If you call Carla Johnson a “process nerd” you will bring a smile to her face. It’s a self-description used by the recipient of PMIEF’s 2018 Community Advancement through Project Management Award. Carla – who holds a master’s degree in counseling and was named Dean of Student Affairs at Hartnell Community College District, Salinas, Calif., in December – effectively used her leadership and project management expertise to help a struggling non-profit ranch turn a fading community enrichment vision into a vibrant reality. Carla’s answers in the following Q&A illuminate her efforts, her outlook and her award worthiness.
Q: Can you describe your career path and how project management has played into it?
A: For the last 19 years I’ve worked in higher education – colleges and universities, both private and public. That has been my niche. The work has always been project management-related, in administrative areas, running programs, and organizing projects.
I have had no formal project management training. For me, it has always been innate. When I was in junior high school I watched my father start a construction business. I absorbed his project management skills as he took me onto job sites and explained his vision of what he wanted a structure to look like, how he would execute it, and how he would measure progress along the way until the finished project was achieved. Creating an idea and bringing it to a successful conclusion has always driven me.
Q. What about project management excites you?
A. I love the process – I am definitely a nerd about process – and the growth (even when it is just inching forward) that results from it. I love progression, and the thrill of seeing a finished project.
Q: What was the first project you managed professionally?
A. I had a boss at Biola University, La Mirada, Calif., who allowed me to step outside the box of my then current position and manage some things. I wrote my first grant there, around 2004, started a program from scratch. The objective was to increase enrollment and retention of students of color. I was able to hire a student-led team, set goals, and define measureable objectives. I am proud to say that the program we built was successful and is still running to this day.
Q: What inspired you to apply for the Community Advancement through Project Management Award?
A: It wasn’t inspiration; it was chance. I was looking for scholarship opportunities before starting graduate courses in organizational leadership next spring. While reading PMIEF information, I noticed a list of awards. I thought, “Why not? It doesn’t cost anything to try.”
Q: Tell us about the NPO you worked with and why you got involved with it.
A: After I had a baby in 2013, I resigned my fulltime position to become a fulltime mom. When my son was about 10 months old, I wanted to expose him to hands-on activities. I searched non-profits that work with children in my area, and found Hidden Hills Ranch, right on the street where we lived. I attended an open house and took a tour. The fact that I hadn’t known it existed immediately told me that the ranch needed better marketing. Help was needed in other areas too. For example, there were farm animals on the property and physical hazards, yet there were no safety waivers for visitors to sign. The ranch charged a very low entrance fee—clearly not enough to financially maintain the grounds, animals, exhibits, etc.
The property was beautiful and had great potential, so I asked to speak to the woman who owned it. She admitted, ‘I can’t manage this and just don’t know what to do next. We are going to have to close.’ Things were falling apart. I could see her passion for this ranch where children and families could come to learn about animals, the environment, horticulture, and so much more. I realized she had put her heart and resources into it and was broken-hearted to see her vision disappearing.
Q. How did you help?
A. I believed it wouldn’t take much to get things on the right track. I offered my help on a pro-bono basis, and we started meeting regularly. I advised the owner that she needed board members who weren’t simply warming seats, but were engaged and invested in the non-profit. So we developed a board member application and vetting process. We devised a marketing plan, and we pared offerings at the ranch to just a few programs (such as tours for students, with coordinated activities) that could be done well. I wrote a grant for the ranch, and taught the owner basics about budgeting and the need to make a profit. And I helped her to recognize the true value of the ranch and its importance to the community. In time, the ranch developed a weekly children’s program, a community garden, a public tour with programming, and a “sponsor an animal” campaign. Though I was asked to join the staff, I preferred to continue pro-bono.
Q. Why did you work pro-bono?
A. I completely bought into the owner’s vision to help children and families. Now she brings in special needs children and individuals with post traumatic stress disorder to interact with the farm animals as a means to relieve their anxiety issues. I have always had a heart for people on the margins, on the outskirts of society. This ranch addresses students from under-represented communities who have never ridden a horse, seen a farm animal, worked with their hands, or planted a seed. The ranch addresses it all. I have gotten to see adults transformed, and children impacted. It feeds my soul.
Q. Why should young people try project management?
A. Project management is a skill that can be used in your personal life, at home, and at any job anywhere on the planet. A lot of young people are visionaries. But even if you have a vision that could change the world, it means nothing at all if you cannot execute it. You must learn to work through the details and apply all of the necessary steps to achieve success.
Q. How has being an award recipient affected you?
A. The experience was absolutely amazing. This award has given me something wonderful that I never expected: recognition. You never know what the world can turn around and give back to you when you do good things for others. It has been five years since the start of my work with Hidden Hills Ranch, and now I have a platform from which to talk about it, and encourage others to do something meaningful for someone else. That’s what matters in the end – making positive changes for others.
Q. Do you have advice for others considering applying for a PMIEF award?
A. Yes: Just do it. What can it hurt? It doesn’t cost anything. Just to be able to tell your story is incredibly important and so satisfying. Seize the opportunity.
Lightning round with Carla Johnson
What are you currently reading? Right now I am reading Creativity Inc.—Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Get in the Way of True Inspiration, written by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. It’s a great project management book.
Do you have a dream travel destination? Rome. I want to see the ancient world.
What’s your favorite food? I love salad and soup. That’s my go-to.
Do you have any hobbies? I play my piano. I am an “old soul” and like to play old church hymns – like “Amazing Grace.” But I can play anything and love all genres of music. What I play depends on my mood.
Do you participate in sports? I love to hike.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Still in higher education, and mentoring on the side. I will be interacting with people.
Do you have a favorite movie/TV show? I love Anne of Green Gables, the television series from Canada, and on Netflix I watch Madame Secretary. It’s the story of a woman in a powerful position balancing life; I love it!
What is your personal philosophy of life? Life is more important than the things we see with our eyes; a metaphysical world exists. Whatever society tells you to value, think twice about that, and then go the other direction. I have lived my life surrendered to a divine being that puts me in the right place in the right time. I don’t stress about my own next steps because I have always found myself to be at the place where I need to be. My job is to execute my talents and use my gifts, and do, to the best of my ability, what I have been given to do. There is a divine project manager putting me into a life project; that is exactly it.