From Pliés and Pirouettes to Project Management
Ballerinas are known for their grace, skill, and beauty – not traits typically associated with project management or construction consulting. But behind the leotards and tutus is years of patience, self-discipline, and a lot of structure to master the craft. I later discovered these principles are also key in construction.
Though I’m now a project manager at Cotter Consulting, I started out as a ballerina. As a kid, I entered numerous competitions, that helped instill a sense of responsibility in me at a young age. After high school, I followed my passion and enrolled in a ballet training program in Winnipeg, Canada with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, then a year later moving to Texas to train with Ballet Austin. After years of rigorous training, I left ballet behind in 2007 to focus on an interior design career. The pointe shoes are retired, but the lessons I took away about structure, patience, and discipline have stayed with me.
Starting with the basics
The foundation of classical ballet is very structured. Classes are traditionally done in a series of set steps and routines that warm up your body from smaller movements to larger ones. Although there are many different styles of ballet, whether you study at the Joffrey in Chicago or the Paris Opera, your warm-up classes start in a very similar way. The series of steps will be different each week or with different instructors, but the basics remain the same. My training involved performing the same set of exercises throughout each week until we had them committed to memory. These repetitive steps helped established a structural foundation for ballet – training the muscles in our bodies. When it was time for more advanced exercises, we still always started with the basics, taking it one step at a time until we mastered them. The solid foundation and proper training I received helped me get through many challenging routines.
Issues on project sites can be addressed in the same way. Like dancing, there’s a sequence when it comes to the design and construction process. When I begin working with a client, I start with the basics as the guide through each step of the process: pre-design and analysis, schematic design, design development, construction documents, construction administration, and closeout. You shouldn’t build something if you don’t have design documents, just as you shouldn’t try to do a grand jeté on stage if you haven’t done tendus in class first.
Staying on your toes
My days were built on the same routine: morning ballet classes, memorizing exercises, working with my peers on stretches, mastering moves, and rehearsals for upcoming performances. But just as with anything in life there was the occasional curveball. Though ballet has a strict routine, there were still unexpected moments to deal with. Sometimes I would be asked to perform the same set of moves we had memorized in a different order, or to do the same routine from our modern dance class with pointe shoes on. Performances taught me about making last minute adjustments – if something happened on stage, I had to roll with it and keep going – gracefully! This meant developing patience and staying flexible.
Typically, when working on a construction project, the plans are laid out. But things can change at any time for a variety of reasons. It’s frustrating to walk into work and hear “change of plans,” especially in the middle of a project, but you have to work through it and keep going. You have to be able to roll with the punches and be willing to adapt. Being open and flexible not only prepares you for the unexpected but can help you stay calm when things don’t go according to plan. By meeting the unexpected requests of my dance instructors or a mishap on stage, I unknowingly prepared for these surprises.
Keep an open mind
Perfecting pliés and pirouettes take more than a lot of practice. Perfecting moves required a lot of patience, especially when dealing with my toughest critic: the instructor. Hearing criticism is difficult no matter what your job is, and it can be painful to hear someone judge work you put so much time and effort into, however it’s a necessary part of life. Having someone scream at me in rehearsals to kick my legs higher when I was exhausted was unpleasant, but I had to keep going until the instructor was satisfied. They would often not let us leave until we mastered whatever part we were working on. It’s tough not to internalize criticism and take it personally, but you must keep kicking until you get it right. It’s all about perseverance.
Being able to bounce back and adapt in the face of different types of challenges helps me deal with a variety of clients and project team members. On our diverse project teams, no one sees eye to eye all the time, unforeseen conditions arise, and creative thinking needs to be employed to work though issues in an effective and efficient manner. These moments can be frustrating during a project, but we must keep an open mind and keep the end project goal in sight so we can work through challenges in the best interest of our clients.
Though I now spend most of my time on construction project sites, I’m thankful for the lessons I learned as a ballerina. At the time I was following my passion, but I never could have imagined how the structure, discipline, and patience that my ballet training required would help me prepare for my future career.
Claire Tulloch is Cotter’s leader for the newly launched North Texas office. Stay tuned for more information on our North Texas efforts. In the meantime, get in touch with Claire on LinkedIn.