The Project Manager Formerly Known as the Subject Matter Expert

No longer top of the pops

No longer top of the pops

In a previous post, I published my failure resume showcasing a collection of my biggest professional setbacks. One of the items I listed was sticking too long with a gig I knew too well. It was hard to leave. It was a great project with a great client, but I knew the work like the back of my hand. It got to the point that I knew what the client was going to say before they said it. There was nowhere to go and nowhere to grow, so I made the decision to try something different.

The first few months were overwhelming (another line from my failure resume.) I had a new client, a new team, and a much more complicated environment. I had to pay attention on phone calls now. Actually, I had to strain to hear, because the connection would often drop out. I didn’t flourish right away. Far from it. But, I didn’t fail either...although some days it felt like I was failing. I wound up getting a promotion after a year of humbling, exhausting, debilitating—but ultimately invigorating—learning. Many of the PMs I grew up with on my former project are now similarly scattered across different engagements, in new roles, even in new companies (sometimes their own companies.) It was hard to separate from them, but that’s part of growing up, isn’t it?

One of these former colleagues asked me to write a post about how you go from being top of the pops to the bottom of the bottom (to reverse the Jay-Z lyric.) Here’s what project managers should consider when undertaking a new role:

  • Trust your gut. You’re in this role for a reason. Just because you don’t know the data backwards or forwards or you’re not sure how your new client will react or you’re not aware of how this new team likes to operate doesn’t mean you’re not qualified. Even if you have no experience or lack a technical certification that others on your new team possess, remember you were likely hired because you bring a different perspective. Also, you have common sense. Use it. In particular, those with a liberal arts education are trained to process and synthesize unfamiliar information—remember this when you’re listening to your engineers or developers debate which technical approach to follow.

  • Ask smart (and dumb) questions. If you’re not sure what someone is talking about, ask the question. The longer you’re in the role, the more awkward it becomes when you don’t know what that acronym is that everyone seems to be reciting every two minutes. If you’re too embarrassed to ask (which I firmly believe you shouldn’t be), Google it or ask a trusted colleague on the side. Nobody expects you to know everything just because you did before. If you want to really dazzle your new colleagues, document what you’re hearing—project artifacts could include a standard operating procedure, acronym list, or set of lessons learned.

  • Read. A LOT. Subscribe to industry articles and blogs, figure out what conferences everyone attends and sign up, and immerse yourself in the project lexicon. Your stakeholders will want to convince you that this project is unique, complex, and like no other project you’ve ever managed. I’d argue that of course every project is different, in the same way that no two people are the same. But, despite our differences, we are all human. Draw upon your previous experiences to develop a framework for how you’ll address the “unique” challenges of this “special” project. In my experience, you’ll find that many of the same principles apply.

  • Build relationships. You’re clearly not going to be able to do this on your own. No project manager can operate successfully (for long) without their team. Even if you exude confidence, ask probing questions to get to the root of project challenges, and become an industry expert—but fail to take the time to cultivate relationships with your new team—you’ll get nowhere. Take the time for those lunches, coffees, and happy hours—even if you’ve already had a draining day of processing new information. Find out a little more about the people you’re working with. When you need that favor to get something submitted past the official deadline or request a volunteer to stay late and help you proofread something, you’ll thank yourself.