No matter where you work, the perception of the PM role can be boiled down to embarrassingly low expectations. It’s true, many people see project managers as robots who sit behind a desk and manage spreadsheets. They’re simply referred to as budget and timeline jockeys. It’s awful and highly inaccurate! As the PM, you know that you do a lot more than that. Even if maybe you’re not the best PM in the world, you do more than that. So how do you turn that perception around?
You show you care by being there and doing more for the project, your clients, and your team.
That certainly sounds aspirational, doesn’t it? It is, but there are very specific things you can do—outside of completely owning and ruling your timeline and budget—to genuinely gain the trust and love of the people surrounding you. Check out this list of (randomly ordered) strategies that will help you become the best PM in your organization.
They say patience is a virtue. Ain’t that the truth? Being right in the center of a project means that you usually know at least a little bit about everything that’s going on. So when someone has a question, who will they go to? The project manager, of course. Be prepared to answer the same question 20 times. It happens. And it’ll come from both sides—your team and your clients.
What does it mean when I approve something?
Where should I bill my time?
Why can’t you get this done sooner?
When is that due again?
These are all simple questions, and they’ll be asked repeatedly. That’s okay. Be patient with the people who ask them. You’re being asked these questions because they trust that you actually know the answers. Own the fact that you are the source of reliable project information. Showing frustration while answering a simple question just makes you look impatient or rude.
Quick tip: If you're being asked the same question by more than one person, simply send an email to the entire team, create a post in your shared communication tool, or bring it up in a meeting. Getting things in writing helps to create confidence and certainly ensures that the whole team is on the same page.
At the same time, you have to be ready to deal with other people's lives. Stuff happens that no one can control, and those events will always impact everything you’ve planned and replanned. While it can be incredibly frustrating, cause missed milestones, and potentially start a series of awkward conversations, life will always take precedence over your project. The best you can do when life events impact your project is be patient, rally the team together, and sort out a plan B.
If you can live by the values of “Keep Calm and Carry On” as a PM, you’ll find that your team will not only come to you for advice and share important information, they will be inclined to include you in more conversations. As the PM, that’s what you want because being included means knowing more and being able to easily plan for those unplanned events. So follow the golden rule: Be patient with people, and don’t get frustrated over the things you cannot control.
Take a walk in your team’s shoes and you’ll quickly realize that creating documents, designs, code, physical materials—whatever it is—is not easy when you’re under the pressure of a deadline and you want your work to be stellar. Sure, project managers feel that pressure, but it’s not on the same level. So, having empathy for your team and understanding the work that they do is key to being a great PM.
If you really want to help ease that stress, don’t just be the person who checks in on milestones and progress. Be the person who looks at the work and genuinely says, “Wow. You’re doing a great job.”
Being genuine is key here. If you force that kind of feedback, everyone will sense that it lacks a sense of authenticity, and you’ll lose trust immediately. Really, who wants to work with a fakester?
Tip: If you can, try to formalize processes for recognizing good work. For instance, add a “Job Well Done” section to your weekly or monthly status report. Or, if you work for a larger company, recommend that there be an internal system for recognizing good work. For instance, if a coworker reports that someone did a great job, the person they’re proud of for doing a great job would receive a gift of some kind (gift card, lunch with a boss, etc.)
There are other ways to be your team’s cheerleader without wielding pom poms:
No matter the situation, having at least one encouraging team member helps to create a positive work environment and produces better quality and performance. The project manager can easily be that person because he or she sees the entire picture—team dynamics and behavior, work products, and presentations. So, own the cheerleader role and your team will love you for it.
No matter how you come into the role of project manager, you need own the fact that you are the one who is responsible for facilitating good process, taming the scope creep, keeping your team honest, on time, and responsible, and being the person who’s constantly keeping an eye out for risks. That’s only part of what you do as a PM, and it’s a lot!
But if you’re not a traditional PM or were never properly trained or certified, you can take some simple steps to help you get there.
There are so many approaches to managing projects. Not all of them will work for you, but understanding what they entail will definitely help guide you to create a good process for you, your team, and your clients. You don’t have to be a certified black belt sigma master of all, but you could be the master of what works for you.
There are plenty of resources out there for people who are just getting started in project management. Be sure to read the blogs, buy the books, and find what resonates for you. You might even want to think about joining the Project Management Institute to take advantage of the variety of tools, templates, events, whitepapers, and articles they offer. The more you can absorb about methodologies and paths for getting projects of all varieties done, the better the PM you will be. Oh, and again, your team will trust your judgment when you’re tasked with providing solutions on your process.
Everyone does everything just a little bit differently. So the best way to gain trust with your new coworkers is to adapt to the way they work. Onboarding to a new job as a PM can take a good 6 months or more before you’re 100% comfortable. You have to learn a lot about how you should operate with respect to process, tools, communications, reporting, and so on. If you’re leading a team and working with clients, you need to live and breathe your company’s procedures. But learning them is never easy. You have to observe and ASK QUESTIONS to make sure you get it.
There are 5,000 tools for one job. There is no one single PM utili-tool that everyone uses. In fact, we all use different tools for project planning, communication, resource planning, bug tracking, and the list goes on. Not all products combine multiple pieces of functionality as elegantly as TeamGantt, and not all of us are lucky enough to have products with as much power at our disposal. Regardless of which tools are in your PM toolkit, be sure you do everything you can to learn each one. Make the time to take tutorials and classes, and create test projects to test the limits of the tool. The better you know it, the faster you’ll be.
It’s a simple fact: You cannot be a great PM without people skills. Be a good conversationalist and a great listener, and show empathy for others. It’s certainly no easy task, but if you take the time and energy to devote yourself to the people you work with, they will see that you not only care about the budget and the timeline, but about the people and process as well. If you can get your team and your clients to actually LIKE and RESPECT you, you’ve won half the battle.
Tip: If you’re having a hard time getting to know your team, create one-on-one meetings or lunches, and open up with some personal conversation. If you can find commonalities as human beings, you’ll find comfort and trust as team members.
The difficult conversation is quite possibly the worst/most awkward thing you have to face as a project manager. Everyone on your team knows that the PM is on the front lines when it comes to hard conversations about risks and issues. They know that they certainly don’t want to be a part of that conversation—that’s what the PM is there for! But at the same time, they probably think that you share that fear. But you simply cannot show that fear. Ever. The facts are the facts, the scope is your guiding document, and you can find ways to justify your point. That, in effect, will make the conversation far less difficult. So sidle up to the issues, build your case, and go into the conversation with confidence, and it won’t be difficult. Better yet, no one can say you’re not doing your job because they trust that you have the guts to get through it.
Tip: Prepare for the conversations if you can. If a hard conversation is sprung on you, stay calm, and ask for some time if you need it.
Never give in to every meeting. Rope off the time you and your team need every day to get your project work done. It’s this simple: Mark yourself as busy, and don’t accept every meeting, call, or impromptu conversation. You have to protect your time to get your work done. At the same time, don’t be totally inflexible, but make the case for why you need time away from meetings. Feel free to mention that a deadline is at risk. At the end of the day, if you can plan your team’s time and protect them from miscellaneous meetings or tasks, you will save them from a lot of stress.
Tip: Always make a meeting agenda, and don’t accept invitations without them!
If you have a hallway conversation that could affect someone else on your team, send an email or post to the team about it. This could be project-related, discipline-related, or possibly even affect long-term relationships with clients. For instance, if you hear your client’s company might be sold, share it with the team and bosses. If you see a site using a cool technique that seems new and relevant to your work, share the link.
In general, sharing creates a more open, productive environment; people learn and absorb more. On the other hand, you have to be careful about what you share and when. If you’re working well with your team, being a PM means more than being a traffic cop. It means being a friend, a pal, and a confidante. Like a Golden Girl! When you forge working relationships where people can trust you, they will share information with you that is not meant for everyone. So be reliable and discrete; don’t share what you’ve been told in confidence unless you absolutely think it will adversely affect the work. Simply listen and use it to your advantage in a positive way. Knowing your team through and through will help you. MAJORLY.
People love food. There is no denying it. It’s kind of evil, but if you get your team dinner while working late, they’re bound to work more and stay at their desks. Just being there to support the team and doing things they don’t need to be bothered by in times of stress shows that you care and want to be a part of the work...even if it’s minimal. Your team will always be grateful to have you there to help. And they won’t expect you to be their servant or waiter. But if you keep it light and have some fun, doing little things like bringing some snacks to get you through the tough times will bring you closer as a team.
When you’re in the middle of a project, client and team frustrations suddenly become your problem. Sometimes it feels like you have the weight of everyone’s stress on your shoulders but no one to turn to. A great PM will be Switzerland by doing everything in his or her power to resolve issues and keep personal opinions (and emotions) far away from the team. It’s not easy to keep it to yourself when you’re facing adversity, so find the right person on your team or at your company to vent to. Otherwise, you will explode from stress.
Be sure to vent to “the right people” because you want to be sure that you’re not negatively affecting the people on your project team. It can impact how they feel about the work, the client, and the project. You never want to throw someone under the bus or reveal information that someone could possibly interpret in the wrong way. You have to have your team’s best interests in sight at all times.
Sure, the job gets stressful. But there is no reason to NOT have fun. Show your personality! Taking a lighthearted approach will give your team balance. You will always be worried about meeting a deadline or a budget, but you need to be yourself and be human. We’re not talking about being the class clown or performing stand-up routines at inappropriate times. It’s all about finding the opportunity to have fun on the job. Only you will be able to know how and when to have fun. Be yourself, relax, and it will come to you.
In many respects, project managers feel as though they are serving their teams. We generally want to help people. The problem is, we don’t always have the time. That leaves an open opportunity to under-deliver. So remember, you’re not going to save anyone time if you commit to something you can’t give your all to. Say no or offer an alternative. There’s always a plan B, and if you explain why you just can’t do something, people will understand.
Quality and attention to detail is important. Timelines are always tight, so if you’re in a rush to post something and you don’t have a process for ensuring quality, you’re going to deliver a typo. And that just looks bad! You can set up a process to nip any typos in the bud and help your team deliver a flawless product. Most PMs state they have an “attention to detail,” so let this be your moment to prove it.
Email is disposable, and long emails are deleted all too often. That being said, they can also be very important when exchanging key ideas and details on a project, so take care with how you craft your messages. Every time you start to compose an email, remember that you have a point to make. Stick to that point, and don’t add fluff. Keep in mind that you might only have a moment of someone’s time. Be sure to take the right tone and make your point quickly.
Tip: If you have a lot to say, make an outline and write to it. Then edit it down. If it’s feeling too long, or there’s the possibility that the tone could be misconstrued, pass the draft over to someone you trust to edit.
Here’s a good rule to follow: A meeting didn’t happen unless there was an agenda and notes posted publicly. Many people go to meetings and don’t take notes, and that’s okay. Not everyone should sit down and scribe an entire meeting’s worth of notes, but they should write down what matters to them. On the other hand, you should probably have someone on your team taking notes. In many cases, the project manager can handle this task. Keeping track of the full discussion, salient points, and tasks or to-dos can be really helpful downstream.
Yes, a lot of meeting notes are never, ever revisited. But every once in a while, there is a detail a client missed, or a conversation that was informally held in some other channel or found in notes posted to the team. You’ll be thankful you took notes and shared them with everyone (they will be too).
Tip: Keeping up with conversations in meetings can be tough when you’re taking notes. In order to keep things accurate, make sure your notes are public and editable/trackable. Or, record your meetings so you can go back and listen for details.
Great project managers facilitate a great process—from the inception of the project to the final delivery. A huge part of many projects is acceptance or approval of deliverables. It’s a game of hot potato that project teams play with our clients or project sponsors, but you can always win that game if you set up a plan and communicate how you accept and iterate on or respond to feedback. For instance, will you set up a call to discuss feedback? Do you require that all feedback be provided in writing? Set those boundaries.
Here’s the thing: No one was ever trained on how to be a client. So if you take the time to explain your work and place some constraints around the kind of feedback you’re looking for—or what will be acceptable within your scope—you’re taking the time to coach them on process. If you tell them that it’s going to affect the time you spend on the project, chances are they will make it better. Using little tactics like that will make your team happy and will help your clients truly understand the effort given to the work.
Tip: If you downright disagree with feedback, discuss it. But be sure to handle it gracefully. Don’t get an attitude because that will never help anyone.
You are the project manager. You are not the specialist who is building your project, but you need to understand the details of that specialist’s work and the processes he or she takes to get that work done. That’s a lot to study and understand! The more you fully understand the work, the easier it will be to come up with a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), and the better off you‘ll be when it comes to planning your team’s time, talking about deliverables and dependencies, and even defending the work. So take the time on every project to break down tasks to the level of detail that you’d need to estimate time needed. For some helpful strategies on the WBS, check out Chapter 4 of this guide.
If you really want your team to love you, you’ll be tuned into the details of their work and how they play into your industry as a whole. Nothing builds trust or provides entry into team conversation better than being able to talk about what you all have in common: your work. So be aware of what is happening in your industry—and not just in your niche because there are new innovations every day and they’re going to impact the way you complete projects.
At the same time, be aware of the new tools that are being released. They can have a really positive impact on the way you’re working. If you’re able to test them and find efficiencies, you’ll be a happy PM.
Tip: Wondering where to start? Ask your colleagues what websites, blogs, Twitter accounts, and publications they read in order to stay informed. Maybe you can create a library or place where you can share links and ideas. (Remember that “Share Everything” section?)
This is the last tip in this chapter and the most important. Please don’t forget that what you do is important. You are the glue. You steer the ship. Be proud of that and own it.
You’ll certainly encounter times when you are made to feel less important because maybe someone doesn’t see the value of your role or you didn’t answer a question they way someone expected. It happens. Unfortunately, it is the burden you will carry as a PM. No matter what happens, know what you do best, focus on making it better, and fly your PM flag high.
If you get your timelines and budgets in order early and maintain them often, you will find the time to focus on all of the revolving pieces that come along with managing projects. Maybe you can pick a few items off this list and focus on your own ways to make yourself become the PM everyone loves. If you do, it’ll pay off, and you’ll never want to leave your team or your job. Imagine that.
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