In many firms, professional development for project managers ends when the basic training class is over. But IT managers can continue to improve the performance of project managers after the training is over by developing and implementing a formal mentoring process.

If the mentoring program is designed and implemented with care, it can increase the overall skill level of the project management (PM) staff dramatically—and in a relatively short time.

In a formal program, the senior project managers (mentors) are assigned to help the newer project managers (learners) in an organized way. In this article, I’ll outline how to develop a well-designed mentoring program that will foster building a “community of practice” among your project managers, boost the adoption of methodologies and business practices, and ultimately lead to fewer project problems down the road.

Getting started
Before you consider a formal mentoring program for your firm, make sure the following three elements are in place:

  • Clearly delineated roles/job descriptions for the levels of project managers
  • A formal project management methodology required for use within the company
  • An IT leadership commitment

You need the job descriptions for the different management levels to clarify the scope of deliverables and responsibility of the project manager. For example, a PM Level 1 within one firm may manage small projects (less than six months or less than $100K cost) within a single function or department. A PM Level 4 may manage complex client projects that are global in nature, last longer than a year, and have budgets in excess of $5 million.

The formal project management methodology is necessary to provide a clear, unambiguous description of the deliverables the project manager should be able to produce. While there is some subjectivity in the evaluation of the deliverables (is this project plan complete, and does it address the needs of the project?), you need to use objective criteria as often as possible. The learners should be able to ask the mentors for advice on constructing their deliverables and package some set of deliverables for a formal evaluation by the mentors at agreed-upon intervals.

Commitment is necessary for all aspects in successful project management, and mentoring programs are no exception. You need to be careful to scope the nature of the commitment as longer term, certainly beyond a quarter or two. Why? Individuals learn at different rates and projects progress at different rates, so there is little guarantee that an IT manager can ask 10 Level 1 project managers to complete 15 assigned deliverables within one calendar year. The mentoring program itself needs to be engaged with all the participants on a fairly steady basis, to gather feedback and improvements as they are suggested.

The mentoring program and process
At a minimum, you will need to document:

  • The overall mentoring process (including entry and exit criteria)
  • The roles for mentors, learners, and the learner’s manager
  • A learning contract between the learner and the mentor

The overall mentoring process should address these topics:

  • An overview of the process
  • Qualifications for becoming a learner
  • Qualifications for becoming a mentor
  • An “entry point” (For example, is the process open and ongoing, or are mentors and learners started off in batches, at certain times of the year?)
  • An “exit point” (For example, what are the criteria for exiting the program. Is it dependant on a learner “graduating” from a PM level 1 to a PM level 2? Or does your firm want to focus on PM skills only and not job levels or promotions?)

The defined roles for mentors, learners, and IT managers are critical. The key points revolve around confidentiality and access to information.

My preference is to consider all conversations and information between the mentor and the learner as confidential. Feedback from the mentor is also confidential. When the mentor performs a formal assessment, it should be discussed with the learner first and, when agreed upon, shared with that person’s manager. In this scenario, the mentor and the learner can discuss project management as colleagues, without oversight and evaluation by the formal management team.

Whatever you decide for your organization, make sure the issues around confidentiality are carefully thought out and clearly documented.

The learning contract is a document that describes the nature of the mentor and learner relationship. It is very much like a scope statement in project management and should include such topics as:

  • What are the key outcomes (deliverables)?
  • What are the success criteria?
  • How long should the engagement take to complete?
  • What is the communications plan?
  • How and when are the learner and mentor going to communicate?

Once you have wrestled with the issues above, the rest of the process is pretty straightforward. Here’s a short description of what should follow:

  • Design and document the mentorship program.
  • Secure management approval.
  • Identify and recruit mentors.
  • Identify and recruit learners.
  • Conduct a kickoff event.
  • Run the program or a pilot program.
  • Debrief the learners.
  • Incorporate the learning and feedback into the PM structure.
  • Continue the mentor program.

Valuable lessons learned
Once the key issues are ironed out, you should expect good results from the mentoring program. Here are some tips I have learned in implementing a formal PM mentoring program.

Choose mentors with their specific skills and strengths in mind. Just because someone is a PM level 3, don’t assume that he is the best project planner in the world. Rather, you should pick mentors for very specific skills. For example, look for someone highly skilled in client relationship management to pair with a learner who is managing her first project for an external client.

Put a structure around the mentor’s role and document the mentor’s learning. My first pass at a mentoring program focused more on the learning experience for the learner. But mentors should also learn a lot from the process, and it’s important to document whatever the mentor learns along the way.

I also suggest the following action items:

  • Document a learner’s learning and package it as part of the performance review.
  • Formally request improvements to the methodologies in use at the firm.
  • Create ways to share learning gained within the firm.
  • Communicate the benefits to the management team.
  • Quantitatively, you can measure skill levels increasing over time. You should be able to measure improving project results over time.
  • Qualitatively, you may choose to share anonymous excerpts of participant feedback, such as, “I’m glad I was in the mentoring program. We avoided a major disaster on my project because my mentor helped me out of a jam.” Documenting such statements helps to convince senior management of the need for the program.

In implementing a formal PM mentoring program, an IT manager can not only boost his PM staff’s capabilities and skill sets, he can reduce potential project headaches and enrich his department’s capabilities as well as the entire organization’s.