If you ask Paola Arce, an Associate Project Manager with Crown Castle, when she began her path to people leadership, she’ll laugh and tell you it’s a lifetime in the making. The oldest child in her family, Arce has been a fearless and empathetic leader since her early days. Now a student in Butler’s Online MBA program, Arce is building the business knowledge she needs to rise to the next level in her career.
Academically trained in architecture, Arce started her first semester with limited knowledge of business theory but plans to harness her degree to advance within her company. Her primary goal? To influence organizational policy and help retain talented employees.
Below, Arce discusses how she stays organized, balances life and school, and plans to become a positive force in the business world.
Coming from an architecture background, what drew you to project management and people leadership?
As an older sibling and the oldest cousin in my family, leadership is innate in me. It’s natural for me to be leading a group and to help other people grow within themselves. I find that very rewarding.
When I finished architecture school, a five-year intensive program, I didn’t feel drawn to architecture anymore. I ended up in a completely different field to pay my student loans. Because of my architecture background and knowledge of drafting software, I was able to get a design job in telecommunications.
Once I got into telecommunications, it was easy for me to see that being a designer wasn’t challenging me enough. I accepted a new role, and very quickly, the project manager leading my team left the company.
Suddenly I became the next person in line with the most experience to lead a small division. That’s when I started managing a group of nine people, and I really enjoyed not only being able to accomplish work, but also teaching others. I want to empower them to not only do their jobs and to do them well, but feel that if they have ideas or suggestions, they would be heard.
A FLEXIBLE PATH TO PEOPLE LEADERSHIP
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Knowing that you already had leadership experience, what inspired you to pursue your MBA?
It was the right time for me to pursue my MBA because I was ready for a challenge. I left my last role in 2018 and landed a Project Coordinator role with Crown Castle.
About a year and a half into this job, the pandemic began. I had heard about the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and knew that earning this credential was my next goal; it was achievable and something I could do throughout the pandemic. It was a step for me to move closer to my leadership goals.
When I finished my PMP certification program, I was promoted to an Associate Project Manager role, but it was difficult to navigate the policies and corporate guidelines to achieve that promotion. The red tape left a really sour taste in my mouth. I felt that if other people were experiencing the same thing I was, we weren’t going to retain good talent within the company.
It gave me the push to think about where I wanted to be within the company as a people leader, so that if someone on my team were to experience the same thing, I could have the empathy and knowledge to support them while positively influencing how these policies are put in place.
At the top of the company, there’s a lot of emphasis on business and financial knowledge, not just leadership. If I wanted to become one of those people leaders, I knew that I needed a formal business education to be considered for that next step.
Can you tell me about your experience so far, coming into the MBA program without a business background?
This is my first semester. I’ve taken three classes, the first being the Gateway Experience that jumpstarts your experience. I already knew I wasn’t going to know a lot coming into the program, but the Gateway Experience highlighted that I was going to learn a lot.
It’s been enjoyable and it’s been challenging. I’m in the second-to-last week of the Legal and Ethical Operation of Business course, and that’s tough! It’s a lot of concept knowledge that’s been useful, and the professors want you to understand, not just memorize the course topics.
How have you balanced work, school, and personal life commitments?
I almost didn’t take the second class this semester because I was getting married in November. We knew it was going to be challenging, especially since my wife is also earning her master’s degree. It has helped tremendously to have someone in the house who understands and honors when it’s homework time. That’s key in being able to balance everything.
Has your employer been supportive of your decision to return to school?
Thankfully, my employer offers tuition reimbursement and I have their support. I wouldn’t be able to pursue the degree at this time without that; it would have felt too daunting.
I took my leadership class during the first part of the semester, and my immediate supervisor and I had debates and conversations about what I was learning in class. He was engaged in that sense, and I talk with my company lawyers about what I’m learning each week. There have already been opportunities to relate what I’m learning in class to what I’m doing at work.
Are you new to online learning? How have you adjusted to the online classroom so far?
This was my first time working with Canvas, and each professor has a slightly different approach to the online learning platform.
I’ve tried to lean on my classmates. We have a few exams, and I thought it would be really great to have a study group. I rallied a group of people to study with and set up a Microsoft Teams group chat. That’s been great.
The library has also been a really helpful resource, and our professors have all been very welcome and open to answering questions in class and during office hours.
Tell me about your classmates. What have your interactions with your peers been like?
They’ve all been really positive. I’ve made it a point to go to in-person sessions on Saturdays. I have family in Indianapolis and stay with them to attend those sessions. I really value that face-to-face time. There’s truth to the idea that you’ll get as much out of this program as you put in.
What do you think is next for you once you earn your MBA?
The good thing about my company is that they will reimburse my tuition. What some people see as a downside, staying with my company for a period of time, I see as an opportunity to expand what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing very specific, small-cell infrastructure implementation, and I want to learn more about the company and move into regional positions where I can influence policy. I want to challenge myself, continue to learn, and move into a people leadership position.
What would you say prospective MBA students can expect from the Butler MBA experience?
You’ll learn a lot, you’ll be opened up to and challenged by new aspects of business. Our professors stay current with what’s happening in the world. They have a wealth of knowledge. The resources that Butler makes available to students have also been great. If you think there isn’t a resource for what you need, just ask the question. If you can’t find something, they’ll help you build that resource.
Do you have any advice for other professionals considering this program?
Use your schedule. Use your calendar to the full extent that you can. Meaning, if you’re not going to do something unless you schedule it into your life, schedule it. Whether it’s 30 minutes of decompression time or 30 minutes to read every day, add it to your calendar. That’s been really helpful for me.
Also, break things down into smaller, more digestible action items. I try to do a little bit of work every day. I might put in two to three hours on days when I have more free time, but if I do a little here and there on weekdays, it cuts down on the time I need to spend on the program over the weekend.