what industry should I be in? I’m like, well, an industry that you’re aware of and are familiar with, because otherwise you’re really setting yourself up for a steep learning curve, thinking that through of having to learn the industry as well.

Emma Keeling: Yeah, totally. And I think if you are going into maybe a role where you are in a team and you maybe don’t know that, you maybe get a faster ramp up because people around you can help bring up that knowledge. And I think if you apply for a role and you don’t have that, and I think you then just have to be very clear with people. Like “I don’t have the knowledge about this, but I want to learn, so please tell me more or please tell me where I can find out about this.” I’ve even found things like over the lunch table discussions helpful. When I’ve been on site with a client and you sit and have lunch and you can be like, Hey, tell me a bit more about legacy donations and legacy donors and where that comes from and how does that work and how do you find legacy donors, for example?

That was a really interesting discussion. And at the end of it, I was like, wow, I’ve actually learned loads and I can then share that knowledge. But I think if you don’t have industry knowledge, you really need to make sure that people you are working with do or that it’s quite accepted that you don’t, and you need time for that. So you need to factor that in, right? I once went and did a piece of work in a financial services company. It was only a short piece of maternity cover. I’d never wanted to work in that sector, and I was right. I didn’t enjoy working in that sector, if I’m honest. But what I did find was I was able to ask the right questions because I’ve done stuff historically where maybe I haven’t known the answer. So I’ve had to ask lots of questions, but it was challenging. It was challenging.

And the people who knew I didn’t have the knowledge that was okay because they made sure that they started discussions with explanations of why we’re doing this, why is it important? And you have to ask all those whys. Where I was put into conversations with people who didn’t know I didn’t have the industry knowledge, that was really difficult. Because people immediately assume that you do have that knowledge and they aren’t always receptive to the fact that you don’t. So I would say definitely steep learning curve. Try and start somewhere where you’ve got knowledge or at least be clear with people that you don’t have the answers.

Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Emma, you’ve done a really great job of exposing us to some of the things that you do and don’t do as a project manager and thinking about project management as a skill. So I feel this was a very good compliment to the video that you put out with Jillian. So appreciate you taking time out to be on the podcast.

Emma Keeling: Thanks so much for having me, Mike. It’s been fun.

Mike: Yeah, thanks so much.That was a great conversation with Emma. I think she really brought out a lot of things. Boy, one part that you always have to think about is how much other change is going on in the organization as well. So, now if you enjoyed this episode, be sure to share it with one person. If you’re listening on iTunes, just tap those dots and choose share episode. Then you can post it to social, you can text it to a friend. I’d really appreciate it. And of course, if you’re looking for more great resources, your one stop for everything admin is, including a transcript of the show in case you missed anything. So be sure to check that out and join our conversation in the Admin Trailblazer group in the Trailblazer community. Don’t worry, the link is in the show notes. And with that, until next week, we’ll see you in the cloud.

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