Diving Into PMOs and Women in STEM with Sarah Farahdel

"I recommend asking the team what they’d like to see in a PMO because the people embedded within the organization usually know what outcome they are looking for and what will really work for them. Gathering that feedback helps deepen your understanding of the current state and how the team is currently structured".

When does a company need a PMO (Project Management Office)?

Companies require a PMO for a number of reasons— they might need an alignment of strategic objectives and/or they may require standardization across the board to ensure procedures, operations and tasks are delivered on time, on budget and with quality.

PMOs enable a centralized hub for organizations to refer to. I’ll delve deeper into the different types of PMOs later, but essentially, it provides a platform to manage your resources better for the execution of projects and processes, establishes an operationally excellent governance model and helps the organization align and effectively cascade down the strategic objectives across all functions.

Why might an organization consider an external firm to help establish a PMO?

The greatest benefit of an external organization here would be the opportunity to take a step back and look at the organization holistically. When you’re within a firm, it’s hard to gauge maturity.

I would suggest first doing a proper assessment of the maturity of your team, and then investigating what kind of PMO would be the best fit for your organization (here it is important to obtain an external opinion from somebody who’s a subject matter expert in the field).

There is also a real need to look over the resources available to the organization and make informed decisions about which resources are best suited to be part of this team. Again, this can be hard to gauge from within the organization.


What are the different types of PMOs and how do you know which type might be best suited for your organization?

In context, there are three main types of PMOs: supportive, controlling and directive, or if you look at it through another lens, centralized, decentralized and hybrid. These interplay together. Typically in larger organizations, you’ll see a centralized PMO where this department owns all of the projects and processes and is responsible for executing these from start to finish.

In a decentralized PMO, each department has its own PMO set up or a subset of people who are responsible for managing the projects and processes specific to their department. Then, of course, there’s the hybrid model where you have the centralized hub, a unique team of subject matter experts dedicated to managing these processes within your organization. This department then enables every other department within the organization to own their own projects and processes, and functions as a gatekeeper authorized to make sure that the projects are being delivered on time, as per the cadence and process that was put in place.

Different PMOs can be applied to different organizations, depending on the context, and required needs of the business.

 Typically, we conduct several assessments to gauge which PMO might be the best fit for a given organization.

  • We begin with a maturity assessment of the team, where we look at the size of the organization and how mature the team is with the standardization of both their projects and processes.
  • We also do a current state assessment where we survey the larger team and interview the leadership team to understand their current position, the dynamism and inter-relationships between departments and so forth.
  • Once we understand that dynamic, we can move on to determining the right PMO fit.

Finally, we also look at the growth paths of these organizations— you can begin with something less mature and move into something more mature as you progress within the organization. This is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all situation, and these needs may evolve over time.

What are the first steps that you would typically take in setting up a PMO for an organization?

As discussed above, the first step I take in setting up a PMO is starting with a survey or a current state assessment. Depending on how large your organization is, you’ll definitely want to involve the leadership team, as well as the tactical level (or your senior management team). Ensure that the survey is standardized, so that you can quantify results later and easily demonstrate them.

Typically, when setting up the survey, I  begin with the twelve pillars of project management as a base. This includes a full maturity assessment at every level, as an example for resource management, project management, capacity/demand management, and so forth, just to fully understand where the company stands from a development and maturity standpoint in these domains. Once this is clear, you can start looking at where their pain points are. Also, make sure you fully understand: what really drives success for this organization? What is it that truly matters for them?

I recommend asking the team what they’d like to see in a PMO at this point because the people embedded within the organization usually know what outcome they are looking for and what will really work for them. Gathering that feedback helps deepen your understanding of the current state and how the team is currently structured. Once you have those answers, you can then move on to hypothesizing about which PMO works best in that context, and what your organizational structure might look like as a result.

Finally, after these steps are complete, you can start developing the actual governance cadence, establishing the process of managing projects and standardizing  required tools and templates. As the team matures in their development, these can be considered medium to long-term goals to achieve.

After establishing a PMO, how do you successfully handoff and train the team so that the solution is sustainable, even after the consulting firm leaves?

The first essential step here is understanding roles and responsibilities. After you have defined the need for a PMO, established the type of PMO that should be built and outlined all the success criteria that will be a part of this team, you need to understand who is going to play what role within this department. Regardless of model (centralized, decentralized or hybrid): what is your organizational structure going to look like? Who is leading this department? Who is supporting that individual? If there are project managers, what role will they play?Once that’s defined (and you’ve gone down to the granular level of job descriptions, if necessary), hand this off to your sponsor and make sure that they’re well established.

The next piece is developing training materials— if you’re establishing a project gating system, or if you’re establishing standard tools and templates, make sure that they know, in detail, how these things are filled out and how to start a project within that gating system. I like doing workshops and training modules with the client to facilitate this handoff. Typically, the training and transition takes anywhere between a month or two to do properly.

The last step is pilot testing, and this is key! Often, you produce a solution you think is ideal and the theoretical analysis looks great, but when you pilot test it, you realize there’s room for improvement. You must tailor your solution to the needs of the client.

These first steps are key to making sure the work gets sustained. Also, make sure you test the solution out, with a couple of cases, to ensure that the client can execute on their own prior to closing the project.

What are additional best practices for companies to consider when establishing a PMO?

I must reiterate the importance of fully understanding the organization’s current state. It is essential to remove less-than-ideal practices they have fallen into, and make sure they understand how and why those practices are hurting the business. Help them unlearn these practices, build a better path forward and then demonstrate that in action. It is also key to establish the change mindset.

When it comes to managing projects, you definitely want to communicate what project charters, project plans and business cases are. Those are fundamental building blocks that any Project Manager in a Program Management Office will need to know. Also, make sure you’ve discussed the following questions: how do you go about risk management? What’s the best way of reporting risk and issues and setting up a governance? These are key pillars or even quick wins for the company to build on. Once you are at that level, you can establish governance and build further— not everything has to be perfect when you start, but make sure your foundation of basics is solid.

As a woman in STEM with significant experience in navigating male-dominated spaces such as manufacturing, what challenges do you think women pursuing STEM face in 2022? 

The challenges we face have evolved with time, but not decreased. In the past, male dominance in STEM fields meant that you had to navigate being the only woman in the room (in engineering contexts especially). Now, one of the biggest challenges is the unconscious bias that often occurs in workplace. I’ve often felt a need to fight for a seat at the table and make sure that my voice is heard. Creating a collaborative and equal working environment is critical for success.

I’m also a student on the side and I can confirm that the situation remains the same in academic contexts as well— it is often hard to engage with your professors and peers and express your opinion openly and directly with authority, but it is essential. Both in the boardroom and in the classroom, this challenge remains.

We are moving in the right direction, however. There are numerous initiatives and associations that exist today to support women (I’m personally a part of several) —  Women in Engineering and STEM student associations, national EDI Special Interest Groups, Women in Leadership & Governance organizations and so forth. These conduct outreach programs to bring awareness of STEM programs to women and girls from a young age and provide opportunities to network and find mentors in their field.

That said, there is a real need for corporations and organizations to create a nurturing environment for growth and help women feel more at ease in positions they’re already in. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to just getting women into engineering and improving that metric— how can we help women grow in this field and seek leadership roles? That’s the next frontier.

What advice would you give other women who are considering or pursuing careers in STEM?

Follow your passion. I know it’s easier said than done, but don’t let the outside noise influence your passion. It’s hard, because there are a lot of stereotypes out there about how women should behave, but keep your head down, don’t let that discourage you, and get involved.

When I was completing my Bachelor’s degree, I got involved with associations from the start, and that really helped me build my confidence and discover new ways to apply my degree. As women make strides in these fields, some people think that these associations are passé and that the equity issue has been fixed. This is very much not the case, and we need them now more than ever. Note that men also play a key role in driving the change I’ve outlined above— we can’t do it alone.

Meet Sarah Farahdel

Tell me a little about your career path and what got you interested in consulting. 

I started my career in Aerospace and  moved around in a couple of roles— specifically in Procurement Strategic Sourcing, Supply Chain & Logistics, and so on— before I moved into the PMO office. Given my academic background in Industrial Engineering, I strive to consistently learn and grow in this field. I wanted a role where I could apply my skillsets and be able to drive change for organizations to the best of my ability. That’s key for me—I like creating change for the better, whether that’s for clients, suppliers, or customers. What I love about consulting is that it gives you a platform to do just that, in a variety of contexts.

TPG really helped me redefine what consultants are supposed to do. I used to revert to how other larger consulting firms operate to define consulting, but TPG is different in every aspect. We drive real and lasting change for our clients and that’s what I love about working here.

What is something you are passionate about outside of your job role?

I’d say constant learning! I love constantly challenging myself and keeping up to date with updated content that’s out there, whether it be industrial research or just general articles on Forbes, the Economist, HBR, etc. I like to understand how things are evolving since we live in a very fast-paced environment— keeping myself on my toes constantly and seeing what’s out there is my biggest passion.

On a different note, I also enjoy cooking and baking! I’m getting better at baking bread.

What drew you to TPG and why do you like working here? What sets TPG apart?

For me, first and foremost, it’s the platform that TPG provides to use my voice, apply whatever I’m envisioning for a client and bring my solutions to life.  TPG provides a deeply nurturing environment to apply my knowledge and experience  while receiving constructive feedback and support from my team.

What’s unique about this organization is that the team has so much experience in different fields— we all come from different backgrounds, academically and experientially.  As a result, we are extremely dynamic and I’m able to learn so much from individuals who have experiences that I personally don’t have. We bounce a lot of ideas back and forth and approach challenges as a team, not individually.

I find a lot of other organizations have a very specific approach in doing things and you have to follow very rigid policies and procedures. On the contrary, TPG gives you a platform to express yourself, be creative and implement things exceptionally out of the norm. This really helps us build trust with our clients — we’re not offering “cookie-cutter” solutions, we’re benchmarking off each other’s knowledge and experience to build something unique for our clients every time.