I may not have planned on becoming a project manager, but I did ultimately choose this profession.
Before becoming a project manager, I was one of the team members who was managed. Slowly, I began to own the process and the administrative responsibilities as well. Ownership of certain aspects made me want to learn and take on even more responsibilities. Nowadays, I still do a little bit of the strategy work, but my bread and butter is project management.
When I was the one being managed, I had many misconceptions of what a project manager actually did. But as I shifted my responsibilities to full-time project management, I learned very quickly how my assumptions were wrong.
Here are the 4 most valuable lessons I wish I had known when I first began managing projects—plus a few extra tips to help you excel in your new role as a project manager.
This was the first lesson I learned. When I took on my first project, I was given templates that my team used. This included project management gantt charts, budgets, project trackers, scopes of work, even a list of base assumptions to include in the project scope documents. I adhered to these documents like they were prophecy on my first project.
Then came a second project, and a third, and a fourth. By the time the fifth project kicked off, my documentation looked nothing like the original templates I was given. Each piece of documentation had been altered to fit the unique requirements of each project.
My approach to client services was no different. I began using strategic planning meetings and kickoffs as tools to help me gauge the personalities I would answer to. First impressions gave me insight on how to approach client communications to avoid misunderstandings later. Every client is different, so every approach is different. Ultimately, this makes every project very different from the last.
When you analyze all these different components, it’s easy to see no two projects are ever the same.
When I was still a strategist, I used to be in awe of each project manager I worked with because it seemed like they had all the answers. Then when it became my turn, I psyched myself out for months. I was always worried about a team member or a client asking me a question I couldn’t answer. I’m sure this attitude actually hindered me when I was new to project management. But once I learned that it’s impossible to have the correct answer to every question on the spot, I felt more confident in my abilities.
If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to right away, take a deep breath. If you’re anything less than 100% sure, it’s alright to tell the person, “Let me double check with you.”
With email communications, it’s acceptable to flag it, work with the right people to get the answer, and then come back to the email. Unless the sender is the type to send read receipts on every email, it’s not a crime to let the message sink in before answering. There’s value in being conscientious. It’s better to seek help and find the right answer than to promptly fire back an incorrect one.
Slow down. Take a deep breath. Process the question. Being a good project manager doesn’t mean knowing all the answers off the top of your head. It’s how you find and provide the answers that makes you valuable as a project manager.
A colleague said this to me about a year after I started project management, and it’s really stuck with me. Most project managers I know didn’t choose project management until they had some sort of hands-on experience with it first. Many decide to obtain some sort of formal education, in the form of certification or advanced degrees, after having been in the profession for a while.
Theoretically, anyone can become a project manager. Many project managers are promoted from within a team based on subject matter experience. But this doesn’t automatically mean everyone is a good project manager. Some common qualities we tend to possess include: attention to detail, a collaborative nature, eagerness to please, and the need to organize.
When I started as a project manager, my first project wasn’t a fresh out-of-the-box assignment. It was a project I was already part of that was commonly acknowledged as a failure. Everyone was just trying to find a way to end it without caring about whether we were delivering a good product. Others had given up hope that the project would ever end. I was part of the latter camp. I had accepted that I would be working on it forever and the product would never see the light of day.
But then one day the project manager role became vacant, and I was asked to keep the project on track until the need was filled. Not knowing if another project manager would ever take this project on, I treated it as though I had become the permanent replacement.
Suddenly, with the added responsibility, I no longer viewed the project as a lifelong engagement or a failure. I saw it as an opportunity. I ran with this feeling until the very moment of launch. Diving in head-first was the greatest learning experience.
Nowadays, whenever I encounter a blocker, I don’t resort to calling it a failure. Even when my team members have given up hope, I continue to brainstorm alternative solutions or compromises. They’re just bumps in the road. Nothing is a failure, but everything is an opportunity.
Now that we’ve walked through the 4 things I wish I knew before I became a project manager, here are some additional thoughts and tips to help you start your first project as a new project manager.
It is critical to make sure you clearly understand your role now that you’re a project manager. If you forget every single other point in this article, that’s okay. Just do this one thing: Wrap your mind around your responsibilities. You will save yourself from a mountain of heartache and stress. While I can’t tell you exactly what your new responsibilities are, I can tell you how to discover them.
First, get your job description straight. You might report to someone who’s not a gifted communicator or delegator. If your leader doesn’t give you a clear picture, it’s up to you to do the legwork needed to understand what’s expected of you.
Once you nail down your job description, use the following questions to ensure you clearly understand your role and responsibilities:
A successful project manager has the right tools and knows how to choose which tool to use for which project. Calendars, task lists, project management software, and Google Drive or Microsoft Office products are the basics you’ll need.
You might also consider mobile apps if you plan to work on the project remotely. Many apps are accessible online—as well as on your phone or tablet—and can be synced across devices. This isn’t crucial, but good to keep it in mind as an option.
It’s also important to remember not to overdo it with software and “paperwork.” If you’re not a project manager by trade, then using a complex tool like Microsoft Project may be overkill. You might spend more time figuring out how to use it or updating it more often than necessary.
Start simple and try creating a timeline in Excel. The point is to be organized and productive without being counterproductive. If you move through the project and decide you need more vibrant tools, then look for one that fits your needs.
Don’t be surprised if you feel pressured to skip a plan from time to time. Some people would simply rather get down to work than “waste” time on planning because they don’t understand how or why a plan shapes a project’s success. As a project manager, it’s up to you to educate your team and stakeholders on both the benefits of planning and the risks of going without.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to deliver a project they can be proud of—and nobody wants to spend more time or money than they have to. A well-crafted plan paves a clear and efficient path to the finish line so you can do the job well without missing deadlines or going over budget.
We’ve got a free class to help you out! Register for Plan Up: How to Create and Sell a Winning Project Plan, and get a free Guide to Project Planning when you sign up.
If you’re not a full-time project manager, other job duties likely take up most (if not all) of your days. That’s why it’s important to schedule time for project planning and mark specific blocks in your calendar for working on the project.
Depending on the size of the project, this may only take a few hours per week. But if you’re concerned this won’t be enough, try setting aside just 1 hour per day. You can always adjust this as the project moves along or if you discover less time will suffice.
Whether you’re in a meeting, on the phone, or having a conversation with a member of the project team in person, it’s critical to take good notes. You may think you’ll recall everything and every detail. But chances are, something will get forgotten or misremembered.
By taking notes—and even sending out minutes to the team after meetings—you can ensure everyone is aware of what was discussed, including relevant details, dates, and updates.
It doesn’t matter what method or tool you use to capture notes, as long as it’s one you can sustain and feel comfortable with.
When you first start a new project, one of the most significant steps you can take is to schedule an internal kickoff meeting. The kick-off should include all team members who will be working on the project. You may also want to consider inviting project stakeholders too. Be sure to discuss important things, like project goals, deadlines, and other resources that may be needed to deliver the project successfully.
Once you’ve officially kicked off the project and assigned resources, bring the project team together to dig into the details. This is the ideal time to record tasks, dependencies, deliverables, dates, and milestones. Consider this a more in-depth meeting than the kick-off because it’s the start of your project plan.
Depending on how many resources have been allocated and whether or not they come from different departments in the company, you’ll likely need team members to help you break down the project tasks. Each person who understands the common goal of the project will know what it will take from their side to reach it.
Learn more about how to schedule and lead successful project meetings.
This is easy for some to say and may take a real conscious effort at the beginning of a project, especially a large one. But if you want to get off on the right foot, staying calm is essential.
Also, be sure not to get lost in the task details. You don’t have to understand every task to the extreme degree. For example, if a development task is assigned to a specific programmer, you don’t have to understand the code the programmer uses or how they write that code. If all you know is the task basics and how it affects or relates to other tasks in the project, that’s deep enough.
If you do start to feel overwhelmed with all the details, don’t be afraid to ask questions to help you understand what’s going on and why. Asking for info on deliverables and dependencies, progress and status updates, and explanations for missed deadlines is all part of managing a project.
Check out our free Guide to Project Management to learn everything you need to know to be a successful project manager.