Be More Than a Project Manager, Be a Project Leader: A Faculty Spotlight on Mike Fanning

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Michael Fanning

Photo: Michael Fanning

There’s earning the reputation of a top-notch project manager and then there’s breaking the mold of what top-notch project management should look like.

Mike Fanning has done both. A one-time sports reporter for The Washington Post, Fanning went on to spend more than 30 years in the public sector, building his credentials as he went along.

From speechwriting for U.S. Postmaster General Robert Tisch (also former co-owner of the New York Giants), to landing a job reading and answering the president’s mail to serving as the U.S. Postal Service’s environmental Chief of Staff and its agency environmental executive, Fanning can navigate his way through the most complex of government projects to get it done, and done right.

Now he’s passing on decades of life lessons to students, not just in Bovard College’s MSPM program, but around the world.

Fanning, who holds a PMP certification as well as four patents in emergency and environmental management, also teaches project management to an unlikely group of students outside the traditional college track — international refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and South Sudan.

His first lesson to all of his students is that they have to be more than just their title.

“I tell my students sometimes, ‘I’m not preparing you for a job,’” Fanning said. “I think, more importantly, what I want you to do is pick up the mindset and look at life through a lens of project management. How are you going to get it done? How are you going to deal with stakeholders?”

And whether or not his students go on to hold the title of project manager, he tells them, “I want you to be a project leader.”

Fanning spoke to USC Bovard College about managing high stakes projects and how nurturing the project team is every bit as important as the final product.

How did you get started in project management?

Looking back, I have always done different things. When I was a sports reporter, you’re always doing the next assignment or covering the season, but each story, each game was its own specific task. I realized later I was doing it all along, naturally.

When it all came together for me was when I became the Chief of Staff for environmental management for the postal service. I was the No. 2 guy for a long time. And in 2001, anthrax hit the postal service and there were no resources for that. Nobody knew quite what to do. Anthrax is a big-time hazardous waste. And we lost two people who died at a facility in Washington D.C.

I got tasked with deploying a national biodefense system. For the next four or five years, we worked with the private sector to use PCR technology, or polymerse chain reaction, in real time. Essentially, what it is, you real-time test the air samples to determine if there is bacillus anthracis. There are 11 kinds of anthrax. One of them will kill you. You don’t want any false positives, because that scares the heck out of people and messes up your business. But a false negative will kill people.

I had to figure out, how do we do this? It literally had to be done in real time because lives were at risk and the business of the postal service and billions of dollars were at risk because people were afraid of using the mail. So we had to figure that out. We had to make sure we could develop great technology and with the private sector, we did that.

We began implementing it region by region across the country, so that within, I think, three years every mail intake facility in the U.S. where they actually processed it on machines could have one of these bio-detection scanners. And people were safe.

That is a very intense introduction to formal project management.

Oh really? (Laughs)

We were playing with much higher stakes. It was a time when people’s lives were at risk and the country was literally under attack. And we worked really hard.

I had to deal with the FBI, I had to deal with the CDC; I had to deal with all the local public health officials. And that’s interesting. It’s like Groundhog Day. It taught me the tremendous value of managing a team. And building and nurturing a team. Managing just sounds like you are telling people what to do, whereas these were precious people to me.

How do you navigate project management in such a high-level government capacity?

They’re still people. Washington’s a small town. Many years ago, I worked at the White House for two years. I read the president’s mail. I sort of saw what they went through. I kind of got the idea and I knew their pace. I have relatives in other federal agencies, so I understood their world.

I tell my students, “One of the most important things I want you to learn how to do is become a credible speaker. Don’t just give a presentation as if you would rather die. You own the project. This is your child. You have to speak for it.”

You just look them dead in the eye and say, “I got your back. It’s going to be okay.”

That takes a lot of confidence!

Don’t think I don’t get queasy in the stomach and I don’t get nervous. It’s not like I’m trying to put on a show, but you have to meet expectations. You have to set those expectations and then you have to meet them. Because in the end, someone is handing you the keys to the car.

What benefits does an MSPM offer both employees and the employers who hire them?

I’d say there are three great things. You’re going to get a master’s, you’re going to get a graduate degree from USC and that means something anywhere around the United States or around the world, that’s one.

Two, you’re going to get a master’s in project management and that’s going to teach you how to manage. It’s not just projects but programs, policies, everything. When you’re a project manager that’s your first test — can you manage? If you do that well, you get bigger projects. If you do that even better, you get to manage a program or a division or something and now you’re on your way.

Third, once you have that master’s in project management from USC, you [should pursue a] PMP (Project Management Professional certification) because that tells everyone you have met world-class certification.

You get those three things, it will transform the way you feel about yourself, about the way you do your job, and about what you can give to the community.

Tell us about you. What do you enjoy outside of the office?

I love just hanging around my wife and kids. Both of my kids were adopted from China. We hired a tutor who keeps them up to speed with Mandarin. Because it’s their language. They’ve got to know it. They’re such good kids. I take one of them to a lot of Thai kickboxing lessons. She’s going to get her black belt in the spring which is way cool. And the other is a budding chef, so I do a lot of prep work. You do whatever makes them happy. I will be married 40 years this spring. I am a very lucky guy.

What excites you about teaching the next generation at Bovard?

I love the students. They’re really good. They want to learn, they’re smart. They get it, which is fun, too. There’s no sense working hard at it if they’re not trying hard. One of my students, I laughed — he said, “I have football practice,” and I said, “Where do you practice?” And he said, “Well, I play football for USC…”

I looked him up — he plays a lot of football for USC. He’s a 5th year player. And he not only walked onto the football team, he was good enough to earn a scholarship. And he’s a hard worker — since he has an extra year of eligibility he’s getting a master’s degree.

I tease him, because I played Division III football. I said, “Reuben [Peters], I really admire what you’re doing, but I’m not going to cut you one bit of slack because you’ve got such skills.”

He told me, “I wouldn’t want that. I am here to learn how to become a project manager.”

That’s why I like teaching Bovard students.

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