Faculty Spotlight: Dani Beckman Wants to Shape the Next Generation of Project Managers

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Dani Beckman
Photo: Dani Beckman

For Dani Beckman, project management is an all-or-nothing endeavor. “One thing I always say is either the team succeeds, or I’ve failed,” she says. As a principal consultant at Mavendog, LLC, a boutique project leadership firm in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in project management roles at Bank of America and Wells Fargo, Beckman has led teams through dramatic changes in financial regulations and other high-risk efforts. “You’ve got to be willing to take the heat and take none of the success — because the team succeeds, not you.”

“Of course, if something goes wrong, it’s my fault,” she laughs.

Beckman’s passion for the work she does is infectious — as is her deep commitment to principles of project management, not only as a professional but as an educator and as a mentor for the Project Management Institute (PMI), the world’s leading not-for-profit membership association for project management. And just this year, she is leaving the board of the PMI Metrolina Chapter out of Charlotte, after serving the maximum term as the vice president of marketing. In that time, they’ve won the Chapter of the Year — twice.

But it’s not as if Beckman had always dreamed of being a project manager. In fact, she was working, wondering about next steps for a master’s degree, when she first heard of a project management degree — and understood that it’s what she had been doing all along.

How did you get into project management?

I’ve been in project management for about 20 years. (I sound super young, but I’m not.) When I was younger, I was pre-law, until I woke up one day and realized, Hey, I’m doing project management. It’s my natural inclination. I was always the color-coder, the person with the planner. I think you’re either inclined to be that person or you’re not.

What other qualities make for a good project manager?

We’re all type As — or, I should say, strong project managers are type A. You want to make a deadline. You want to put everything in order. You want to jump into chaos and straighten it out. We thrive on making sense out of nonsense — that’s what we do. We like giving people that direction to succeed.

Has project management changed a lot in the last 20 years?

I want to say yes — but I am saying no. The basics are always going to be the same: You plan it, you schedule it, you execute it, you close it up. That’s the basic model of how you work a project. Are there special nuances that are ever-evolving? Of course.

Is that because it’s a relatively new field?

I wouldn’t say it’s a new field. It’s newly recognized as being needed. I think there have always been project managers. People have always just done the work, as a secondary task. Now, it’s the primary focus. So, while we’ve always done it, it hasn’t been our primary goal — and that is why it hasn’t always been successful in companies.

Are you seeing any new trends in project management?

I don’t know that we’re a trendy group. But I think the trend right now is the combination of Agile and Waterfall. I’m not excited about that, to be honest.

Waterfall is where you start with a set of requirements and go through planning and development and deployment. Agile is where you don’t start with a full set of requirements, you do a minimum viable project – the minimum in order to see where it’s going so you can pivot and change direction quickly.

There are positive attributes to both, but they’re not really interchangeable. Large companies are trying to force both to work together. I find it awkward.

Where I work in the financial industry, we have a lot of regulations. They want to be fancy and Agile, when what they really want is to be adaptive.

What do you mean by adaptive?

I think people use Agile incorrectly. When I think Agile, I think daily stand-ups, scrum masters and two-week sprints. I think people are using “Agile” to mean adaptive. So, for example, when we get two months into a project and realize maybe that bridge needs to go 100 feet further, we’re being a little flexible – or adaptive, if you will. We’re not so concrete that we can’t change. That’s flexibility. It’s not a technique.

The industry throws words out that they don’t necessarily understand. That’s why I went into teaching, to try to help others understand the difference in what they were doing — what the theory behind everything really is.

How does good project management transform a business?

Well, in a lot of ways. It saves time, saves money. There’s less risk, less stress, less waste. It depends on the company, of course, but all of those apply.

People are more productive. There’s no wasted time. You know exactly what’s next. Then you, as the worker, have an escalation process — you know where to go when something is in the way. There’s always a mediation person and somewhere to go for help. That’s what I do. I get those impediments out of the way.

What are the perks of having a master’s degree in project management in this job market?

Anyone can get an MBA, but an MSPM sets you apart. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina — and everyone has an MBA. I always just say, the MSPM sets you apart. It means you’ve taken the time to learn more. Anyone can sit for a test. You can take a boot camp to pass the test to be a PMP. But it takes a certain person to spend a year or two — it took me three to get mine — to study the field.

I see that you’re also a mentor for PMP students. Why is mentoring so important to you?

I just want the next generation to be better than our generation. We’re pretty good though.

Why Bovard College?

The project itself intrigued me and helping USC develop the MS in Project Management program was exciting. It was something that I could get into at the ground level and develop to reach students in a way I feel is truly engaging.

Dani Beckman teaches PJMT 510: Schedule Management.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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