Congrats 🎉 You’ve just landed your first project management position.
The excitement is real and for all the good reasons. You’re going to meet professionals from different industries, bring tangible results to your company, travel the world to oversee the development of certain projects, and get paid well on top of it.
Half-way through this thought train and a small voice starts to creep in:
“What methodology should I go with?”
“How am I going to deal with difficult team members?”
“How will I manage risks?”
These are all healthy questions that signal you’re dead serious about this profession.
To overcome them, polish your project management skills and advance your career in the fastest way possible, go find a mentor.
The benefits of having a mentor
A mentor is someone with experience that has already been through what you’re dealing with. The “been there, done that, got the T-shirt” type, a role model that provides balance during daily operations and crisis moments. Having one will help you:
- Avoid rookie mistakes – If a mentor considers that your actions as a project manager can put the project at risk, they will offer guidance. This often comes in the form of advice on how similar issues were handled in the past or potential courses of action. Namely, when to apply a methodology by the book and when to change it to fit the current project circumstances. Because of this, they can better explain the project’s business case and act as a filter for your ideas.
- Get honest, impartial feedback – Think of a mentor as a confident advisor. One that knows all your flaws and weaknesses, yet still encourages you to push on. So don’t be afraid to ask silly questions or hide your mistakes. What you’ll get in return is constructive criticism on the areas that you need to improve.
To encourage a relaxed atmosphere, mentoring sessions should be confidential and not used in performance reviews.
- Identify and improve your skill areas – You might have all the necessary PMP® certifications, but lack essential soft skills like active listening or conflict resolution. Or maybe you just rely too much on a given methodology. The point is that no matter how skilled you are, there’s still room for improvement. A mentor’s role is to help you recognize these areas, so you can achieve your long-term career goals much faster. They’ll recommend opportunities for advancement, courses, events, anything they think will move you in the right direction.
So you’ve decided that you’ll search for a mentor, which is an important step in itself. Perhaps you even have a leader in your mind already. Someone who has had their fair share of success. Great!
Don’t assume though that just because they’re at the top, they’ll be able to explain how they got there.
Before thinking about how you can find a mentor, evaluate yourself by writing down your needs and wants. The better you understand these, the more likely you’re going to act and monitor your progress in time. What are your career goals? What skills do you need to advance them? How well do you respond to constructive criticism? Can you execute on this deliberately, without giving in to other pressing claims?
Your personality type also plays a role in this equation. Being pessimistic might help you set up more realistic budget estimations, but at the same time spill into the team’s morale and affect their performance. Luckily, you’ll have your mentor aside who can address this and identify opportunities where you encounter hardships.
Where to find a mentor
According to Sante Vergini, Agile Transformation Lead at Remote Staff Support Solutions:
“A mentor can be anyone that resonates with your values and principles, and who will become the mascot of your goals. This person doesn’t have to be in the project management community, but rather someone that inspires and motivates you to be as successful as they are, and more importantly, revered as a leader by others. It could be a person who is still alive or someone from a century ago whose writings and events inspire you. ”
Sure, books are an invaluable resource. But if you’re searching for intangible knowledge, the type that can only be transferred from person to person, then choose someone who can share their success stories, frustrations, and failures with you. Someone who’s in it for the long run and willing to support you both in your professional and personal development. Where can you find a mentor though?
In your own company. See if there’s a formal mentoring program and ask your manager or PMO to match you with a mentor by taking your needs and wants into account. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you’d like to switch in case you don’t feel that “spark” in the first 1-2 sessions. No one should take it personally. After all, mentoring is a long-term activity based on trust and a strong bond between mentors and mentees.
If there’s no formal program, then look out for other experienced individuals in your company that could play this role. A word of advice: don’t consider your direct managers as potential mentors, as you’ll need to share with them personal aspects of your life and work. This will make it hard to draw a line and be objective when it comes to performance reviews.
For help from outside, check out the Project Management Institute (PMI®)’s directory of chapters that are close to your city. Chapters are local platforms for project management professionals to come together, interact, and exchange ideas. For a small entry fee, you’ll learn how to approach new challenges from people who’ve faced similar obstacles in the past, gain access to job opportunities, and earn the much needed professional development units (PDUs) to maintain your PMP® certification.
Coaches might also turn out to be a viable choice. They’re costly though and focus on your short-term goals, a.k.a. the performance-related ones, which can be addressed in a couple of sessions.
How to nurture a mentoring relationship
Now that you’ve chosen your mentor and have already clicked with each other, it’s time to get to the actual work.
To make sure that you get the most out of your mentoring relationship, follow the next 4 steps:
- Be methodical – Even if you’re part of a formal program, it’s your responsibility to initiate the relationship. Set up a meeting with your mentor and draft a plan like you do with all your projects. Include in it the goals and expectations that you both have: when to meet, how often, the issues that are going to be covered during those meetings, and how progress will be evaluated. Remember to use this document as a project plan and come back to it whenever you have doubts about your journey or have achieved a goal.
- Create a development plan – Along with the previous plan, you should also create an individualized development plan. This one should cover the knowledge, skills, and experience that you need to acquire and the ways in which you’ll do it. Your mentor will help you identify them and recommend any resources they think will help you bridge the gap.
- Own your learning – Just because you have a mentor, it doesn’t mean that they’ll do the work for you. Their role is more of an advisor who’s already walked in your shoes. Because of that, they’re cautious when it comes to giving advice. They’d rather point you in the right direction and let you own your learning process than give you the solution on a silver plate.
- Meet with your mentor when necessary – Mentors should be able to set aside time for their mentees and assist them during key moments like budget estimations, resource scheduling, risk management, or crises. Meet them face-to-face at least once a week to brief them up about the current status of your projects. If it’s too much, then set aside a time for a formal meeting, during which you’ll talk only the most pressing matters. The rest of the not so urgent issues can be handled via email or video calls.
I hope this article will give you the right amount of courage to search for and find a mentor. Even if you already have 2-3 years of project management experience under your belt. This stage of your career is perhaps the fuzziest one. You might have doubts in terms of what path to continue or how to better internalize all the knowledge you’ve gained so far. A mentor will prove priceless.
You’ll still make mistakes along the way, even with them by your side. The key is to understand that climbing the ladder in project management is an experience in itself. Take ownership of it, prepare accordingly, and surround yourself with the best promoters.
Who knows what fruitful benefits will emerge from a nurtured mentoring relationship?
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