Ask a PM: Where to Start after Taking a Career Break

Elizabeth Harrin | May 28, 2019

Career Break
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Dear Elizabeth: I start a new job in a week after a couple of years away from work on a career break. From what I know, I am entering a complex project with multiple stakeholders. They are active in leading the work, so at least I don’t have to worry about not having support for the project. Given I don’t know anything about the project yet, I want to thoroughly asses and understand what the situation is. Where should I start?

Coming into a new project is often difficult, especially if it’s at a new company. You’re starting with the right mindset, which is a massive help. Assessing the situation and understanding what you are entering is definitely the right first step. Here are some suggestions for making that work easier and more effective.

Listen

The most important skill you need at this point is listening. Ask questionseven the difficult onesand simply listen.

Repeat what you think you are hearing to make sure you understand. Ask people to explain jargon you don’t know. There is a sweet spot of tolerance on joining a new team or company where you’ve got around three to six months (depending on complexity) to ask all the novice questions. Beyond that, and in my experience, your team will start to judge you for not picking up the concepts. Make the most of these precious early days to ask and clarify everything!

Meet the Team

You don’t say whether you have a project team or not, but I expect you will if your project is complex. Spend some time with them, individually and as a team. Find out how they think the project is going.

Ask them to show you the tools they use and the progress they’re making on the work. That will give you an idea of how much direction they are going to need. If they are as engaged as it sounds like your stakeholders are, they might need some gentle accountability for their work but not much hand-holding (which will make your life a lot easier).

You can only judge this after you’ve met them. Then, switch up your management style to best support them where they are now.

Your team members will also have a view on how the stakeholders are supporting the project. Ask for their insider information. This soft intelligence will help you frame how you speak to stakeholders when you meet them; however, be aware that, at this early stage, the team doesn’t know you. They might not be prepared yet to give you an honest view, and you should always make your own judgments anyway. Consider what they tell you, but don’t assume it’s 100-percent true of the situation you will find.

Think about what you can do to build trust in the team, so they do feel confident enough to tell you the truth about everything. The team members are your most important relationships on the project, so invest in those relationships.

Meet Stakeholders Individually

As well as meeting the team, you’ll also want to spend some time meeting stakeholders individually. Book some one-to-one time in their diaries and sit with them to understand how they think the project is going. Talk to them about their expectations and their vision for the project.

You’re looking for the success criteriathe things they are going to use to judge whether the project has been a success and whether you’ve done a good job at managing it. When you know what’s important to them, you can deliver that more easily. The success criteria help frame your decision-making going forward.

Try to meet people in person if you can. Relationships form at the beginning of projects, so make sure yours get off to a good start.

Importantly, as you meet different people, look out for where those success criteria don’t align. These are your areas of potential conflict.

Get Stakeholders Together

Now you’ve met them all individually, get the stakeholders together as a group. You might already be inheriting a diary packed with steering group meetings or workshops, but if not, book some meetings yourself.

Invite stakeholders to your project meetings so they can hear how the team is progressing with the work and provide any direction needed. You wouldn’t want them all at every meeting; however, getting the key people together in a room helps break down silos between different groups. Plus, if you uncovered any areas where expectations don’t align in your one-to-one chats, you’ll want to get those individuals together for a discussion.

Keep Communicating

Most of what we do as project managers are communicating. Keep communicating! The first stage of your project, where you’re uncovering what’s going on, is only the start.

Put together a communications plan to support how you are going to communicate on the rest of the project. You say your stakeholders are engaged, which is great. Think about how you can keep them engaged throughout the rest of the project.

You should build in a few different ways to communicate. People need to hear information multiple times (depending on what it is), so plan for that. If you vary the way you communicate, you’re more likely to get your messages across to people who have different communication preferences.

Your communication plans should also include a feedback loop. As I’m sure you know, comms isn’t just about broadcasting information. You also want to hear what’s coming back. This is important because the situation you find yourself in today isn’t necessarily the same one you’ll be in after six months on the job.

You’re doing a piece of assessment now to help you integrate into the project, and that’s great. Remember it needs to be an ongoing activity. Gathering customer feedback and team feedback will help make sure your communications are landing as you expect and that morale remains high. You’ll also quickly pick up on new conflicts or misaligned expectations if you keep listening.

How long will all this take? In my experience, it’s normally around three months before a project manager feels like they have a total handle on a big project in a new job, especially in a new industry or after time away from the workplace. The good news is that if you can get through that phase, you’ll soon feel like you have the project under control and can speak the jargon with the rest of the team.

Be prepared for this analysis and assessment time to feel a bit overwhelming! However, it’s definitely worth the investment of time and effort. You’ll create great relationships with the team and the key stakeholders, and you’ll feel more confident about driving the project through to successful delivery.

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

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