CXO

5 survival tips for reluctant project managers

Not everyone is cut out, or wants to be, a project manager. Here are some tips for how to handle situations where you have to step up and take on that role anyway.

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Image: iStock/YakobchukOlena

There are situations where non-project managers may sometimes be asked to temporarily take on a project management role.

Here is an example:

There is a small system project underway and a highly-skilled systems programmer is working on the infrastructure and they need some help, so a less experienced person with some—but not enough—background, is assigned to work on the less complicated "grunt" tasks under the direction of the more senior person.

The senior system programmer, who is not a project manager, is asked to direct and to supervise the activities of the less experienced person because the regular project managers in IT don't have the technical experience to direct this work themselves.

This temporary project manager could be you if your background is in networking, storage, database, or on the system software side of IT. And if you have chosen this career path because you never wanted to be in management, being asked to serve as a temporary project manager with supervision responsibilities can present both challenges and opportunities.

SEE: Job description: IT project manager (Tech Pro Research)

Here are five tips if you are asked to assume the role:

1. Think about the team

Your first response to this request to manage could be a negative one, if you don't want to manage. Nevertheless, you should realistically look at your team's needs. Management could be coming to you as a last resort because there isn't anyone else qualified to do the work. If this is a short-term project and you are not being forced into a longer-term management role that you do no want, the best way to support your team is to take the assignment on. However, you should also clarify the scope and the duration of this assignment up front with senior management if you really don't want to be cast in a manager's role that could turn into a longer-term commitment.

2. Understand what you are committing to

If your career goal is to be a distinguished engineer or data scientist, before you begin a temporary project manager role, you should sit down with management to make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of the impermanent nature of the assignment you are about to assume. You should also document this discussion. In most cases, the documentation won't be needed, but if the short-term assignment begins to stretch out, you might have to remind management of the earlier conversation and what was agreed to.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

3. Align this assignment with your longer term goals

Everything I have talked about so far relates to professionals who absolutely don't want management careers—but there are also people undertake short-term project management responsibilities and decide they like it.

I know of one IT infrastructure person who had been a reigning guru in system architecture for over 20 years, and only had himself and his personal projects to worry about. Then, a short-term project need came up and he was asked to temporarily step in to manage a rookie co-worker. To his surprise, he really enjoyed the mentoring and was at a point in his career where he wanted to "give back" by sharing his knowledge. The working project manager role enabled him to do that by mentoring a less experienced person. At the same time, he continued doing the tech work he enjoyed. It was a win-win for everyone.

4. Be prepared to do more

Technical gurus I have personally known who also assumed "working" project manager roles consistently tell me that taking on these management roles doesn't reduce their normal technical workloads. So—expect your workloads to be incremented by your supervisory responsibilities. You will not see a reduction in what you are normally expected to produce as a technician.

SEE: How to succeed as a new IT manager (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

5. Be open to new opportunities

While it is relatively rare, I have seen some temporary project managers opt in for a technical management career. If you are one of these, you'll have to get used to others assuming parts of your technical workload. The reason is simple. Full-time management will demand that you take yourself away from some of the work you have been doing yourself while others whom you oversee, do the work.

One final note

Some people who've chosen more technical roles tend to be more introverted and engrossed in their tasks, and not particularly adept at communicating, documenting, or working with people. If you are one of these, the best step you can take is to avoid being placed in any type of project manager role. If you are forced into a short-term management role because of IT needs, the initial step you should take is to discuss and document the scope and duration of the assignment with management so everyone is on the same page.

On the other hand, being placed in a short-term project management role also has its benefits—even if you opt to stay on the technical side.

"I trained a junior person in the area of creating database schemas, and found the mentoring experience to be a refreshing break from the tedium of doing this work myself," said one experienced utility company DBA. "Now that the individual is trained, I don't have to worry about schema generation anymore. Instead, I can worry about overall data architecture for the company, which is where my focus really needs to be."

Also see:

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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