Managing an international multi-partner project has some advantages, but I’m sure I wasn’t aware of all these when I applied for the job.
For me it was the continuation of an international working background. After 5.5 years of following up on other manager’s reports in the external LIFE-Monitoring Team, it was interesting to change roles and become a project manager myself. Discovering that there is such a big difference between words written in a project application and the reality of project implementation was a bit of a surprise, but I soon realised and understood the reasons behind this.
Project management is ultimately much more about organising work, reminding partners about agreed duties, checking financial aspects and the implication of one small change to the whole project, and generally overcoming problems and hurdles through Additional Clause Requests and good communication with the Monitoring Team and European Commission.
To describe the desirable qualities of a LIFE project manager, I would first have to say that you need to be a very well organised and structured person. Being open to new challenges will also help in coping with the many different surprises, and being as flexible as a gymnast is useful too! But a key requirement is a ‘non-allergic’ reaction to paper, whether it is forms, regulations as Common Provisions, permits or reports. Office work and administrative tasks must be something you are comfortable with. A manager’s work is about paper - anything else is false propaganda! It’s about keeping a complex structure manageable. To be able to multitask is essential. Resistant to stress and a capacity for self-motivation are also very important.
The major part of the work is managing, supporting and encouraging partners, staff and site managers to do even more work, on top of their own long list of chores, in a project some of them might have never wanted to be part of and perhaps get little or no personal benefit from. To motivate such people is not everybody’s dream job.
A manager must know the Common Provisions and the project application by heart (even if it is 500 pages long), and be able to juggle all the different aspects. Although the LIFE-BaltCoast project takes place in a wonderful environment, along pristine beaches, don't even think about going swimming during working time, as site visits are usually in winter or during bad weather, or with uncomfortable company. I have managed it only once in 4 years! And the toad component of this project was, even though not intentionally, about 'toad licking': Those bufotoxins can sure help you to get through a tough day at the office.
A manager needs high self-esteem, as only few of the participants will thank you, despite all the, hopefully, successful battles with the Commission and others. At the same time, a good project team is essential, some good colleagues one can count on. Otherwise it's a walk on a tight rope - without a net. And be prepared that personnel in a bigger partner team might change – without notice, and may not be replaced for some time.
And don't count on preserving your youthful good looks: a 2-week annual spa holiday with intensive beauty treatment and monthly hair dying (to cover grey hair) is highly recommended but, unfortunately, is still not accepted as an eligible expenditure.
Nevertheless, managing a LIFE project has also provided some great moments, which keep my heart warm. It is very rewarding to see an intensively farmed site being transformed into a natural paradise and it is always a good feeling when a measure on site has been completed as foreseen. There is also a real sense of achievement when you see young toads that were released from the rearing station survive their first winter.
Recognition of the work you do is also important. For example, when guests on a guided tour come back and say 'thanks' for the fascinating insight, or make a positive statement about the interesting landscape or animals. Or when a letter from the Commission has some encouraging words or a person presents a bouquet of flowers after a presentation or discussion.
To see the impact of your work on the people around you is also something that I found very motivating. For instance, when people from a municipality that might have originally been sceptical or reluctant are now in favour of the project, or when partners and colleagues discover the European added value and potential benefit of the project approach.
So with all the highlights and all the stresses, would I do it again? Somehow, it seems the wrong question. LIFE, as with life, is all about learning and this has been a perfect learning experience!
Britta Küper, Coordinator of the BaltCoast LIFE project.
Rehabilitation of the Baltic coastal lagoon habitat complex
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