Teresa here: When you’re starting out in a freshly hatched project management career, you might find yourself in a push-pull situation. On one hand, you covet the experience and wisdom of more experienced project managers. On the other hand, you’re eager to prove your competence straight out of the gate. You might feel reluctant to ask for a mentorship, or even the occasional bit of advice.
However, as a novice project manager, you actually demonstrate commitment to your career by the questions you ask, the professional development you seek, and the initiative you take. You have a unique advantage:
- You’re not expected to know much yet.
- You can ask the most basic questions without harsh judgment.
- You’re likely to be allowed to try new things and experiment with solutions.
Here are some tips for taking advantage of this small window of time in which you can freely flap about as you gain strength and experience:
- Offer yourself as an assistant project manager. This is like being an intern or apprentice, and is a classic win-win situation. You get to learn from a veteran project manager who’s been around the block a few times and who might otherwise be too busy to advise you. In return, you can provide her with much-needed workload relief. You can take on the responsibility of a subproject or a branch of the work breakdown structure, while the senior PM is responsible for the whole banana. In this role, you work with a manageable scale of the project in relative safety while you learn valuable skills about scope, scheduling, budget, and resources. Rather than the “sink-or-swim” method, you’re learning to dog-paddle with a champion swimmer a few feet away to catch you if you start to founder.
- Ask questions and listen to the answers. Avail yourself to the wealth of knowledge you find all around you. Learn the specialties of your fellow project managers and other subject matter experts you work with. Figure out the communications preferences of these colleagues. Are they open to sharing project management war stories over a latte? Or do they express themselves only with terse one-line emails? Above all, when they give you an answer or an explanation, listen! The only thing that annoys a busy person more than having their time interrupted with a question is having their answer interrupted by the questioner. Be sensitive to their deadlines and other pressures. Don’t monopolize their time, and express your appreciation for their sharing of expertise.
- Be bold and creative. Take initiative. Many senior project managers or would-be mentors are reluctant to work with novices because they’re afraid they’ll spend too much time “babysitting” or leading them by the nose through each miniscule step. Be willing to take general direction, ask enough questions to understand the requirements, then strike out and get the job done. Use your noodle. Impress with your enthusiasm and inventiveness. This is your opportunity to prove yourself. At the same time, be open to suggestions and course corrections as they’re offered. You’re brilliant, to be sure, but you still have a lot to learn.
- Communicate roadblocks. Keep your senior project manager or mentor informed of issues and problems. This can be difficult, because the emergence of problems sometimes feels like failure. However, realize that problems are the stuff of projects, and they’re much of the reason why project managers are needed in the first place. To work fruitfully with a senior project manager, everyone needs to make sure you don’t inadvertently burn down the building. Don’t be tempted to hide or neglect problems in the blind hope they’ll work themselves out. They never do, of course, and you end up with a disaster on your hands. With solid communication about issues and potential problems, you’ll learn more from the experience of those around you, and you’ll advance more quickly.
Striking the right balance when working with project management mentors will give your soaring career a tremendous lift. Before long, you’ll be the one that beginning project managers will seek out for advice and guidance.
This is the first post in a three-part series about the transfer of project management knowledge amassed over the span of a career. After so many years, that knowledge can be refined into something like, dare we say, wisdom? My next article will discuss what experienced project managers, in the full bloom of their careers, can do to share the wealth of their project management knowledge to the benefit of their organization, their industry, and their profession.
Talk back: What advice would you offer to novice project managers who want coaching or mentoring from veteran PMs?