How to Get Lucky in Project Management

This St. Patrick's Day, I'm reflecting on the many sources of luck in my life. On this day when we celebrate luck, what should aspiring and seasoned project managers do to get lucky in project management?

My own lucky breaks as a project manager happen in little ways, all the time. Phew, that client didn't ask us about that deliverable that we haven't started. Thank goodness, that team member's other potential project fell through, so they are free to work on this project after all. Two big lucky breaks stand out when I reflect on my project management career to date.

The first is my first project management assignment. I started my PM career like most PMs: I didn't even know that project management was a viable career option. I came into a failing project where no one had the time (or even wanted) to do the job. I was told to show up at meetings and take notes. When I proved semi competent at that skill, I was told to start facilitating meetings solo and begin working directly with clients to identify their requirements. I was terrified. What if the clients found out I was only 22? I succeeded in this role for three reasons that have little to do with luck:

  • I had a positive attitude. Studies show that telling yourself (and others) that you're excited reduces anxiety and therefore improves performance. Approach every new opportunity, no matter how scary it may seem, as an exciting chance to learn and grow. Luck will be on your side.

  • I had a great manager, who put in the time to mentor and coach me. You might insist that this was lucky. Partially, yes. But, the reason I learned as much as I did from her was because I did anything that she asked of me and then some. Since I would do anything for her and lived to make her job easier, she, in turn, would do anything for me. One memorable evening, she stayed at the office with me until 9pm to show me how to efficiently review and categorize comments in a stakeholder comment log. Her lesson on formatting to print in Excel will never be forgotten.

  • I put in the hours. I recognized that, if this project were going to succeed, I had to spend the time getting to know my clients and what they needed. This involved facilitating lengthy meetings that often turned into recriminating screaming matches. Since I was managing interpersonal conflicts most of the day, I spent hours in the evenings getting smart on the organization's mission and reviewing charters, notes, agendas, and user guides to make sure everything went smoothly for the next day. When I was asked to manage the schedule and realized I didn't know Microsoft Project, I convinced my manager to let me sign up for a class. When I realized what I was doing was project management, I lobbied for funding to obtain a CAPM certification. I was fortunate to learn a tremendous amount in a short time.

The next big lucky break was my most recent project. This was lucky for two reasons:

  • I was in the right place at the right time. People say this a lot, but it's only partially true. Project managers are only ever in the right place at the right time because they've done the advanced planning to get themselves there. This often involves pushing themselves to try new things. For example, I found myself to be the perfect candidate for this latest role because, while I was in grad school, I had decided that I wanted to live abroad and work in a totally different sector for the summer. That experience was challenging, but, if I hadn't taken on that challenge, I wouldn't have been the right person at the right time five years later. Project managers must deliberately push themselves out of their comfort zones to expand their knowledge about a wide variety of skills and sectors--whether that's tech, digital, engineering, development, etc. The minute we say we don't "get" something, we're closing ourselves off from a whole host of opportunities that wouldn't be possible unless we were lucky enough to try.

  • I saw something that was broken, and I fixed it. The role that was described to me was a handful of hours a week behind the scenes. The role that I quickly learned had to be filled was that of a client-facing project manager, part-time program manager, and report writer. I realized that taking this on would be infinitely valuable for my professional growth. So, for a few grueling months, I rose to the challenge, until I had gained the credibility to make long-term changes that would improve project delivery. The lesson in luck here is to do whatever it takes to deliver. Do the industry research. Subscribe to Google Alerts on the topic of your latest project. Immerse yourself in your clients' day-to-day challenges so that you can help them stay one step ahead. Listen to your engineers and tech staff until the glorious day when you are able to correct their terminology. Talk about luck. Sometimes, there is truly nothing more satisfying than surprising an engineer :)

Best wishes for some well-deserved project management "luck" this St. Patrick's Day!