Manage your career like a project—Finding a Project Manager mentor

Wow- thanks for the response to my post on “the accidental PM”!  I have received several inquiries about other job titles and how they should handle their career—I will definitely address this interesting topic again, soon. 

I know many lead developers, code jockeys, business analysts and other members of development teams that are often assigned to projects with little or no say in the process. A project manager needs your skill set and specifically requested you or you are assigned from resource management or the PMO. However, it is in your best interest to be proactive in the process by making your preferences known.

First things first. The time to think about your career is not after an assignment is made and you are stuck on a project –especially if you are being sent to a multi-year project. Rather, you need to look at where you want to be and what you want to be doing in three to five years. You may enjoy coding, QA, business analysis, architecture, or systems. Not everyone wants or needs to be a project manager or operational vice-president.

In the beginning of your career, your knowledge of the profession needs to mature. Even though you have academic training in the field and perhaps internships that added real world knowledge, the world of work is different from academic or intern assignments. So, in the initial stages of working for a living—say the first three years—you should focus on learning to work effectively on a team, meeting management expectations, and understanding the organization.

The first three years of work is the time to collect data. Beyond the project on which you are working, talk with people working on different projects about their tasks and management. It may be necessary for you to create opportunities to get to know people on other project teams. If you enjoy sports, think about joining the softball team or working out in the corporate exercise facilities. Alternatively, volunteer for an internal project that supports company community goals. File the bits of shared experiential information for future use.

After a couple years of working, conduct your own critical analysis of your skills and interests. Find capabilities that you want or need to improve. Look at tasks you enjoyed doing and excelled at and ones that were drudgery. Consider changes in your personal situation in terms of time you want to commit to your career and other obligations that may have occurred since you began work—like marriage and children. If you heard about individuals within your organization that others enjoyed working with, learning from, or just admired keep those individuals in mind when creating your career plan.

When your current assignment is within six months of completion, it is time to act for your future. Put together either formally or informally, a list of preferences for your next assignment. If there is a project you really want to work on or a manager or senior technical specialist you want to learn from, now is the time to make that preference known to the decision makers in your organization. Either schedule a meeting with those who decide your fate or as part of your annual performance review, state your preferences for future assignments and the reasons for them.

Let the decision makers know what you are doing in preparation for your preferred next assignment. Ask for their help and suggestions. Companies want happy, productive employees and it is in your best interest to tell them how to help you become the type of employee they need.

Practice patience. You may not get the ideal assignment the first time you try. However, managing your career is your job and sometimes—but not always—companies and managers remember those who stepped up for corporate priorities. However, do not give up if you do not get what you want at first. Continue to push in the direction you want your career to go.

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