How to Hit the Ground Running as a New Project Manager
Recently, we published our list of the 15 best websites to follow as a new project manager. Adding them to your reading list will definitely help you stay on top of best practices and the trends affecting project management work, but truly getting started on the right foot requires guidance from PMs who have “been there, done that.”
That’s why we’ve used this article to pull together some of their best wisdom on project management topics ranging from navigating a new job to investing in your skills on an ongoing basis. We hope you find their guidance useful as you embark on your new project management career.
Navigating Your New Workplace
You’ve been assigned a desk, given login credentials, and introduced to your team. What comes next?
Manage Expectations with Your New Boss
Your first responsibility as a new project manager will be to get up-to-speed on the status of your projects. And although you might expect your boss to lead the way, Owen Gadeken recommends – in a conference paper written for the Project Management Institute – holding off on scheduling additional meetings beyond your initial introduction until you’ve made progress on your own.
“I recommend that you deliberately put off any follow-on meetings until you are able to gather enough information to make at least a preliminary assessment of your project; otherwise, you may find yourself making promises or commitments you can’t keep. Scheduling a later meeting also gives you the chance to show your new boss that you are now up to speed, thereby gaining his or her confidence and support for your first actions.”
If you’re new to project management, going it alone can feel scary. But stick to the basics. Identify relevant stakeholders, gather information from them, and do your best to assess both the state of the existing work and your possible paths forward before involving your boss.
Forge Connections with Clients
If your specific project management role will involve managing client engagements, you’ll want to invest some time into learning how they prefer to operate. Don’t assume they’ll all function the same way (or that they’ll operate the way you like to work). Ask. Alison Porter, digital project manager at roboboogie, suggests in an article for The Digital Project Manager:
“Happy clients make happy projects, so make sure to ask questions about their team, their practices, and the best way to communicate with them effectively (if you’ll be handling client communication duties as well). Do they prefer standing weekly meetings, or would they prefer small daily updates? Is email their preferred method of communication, or would they rather discuss items over the phone?”
And although Porter’s advice is written from the perspective of a client-facing digital project manager, it’s just as applicable to project managers leading internal teams. Your organization will have established communication structures, meeting protocols, and more. The good news is that most people will fill you in on expectations – but you may need to ask directly to get the information you need.
Imposter syndrome as a new project manager can be real. Especially if you’re young or new to the field altogether, assuming a leadership position when you’re feeling less-than-confident can make it difficult to command the authority you need to have to work effectively in a PM role.
Keep these tips in mind:
Flex Your Translation Muscles
The project management world is full of jargon, some of which you’ve undoubtedly picked up from your certification program or on-the-job training. But although it’s fun to drop the industry’s latest buzzwords in your conversations with other PMs, this specialized language is bound to fall flat with those outside of the practice.
On the topic of jargon, Elizabeth Harrin, of the Girl’s Guide to PM blog, writes:
“Even if you understand it, your business colleagues probably won’t. Part of your job as a project manager is to translate the project and the work you are doing into terms that they can understand. Make it easy for them to work with you.”
Effective project managers must be strong leaders – and being a strong leader comes down to being able to communicate your message appropriately. Drop the unnecessary complexity, and learn how to motivate your team using language they understand.
Be Ready for Change
It’d be nice if every project you worked on went exactly according to plan, following the kinds of processes and procedures you studied while working towards your certification. Unfortunately, you’ll be working in the real world, where things break, conflicts occur, and priorities change – and no one wants to follow a leader who’s thrown off their game every time an issue arises.
Because change is virtually guaranteed, you can prepare for it. In an article on the Sensible PM blog, contributor Mark Phillipy shares:
“I can’t remember a single project that went exactly as planned and did not change as it progressed. Since change is inevitable, don’t stress when it occurs. The key is to have a change management plan in place which describes how a request is submitted to the project and how you will manage that change request. If this plan is documented and understood by all shareholders, you will be able to manage through change without flipping out.”
A change management plan can be created as part of a formal exercise, but it can also be an ongoing, informal practice. Periodically – say, once per week – assess the status of your current projects, looking specifically for at-risk areas. Simply thinking through contingency plans you’d execute if things went fully south can be enough to help you handle change gracefully in the moment.
Investing in Your Ongoing Professional Development
Trying to be successful in your first project management role can seem like an all-consuming effort. But if you let professional development slide in these early years, you can find yourself falling behind peers who continually advance their skill sets.
Here’s how to make sure you stay on top of this critical need:
Become an Influencer
No, not that kind of influencer. We’re not advocating that you drop everything to start going after Instagram sponsorships. But we are suggesting that you invest in your ability to influence others.
The Manager’s Resource Handbook blog puts it succinctly:
“Just because your job title is ‘Program Manager’ doesn’t necessarily make you a manager of people. In most organizations, project and program managers are not actually managers of other people in the typical sense. Yet project managers have tremendous responsibility to make sure things happen.Thus, as a new project manager, you should make it a point to develop your ability to influence others.”
Your exact role may or may not involve direct reports. But even if it doesn’t, you’re going to need to get others onboard with your ideas. Investing in your skills as a manager or influencer will help you attract the allies needed to successfully achieve your aims.
Master Your Technology
As New Horizons Learning Solutions points out:
“The tool you use to manage your projects everyday should be a natural and familiar fit for you and your team. You have enough on your plate as a Project Manager – there is no room to be inefficient with the software tools you use to get your job done. Know your software inside and out and get the training you need.”
The software used by your team is likely to be set before you join as a project manager (and if it isn’t, may we humbly suggest taking a look at Taskworld?). But because of the sheer number of technology tools out there, it’s likely that you won’t know the ins and outs of your team’s chosen program when you first get started.
Don’t let that situation persist. Invest the time needed to develop mastery with your team’s chosen programs. Not only will it allow you to be more effective in your own right, it’ll turn you into your team’s “go to” person for the program – helping you to both form connections and command authority.
What You Can Do Now
If you’re in your first project management role, after reading through the guidance above:
- Make a note of the suggestions above that feel most relevant to your situation.
- You may not be having any trouble commanding authority, for example, but you may find the idea of mastering your tools to be inspiring.
- In addition to implementing the guidance above, seek out further resources that’ll help you develop your skills in these areas.
Continually look for opportunities to improve by seeking out expert guidance in this way. Whether you’ve been in the field for two years or twenty, there’s always room for improvement.