If you knew then what you know now, I’m sure you’d make all the right decisions. If I had a time-traveling DeLorean, I could advise my younger self and avoid all those project management mishaps. Assuming Marty McFly pulled up in my driveway with a fully charged flux capacitor, here are a few key lessons I wish my younger self would’ve known before starting my project management career.
Lesson 1: Don’t take it all on yourself; leverage the team.
Despite all the upfront resource planning, projects still have resource gaps. If a business analyst needs help gathering requirements or if end users need help conducting user acceptance testing, the project manager is usually the one that fills the gap.
The project manager is the Swiss Army knife of superheroes, dedicated to ensuring project success. Despite the superhero mantle, being the PM doesn’t mean you have to take on all the project work yourself. Your job is to get the right resources to ensure your project will be successful. If you don’t have enough people, you need to raise the issue early and often and communicate the impacts.
I’ve played the superhero enough times to realize I can’t solve every project issue. I would tell my younger self to leverage the team to solve project problems as each team member provides a different perspective and solution.
Lesson 2: Listen more; lead later.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.” If you get a team of project managers in a room, you’ll witness a lot more talking than effective listening.
As a project manager, you have a desire to lead, achieve deliverables, and demonstrate progress. You have an inherent drive for results-leadership behavior. Despite the desire to achieve, you need to listen more and seek to understand before ensuring you are understood.
Listen first and ensure others have their say as it creates better teamwork. Leading and achieving can quickly follow effective listening.
Lesson 3: Relationships are just as important as the PM mechanics.
Project managers need to focus on relationships, stakeholder management, and effective communication as well as the usual project mechanics, templates, and processes. I’ve worked with talented project manager mechanics who can do amazing things with scheduling tools and can quote the PMBOK, but they can’t build effective relationships with their business partners.
I’ve made the mistake thinking I’m communicating in project management metrics only to realize the stakeholder had no clue what I was talking about and provided feedback to my managers. I’ve also had stakeholders support my position because I had great relationships despite a challenged project.
I’d tell the young me to be aware of the relationships you have with your stakeholders and the relationships they have with your management. These relationships can affect your career more than properly quoting schedule variance.
Lesson 4: Make your vendor successful.
When managing an outsourced project to an onshore or offshore vendor, recognize it is your job to make the vendor and the project successful. Ignore the high bill rates and avoid blaming the vendor entirely for project challenges. Your company selected the vendor to help the organization. You may not be directing the work, but it is still your job to help them be successful. In return, you will be successful
Lesson 5: Build a foundational understanding of the technology.
If your team is implementing new technology, invest in an online training course to get a foundational overview. Pluralsight, Udemy, SkillShare, and Lynda.com all offer short technical courses that will help PMs understand the technology they are managing.
With a foundational understanding, you can participate in higher-level technology discussions and ask better questions. I’ve been in meetings where I was told the requirement was technically impossible, but after asking a few questions based on the technology, we were able to find a solution. If you have a strong foundation, you’ll be unshakeable.
Lesson 6: Your career will be a sine wave instead of a positive slope.
Fresh out of college, I had a career plan and knew exactly where I would be at five-year intervals with an ever-increasing salary and regular promotions. That plan (luckily) worked for the first 5 to 10 years but was later affected by economic downturns, corporate restructuring, corporate politics, and job changes.
Your career will have ups and downs like a sine wave instead of a guaranteed positive slope. Sometimes you make more money, and sometimes you will make less money. Yet you will always have a skill set that will provide an income and hopefully longer positive runs than negative downturns.
Lesson 7: Enjoy the ride.
You’re going to spend the next 30 to 40 years working for someone or working for yourself. Retirement, a healthy 401(k), and financial independence are a long way away. Enjoy the work, and don’t be afraid to leave for better experiences. You’ve got years to work, so you might as well as enjoy the journey.
We Don’t Have a Time Machine
Unless Marty McFly shows up in your driveway, you won’t have a time machine to go back and mentor yourself. That’s OK!
You can still reflect on what you can do differently in the future and change. All the positive and negative experiences contribute stories, memories, and learnings to your professional history and career!
Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice, visit the website Tactical Project Management.