A successful project manager is like a conductor of a symphony orchestra. Image of an orchestra
Project management

How to be a successful project manager

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Rhona
12 September 2022

Getting your first job as a project manager is an exciting time! It’s a first step on a fulfilling and rewarding career journey.

It can also be scary and nerve wracking, with you wondering if you’re doing it right and worrying about bringing the project to a halt because of your inexperience. Having been there and felt the fear, I’ve put together this guide to help you become a successful project manager.

First things first. Remember you’re not alone. There are people inside and outside your organisation that are there to help and support you. They won’t let you fail!

What can you expect as a project manager?

You’ll be responsible for delivering at least one project.  Usually when you start  you’re given a relatively simple and small one, just to get you comfortable. Even if you’re given a huge complex beast as your first gig, just remember – the process doesn’t change – just the size of the work that needs to be done.

It’s your job to make sure that everything to do with the project happens when it’s supposed to.  We think of a project manager as the conductor of the orchestra. It’s your job to bring all the specialists together, at the right time to make the project work. Just like it’s a conductor’s job to bring all the musicians together to produce a piece of music. It’s not your job to do the actual work, that’s the team’s job!

When you’re a new project manager, as with any new job, it’s best to get to know the people before jumping in. Spend some time having meetings with your team, key stakeholders, steering committee and sponsors. You’ll  find you get better and more useful information over informal coffees than you will by reading screeds of documents.

On saying that, make sure you read the documents! There will be a few really good nuggets of information there. Pay particular attention to the business case, the risk and issues registers and the stakeholder matrix.

Another thing to keep in mind is that each organisation has their own way of managing projects, it could be waterfall, agile or a combination. You need to make sure that you familiarise yourself with the way they do things and stick to it – at least initially. Once you’re established you can push back if you need to.

So how does a successful project manager spend their day?

There’s no such thing as a typical day when you’re a project manager. There’s always something unexpected coming out of the woodwork. However, there are some tasks that are pretty much constant.

Emails

Most successful project managers will check their emails 1st thing in the morning.  It’s a good way to make sure you stay on top of any crises that happened overnight.  And let’s be honest here, there’s likely to be at least one fire that needs putting out before you do anything else.. Go through your emails and prioritise what needs to be responded to and when. Try and work through them in quiet spots during the day and  check your inbox just before leaving for anything urgent that might need attention.

Meetings

Successful project managers spend at least 40% of their time in meetings so it’s likely you’ll be in at least one meeting a day.

It’s a great idea to start the day in a briefing with your coordinator.

Discuss what actions, milestones and tasks are coming up, what’s due to be completed and anything that’s slipping.

Cover any urgent emails, phone calls or meetings that have appeared in the last day plus anything else that needs attention.

By the end of the meeting you’ll have a rough outline of the day. This isn’t set in stone as things will change but it gives you both something to work from.

Then move on to a quick standup meeting with the project team. Aim to keep this as short as possible. Each person gives an update on what they did the previous day, what they’re working on today and any problems they need help with.

Project status meetings are usually once a week, unless there’s a major development. We like to have a standard meeting agenda. It covers

  • task updates
  • schedule updates
  • budget updates
  • quality updates
  • risks
  • issues
  • assumptions
  • dependencies
  • staff matters (leave, rotations, issues)
  • vendor matters
  • customer matters
  • change management
  • stakeholder management

Switch up the topic order depending on where you are in the project. So, if you’re getting very close to a vendor milestone they’ll be at the top of the agenda but if you’re getting ready to transition to testing then staff matters relating to that will be higher.

Stakeholder meetings take up a huge part of your time. You could be meeting with a concerned senior manager, gathering requirements and agreeing deliverables with a client, sorting out resource requirements with different departments or attending quality review meetings.

Chasing deliverables 

Not only do you have to make sure you stick to your schedule, you also need to make sure your team sticks to theirs! This isn’t always easy, especially if you’re not the line manager of the people working on the project.

You need to have the negotiation skills of a top diplomat and the courage of a warrior! No, we’re not joking when we say that. We know of one project where the project manager didn’t keep on top of deliverables and found out 2 weeks before the project was due to deliver that a key component hadn’t been manufactured and it would take 3 months to fix! Needless to say there were a lot of VERY unhappy people that day, and no – it wasn’t one of our projects – thank goodness!

Reporting

An inevitable part of any successful project manager’s job is reporting. This is where you and your coordinator will be working very closely together.

You’ll be expected to produce and discuss a number of different reports at varying times of the month. This could include:

  • the overall progress of the project
  • detailed risk and issues reports
  • financial reports
  • resource forecasts
  • deliverable reports
  • milestone reports

What do you need to do to be effective in the job?

Now that we’ve given you a brief summary of a day in the life of a successful project manager, let’s take a look at some skills you’ll need to do to be effective in the role.

The first and by far the most important thing is – treat your coordinator well!  We can’t emphasise that enough. The relationship between the two of you is going to be one of the most important in your work life. If the two of you don’t get on it is going to make doing the job extremely difficult.

You’re going to need to be pretty unflappable. This isn’t a job for someone who gets frustrated easily or who can’t think on their feet. Life in a project is rarely stable and calm and if it is, it definitely doesn’t last long.

You need to be able to stand your ground but without being confrontational. As a project manager you’re going to have to negotiate for everything. Whether it’s getting something done in the agreed timeframe or asking for more money – it’s your job to get it!

You want to be an analytical thinker and good with numbers. We don’t mean accountant or PhD level but being able to grasp how budgets work and spot discrepancies quickly will be a distinct advantage.

Finally, you need to know how to switch off. Being a project manager is a really stressful job so being able to switch off and relax is vitally important. Make sure you take at least a small portion during the day away from the stresses of managing the project and once your work day is done, keep it done! That isn’t always easy or practical but if you make a habit of switching off at the end of the work day both your physical and mental health will be protected.

We hope you found these tips helpful – Good luck with your new career!

Psoda plug

If you’re looking for a flexible, easy to use tool to help you manage your projects, then look no further than Psoda. Sign up now for a free trial.

If you want more project management tips then check out our YouTube channel. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced project manager we have something for you. Our project management videos cover everything from funny videos to advanced project management techniques, tips, fundamentals, trends, top 10s and of course our own software.

 

Rhona Aylward avatar
Written by Rhona Aylward
Rhona is Deputy Everything Officer at Psoda, where she does everything except code. After starting life as a microbiologist she moved into PMO leadership roles around the world before settling in New Zealand with her family.

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