I never planned to go into Project Management. I was determined, at the age of six, that I would be the President of the United States. I blame Ronald Reagan. It was 1986, and I was in Mrs. Illig’s first-grade class. All of the students in 1st and 2nd grade gathered around a TV on a rolling cart to watch the Space Shuttle Challenger launch. I remember the excitement. Mrs. Illig told us all about Christa McAuliffe, the woman scheduled to become the first teacher in space. We were ready to cheer her on. And then 73 seconds after liftoff, our cheers became cries as we watched the Challenger explode.
That evening, after the explosion, Reagan addressed the nation. And now, over thirty years later, I still reflect on his words. Reagan called out to the schoolchildren of America. He said, “I know this is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
Reagan was both empathetic and strong as he spoke to a nation reeling from this tragedy. He showed the world what it meant to be a leader. Even at six, I realized I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be a leader, and I thought that meant being President. I was wrong.
In 2002, I graduated from NC State with a degree in communications. I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do next. I just knew that at 22, I had rent to pay but no job. I still felt that I had leadership in my blood, and I needed to find a job that would allow me to grow. My career began on a project team. The path that led me from there to where I am today—capital ‘M’ Management—was an unexpected one. I got here without a plan and without much guidance but I Learned some very important lessons along the way.
Moving onwards and upwards
Bravery. This is a word rarely attributed to career progression. Yet, it takes courage to change the trajectory of your career. That’s because the work that you do to make a living takes up an insane amount of your time and energy. That’s not a bad thing if you love your job, but shifting in a new direction, regardless of the circumstances is an incredibly daunting task.
For some, being a Project Manager is the best of the best. Some people have no need or desire to switch gears or move up. These are the people that find passion in managing complex projects, and enjoy the challenge of a difficult client. A project plan that’s shifted and needs revisions is their idea of a good time. They don’t feel complete without a checklist by your side.
Moving into leadership positions places you under many watchful eyes—both above and below you. Your actions will be scrutinized, so it’s important to pay attention to what you say and do in front of others and how it may be interpreted.
For others, once you feel like you’ve conquered the realm of project management, you begin to wonder what your next challenge will be. For these people, the day to day of project management starts to become a chore. They no longer get excited chasing down deliverables and tracking, and coordinating, and following-up. These people want to leverage the skills they’ve learned as a Project Manager and take their career to the next level.
For me, that was becoming a team lead. It was my first taste of management—I call it management light. I wasn’t exactly the boss of anyone, but I shaped my team; I helped define our approach and processes. The nature of the role gives you a glimpse into the bigger world of management.
Let’s be clear, becoming a Team Lead doesn’t mean you get to stop managing projects. A lot of times, it just becomes more responsibility on top of your regular job. But I loved being a team lead. That’s when I found my voice. Instead of being stuck in a silo blinded by my own work, I got to learn what everyone else on the team was working on. I began coaching them on how to handle difficult situations. I started to learn about the gaps in our processes we could improve—and not just from the delivery side of things, but throughout the company. It was at this point I saw the direction I needed to go.
Up until then, I never really had a manager. Yes, I reported to someone; we all do. But the people in charge of my career path weren’t PMs, nor had they ever been. They didn’t fully understand my role, my skills, or my goals. I’d never had a mentor. No one taught me how to be a project manager or a team lead. I had just been learning as I went. As a result, I messed up constantly. But I learned from each of those mistakes, put on a brave face, and kept going. The day I realized how much I was forced to figure things out on my own was the day I realized that I wanted to move into management. I wanted to give others the help and guidance and support that I never really had.
What they don’t tell you
My first taste of management came from a promotion. I had been a team lead and senior PM for two years. My team of PMs were some of my best friends within the company. They felt like family. We would share stories with one another and brainstorm together. That all changed when I was thrust into the role of Director of Project Management. I went from being a part of the team to being a suit. I was no longer a friend, I was the boss.
And once again I quickly realized just how much I didn’t know. Managing people is nothing like managing a project. Managing projects can be made easier with tools and processes. You start each new project with a clean slate and each new client relationship starts off in that pleasant honeymoon phase. Projects come with clear expectations, you can mitigate risks, and pivot when things aren’t going well.
Managing people is very different. I’m not going to candy coat this for you—being a manager is hard. The title (and new office) may seem glamorous, but those things come with significant new responsibilities. Honestly, it isn’t for everyone. But if you are heading in that direction there are a few things I’ll tell you that I wish someone would have told me.
Being a manager doesn’t mean you know how to manage
The biggest misconception about managers is that they know how to deal with people. Guess what? We don’t. Most managers never receive formal training, so we wing it. Good management doesn’t just happen. It can take years for a manager to learn how to manage well (and some never learn how). However, managers can also have the single largest impact on your company. We’re the ones in charge of employee performance and satisfaction. We’re responsible for productivity, efficiency, turnover, and the overall health of our department. For new managers, there is a lot at stake and a lot to take in.
I approached this massive hurdle by finding a mentor who could offer help and thoughtful advice. And I was intentional about finding someone that I could learn from—someone who knew and understood the things I didn’t. When I first moved into management, I found the people side came easy to me, but I was struggling with the operational part of the job. I didn’t have experience determining overall revenue and marginal impact, but these were things I was supposed to report on. After some careful thought, I decided the best person to help me would be the president of our company. He had run several different companies before ours and clearly knew how to run a business. I had a weekly one-on-one scheduled with each person on my team and so I did the same thing with him. I used this time to ask questions, weight options, and gain valuable insight into how our business ran, and what I could do to improve it. Having him as a mentor helped me grow as a manager.
I also learned that a good mentor doesn’t have to work with you. In fact, sometimes it’s actually better to talk to someone that isn’t even a part of your company. This became very clear when I first had to deal with a team member that wasn’t performing very well. I had tried all sorts of things to help mentor this project manager, but nothing seemed to be working. Eventually, I reached out to some people that I met through the Digital PM Summit and asked for help. I learned how they motivate their teams and they suggested ways to address my situation. Through them, I received instant and excellent feedback without having to reveal who the person was. They had ideas I would never have considered because I was so caught up in the problem and so close to the person struggling.
Thanks to their advice, this project manager eventually became the leader of the team. And I learned that asking for help doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you understand what it takes to be a successful leader.
You’re going to have to fire someone, and it sucks
Taking someone’s job away is one of the hardest things managers have to do (even when the employee deserves it). If you think that firing someone isn’t going to bother you, I think that management may not be your thing. Firing someone is hard. It’s okay to feel sick about it. That’s a sign that you empathize with the people who work for you. A successful manager is both strong enough to conduct a firing and human enough to understand how truly upsetting it can be.
I’m not going to candy coat this for you—being a manager is hard. The title (and new office) may seem glamorous, but those things come with significant new responsibilities.
The first time I had to fire someone, I was sick to my stomach. I had been working with this project manager for quite some time. We had weekly one-on-ones to talk and find ways to improve her performance, but nothing seemed to stick. The final straw involved her lying right to my face. At that point, my trust in her had vanished and I knew I had no other choice. Fortunately, I had a great mentor (the president of our company) and was able to go to him for advice.
He told me the best way to handle firing someone is to stick to the facts and keep it as brief as possible. You can’t cushion the blow of getting fired. As much as you may want to make the conversation feel casual, or justify or over-explain your reasoning, you can’t. Your job is to inform employees what’s happening, what they can (and should) expect, and why they’re losing their job. If employees want to ask a lot of questions or become emotional, suggest they take a week or two to process what has happened. If they still want to talk after that, you can do so without emotions or judgements.
Interviewing new people is more than just asking questions
No one tells you what interviewing is really like or how it’s supposed to work. It’s more than just sifting through resumes and sitting across the desk from someone, asking them questions. I had been interviewed before, but I was surprised at how little I knew. How much do you trust your gut to guide you? Which qualities are more important than others? They don’t tell you that hiring someone with the best skills is different from hiring someone who will do a great job. They don’t tell you what the others things are that you need to know and consider when choosing your next employee. And they certainly don’t tell you how much harder your job as a manager is going to be if you hire the wrong person.
I learned that the hard way after my first hire as a manager. I’d been a part of the interview process multiple times in the past but this time I had the final say. This time, that hire would be a reflection of me. My first mistake was basing too much on a referral. A close friend of mine had worked with this person for a while and identified her as a rock star. I brought her in, had her meet with the team, but instead of going through all of my typical questions, I treated her more like a friend than a potential hire. It felt like she checked all the boxes and my friend vouched for her so that seemed good enough. It wasn’t.
Looking back, there were signs I should have picked up on. Though she had worked in an agency environment, she didn’t have as much experience as I thought. Once she started, I quickly realized she wasn’t as senior as my friend led me to believe. When I hired her, I thought she would immediately be able to run large scale projects with little supervision. That wasn’t the case. I found myself constantly providing extra direction, correcting her course, and offering unsolicited (but necessary) feedback. I couldn’t trust her to do things on her own, and her resulting frustration was affecting the clients and reflecting poorly on me.
I tried to support her. I wanted to become the rock star I was told she was. In the end, she lasted a year. Now, I make sure to ask the right questions in each interview and walk through different client scenarios. Now, I trust my gut more than any person’s referral. And I don’t hire people with the assumption that they can jump right in. Instead, I plan a full onboarding strategy to make sure each new hire can and will be successful in their role.
You’re the face of your company, even when you don’t want to be
As a manager, you also have to wear the company’s badge of honour, even if you don’t agree with the decisions that are made above you. New managers (and even some not-so-new managers) struggle with this. It’s hard to be in a position where you can’t always say what you think. This too, I learned the hard way.
At one point in my career, people made the decision to eliminate one whole part of our business. The management team and I weren’t given a lot of insight into why we were making the decision, just that it needed to be done. However, I knew that eliminating this part of our business meant two things. One, we would have to cut our client list and stop working with some companies that had been a big part of our business for many years. And two, we were going to have to select people to lay off. Coming to terms with these things was especially hard because I didn’t understand the reasons behind this decision. Why would we remove paying clients? And why would we do so knowing that it would result in people losing their jobs? All I really knew was that I didn’t have a say in the matter and that I had to lay off a close friend.
Being a leader means accepting that some things are out of your hands. Some things are hard to understand and sometimes painful things happen. I don’t have a lesson to offer here. All I can say is that moving into leadership positions places you under many watchful eyes—both above and below you. Your actions will be scrutinized, so it’s important to pay attention to what you say and do in front of others and how it may be interpreted. The best leaders can show both strength and empathy in times of crisis.
There’s no such thing as perfect
When it comes to management, there’s no such thing as perfect. I know now that I’m not—and never will be—a perfect manager, but it took a lot of time to figure that out. I used to place unrealistic goals on myself and would consider a failure when I fell short. I used to feel the need to have all the answers. I used to think I could solve every problem. Now, I focus less on the goals and more on the process of trying to get there. True leaders are always learning. They know when to ask for help and they understand that there is an important lesson in almost every failure. These are things you need to accept as a manager and things you need to make sure your employees understand as well.
And perhaps most importantly, managers have to be ready to deal with conflict. Just as there is no perfect manager, there is no perfect team or workplace. Interpersonal issues, compensation, recognition, cost-cutting, layoffs—there’s never a shortage of emotionally charged issues in the modern workplace; it’s a breeding ground for conflict.
You can earn your team’s respect by addressing these problems quickly, fairly, and without letting emotion drive your decision-making. That’s my approach. I’m very open with my team. I let them know that I’m transparent and that I tend to address issues head-on. As a result, every team member knows what they can expect from me and I know what to expect from them. They know I won’t be mad if they mess up, but they know I will be mad if I find out about it from someone else.
When it comes right down to it, the manager is still a part of the team. That means the best managers are flexible, adaptable, and attuned to their environment. I’ve learned that it’s important to listen both to yourself and to your team. I recently joined a new company. I came in at a weird time; they had just been acquired and it seemed like almost everything was changing. As stressful as it was coming into this situation, it also enabled me to look at new ways of looking at things; I wasn’t afraid to shift the paradigm because I didn’t know the old way of doing things. Just because “this is the way we’ve always done it here,” doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. So I took the opportunity to listen to my new team so I could understand how they wanted to do things. They knew the work best so I could let them become the source of process improvement ideas.
Becoming a strong, empathetic leader doesn’t happen overnight. We all have to work extremely hard, we have to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we have to figure out what works best for our teams. Moving into management is a process of exploration and discovery. Sometimes it will be difficult. Sometimes it will be painful. That’s an unavoidable fact for those of us who want to expand your horizons. And as I learned a long time ago, the future belongs to the brave.