Nurture the new project manager

Can you imagine a subordinate lending a sympathetic ear to his newly promoted supervisor? What would he say? "Well, boss, I see that you're having a difficult time adjusting to your new power. That must be tough. I can really empathize with your difficulties. How can I help?"

Not going to happen. New IT project managers never get this sort of support. It's much more common that they get grudging compliance and whispered resentments. Yet it's a time when they need support more than ever.

Bookstores overflow with books on being a manager, but rarely do they discuss the difficult transition of becoming a manager.

Whether you're managing new managers or are a first-time project manager, pay close attention to the period of transition from individual contributor to manager. Becoming a manager requires more than just learning a new set of skills; it requires a redefinition of self.

Two of the most common problems that plague first-time managers are attitudes they have toward their old job and their new one.

"Just let me do it."

The first problem is an inability to delegate. We all learn to derive at least part of our satisfaction from feelings of competence. We develop skills that allow us to accomplish tasks and then feel good about those achievements. We are rewarded for our competence with money, praise and position. When rewarded with a promotion to project manager, one of the challenges is to abandon the past sources of competence for new ones.

A new manager faces the difficult job of supervising others who are developing and using the skills that the manager has spent a lifetime applying. Since new managers are often among the most capable people with those skills, they feel frustrated by trying to work with others who aren't as capable as they are.

The manager's first impulse is to think, "Get out of my way and let me do it. It'll take longer for me to explain it to you than to do it myself." Of course, doing this will not only alienate staffers, but will also prevent them from growing into their new roles.

New managers need to diminish their dependence on old skills in favor of developing new ones.

"I already know what my new job is all about."

The second problem is that not only are new managers burdened with the success they achieved in their previous roles, but they are also burdened with preconceived notions about the role of a manager.

Individual contributors have an idea of what they think the boss's job is. Frequently, that concept is based on the idea that a supervisor's job is to do the following:

  • Provide task direction.
  • Offer protection from political forces.
  • Represent the needs and desires of the team to senior management.

Although these are all valid components of a manager's job, they represent only a small part of the whole picture -- only those parts directly related to the obvious needs of subordinates.

While each new manager brings a unique point of view to the job, it's inevitably a view that's limited by the experience of being a team member. This limited vision of the role of manager can be very difficult to dislodge.

If a new manager brings very strong emotional associations with his own previous managers, he may be very dedicated initially to their ideas of the role. Some may be intent on emulating the management style of a beloved mentor. Others may find their ideas governed by avoiding the behaviors of poor managers.

Regardless of the source of such initial conceptions, understanding more fully the wider role of a manager requires both abandoning preconceived notions and accepting new ones. Neither of these is easy.

It typically takes new managers a year or more to begin to appreciate all the things that they don't know about the new role.

New managers require patient supervisors and mentors to survive the trial of the first months in the role. They need to be monitored and supported during what is inevitably an emotionally trying experience.

And they must realize that it's normal to feel stressed, confused and exhausted during the transition.

Paul Glen is the author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2003) and principal of C2 Consulting in Los Angeles. He can be reached at info@c2-consulting.com.

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