Being the PM Means You’re in Charge. Right?

I thought I was in charge at the beginning.  it makes sense, right? You’re the project lead. The person in charge, the “one throat to choke” as they say.  You’re responsible for everything – even things you can’t possibly control – like the quality of work done by every person on your team, even when they don’t report to you and have no interest in working on your project. You’re even responsible for what you client does – she misses a deadline which sets off a chain of events that makes the project late. It’s still your fault! In the project-based world, it doesn’t matter what happens. With the possible exception of  natural disaster, if something goes wrong, it’s the project managers’ fault.

That’s a lot of pressure.  You have to own the project, but you can’t do the whole thing yourself. Yes you develop the schedule and coordinate the meetings and all that, but you’re not the decider of everything. What you’re really in charge of is setting up an environment so your project team members can do what they do best. And so your client can feel secure that her project will come out perfectly in the end – which includes being on time, on budget, and resulting in a promotion (for her, not you).

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out. But when I did, it made a world of difference.  I sucked it up, admitted I wasn’t really in charge of anything (and yet responsible for everything) and that’s when things got better.

First, I worked a lot harder to make sure the people on the team were the right people. I fought the battles early to build a good team from the start. And “good” meant a variety of things depending on the situation – a certain set of skills, a positive attitude toward the project, enthusiasm to learn new things, compatibility with the client, ability to work crazy hours if needed – whatever it seemed like the project needed most.

Then, I did what ever I could to:

  • Involve the team in every stage of the project – from planning to design, development, implementation, and evaluation. I didn’t plan a thing without making sure I had input from the appropriate team members (in addition to the appropriate client stakeholders)
  • Communicate what was happening along the way. No more did I try to “protect” the team from things that weren’t important to them. Who was i to decide what wasn’t important to them? I told everybody everything and let them use the information as they saw fit
  • Encourage the team members to lead where they were strong – and support them when they needed it
  • Find help when necessary. If someone needed training, a mentor, or extra help getting work done, I found it for them.  It was so easy to just ask “Can you get this done or do you need help?”  It took awhile before people realized it wasn’t a sign of weakness to say they needed help. But once they did, it was a lot easier to end up scrambling and missing deadlines at the end
  • Be there to support when times were tough. When my team was working late to meet a deadline, I stayed. But I also stayed out of their way. If ordering pizza or making copies was all I could do to help, that’s what I did

At first I thought being a PM was all about managing the project schedule and the budget and the hours – and that was what made you in charge. But it turns out these “technical skills” are only a tiny part of the process. They’re important, absolutely. But its the easy part. Team development, stakeholder management, communication strategies, managing expectations, and delivering bad news…that’s the hard part. Funny how they don’t usually mention that when you sign up for the job!


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