A project manager’s role is broad. You have to be comfortable briefing executives while also feeling at home digging into the details of a problem with the team. You need to concurrently write high-level summaries and dive into complex reports to keep projects on track.
I’ll be honest, the expectations of the role have broadened since I became a project manager. One thing has stayed the same though: ambitious leaders want to know how to be better at the job and how to affect more change in their organizations.
Are you that ambitious leader? If you are looking for tips for being a next-level project manager – someone who can get things done and is on the fast track for promotion – then read on. I have seven tips to share that will help you take your career to the next level and make more of a difference at work.
1. Focus on value
Look at what people are finding valuable and do more of that. It doesn’t matter how you define ‘valuable’ as it’s going to be different for each project and each organization. What does matter is that you seek out feedback.
Talk to stakeholders about how they are judging the project’s success and what benefits they are expecting. If you know what people want to get out of your work, you can make better decisions about how to deliver it.
In addition, you can surface that information in your project reporting to present intelligent insights that give stakeholders what they are looking for.
2. Look for strategic fit
If your project doesn’t support the overall strategic objectives for your organization, why are you doing it?
Being focused on the right work is important to show that you are contributing both as an individual and also on behalf of your project. Make sure you understand how your project fits into the bigger picture. Perhaps it is part of a program or portfolio. Perhaps it underpins one or more strategic aims or objectives. Perhaps it is simply some executive’s pet project that snuck in under the radar and you can’t really evidence why it’s happening at all.
The reason this is important is so that you can prioritize your time effectively on the projects that add the most strategic value. Prioritization of projects across the portfolio helps to shape your project to better achieve that goal. For example, you might be able to get some benefits early if you reorganize workstreams. The team might be able to tap into new technology being launched by another department if you understand cross-departmental dependencies.
Most importantly, you can frame risk and issue management plans in the language that business leaders understand which should make it easier for you to secure their support.
3. Choose the right tool for the job
Too often, I see teams scanning ‘best buy’ lists and to make a strategic decision on which tool to invest in. If you want to next-level your project management game, you need to go back to basics and think about what you want a tool to do for you.
As with any project, start with your requirements. How are you going to use it? What problem are you trying to solve? For me, the biggest challenge is keeping up with changing priorities and trying to create a reliable schedule when it feels like we don’t really have a clear grip on what needs to happen. (Yes, there are tools that can help in that situation – LiquidPlanner is one that excels in automating timelines amidst changing priorities.)
4. Spend time horizon scanning
Another common problem with the way projects are managed is that often a lot of project management is retrospective. We look backwards at what has happened: through reporting, root cause analysis, and lessons learned.
Project managers should spend at least the same amount of time looking forward. Put some time aside individually and with your team to scan the horizon for what’s coming. Look for potential risks, issues, and changes. Talk about what dependencies are outstanding and anything new that you have learned.
Proactive project management like this can help make you better at forecasting uncertainty. The more aware you are of what is coming, the easier it is to feel ready for it.
5. Build your network
You don’t have to know everything, but it helps to know others who will have the answers. Build your internal and external network so you have a wide web of connections in your organization and industry.
This also helps you maintain an externally focused approach to projects. When there is a change proposed, for example, you will be more easily able to see the potential impacts on other teams because you know those teams’ pain points and competencies.
Be the person who says, “who else needs to know about this?” during every meeting and then make a few calls.
6. Improve your power skills
Power skills – according to PMI – are empathy, communication and collaboration. And they are essential for project managers. Teams led by people who display and model those skills are more likely to succeed.
Given that PMI’s research shows that high complexity projects can have an average of 24 team members, you can see why being able to engage and work with others is high on the list of must-have skills.
7. Go home on time
A next-level project manager is someone who has the mental capacity to operate at their best every day. Erica Ariel Fox argues in Forbes that we should ditch the term work/life balance and switch to life/work balance instead, which makes sense to me. Otherwise, it’s very easy to find that there is no time for life because it’s all work.
Get enough sleep. Look after your mental health and that of the team. Manage stress in the ways that work best for you. And most importantly, set a good example for your team to do the same.
Organizations benefit most when team members are sharp, well-rested and able to bring their best selves to work, whatever that looks like each day.
Being a next-level project manager is all about looking for opportunities to make a difference in your organization by delivering efficiently, effectively and in a way that supports the strategic objectives. It’s easier than you think to stand out. Try these tips and let us know how you get on!
About the Author
Elizabeth Harrin is author of Managing Multiple Projects and several other books. She is founder of Project Management Rebels, a membership community for project managers who want to deliver with more confidence and less stress.