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Managing long-term projects by short-term goal-setting

Sarah Smithson motivates her team by providing clear day-to-day tactical direction while navigating long-term strategic objectives and ensuring that every member of her team feels empowered to reach their potential.

There can be few industries that require project managers to combine patience with diplomacy and communication skills so well as the defence industry. It is these soft skills that Sarah Smithson believes will ensure the young people training in project management will progress to management level at missile systems manufacturer, MBDA.

As a Business and Project Management Executive at MBDA she is well-placed to observe how these attributes, combined with hard work and training, are crucial to the success of projects that can last anything from 10 to 40 years.

In these long-term projects, no project manager is expected to oversee a new system from cradle to grave. Instead each project manager is required to make sure incremental steps are taken on time, and to budget, to keep long-term plans on track.

“Much of my role is getting the balance right between long-term thinking and pushing a project forward,” she explains.

“Any project manager will know the natural tension between future-proofing what you are working on today with the need to keep a project moving forwards to deliver it on time and to budget. To do that, I need to work closely with my chief engineer, each project’s management team and multiple stakeholders throughout the business, such as engineering, commercial, finance and procurement. It’s a varied mix. Then there is obviously the customer and their broader sponsors, who are paying for the new capability,” says Smithson.

“It is the ultimate project management challenge; being able to communicate well with people and take them along with you so, everyone is singing from the same proverbial hymn sheet.”

A larger sense of purpose drives the team

Keeping teams involved in the minutia of a long-term project so it is kept on track and within budget may sound like a tall order when nobody is likely to be involved for more than part of the project length. It is helped, though, with team-wide understanding of the greater purpose of coming into work each day, Smithson maintains.

“As a project manager at MBDA you always have bear in mind that we are all a part of a very important process that defends our nation’s freedoms,” she says.

“MBDA is the only European group capable of designing and producing missiles and missile systems that correspond to the full range of current and future operational needs of the three armed forces (land, sea and air). So, at some point in the future, our armed forces are going to need us to have done our jobs to make sure they have the best equipment at their disposal. That equipment must do exactly what it says on the tin and be delivered at the right time, at the right cost, to the right specifications.”

Flexible roles attract diverse talent

Smithson is very optimistic about the future. Although there is still some work to be done to achieve the right balance of diversity at the senior levels within MBDA UK, she feels the business is doing all it can do provide a flexible working environment, which will ensure the best female and male talent is attracted and retained.

She has certainly never felt held back or constrained in her career path. She joined MBDA after university, working initially in facilities management roles before getting her break as a project manager a decade ago. With a new role within the main business came more responsibility but also plenty of training to ensure she was fully qualified for her developing career. She would have no hesitation in recommending her career, and employer.

“I think things are really improving in gender balance because project management, to me at least, is one of those areas where the soft skills so many women naturally have, or have developed, are so vital,” she says.

“I suspect some women may have felt in the past that defence is a male industry but that’s changing. I can safely predict, from all the young women I’m seeing rise through the ranks, that MBDA is doing all it can to make sure the best person for the job is selected,irrrespective of gender. I am certainly enjoying a rewarding and successful career where I’ve taken two bouts of maternity leave and have seen many male colleagues who have taken paternity leave too.”

“Flexible working will give young people the confidence to apply for roles within MBDA and encourage them to stay if they choose to raise a family,” says Smithson. It is by attracting and then, crucially, retaining top talent, she predicts, that the company can expect to continue its work in achieving a more gender-balanced workforce that will rise through the ranks and bring greater diversity at managerial levels.

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