Let the Journey Begin — Mentoring a Better Project Manager

I have been involved in discussions lately regarding mentoring in the project management and IT business management field.  The question is: what does it take to build a better project manager given the rapidly changing paradigm defining the profession?

Having mentored many younger people over the course of a 22 year plus career in the United States Navy–and then afterward in private business–I have given this line of thought a great deal of consideration.  Over the years I have been applying personnel development and growth strategies as one assigned to lead both men and women among the uniformed military, civil service, and contractor communities.  Some of these efforts were notable for their successes.  In a few cases I failed to inspire or motivate.

Thus, I have kept a catalogue of lessons learned in helping me identify key elements in keeping people motivated in seeking a specialty or career.  Among these are the opportunity for growth, greater responsibility, and recognition of achievement.  Note that I do not mention compensation.  What I have found is that compensation, while important to one’s quality of life, is not a significant issue if that factor is viewed as equitable and commensurate to the effort involved.

In most cases, where financial rewards were considered inadequate compared to the job at hand, it was a negative factor in employee retention which, after all, is the key factor in developing someone to be a project manager or to eventually take any kind of senior responsibility.  In very few cases was it a net positive or a significant motivator, except in sales.  Young people tend to accept lower levels of compensation if they can see a path to advancement and greater rewards within a reasonable amount of time.  Firms that fail to provide this path, or that are not loyal to their employees in the manner of crafting career-focused compensation, can expect no loyalty in return.

The Foundation

Education, obviously, is the antecedent factor.  But one must view life as an educational journey in order to be effective in all of the phases of growth and responsibility.  The most common basic credential in proving one’s ability to learn is the Baccalaureate degree.  This is not a necessary condition.  I have known many brilliant people who were self-taught in any number of subjects.  But given that project management involves, in most cases, some technical knowledge and expertise, it is essential that the individual at least be exposed to that knowledge and demonstrate proficiency in the basics that underlie the area of competency.

But we can take this too far.  For example, in my experience, there are too many people that are extremely good in the technical aspects of what they are developing who make very poor project managers.  The reason for this is that a project is not an end item.  It is a social system consisting of people.  The people in the project management office are already proven to have a level of proficiency at their jobs.  If they do not, then that is where the greatest value lies in having a project manager, who must select the team, manage the team, coach the team, and lead the team.  The project is given resources, a scope, a project charter, and it is the project team that develops the plan and will execute against that plan.  A project manager that feels that they are the only technically competent member of the team will soon burn out.

Thus, the best project managers–the best managers of any kind–generally should have a multi-disciplinary education.  This education can be formal or informal, through accredited institutions, but also augmented by technical training and education, and perhaps graduate education.  I have often said that I would prefer to have someone with a strong liberal arts education in lieu of the dedicated specialist.  I can mold someone with a broad outlook and teach them to know what they need to know through a dedicated plan of adult learning, job assignment, and development.  It is also easier to explain concepts to someone at least exposed to information management, English usage and literature, history, human psychology, organizational behavior, mathematics, statistics, applied and theoretical science, and all of the other areas of knowledge which at one time or another must be referenced in running an organization in a technical field in the real world.  It is very difficult to teach someone to unlearn preconceived or bad habits, or an individual who has a doctrinaire attitude, or someone totally clueless about human motivations, emotions, and needs.  This is aside from winnowing out the run of the mill sociopath.

Proficiency in language and communication is also essential.  What is written is a direct reflection of one’s quality of thought.  Thus, when I find that a young individual does not have the verbal acuity necessary to be understood clearly, that is the first area of remediation that I undertake.  Writing a cohesive and logical sentence–or expressing oneself verbally in a clear and logical manner–is essential to one’s personal growth and the ability to work with others.

Step One — Beginnings

The first assignment for the individual slated for project management should be at the most basic level of proficiency, within one of the project management competencies.  This could be to work with project schedulers, systems engineers, cost managers, technical personnel, risk management, logistics, procurement, or any of the other areas necessary to support the organization’s projects.  But rather than developing a specialist who will then rise through that specialty to a senior position, the individual should be laterally transferred on a regular schedule from one specialty to another, given the appropriate skillset and expertise.

This method of variety in work assignment over time in the early stages of the individual’s career will lay the foundation for an appreciation of all aspects of the business.  It also establishes the culture of the learning organization, maintaining the interest of the individual through variety and personal growth.  The point of this method is to get the individual to a stage gate in assessing their capabilities and potential for further growth.

If the individual demonstrates the ability to adapt to different environments and challenges, to obtain new skillsets, and to thrive across multiple job assignments, they can then be advanced to the next level toward greater responsibility, perhaps involving supervisory or management duties.

For others, their limitations will also identify how they can best contribute to the organization.  Perhaps one specific specialty appeals to them.  Advancement and opportunities for these individuals may be more limited, depending on the size of the organization, but that is not necessarily the case.  Subject matter experts (SMEs) are essential to the success of the project team, otherwise there would be no team.  In these cases, investment in further education and training in the area of expertise is essential to employee development and retention.  The experience that they garner from working in other areas of the business also increases their value to the organization since they do not have to learn the basics on the job.

Step Two — Intermediate Development

In the development of military officers the Services first focus on that knowledge necessary to the tactical level of the organization.  As the individual rises in rank and continues to prove their competency, they are first transitioned to the operational level–which is the area that bridges the intersection between smaller units, junior staff, and medium sized units involving a great deal of responsibility.  This may involve junior command of some sort.  The final step in this process is to teach the officer about the strategic level, which involves duties related to senior command or senior staff.

The rationale is that one must walk before they can be expected to run.  In the area of project management this will involve assignments over time serving in various competencies in support of projects of increasing dollar value and complexity.  Thus, for example, we may assign a junior individual to be a project manager with a small staff involving limited funds for the development and deployment of a system of fairly short duration–one to two years.  As they continue to develop over time we will assign them to roles that are a natural progression commensurate with their skills and track record.

As with employee development in step one, the purpose of step two (which may involve subsequent lateral assignments as the individual rises in the organization) is to get them to a stage gate to assess whether they will eventually be able to handle the most complex project assignments, involving the greatest risk to the organization.

Step Three — Professional Competency

A few years ago there was a famous bit of pop psychology running through the professional business community asserting that 10,000 hours of practice is required to turn someone into an expert.  It turns out that this assertion is not supported by the science.  There are a number of factors that contribute to one’s competency in a subject and it could be as simple as emotional affinity–or involve any number of factors such as socio-economic background and upbringing, education and training, the ability to concentrate, the structure of the mind, neonatal development, among others.  This is beyond the odd child prodigy that burns brightly before the age of 10 and then fails to maintain their advantage into adulthood.

But given that the individuals we have mentored have thrived under our adult pedagogic approach, as well as having survived under real life conditions as they were brought along in a progressive manner commensurate with their ability to grow and learn, their areas of competency should be readily apparent.  This should be the last step in the mentoring effort.

The challenge for project management today is to break down the traditional barriers constructed by line and staff, and division of labor thinking.  Project management now demands a cross-disciplinary skillset.  With our information systems able to provide a cohesive and integrated view of the condition of the project in ways that were impossible just five years ago, we need to develop a cadre of individuals who can not only understand the information, but who possess the critical skills, maturity, knowledge, education, judgment, and context to use that information in an effective manner.

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