William Steel is currently a PM at Zurich Insurance where he works within a team of six, managing a large portfolio of IT programmes.
What led you to decide on a career in project management? What elements of it particularly appealed to you?
Reflecting on my career a few years before I retired, I realised that, by luck more than design, I had gained a good deal of experience that could be relevant to that rather vague field of employment – project management. Intending to crystallise this experience into something a little more tangible, I applied for the part-time Project and Programme Management (PPM) MSc provided by Cranfield University via the Defence Academy.
As well as providing education in PPM theory, tools and techniques that were of huge value in the final few years of my military career, it validated my suspicion that many of the skills routinely required in military leadership and management are directly relevant in the civilian project management environment. Important in shaping my thoughts though it was, it wasn’t the decisive factor, it is the potential for variety that attracted me., A firm foundation of experience and a qualification or two in project management opens doors to a huge range of sectors in the UK and abroad
What attracted you to apply for a role within Zurich?
Zurich has a lot going for it as an employer, it currently sits 11th in the Sunday Times top 25 large employers; reflecting the effort that the company puts into talent retention. Despite its financial services focus, you don’t need a financial services background. It is first and foremost about having a group of project managers with a broad range of experience, the specifics of the industry are taught as you go along. This makes it a very attractive option to Service-leavers who can apply leadership, management and systems-based approaches but don’t necessarily have relevant experience in the civilian sector.
Also, the opportunities that exist within a large organisation with a global footprint are a positive facet, whilst achieving an element of geographic stability was a key factor for me on leaving the Army, it does not mean that I won’t be looking for a change of scenery in the future and Zurich’s employment model enables this if I so wish.
Can you briefly describe a typical working day?
I am generally office-based at Swindon but I’m occasionally required to attend other Zurich offices or facilities. I work within a team of six, the team is managing a large portfolio of IT programmes, of which I am currently assigned to two. The work environment is quite fluid; teams constantly grow and contract as their projects move through their lifecycles, therefore we do not occupy a defined geographic area of the office for any long period of time, but move to appropriate areas for the size and requirements of the team, the office has been designed with this kind of agility in mind. My days are spent engaging with the internal business units and external suppliers, co-ordinating plans and keeping things moving in the right direction. There are many facets to good project management, but to me, one of the key competencies is effective stakeholder engagement and that is what I spend the majority of my time doing.
What type of skills do you need for a career in project management? Are technical skills more important than soft skills in this role?
Both technical and soft skills are important. Zurich are currently looking for people who have experience and a proven track record in project and change management. We look for knowledge of a variety of project management tools, methodologies and best practice; strong stakeholder management skills; a good understanding of the business use of IT and digital technology; financial & commercial awareness and experience of managing or working with third party suppliers. Whilst experience of Waterfall, Scrum and other approaches along with Project Management qualifications (e.g. Prince 2 or PMI) would be an advantage, it is not essential and neither is a background in financial services.
What similarities/differences are there in your new role/job in comparison to your position in the Services?
At this early stage in my Zurich career, I have already identified parallels with the Armed Forces. Clearly defined core values and active encouragement to engage and support the local community run strongly through both organisations. Looking at the differences, it is the emphasis in the commercial environment on the cost of projects and programmes that is probably the most stark.
In my military experience, it was often a factor that had to be taken into account, but it rarely assumed the same importance as it does in the commercial sector. It still surprises me just how much services and suppliers cost and just how sensitive the commercial world is to those costs. Estimates need a lot of thought, research and validation. This includes the use of organisational resources and personnel within your project, as their time must be charged against it. It requires a mind-set change that those in transition should prepare for.
Military personnel are also used to being thrown in at the deep end with each assignment and having to ‘sink or swim’, this is understandable when the time you spend in a particular role is so short. Zurich is very different; new employees are trained into the role on a manageable glide-path, there are briefing and induction sessions on all the facets of the business that are woven into the working day over the first few months. That is not to say that new employees are not trusted or just sit idle, but there isn’t the same requirement to hit the ground running because they are looking at employees as a long-term investment that needs to develop into the role, rather than as a short-term asset that will be replaced every 2 years.
What job search advice or top tips do you have for anyone leaving the Services now?
Mapping my competencies from a military context to a civilian one was vital to successfully getting through CV filters and interviews. Prior to the transition experience, I would have placed more emphasis on my rank, status and what roles I had undertaken, but this doesn’t necessarily translate well into civilian language.
There are a number of ways that you can do this, but you must recognise the competencies required by your potential future employer and identify, within your military experience, specific examples that demonstrate your aptitude for each. This bank of examples can be drawn on to populate your CV for a specific role or organisation and also at the interview stages.
When I began applying for jobs, I had a generic version of my CV, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with it, you really do have to construct specific CVs for specific jobs and organisations. It is a very reflective process that takes some effort but it is time well spent. Having an ex-military contact within the organisation or industry in which you are interested can be of great help in articulating your experience meaningfully.
The only other thing that I would add, as someone to which it doesn’t come naturally, is that you have to build your network and then take advantage of it, two of my best interview opportunities were generated through some targeted networking.