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Tony Ellsworth

Thought Leadership Interview:

Tony Ellsworth, MBA A-CSM, TG Scrum Master and IT Project Manager at Kiewit Corporation

By Emad Rahim, Endowed Chair of PM Center of Excellence

Tony Ellsworth, MBA, A-CSM, is currently a Scrum Master and IT Project Manager at Kiewit Technology Group. As a native to Nebraska Tony has worked with some of the well-known entrepreneurs in the area such as Joe and Pete Ricketts and Candace Gregory. He has been able to use his personal and career experiences to help enable the teams and persons he works with the best they can be. With faith as a foundation, Tony leads through servant leadership to accomplish organizational goals.

A Navy veteran, Tony was able to put himself through school and has his bachelor’s degree in Business from Bellevue University. Later, he began his MBA while working as a Portfolio Manager serving as a government civilian at the Air Force Weather Agency. After completing his MBA, he became certified as a Scrum Master and subsequently completed the certification for Advance Scrum Master.

Tony is near completing his certification for Scrum Professional and also his second master’s in project management (MPM) at Bellevue University. Tony received awards for manager of the year at Ameritrade after the initial public offering in leading the New Accounts Division. Later, he also received a Civilian of the Year Award at the Air Force Weather Agency while working at Offutt Air Force Base. He lives on an acreage near the Platte River with his wife and family and they enjoy the outdoors greatly.

How did you get started in Project Management?

In 1996 I was hired by Joe Ricketts before Ameritrade went public. I was hired to head up the New Accounts department. In 1997, during the heat of the ‘.com boom,’ Joe pulled together all of his managers and stated that we were going public in a couple of months. His right-hand person spoke up to say what everyone was thinking, “That would be nice Joe, but that just can’t be done.” However, Joe countered and led the company forward.

Subsequent to the meeting all the management got together, and a plan was put together. I was the department head for the new accounts and the endeavor included a full-scale change in everything we were doing with the existing technology. This included scanning in new applications, a customized database overhaul, server capacity, software, website, telecom, staffing, and more. We were very successful, and the account growth exceeded expectations by several measures.

I was the program, project manager and department head for a very complex and multi-faceted campaign which had no room for error. Clearly, no one person does this alone. The team leveraged a lot of existing talent, we hired and contracted more, and we hit every ambitious goal that Joe had envisioned. Needless to say, my years of experience during this time multiplied exponentially. Joe really taught us to be entrepreneurs and to think like business owners rather than employees. I have a great deal of respect for Joe and his son Pete Ricketts after working for them both. It really gave me firsthand experience with such a tremendous opportunity.

What is your specialization as a Project Manager?

People. To expand on that, it all starts with comprehending a vision that leadership has by utilizing purposeful communication and developing an innovative and executable winning strategy. The execution always entails a variety of talents, which a facilitator is able to coherently dovetail into a championship level team. Finance and technology are a means to an end. However, it really is the incredibly talented people brought together – while moving forward in a united front – that achieves the end goal. In short, my specialty is appreciating and bringing talented people together, while leveraging servant leadership to help the team be their very best.

What are your academic background, training, and certifications as they relate to the industry?

I am a Navy veteran which enabled me to put myself through school. I finished my bachelor’s degree at Bellevue University in Business. For some time, this seemed to suffice as my experience grew. Later, I worked as a Portfolio Manager at Offutt at the Air Force Weather Agency. They encouraged me to pursue an advanced degree. I earned my MBA from Bellevue University. I have since started my second master’s degree program and I plan to complete my MPM at Bellevue University in the fall. I have also completed my Scrum Master certificate, Advanced Scrum Master certificate and will fulfill the requirements for my Scrum Professional certification before the end of summer.

Empowerment qualities mind map with marker, business concept background
Empowerment qualities mind map with marker, business concept background

What do you think are some of the emerging trends in the profession and the related effects on organizations?

At a previous organization I worked with high profile clients. The organization began requiring Project Managers who had Agile experience and Scrum Certification. What was awareness of a new methodology became a necessity. Most companies are either using Agile or rapidly moving in this direction. Having been in the IT environment for some time now, I really appreciate the Agile methodology and believe it has helped to ‘free up’ development teams and related resources to have higher quality, creativity, and deliver value quicker and more frequently to stakeholders while reaching a level of excellence.

With projects becoming more global, what are the most significant lessons learned in working with multi-cultural teams?

I fully embrace the wonderful privilege and opportunity when I am able to work and serve the team members. I have worked with persons from Europe, China, Indonesia, Australia and India. As others may attest, a large percentage of persons regarding IT are from India. I have to say, I really enjoy this opportunity to get to know them, and share culture and my friendship with them.

In my current position, there is a woman who found out she and her husband were expecting a baby. At the close of one of our stand-up meetings I asked, “Who is hosting the shower?” Our team is a very close-knit group and we put together a potluck for her and her husband. My wife who is a much better cook than I, cooked Indian food for the first time. Our team and other attendees shared this wonderful meal together while celebrating this occasion.

A second example occurred a few weeks ago, on one of my last trips to the office during this COVID-19 epidemic. One of my team members who is from India had her family here in the United States. Her family in India has an acreage, as I do. We have spent lots of time comparing and contrasting all the wonderful things that can be done with agriculture and other things at our acreages. She brought her father into the office over lunch, and while I was in the office her father and I talked like we were kindred spirits for about an hour. It was a really wonderful experience which just goes to show how long-distance team relationships can develop. A long story to say, it is critical to take the effort to really get to know others personally. When you do, you will be rewarded, and the business’s success and opportunity will flow from there.

image depicting teamwork

As a senior level project manager, can you please share your leadership style and how it directly contributed to the organization’s success?

I am a very firm believer in Servant Leadership. The first thing a leader needs is to clearly understand the vision or directive. If there is ambiguity or confusion at this point, as a leader, you could take your team quite a way ‘off course.’ Don’t be afraid to ask the critical, clarifying questions of leadership to ensure you have a full understanding of where you are headed. Once this is clear, as a leader, it is paramount to make sure you properly communicate this to your team. Transparency and simplicity are best.

You will want to create a non-threatening, informal environment built on trust. In this environment you will have a great chance of building rapport, which makes it easier to properly motivate your team toward the goal. You need to think of those above you and beside you as customers. For me, this includes executive management, direct management chain, all the stakeholders, all the product owners, all the external resources, all the team members… everyone!

If and when anyone has a request, an impediment, or if there is any way you can help, that is what you want to do. Then ensure you follow up and validate that you have taken care of everyone’s needs. When needs or interests are in conflict, clearly state how you intend to address it, and do not procrastinate the necessary deciding discussion. A Servant Leader is never afraid to roll up their sleeves and work with the group, walk beside them, step into the leadership position and take ownership, provide direction, or to take the hit for the team. A Servant leader leads with integrity at all times and admits mistakes freely when at fault. A Servant Leader puts those you lead first.

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