Managing the demands of life, leadership, and big projects – tips to thrive (not just cope)

A question I often get asked is, “how the hell do you managing everything in your life so well?!”. There is a lot to be said to answer this question, but I thought perhaps outlining how I manage projects might be of use to some.

While I’ve overseen and managed many projects in my career, there are two that produced the most learning:

1. I’ve been set up

My first major career lesson came when I was managing a multi-million-dollar account for an office supply company as part of their print department. The project was to move $3.5M worth of printed stock over from Wellington to Auckland, with the primary objective to ensure no impact on the client or the brand.

Firstly, I found out that a 1% margin had been negotiated on the account before I started, and secondly, I lost two staff members halfway through the project – unfortunately, they weren’t replaced. To say this particular project was a learning curve was an understatement. What I’m proud of, however, is that I came out swinging and successfully delivered the project after 12 months.

2. Let’s do this together

Next, I had been asked to be the Marketing and Creative Director for a not-for-profit. I didn’t believe it could be a one person show, so I grew a team of 30 volunteers managing in the first 12 months, and then approximately 60 over the years after. The goal, like any not-for-profit, was to spend as little as possible and have maximum impact.

The team covered TV, editing, social media, events, dealing with keyboard warriors, graphic design, print, photography, web, google, IT, tech, media, décor etc. You name it, they did it. This project really helped me understand the importance of multifunction’s working together as a team – e.g., operations working with creative, creative working with tech. The only way this is possible is if all managing parties understand and engage with the mission and vision.

Now that we’ve covered that, I thought I’d provide a few tips from my experiences and my coping mechanisms when large projects are involved:


I wouldn’t have survived without it in my world. As a working mother who was starting at 7 am and finishing at 11 pm and going home to my sleeping girls, every moment with them was an opportunity to connect. I didn’t want my work woes interrupting that. So, I learned managing to store the feelings of stress or overwhelm away and ensure I was a Mum for them, not a stress ball.

Never give-up

I have this innate belief that I never want to give up no matter how challenging the situation is. I am like a bulldog that doesn’t let go. There have been managing times when people have said “walk away,” but I haven’t, and it’s paid off every time.

Do everything now

This advice was given to me in my early 20’s and has stuck with me ever since! It removes all procrastination and ensures the best of you is always applied. For example, the idea of writing the article happened on a Saturday morning while I was lying in bed enjoying some R&R time. I knew if I left it, I would forget it. So, I got up, grabbed a cup of tea and my MacBook, and wrote this sitting in bed while the ideas still sit in the creative space of my mind.

Build a team

Every great leader knows this. The greatest things are only ever accomplished with a team of great people. Sure, there must be a leader strong enough to go before them into battle, but the team are the ones that win the battle and “take the ground”. I’m passionate about the individual in my teams too. I love seeing people grow and develop.

I rarely turn people away as I believe everyone has value in the broader scheme of things… But it’s my job to find that value and apply it to the project. Sometimes I get it wrong, but most times I have been able to see how that person fits – it has produced great results. Every person that comes across your path has been a God-given gift – use it!

The ripple effect

Help your team to understand the concept that whatever they do affects the person next in line. I call it the ripple effect. One small action creates ripples that affects everyone else in the team.

How about some tips on the project itself?

Start with your objectives

Think of what the end result should be. For example: To ensure that video is delivered to the client before due date.

Have the overall project objective and then ‘sub objectives’ for each project phase and task group. The objective helps you to always be thinking ahead and not get bogged down and lost in the details.

Split the project into 3 phases

No more than 3 – the mind tends to struggle if there are more than 3 phases. An example of what those phases might be are: Phase one = setup phase. Phase two = content development. Phase three = implementation.

Find the who, not the how

Another piece of powerful advice that I can’t take credit for. When you find the ‘who’, the ‘how’ will work itself out. Therefore, it is so crucial to build a team around you. You might say, “I don’t have a team”, then build a team of suppliers and partner with them. There is always a way of building a team around you. Each of my in-house team members all have a team of contractors around them that can help with projects if we need to. It’s a great way of managing growth.

Always allow a buffer

Projects never run perfectly, and they never run on time, but your client still expects you to deliver on time and on budget. So, always have a buffer. For example, if the due date is March 30, then your due date is actually March 26, giving you 4 days as a buffer if you need it. And if you don’t, then you have exceeded your clients’ expectations, and that’s always a good thing.

Always be one step ahead – always!

If you find yourself getting lost sort it out straight away and get back on track before it all causes you to lose hope.

Every detail matters

Details are the killer of projects but also hold the key to the success of projects. Everything matters when delivering a great result so ensure you have captured it all!

Your project plan is a living, breathing document

Don’t be afraid of changes. Roll with them, embrace them, and use them.

For me, the above tips have been hugely beneficial – I hope they serve you well too.


Alex Donaghy
Marketing and Creative Director
M: 021 029 01370

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