Worried about your career? Afraid that you’re stuck in a career rut that you’ll never get out of? You’re not alone. Millions of project managers are out there feeling the same anxiety that you feel.
Should I move on? Should I ask for more responsibility? Or should I just continue doing what I’m good at and what I’ve been doing for the past few years.
Project management is a fairly unique occupation. It is broad enough that once someone becomes a PM, it can be a fulfilling career in itself. You can remain a project manager, going on to manage larger and more complex projects for the rest of your career.
Alternatively, you could use your position as project manager as a stepping stone, leading you on to other leadership positions.
Whichever route you choose, being a project manager can be part of a long and successful career, as long as you manage four critical aspects of your career.
One of the most critical aspects of leadership is credibility. Your team needs to believe what you say. It also needs to believe in you. Every stakeholder, from the team members implementing the project to the business user you hand the project off to, looks to your leadership.
If anyone on the project questions your ability or sincerity, you begin to lose their followership. So it is important to act with confidence. The best way to act confidently is to understand as much detail as is practical. Some project managers get so deep into the weeds that they don’t have time for higher-level management tasks. Others stay hands-off and don’t know enough of what is going on.
An effective project manager knows the right balance of detail to focus on in order to maintain credibility.
A project manager should also avoiding demotivating practices. When a project manager publicly criticizes anyone on the team for poor performance or a mistake, it can derail productivity. If a team member needs to make a corrective action, the project manager should discuss it with them in private to avoid embarrassing the individual in front of others. Any criticism should be constructive and provide suggestions for improvement. The manager should also include areas in which the person excels.
Empty compliments can also reduce morale and productivity. Cheering the team on with a lot of “rah rah,” and “you guys are doing great,” may seem like a good idea. But team members can see through that. Compliments should be for specific achievements. Everything you say should have a purpose and accomplish something. Empty praise accomplishes nothing.
Be a good team player. Project managers expect their team members to be team players. Project managers need to be good team players too. Being a team player is about being selfless. Team players help others whether it serves their own needs or not. Their top priority is the success of the team.
One of the best ways a PM can be a good team player is to avoid micromanaging. Allow the team members to do their job and provide updates. A project manager who is a team player doesn’t always need to be right. When a team member disagrees with something you do or say, allow them to state their case. If their idea will work better, put your ego aside and do what is best for the team.
Finally, when communicating with team members, put things in their perspective. Rather than saying, “I need this done so my boss doesn’t yell at me,” tell them how completing the task makes the team more productive.
Remove obstacles. Team members on the team have their job. They often work heads down trying to get tasks completed and can often run into road blocks. Maybe there is an uncooperative 3rd party delaying a dependency that the team member’s task requires. Perhaps they need help aligning task assignments with other team members. It could be as simple as enabling communication across the project. Anything the project manager can do to help keep people from spinning their wheels sets an example of leadership and helps the team be successful.
It is hard for someone to reach a career destination if they don’t know where they want to go. When managing your career as a project manager, you need to establish a vision for your future.
Define a purpose. Where do you want to go? Before you go on vacation, you decide upon a destination. You need to do the same for your career. Establish an overriding goal in the long term, preferably two or more years out.
Develop a plan. Once you have a long term goal, you need a plan for getting there. When you decide on that vacation destination, you may consider multiple modes of transportation or routes to get there. You will want to do the same thing for your career. Do you want to remain a project manager for the long term, or do you want that to be a stepping stone for other career goals?
The long term goal should break down to short term goals that break down to weekly and daily tasks. That approach works great for your personal agenda. You also have to do the same for the project team.
Define and communicate the purpose for the project. The individual tasks assigned to the team members will be much more meaningful if the team members understand the overriding purpose that the tasks are for. They will understand how their presence on the project contributes to the ultimate project purpose.
Develop a plan for getting there. The project plan should be a clear roadmap for the team on how their tasks will get the project from the current state to the desired state.
Involve key people in the process. It’s one thing to establish a vision, but if you develop it in a vacuum, it may be hard to get others on board. If you get input from a core team of leaders, more people will be represented. People will be more likely to feel buy-in and your probability of success will be greater.
Stay focused. Developing a vision is not a throw away task. You don’t establish it on the first day and forget about it. The vision should be part of every meeting and every decision. It may not be mentioned, but it should be the core driver of the project team’s work. If anyone loses sight of the vision and veers off course, the project manager’s role is to remind them of the vision and pull them back on course.
Every member on the team should know that the vision represents “why are we here.” It should drive everything you and the team do and every decision that you and the team make.
The most successful project managers have excellent organizational skills. When managing their own days, they have a filing system for paper-based documents, electronic documents, and emails.
Even the smartest people can’t remember everything they read. But if they have an efficient way of accessing historical data, they can be efficient at finding anything and refreshing their memory with the actual document, instead of relying on memory or searching endlessly for documents in a pile.
Organizational skills bleed into leadership of the team too. Project managers should help others be organized. If a member of the team has trouble getting organized, it is up to the project manager to mentor them on organization skills. Teach them how to categorize, plan and prioritize.
Organization is more than just filing papers and electronic documents. For a project manager to develop in her career, she must communicate in an organized manner. Organized communication means that the team and the leadership that you report to understand what you are saying.
When you assign tasks to your team members, they need to understand specifically what you are asking them to do. When you report status to the business users, any ambiguity will put doubts in their mind about what is really happening on the project.
Few project managers are successful in their career if they are unable to manage their time effectively. There is not enough time in the day to do everything you want to do. It is critical to make sure you are working on the most important tasks.
The best practice to do that is to make a to-do list every day. The tasks on that list should be driven by the project vision. Once you have identified the tasks you want to do for a day, it is important to prioritize the tasks on that list.
There are many approaches for prioritization. Some people like to number the items from 1 to N and do each one in that order. I like to categorize taks into three categories. A items are those that must be done today. B items are important to do if I finish the A-list. C items are nice to have if I finish the A and B items and still have some time. The important thing is to make sure you list out all tasks and do the most important ones first.
Monitor your time. We’ve all probably had that task that we were deeply focused on. At some point you looked out the window and it was dark outside and everybody had gone home. You lost all concept of time. It happens to everyone once in a while. But good time managers monitor how long things are taking. It’s not a matter of clock watching, but knowing how your actual progress is going compared to what you had planned is something successful project managers do as a matter of habit.
OPT – Other People’s Time: How often has this happened to you? You ask someone how long something will take. They reply with a number of hours or days. Something in your gut tells you that it smells fishy.
“How did you come up with that number?” You ask.
Their words say, “I just know how long it will take me.” But their attitude says, “Leave me alone and quit second guessing me.”
As a project manager, you may be pretty good at estimating how long something will take you to plan a task and execute it, in order to get it done on time.
You may have been doing it for so long that it comes natural to you. I actually plan brewing my morning coffee in the Keurig first, so that I can gather my lunch from the fridge while it brews.
Believe it or not, not everybody thinks like that.
Successful project managers can manage not only their own time, but they help others manage their time. Sometimes it is just a matter of helping someone to coordinate and prioritize tasks. Other times, it requires some mentoring on how to estimate, plan, prioritize, and execute tasks to help people be more efficient and effective.
Project management can be either a career destination or a route along the way to many other different career options. Regardless of the route that you choose, it is important to develop your personal skills in leadership, vision, organization and time management.
As a project manager, or in any other leadership position that you move on to, you will also need to develop your team members in each of these areas. You may want to expand your capabilities into managing more complex projects, or move into other leadership positions. If you don’t develop the people that report to you, there may not be anyone to take your place to allow you to move on.
What are you doing to develop your career as a project manager?
If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.
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