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5 Creative Tips for Onboarding New Project Managers

April 23, 2015

onboarding new project managers

There is little doubt that project management is a white-hot profession, with rapidly-growing jobs in this decade alone. According to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2013 Talent Gap Report, 15.7 million new jobs will be created worldwide between 2010 and 2020. In the US alone, the growth will be 12 percent, from 5.4 to 6.1 million new project management jobs over that same 10-year period.

Interestingly enough, I have personally met very few project managers (PMs) with significant formal academic education in the discipline. Many graduate and business schools offer classes and programs, but a 2012 PMI study revealed that in its sample of participating universities, the first undergraduate program in project management began just twenty years ago, in 1995.   This leads me to the conclusion that many of today’s PMs—like me—made that transition as a somewhat natural progression over their careers. They transitioned from a more functional or technical responsibility, either by exhibiting traits that might “fit” the PM role or moved into it as a pure necessity: there was no one else available to do it.

So how do you position prospective PMs to move into their new roles feeling equipped and ready for primetime if they don’t have previous formal training? Baseline soft skills in communication, leadership, and team building are key, and although they can be taught and improved upon, they are inherent traits that must be consistently exhibited by every good PM. In terms of basic tools and techniques, such as requirements gathering and scheduling, investments in PM professional education are well worth the time and effort in order to understand operational process and best practices. To gain more specific insight on best practices for your own organization and industry, the obvious methods for onboarding include job shadowing, mentoring, and coaching by more experienced, on-staff PMs.

Those methods are tried and true, but for project sponsors or managers of PMs who would like to bolster their onboarding approach, I suggest 5 alternatives to test readiness and improve the skills of your project management talent pool:

  1. Explore technology-based project management simulation and gamification resources. There are a number of tools available that allow the new or even seasoned PM to test his or her decision-making skills and see the impact of their decisions on project success. AMA has recently partnered with Sauter Training and Simulation (STS) to offer a simulation-based seminar that allows participants to assess the impact of their decision making on key performance measurements, such as time, budget, product quality, risk management, and team motivation. Offering such tools allows prospective PMs the ability to test their decision-making skills in a “safe” environment before making them in the course of actual projects involving real stakeholders. Well-designed tools should be adaptable and relatable to your own project management landscape in order to be effective and provide productive, challenging, and even enjoyable team-building activities for your project management staff.
  2. Retrace pivotal or challenging situations from past projects, and review them with your new or prospective project managers. We always capture and document lessons learned from all major projects as a best practice, right? Well, maybe not in reality for today’s busy and under-resourced PM. There are obvious and good reasons for learning from past projects, especially for those that are repeated for the same stakeholders or have characteristics in common with past initiatives. However, even if you don’t consistently capture lessons learned, most PMs can easily recall stressful or “nightmare” situations requiring a decision that lead to a highly positive or an unfortunately negative outcome. Share the scenario with new PMs, and ask them, “What would you do?” The answer could be quite revealing and might provide intelligence for what the new PM should focus on. This could also be an effective strategy for interviewing prospective PMs.
  3. Role play “sticky” situations with difficult or demanding stakeholders. You may have heard it before, but in spite of the many baseline tools, techniques, and processes that may be available to PMs, a good 80-90% of their role is devoted to communication. Much of that time may be day-to-day interaction with the project team, running status meetings, and communicating results of user acceptance testing. However, the ability to work with an underperforming team member or to negotiate unreasonable scope change requests made by a difficult customer often distinguishes a great PM from an average one. You can have the new PM practice an upcoming challenging discussion to see how he or she performs, and coach appropriately to success.
  4. Initiate new project managers with smaller, non-client projects. Learning by doing can be a very effective approach to onboarding, and many of today’s PMs were initiated into their roles by being thrown “in the fire,” so to speak, with hopefully some level of direction, coaching, and mentoring. Based on initial experience(s), some level of refinement and improvement naturally happens as the PM gets more experience under his or her belt. There is obviously some level of risk if you assign a new PM a $10 million plus value project at the start. I find it very helpful to find an internal project for a new PM to manage, using all tools and processes that would be available on a project with a high level of exposure. Such projects that don’t affect external clients could be locating and integrating a new office supply vendor, coordinating an annual meeting of internal employees, or installing and training employees on a new software package being bought off the shelf. You can then debrief new PMs on how they did and what can be improved when they take on higher exposure projects.
  5. Have new project managers apply your methodologies to their personal projects. Similar to the previous tip, this approach allows PMs to apply best practices in an environment that won’t affect a major stakeholder or customer, and avoids risking a negative outcome because of lack of experience. Just like the doctor who ends up being a terrible patient, it surprises me how often seasoned, professional PMs don’t even think about applying project management processes for their personal projects. This approach works best if a contracted vendor is involved, and a beneficiary besides the PM is involved. The new PM can potentially use your project-planning and execution methodologies on personal initiatives, such as a major home improvement project, organizing a big family reunion, or a dream vacation to Paris. The PM can debrief the results to management, and hopefully draw parallels to business projects and lessons learned before he or she embarks on the first “real” or major client engagement.

The theme for all of the above tips is to practice a wide-ranging set of formal tools and techniques that work well in your PM environment, combined with practicing the crucial soft skills that make emerging and experienced PMs successful. These approaches also mitigate the risk of having less experienced PMs make mistakes that could negatively affect the relationships your enterprise has built with its important stakeholders. And finally, these approaches can bolster their personal confidence and ultimately improve their chances of success as they move into their new roles.

 

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About The Author

Ray Houdtzagers, PMP, is Learning Solutions Manager for AMA’s seminars on project management and purchasing. He has been with AMA for over 15 years, and has nearly 20 years of professional project management experience, primarily in the development of professional education programs for both classroom and multimedia-based delivery. He also currently serves as the head of the Project Management Office (PMO) for AMA’s USME seminar division.

2 Comments »

  1. avatar

    […] who neglect to orient an employee or postpone orientation may find themselves with a potentially effective employee whose work is starting to flounder. Such […]

  2. avatar

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE. VALUE+++. Thank you.

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