I Was Mentored to Success

Project Managers learn their skills more quickly with direct mentoringI had an idyllic life as a child. I grew up on a farm and, whether I realized it or not, each day provided opportunities for mentorship.

At age 6, my Dad threw me into the deep part of the river that flowed near our farm. He stayed nearby to teach me to swim.

At age 13, I drove a truck with a full load of grain into town while sitting on two Sears catalogs. I had watched my Dad drive the truck for years as he taught me how to shift gears with a load on. It was now my responsibility.

Fast forward 15 years. By then I was well into my career as a system developer. I had read the books. I had taken the courses. I had led teams within larger projects. And my latest promotion stated that I was ready to manage a project on my own (in my mind a moderately sized project to allow me to get my feet wet).

Our firm bid on a new project, proposing me as PM. We won the job and I soon arrived at the client’s project site for the kickoff. We immediately began the project initiation tasks.

It took me exactly two weeks to realize that I was in over my head – not because I wasn’t well versed in project management processes or methodology, but because I wasn’t prepared for all of the ancillary “stuff” that went along with the job – “stuff” that was not found in the textbooks or the training manuals.

I did what any self-respecting, up-and-coming Project Manager would do: I called my Senior VP and asked for help. To his credit (and my great relief), he freed up an experienced Project Manager from an internal corporate project and sent him to the project site to help get the project on a solid footing and to train me for the long run.

To this day, I value that experience as a major turning point in my career. The on-the-job mentoring that I received was worth more to me than an ivy league MIS degree (my opinion).

Specifically, I remember five mentoring techniques that he exhibited that made my being his protégé an easy learning experience, and that I have emulated throughout my career:

  1. He focused on the firm’s long-term goal of developing me as a Project Manager, while managing the project day to day. I supplied the domain knowledge for the day-to-day project work, and he provided most of the hands-on project management. This enabled us to put the client first and move the project forward, while he tutored me behind the scenes.
  2. He supported me in accomplishing my goal of enhancing my project management capabilities. For example, after completing meetings with the client, he would explain to me why he said what he said, why he took the stance that he took, and why he made the promises that he made. Without even realizing it, I soon began to watch his every action and reaction to see what might work for me and what might not.

    He had a habit that irritated me at first. He would take a lengthy pause – almost an uncomfortable pause – before responding to a question or situation. That is where I learned the power of the pause.

    First, the pause ensured that the speaker was finished speaking. (Don’t you hate it when someone answers you before you complete your thought, and assumes they know what you are about to say?) Secondly, the pause allowed him to choose his words carefully before responding. And thirdly, the pause gave him authority as everyone waited for his response.

  3. He was authentic and non-judgmental in his feedback and support. He was quick to praise when I did well, and even quicker when he observed opportunities for improvement.

    One example that I specifically remember occurred when I cut off one of our client’s employees, who made an inane comment about our processes. I interrupted him with, “I beg to differ …”. Later, my mentor took me aside and noted that “we never beg to differ”. He instructed me first to repeat a good point from the other person’s point of view, and then move quickly and authoritatively to my point of view. He taught me to use the conjunction “and” (rather than “but”) in formulating my response. What an incredible piece of advice!

  4. He and I developed a set of tasks for me to accomplish that were over and above my project responsibilities. We met in his office two to three times a week after everyone had gone home. He helped me to understand how I could have reacted in given situations, how to manage project financials, how to determine estimates to completion, which of my staff deserved recognition, and hundreds of other project management responsibilities. We would talk through the most recent situations, which was invaluable for my on-the-job mentoring.
  5. He let me determine the timeline for my on-the-job mentoring. The project was 30 months in duration. I requested his mentorship for 16 months, which would take the project through the end of the design phase. After 13 months, he felt confident that I could manage the project through to completion.

In my previous article, “10 Characteristics a Project Manager Must Develop”, I encouraged Project Managers to develop a program of lifelong learning, specifically of those techniques that are most effective in leading project teams. In this particular situation, I had hit the jackpot. I had a personal mentor and trainer who helped me accelerate my progress.

So, what was the result? My mentor left three months early, leaving me to manage the bulk of the project to completion. I was confident. The team was working efficiently. The client was responsive and cooperative. We completed the project on time, under budget, and with a satisfied client – the first in that organization’s history.

From personal experience, I believe that mentoring is the most effective way of developing the people aspects of project management.

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