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9 Lessons for Beginning Project Managers

Are you new to project management or considering a career in the field? If you’re thinking about becoming a project manager or advancing in your career, a good first step is understanding what makes a successful project manager. For expert advice, we reached out to Tony Oliver, a highly experienced PMP® credential holder and an instructor in our Project Management Certificate Program. With more than 20 years in the field, he’s come a long way since he first became a project manager and has learned some valuable insights over that time.

Here are nine lessons from Oliver that every new project manager should learn:

1. Don’t “fake it until you make it.”

The better phrase is “keep trying until you make it.” Project management is both art and science, with every day bringing a different mix to the equation. It’s OK not to know some things, or not to be aware of tools and techniques. Focus on being cognizant of what you don’t know and endeavor to learn it. Early on in my career, I had to devise a test plan for a large project. While I knew how to test at a tactical level, crafting an end-to-end plan was outside my comfort zone. So, I approached senior colleagues to review their prior efforts, giving me a baseline to prevent me from spinning my wheels.

2. Be observant.

Notice how people react in meetings, what questions they ask, how they connect different elements into responses and analysis. Not all communication is verbal, and a lot can be learned from stances and postures.

3. Don’t stop learning.

Have an inquisitive mind. The PMBOK™ looks intimidating, but memorizing it is not the answer. Understanding how to apply its contents is the true goal. This will come from practice and you will recognize that new project management best practices will arise over time. Every project manager should also be proficient in Microsoft Excel. Learning pivot tables gave me instant credibility, but teaching it to others raised my group’s collective output.

4. Acknowledge the bad but seek the good.

You will encounter some awful meetings and situations. Don’t ignore reality by being a “Pollyanna,” but don’t adopt a perennially pessimistic viewpoint, either. The best project managers are capable of simultaneously contemplating contradictory viewpoints while identifying opportunities among the threats.

5. Embrace all channels of communication.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to communicating. An email status update may serve as a baseline, but talking to others via instant message, phone call or even at the water cooler will add context to written information.

6. Walk around more.

There’s no better way to learn the details than to see work being performed in action. Get to know the departments in the same building because the work intertwines in both visible and hidden ways. Otherwise, you’ll miss a lot of the context. I recently worked on a project that had hundreds of thousands of data points, but my analysis needed the storytelling that only close observation could offer and the grasp of the why to accompany the what. By engaging with those most familiar with the data, I was able to round out my analysis.

7. Make time for risk.

This is not about seeking it out, but rather about preparing for it. Fully eliminating risk is rarely possible, but you will earn accolades from anticipating and tackling it headfirst. Think of it as an extra layer of preparation. While working for a large technology company, I called out a product transition that could be jeopardized not just by manufacturing issues (the focus of executive attention) but also by misalignment with our customers’ procurement personnel. The observation earned me a training assignment, which unlocked my passion for teaching.

8. Don’t let intimidation get the best of you.

Want more lessons on how to be an effective project manager?

Check out our online courses where you will get in-depth, practical training in how to effectively manage projects. Learn More

The vice-presidents may have fancy offices, but they are human beings. Don’t smile nervously while riding the elevator. Instead, ask questions to showcase your curiosity and genuine interest. While you’re at it, don’t forget to share what you’ve learned with the interns; you were in their shoes not too long ago!

9. Project management is not binary.

Even if you are not leading a project, you can contribute to it. Understand your role (Analyst? Lead? Tester?) and how it interacts with others. Seek rotations within projects to expand your scope. A chance assignment in business continuity (no one else volunteered to write the department’s plan) opened new doors for me and eventually set me on the road to Six Sigma expertise. Where others saw busywork, I noticed an opportunity to learn about other groups and their connection to mine, strengthening the relationships when the department’s plan needed to be implemented.

About the Author

Tony Oliver has two decades of experience in a variety of roles, including project manager, business analyst and change management specialist. Leveraging his project management and Six Sigma certifications, he is currently a senior manager with Aetna, a CVS Health Company, and has experience as a peer and career advisor and mentor.

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