Ask a Project Manager: School vs The Real World
“Dear Elizabeth: I am a new project manager in my first internship. I’m out of my depth and overwhelmed with the new jargon. In particular, what I’m finding is that my work environment isn’t exactly like the theory I learned on my project management degree course. What tips do you have for me?”
Ah, are you finding out that real life isn’t like the textbooks? Yes, we’ve all been there. I met another intern recently who said to me that he’d learned more in the last 10 months working in the PMO than he had on the previous two years in his business management degree. There’s nothing like a bit of workplace reality for bringing home the skills you really need to make a success of a your career.
First, I should say that the great stuff you learned in your courses is not at all wasted. Please don’t feel so overwhelmed that you start to doubt the value of your education. That has given you a solid grounding in theory, vocabulary, and the concepts you need to be able to work in a project management environment. Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now – trust me, you know more than you think you do.
So, some tips for dealing with the new job.
Learn the jargon.
What you learned in your course might not be the exact terminology that your colleagues are using. There are lots of words that mean ‘risk log,’ and they are virtually interchangeable. However, you’ll feel more comfortable and you’ll fit in more quickly if you use the vocabulary that everyone around you is using.
Start a glossary and note the commonly used terms. If you hear one in a meeting that you don’t understand, write it down and ask someone later what it means. (You can ask in the meeting if you like, but I know it can be difficult to get up the courage to interrupt the meeting to ask newbie questions.)
Find out what your colleagues do.
Everything is less overwhelming when you know who is responsible for what. Then you know who the subject matter experts are when you need assistance.
Ask people to spend 30 minutes of their day with you and talk to them about their job. Where do they fit into the hierarchy? What does their team do? What do they need from your team? And, is there anything you can do to help while you’re here as an intern? Explain that you’re learning about the business and you want to be as useful as you can while you’re there. I have done this every time I start a new position, and it’s helpful. I have never yet had someone say they didn’t want to talk to me about themselves and their expertise. Reach out. Book five meetings this afternoon.
Do your job.
You are there for a reason, right? At this point in your career, my best advice is to get on with what you’ve been asked to do. Make a good impression and do the work to the best of your ability. If you can offer something more than you’ve been asked to do (for example, an intern I once worked with completely redesigned a tracking spreadsheet I asked him to update, and made it a million times better and less work), then ask if you can do that and deliver it.
The reason I put this point in is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the business as a whole. Depending on where you are, you could be a small cog in a team of hundreds. Your day-to-day priority is to turn up and work through your To Do list. When you can break down your responsibilities into smaller chunks that you can do without feeling overwhelmed, then you can see yourself making progress.
It is helpful to understand the bigger picture, and I encourage all project managers to boost their business acumen skills and learn about how the company functions as a system. When you are struggling, it often helps to just think about putting one foot in front of the other.
Besides, you’ll be surprised at how much you absorb and learn just by doing that.
Connect your job to your course.
In no time at all you’ll be making connections between your tasks and what you learned on your course. Try to identify where someone is using a management style you’ve learned about, or what part of the project management process you are in now. Think about how you would identify stakeholders or run this phase, if it was your project, or what tools you would use that you studied that would help you at this point.
You won’t win any friends by going around saying, “In my course, I learned this…,” and, “I just realized your using situational leadership!” But, if it helps to share those thoughts with your mentor or manager, then do. It’s more important to try to associate what you have learned with what you do in the office so you can see the practical implications of using the techniques you studied.
And congratulations on your degree, by the way! That’s a big achievement, and if you can do that you can definitely succeed in your new position using the same skills.