Projects are Life: Eugene Spiegle, Rutgers University

“If you can’t communicate, you can’t lead.”
— Eugene Spiegle, Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Undergraduate Program Director, Rutgers University

About Eugene

Eugene Spiegle, or Gene, as his colleagues call him, is the Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Director of Pathways to Partnerships at Rutgers University. The majority of Gene’s life has been spent running projects, with more than 45 working years spanning projects in construction, design, telecom, international security, and more.

Gene founded the Cambridge Group, a project management consulting firm and has managed projects for and worked with AT&T, Bechtel, Black & Veatch, Boeing, Chrysler Corporation, City of Los Angeles DWP, and U.S. Corp. of Engineers, Datek Online Inc., General Motors, Hewlett Packard, MIT National Labs, Xerox Corporation, the United Nations, and more. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and Psychology, as well as a Masters and Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology.

After his tenure as the Director of Projects at the United Nations, Gene began working in education at Rutgers University. He has quite literally written the book on project management, authoring “Project Management Guidelines” and “Project Management – The Basics For Success.”

I was fortunate enough to sit down and spend time with veteran project management and operations expert, Eugene Spiegle.

Q&A with Eugene Spiegle

Can you tell me about your career and how it developed over time?

My career is about as wide as it is tall. The majority of my life has been spent running projects. My initial education is in forensic psychology and I spent 13 years in the Navy doing just that.

I left the Navy to start a company to build automated systems and that was the beginning of my project management career. I did that for 21 years, working with customers in the automotive, pharmaceutical, and food industries, to name a few. We were literally solving problems for companies.

We sold that company and then I retired — or so I thought. A month later, I started a consulting company to teach people how to run projects. One of my customers was the United Nations, so I left the consulting company to work there for 15 years.

I then left the United Nations seven years ago to teach project management in the Department of Supply Chain Management at Rutgers University, which was a new department at that time. My role at Rutgers University has expanded since then and I’ve enjoyed, and continue to enjoy sharing my work and project management expertise with students.

What does the Director of Projects role entail at the United Nations?

Primarily, I had a team of eight and we ran projects ranging from two-thousand to two-billion dollars. After 9/11, we put in a whole new security project called SSP, strengthening security project. This included new access controls, a new command center, and other security enhancing technology. It was a comprehensive project that spanned many groups.

You’ve managed a wide breadth of projects. Are there any that have been more challenging than others? Did the same principles apply to each project?

All projects look alike. Many people have a misconception of what project management is. The foundation of a project is the accuracy of the defined objective. If you don’t have a good objective, you’ll never have a good project outcome.

What is the role of leadership in project management?

I personally dislike the word “manager” — I prefer “leader.”

It all comes down to leadership, and the basic foundation of leadership is communication. If you can’t communicate you can’t lead.

There are tools that can help you with communication — certainly, a schedule will help you make projects successful, so you should use a project management platform. When looking for the software to help you be the best leader you can be, search for simplicity. You need to be able to track projects and communicate well. This will enable you to make the decisions a leader needs to make: does something need to change and what are the most effective changes to make?

How do you create trust with customers?

Always be able to support and protect the customer. You can do this by making sure to document everything so that in the future you can point to exactly what happened. This is what you’re doing when you look at and update the tracker. You’re creating accountability so that you can support and protect your customer.

There’s no magic to project management. It’s not a unique business. It’s taking lots of little tasks and doing each one of them on a timely basis.

Each step needs to be measurable and verifiable.

Because you’ve managed so many different kinds of projects, have you become an expert in all the fields, or do the same principles apply to all project types?

It’s not a matter of expertise in anything, it’s a matter of understanding the desired outcome of the project. Most project managers may or may not have some expertise in some area depending on what they do, but it’s not necessary to be successful.

Most project managers are not in anyway experts at everything. You may have a working knowledge of an area, but they don’t need to be experts.

The most important thing to do is to agree to communicate about change, risk, etc. Start with having a common glossary. It’s not magic, it’s just common sense.

How much of project management is incumbent on the actual project manager versus just knowing the language and standards of project management?

There are standards that we should all follow, but every company has its own uniqueness, so I don’t think you can have standards that apply to everybody everywhere.

There are three parts to all strategic plans: mission, vision, and value. There are no absolute standards to go by, but there are creative standards that leave room for learning how to communicate, manage risk, and take a simple approach.

If you could give advice to new project managers, what would it be? 

Learn to be a leader, not a manager. Start by listening and understanding the value of your team — they are the ones making the project move forward, not you.

How can project management improve over the next few years?

Fewer meetings.

This is an old one, but it’s still a good one. This was told to me by a guy I worked with and I just sat there laughing because it was absolutely true. He said, “It probably won’t take me more than fifteen minutes to pull 10 people to a meeting for an hour. If you calculate the cost per hour of those people, it will take you two weeks to make the same amount of money to buy a copier.”

If a copier is more valuable than the meeting, don’t have the meeting. To me, the biggest waste we have in the world is the waste of human resource.

Are there any projects that you’ve worked on that either you picked up while they were behind or failing? Were there any difficult projects that you had to turn around?

I turned a bakery around in Ohio. All we were doing was putting in a conveying system. The customer had bought an old company building. They gutted it, rebuilt it, and planned to put in a premium bakery. It was just a disaster and they were delayed. I essentially told them they could either put a band-aid on it, which I wouldn’t help them do, or I could take over the project and turn it around. They chose the latter.

Though, of course, you can’t gain what’s already been lost in time and budget. In the case of the bakery, they lost a half a million dollars, well you can’t gain that back, if you lose it you lose it.

The most interesting part of project management as far as I’m concerned is making those hard decisions because that allows you to really understand what has transpired and be able to turn that around. There are three ways you are a project manager:

  • You were either assigned a project brand new
  • You take over somebody’s own project
  • You’re a hired to run a project

I think the duty is the exact same across these three ways of becoming a project manager. You know, I think projects are a series of choices and I like to make them.