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How To Succeed as a New Project Manager

by Carol Milano

"The most important thing for a new project manager to keep in mind is to understand your employer's expectations, and to make them visible," advises Professor Linda Nozick, Director of Cornell University's program in Systems Engineering. "Start out by thinking about what you're getting into. What's the condition of the project? Can you get what you need to do a great job?" "Make your own assessment to be sure this project is doable," Nozick explains. "Do your homework! Find out the existing company knowledge about this project, all the background information, any relevant documents, and the current thinking."

Some key questions:

  • Exactly what does your employer expect?
  • When is the date they want it?
  • Will you have access to all the needed resources and staff members?
  • What is being promised to the client or co-workers?

Usually, projects are part of a larger program. For example, if your assignment is to design a car part, someone is overseeing the entire car, or a bigger component. Identify the subject matter experts on your team, so that all of you can sit down with the program manager and discuss the project. "If this isn't a brand-new team, ask what's happened so far, and where stumbling blocks might be," Nozick suggests. If a previous project manager has been promoted, go talk to them.

If this project had not succeeded, was the original commitment unrealistic, the funding insufficient, or were the resources too limited? Depending on the project's history, you may need to make adjustments or reassignments. "With team members who are older than you, remember that age is just one dimension," Nozick emphasizes, "If you're assigned to an ongoing project, ask to be involved in renegotiating the deliverables. Always share all the goals with all your team members. Make sure that no one working for you (or for your customer) is surprised."


Nozick stresses knowing your role in the organization. If the project manager has direct customer contact, simply introduce yourself, very courteously. You could say, "I'll be taking over the project and I look forward to working with you. Please feel free to contact me."

How can you tell if you're succeeding? "Are you making your milestones and deliverables? Are your team members generally happy? If they're learning, expanding their own skills, and gaining confidence, then the project is likely to be moving along well, also," says Nozick.

A new project manager may be nervous, having never been in this role before. "You may not yet know the 'politics' or behavioral issues of dealing with team members ( even if you've been one) and the people you report to," Nozick observes. "Project managers have to work with everyone on their team. Keep the right perspective -- it's irrelevant whether you have the same interests or lifestyle outside of work. Having team members outside the U.S. presents multi-cultural dimensions. People may have different ideas of how to interact and communicate. Always respect those differences."

Nozick's observations reflect a trend. "I'm receiving an increasing number of requests to help teams understand differences in work styles among team members," reports Lenny Borer, a communications trainer in Portland, Oregon. He's developing new exercises to improve interactions among staff members working on projects together. "For many people, it's eye-opening to realize that the 'personality clashes' they have with other team members are really based on classic, predictable style differences," Borer finds. "They're glad to learn specific ways of flexing their own style to work with someone who seems different. One approach is trying to modify 'the golden rule': think about treating others the way they want to be treated. That isn't necessarily the same as the way you'd want to be treated."

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