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Why every project manager needs a mentor

Why every project manager needs a mentor

Good mentoring is priceless and is something that your people never forget, says Colin Ellis

When I got my first project management job, I got lucky. I got to work for someone who was prepared to show me the right way to do things.

I had no idea what project management was and had been hired on my ability to build relationships, so to say that I needed help was an understatement.

1997 was a time before it became fashionable to read about all this stuff in a book and assume you could do it. It was also a time when the internet wasn’t really a thing you could turn to. Instead, you looked to those people who had delivered things before.

I had questions. Lots of them. Particularly around where to start, how to overcome difficult people, what techniques to employ to build a plan and how to manage risk.

We were on a tight schedule to complete a number of geographically diverse projects in the two and a half years we had until December 31, 1999. I was mildly panicking about my role in that.

Not only did my mentor (as I recognise him now) provide me with the knowledge to do the things I needed to do, he encouraged me to read about other things (in the library, remember those?!) at the weekends.

He would demonstrate the right way to talk to people, build my confidence by accentuating the positives of my work and would provide honest feedback on the mistakes that I made.

He was never judging, nor do I recall a time he ever lost his temper with me and at the end of our working time together not only was I a good project manager, but I was also a better me too.

Every project manager needs a mentor.

There is lots to do to improve the image of project management. To move it from one of arrogance and blame to one of humility, humanity and success. Good mentors can help your people do this.

Mentoring isn’t something that can be read about in books. It’s anecdotal and can only be found in hearts and minds. It’s someone else’s experience, enjoyment, frustration, success, and failure. It's the sum of the personalities that they have dealt with in the situations they have overcome.

It’s important that your pair your project managers with the right person as not everyone can be a mentor.

In her book Think Great: Be Great, Lailah Gifty Akita breaks a mentor down as follows:

M = Motivator

E = Empowers

N = Nurture

T = Teacher

O = Originator

R = Role model

What I love about this model are the final two letters as most people think that mentors are just people who have ‘been there and done that.’ A good mentor is more about what they’re continuing to do now, rather than what they did in the past.

They’re pushing your people to try new things and adopt new ways of behaving and, in every way, they are people that project managers should look up to and aspire to be. They understand the new generation, the new methods and those things that are important in our world today and build them all into their feedback and approaches.

Mentoring is now valued by CIOs and senior leaders; it’s seen as a good use of training budgets as opposed to the traditional ‘send them on a course’ approach. Good mentoring is an investment (of time and money) which is why you should choose yours carefully.

Steven Spielberg said: ‘The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.’

More and more CIOs and organisations are building project management communities of practice to share ideas and introduce new concepts or ways of behaving.

I’m working with three organisations this year to run monthly project management mentoring clinics around specific topics, which provide those who attend with advice, encouragement, techniques and information to collaboratively build capability around getting things done.

In his article, What’s keeping project managers from the c-suite, Bruce Harpham talks about IBM’s approach to mentoring.

“IBM did not rely on knowledge management software alone to share project management wisdom. The company actively encouraged project management classes and mentoring,” he said.

Organisations such as the Project Management Institute and the Australian Institute of Project Management run mentoring programs for their members and there are many independent mentors in the marketplace.

A good way for project managers to find one would be to ask connections in their networks for recommendations or approach people whose work and behaviours you admire. Similarly, CIO should seek recommendations from their peers.

Remember though, just because a person has experience doesn't make them a role model with original ideas that project managers can use.

Mentors should be interviewed before they start, with project managers taking time to run through Lailah’s model and asking them questions such as ‘how do you motivate your mentees? What original ideas do you have that may help me? How will you ensure that I'm being the best person that I can be?

Good mentoring is priceless and is something that your people never forget, despite the passing of time.

What are you doing to ensure that your project managers have access to people who can make them better at what they do and who they are?

Colin Ellis runs his own project management and leadership practice and works with organisations to improve their ability to get things done. His first book The Conscious Project Leader is available for pre-order here and you can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter.

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