Never Tell a Coworker They're Wrong and Other Tips from a Collaboration Pro

Award-winning project manager and collaboration pro Nancy Fetrow shares advice for getting things done while building positive relationships.

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Vice President and Head of R&D Project Management Nancy Fetrow during a meeting
Nancy Fetrow, CSL Behring’s Vice President and Head of R&D Project Management, has earned a reputation as a skilled collaborator and was recently named a “Luminary” by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we asked Nancy Fetrow to share her philosophy for tackling large, cross-functional projects. She had just been named a Luminary by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association for her ability to work “without boundaries to get things done while respecting the domains and experience of other leaders.”

That’s a tall order any day of the week, but even more so now. Everyone who gets up and goes to work – even if that means just opening a laptop at their kitchen table – faces new challenges and constraints in the post-COVID-19 world. So we went back to Fetrow, who is CSL Behring’s Vice President and Head of R&D Project Management, for a second round of advice. Here are some of her rules to live and work by:

  • Expect the best out of people. Support each other.
  • Get to know the people you’re working with. Build relationships and trust.
  • Don’t create a story in your head. Live in the facts.
  • Anchor in your common goal. What is the end game?
  • Get comfortable living in the gray.

And instead of telling a coworker “you’re wrong,” ask clarifying questions, Fetrow said. Ask: “How did you come to this decision? Why is that your proposal?”

An early gift for managing people and processes

Fetrow, the youngest among older brothers, started out as a research scientist. It took years to develop her approach to collaborating on complex projects, but leaders quickly noticed Fetrow’s ability to see the big picture. She remembers, early on, being placed in charge of a team of more senior and more experienced coworkers. Fetrow made it work by teaming up with them, instead of assuming she could do it alone.

“I’m always looking for new learnings and asking questions,” she said, “I like to fix things. I like to problem solve. I like to make things move more efficiently.”

Those skills are needed more than ever in the fluid environment created by the global pandemic. New factors enter into every equation, schedules keep getting juggled and all that change is disorienting. Though it might seem like the time to skip the pleasantries, Fetrow stresses the need to know and understand the people you work with. Try to learn what motivates them, understand their personalities and how they approach problems, she recommends, and be generous.

That doesn’t mean being overly familiar and nosing into someone’s personal life, but it does mean taking a moment to be human with them. And let them get to know you, too, she said. When the pandemic hit, Fetrow scheduled 30-minute, no-agenda, video meetings with teams around the world, just to check in.

Her biggest work challenge yet

Fetrow admits the sudden switch to at-home work was outside of her comfort zone because she’s someone who likes to work at the office. The uptick in video meetings was another adjustment, but it wasn’t the biggest challenge she’s had so far at CSL Behring.

Fetrow brought 30+ years of project management experience with her when she joined the company in June of 2017. Just a little over two months into the job, she was tapped to serve as the integration lead for CSL Behring’s new acquisition of a gene therapy company based in Pasadena, California. Following on from the integration role, she was then asked to take a temporary assignment as the site head in Pasadena. Fetrow, who’s based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, flew across the country on an entirely new mission.

“I was asked to do something I’d never done before and lead a team I’d never met,” she said.

Fetrow successfully guided the California team through the initial transition and says the assignment gave her a chance to learn about leadership. She focused on partnering with colleagues and asking “How can I help this person be successful?” Once person-to-person connections have been established, Fetrow takes a simple, straight-forward approach to the work: Identify the barriers. Clear them and become optimally efficient.

Fetrow on delivering constructive feedback

Not that it’s easy to do. Fetrow’s role requires candid discussions and the frequent delivery of feedback, including feedback about the need for improvement. She says those challenging moments are opportunities to show up in a human way. For instance, before you meet, think about how you would like to receive this information about your performance, Fetrow said.

Then be sure to acknowledge what the person does well and ask clarifying questions to understand their point of view. Whether you’re giving feedback or weighing in on a business discussion, strive to communicate plainly and honestly and stay rooted in the facts, she said.

“Don’t make people feel like they’re wrong. Treat people respectfully,” Fetrow said. “Always assume the best and that people are well-intended. And always be open to learning from others.”