An interview with Helen Davis

Helen Davis

We sat down with Helen Davis, an experienced PMO leader in IT and business change based in Kent.

“Whilst I started out my career with ideas of what I wanted to do, the reality has been quite different. I would describe my career path as an evolving picture; at the start, I had an idea of my strengths and weaknesses but didn’t really understand the extent of them. As my career has progressed, I’ve gained greater insights into my strengths, opportunities for development and what type of environment I thrive in, so I can be the best version of me. Over time that has helped shape my career direction and choice of role.  

I initially started my career in HR in manufacturing and then moved to financial services. Whilst working for RBS, I developed a strong interest in project management and after 2 years managing HR projects, I joined the bank’s central HR Programme Management Office (PMO). 

I discovered I enjoyed working in PMO even more than project management, so I decided to develop my career in PMO, firstly in HR and then in IT and business change. After leaving RBS to take on a series of temporary PMO roles for other large financial services organisations, a former colleague referred me to FITTS who were looking for someone to set up their PMO function and that is where I last worked before going on maternity leave.

FITTS deliver digital transformation to organisations of all sizes and business needs. They work on a partnership relationship, which means they work with businesses to find the best solutions for their organisational needs, including providing end-to-end solutions, as well as creating a framework for business change with all the necessary technology to reinforce assured and efficient operations across the organisation. 

What I love most about my job and my industry is that I have the ability to make decisions quickly and evolve processes over time with a ‘minimum viable product’ mindset and approach so that we can test and adjust processes in real-time and make them the very best they can be. 

I would say there have been two main challenges in my career. Firstly, learning to deal with slow decision making in large organisations. Secondly, a more recent big challenge has been leading the development of a PMO model suitable for a smaller, more agile digital organisation that governs effectively, providing an early warning system for projects and enabling fast and effective decision making. 

Balancing accuracy, quality and speed of delivery is a key challenge that faces most project management functions and it is the ability of a PMO to provide a framework that enables both project delivery effectiveness and efficiency that is a key value-add of the PMO.

People often think the sole purpose of my role is to police Project Managers and make them comply with standards. Whilst my role is about setting standards and quality assuring projects against the standards, my role is much more about analysis, supporting project managers through coaching and providing an external perspective to improve project delivery quality, as well as giving project managers a framework to make their projects more successful, including measures that project managers can use as an early warning system to help them anticipate and proactively manage problems. 

Projects are by their very nature, full of risk and problems because that’s the nature of change. It’s my role to help project managers navigate a path through the risks so they are empowered to deliver the right products and services at the right time to the right people, in a way that enables lasting and positive business change.”

The Warning Signs of Digital Burnout

“I feel I have come close to experiencing digital burnout. A key early warning sign for me is how often I feel the need to check my phone. I know I’m getting close to burnout if I cannot focus for more than 15 minutes without looking at my phone. 

A key coping mechanism for me is regularly switching my phone to Airplane Mode and turning off email and IM notifications on my laptop when I need to focus. This quality focus time is actually very peaceful and calming for me. It also gives me space to return to messages, emails and notifications when I’m ready, without the pressure of feeling like I need to be constantly connected, informed and responding to messages. 

I do recommend scheduling in time for focusing on tasks and scheduling in time for distractions. I find switching between the two makes me more productive, calmer and ultimately more creative. 

For me, practising self-care is doing something away from a screen; walking my dog, running, eating lunch whilst reading a book, or painting. These are all activities I find relaxing and help me to unplug. I think that this quality relaxation time, where you can just be in the moment, observing what’s happening in the world around you and experiencing life without the aid of technology, is important for anyone that spends a lot of time in digital. 

Whilst I do think awareness of mental health has improved in the workplace, I think it still has a way to go for 2 reasons:

1) The perception among many people is that they don’t want to be seen as not coping or give the impression that they are at risk of being off work unwell for a period of time, in case it affects their performance assessment and career progression.

2) People who suffer with mental health issues often feel unable to ask for help because they feel ashamed, embarrassed or simply feel that they should be able to cope on their own. I think workplaces have yet to realise the importance of emotional intelligence, in particular, empathy, in helping improve mental health. 

By being more aware of how our actions and communications affect others, noticing when colleagues don’t seem like themselves and offering help, rather than being continually task and deadline focused, we could improve mental health significantly. 

I strongly believe there is a place for caring and humanity in the workplace, irrespective of the work priorities and business objectives that drive daily workload because caring about the people you work with drives greater motivation, commitment and productivity. 

Telling someone who is struggling to perform in their role due to stress that you understand they are under stress, that you believe they can perform well and asking them what you can do to support them, is much better for mental health than the classic management approach of telling someone that their performance isn’t good enough and spelling out everything that they are doing wrong. 

Focusing on brainstorming solutions in a caring and positive way has a far greater benefit for mental health and is likely to contribute to the person’s recovery.   

I have suffered with my mental health in the past. A key strategy I use to keep it in check is to write down my thoughts, be aware and observe what I’m feeling, how I’m talking to myself and others, and then working out what message it is giving me. 

All emotions are messages; it’s easy to get caught up in them and lose sight of the message. So if I’m worrying about something, I’ll ask myself what the message is behind the worry – for example, is it because I’m tired and need to take a break, or is it because there’s something I need to plan or do? This helps me maintain an objective view rather than get caught up in the emotion, which is what can damage mental health and lead to a lack of confidence and self-belief. Just because I feel bad, doesn’t necessarily mean something bad is happening. It may just be a message that I need time to recharge and that’s OK. 

I think workplaces should support a more ‘be kind to yourself’ culture by being more flexible, treating people like adults – if someone wants to take time out to see their son or daughter receive an award at their school assembly, they should be empowered to take the time without apologising or feeling guilty. If organisations trust their employees to get the work done and empower them to make decisions that enable them to lead a more balanced and fulfilling life, without experiencing high levels of pressure and overload, then their mental health will benefit; and when that happens, workplace productivity will also improve. 

Whilst I think social media has provided a platform for people to be more open about mental health, I do think social media in general over-dramatises and encourages all-or-nothing thinking, which damages mental health. Social media, by its shorthand, snapshot nature, encourages us to think something is good or bad, a success or failure, a miracle or a disaster. It’s tempting to internalise this thinking and start applying these judgments to our own lives which can hinder rather than help mental health.”

Establishing my work persona as a woman

“I don’t feel I have to prove myself more than my male counterparts. I do however feel that I have struggled more as a woman to establish my work persona and I think this is something that men find less difficult. 

I have a tendency to overthink, so what has helped me in business is defining my values and making decisions aligned with those values. I think it’s important to be calm and assertive in business. 

I’ve had a few experiences, mainly with male colleagues, where colleagues have become angry, frustrated or irate. By remaining calm, showing that I’m listening and responding constructively, I’ve been able to emerge from those challenging situations successfully and gained respect in the process. 

I think it’s critical to be true to yourself and your values in the workplace. In my opinion, there’s nothing more powerful than the authentic, best version of you; proving yourself happens naturally when you get this right.”

You can find Helen on LinkedIn.

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