Mentoring on the Fly

mentoring on the flyYou’re an experienced project manager with many project success stories under your belt. Likewise, you’ve had enough failures…or brushes with failure…to be able to understand that side of the coin. You have the ability to talk about what works well on projects and what doesn’t work so well. What makes project clients happy and what makes them not so happy. You’ve done things right…and you’ve occasionally done things wrong…and learned something from those poor choices, decisions and actions. Overall, these PM experiences…both good and bad…make you a good mentor for a junior project manager or perhaps an aspiring project manager from inside your organization.

So, you have these individuals who want to be project managers or who already are but have little to no experience in the profession. How do you get them ready to take on large projects of their own? How do you instill confidence and leadership in them when they’ve never led even a small project before? Do you push right into the fire with a small project and let them sink or swim? Do you let them shadow a more experienced project manager on a big project (and if so, do you bill the customer for their efforts?)? Let’s consider these options and others…

Go small

One path to take, of course is to hand small, less visible projects to the newest of the new project managers – even first-time project managers. The problem with that train of thought is that you still want to succeed on those projects…right? There is no such thing as a throwaway project. Of course, not all new project managers will fail. But if you throw projects of any size at completely inexperienced project managers without any mentoring involved, then their chances for success are much slimmer. And that’s not good for the organization, no matter what size or visibility the project is. You also risk alienating a project customer that may bring you a much larger project later on.

Go big

Likewise, tossing a relatively new project manager into the fire on a big project with minimal training is not a good idea. Some training is better than none, but on-the-job training is the best. Handing a first time project manager materials to read on the organization’s project management methodology and letting them play with templates to familiarize themselves with estimating and requirements capturing documents before heading out into the field with the client is not a good idea either. It’s just not enough. Training is key, but reading and studying can only go so far. There needs to be some sort of experience acquisition without the extreme risk to the organization…asking for project failure and customer alienation is a bad choice.

Try mentoring on the go

I firmly believe that mentoring – with a good deal of shadowing involved – is the best way to go. Team your new project managers with experienced project managers who have quite a few engagement successes under their belt. And certainly team newbies with PMs who are known for using all the tools right and practicing best practices on every engagement. Look to those project managers who consistently score high with customers as good mentoring resources for the newest project managers in the PMO.

Two project managers – one very experienced and one who is inexperienced or new to the profession – a large engagement working together is a great solution. Be sure to explain to the customer what you are doing, why there is a second project manager, and make sure that they are getting this extra project manager for free. No matter how productive this new PM may be on the project, try to never charge the customer for their time. Many customers resent paying for one project manager – think how they will feel spending their money on two PMs, one of which you’ve already explained to them may be of little to no value to the project at this time. Make sure they understand that one is in ‘learning mode’ and will be free to them and the other is in ‘teaching mode.’ In fact, if you really want to make your customer even happier, agree to bill them for only 90% of the experienced project manager’s time because it’s a given that they’ll be spending some of their time mentoring the new project manager.


By using mentoring regularly in your PM infrastructure, you’ll ensure that you also have new, experienced project managers at the ready if your business grows or if one or more of your top PMs leave for another organization. It’s a smart thing to do and your customers will appreciate your efforts in this area – especially if they are getting a free extra resource on their projects while the learning is taking place.

Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland

Noteworthy accomplishments:
*20 year provider of successful technical project management leadership for clients across nearly every industry imaginable
*Author of more than 4,000 expert professional project management and business strategy articles, eBooks and videos over the past decade
*Articles/professional content receives over 40,000 page views monthly
*Named #1 in the 100 Most Inspiring People in Project Management
*Named a Top 10 Project Management Influencer to Follow in 2016
*The most read author of expert project management content on Project Times/BA Times for 2015
*Named most prolific provider of project management content over the past 5 years
*Noted for successful project management and financial oversight for $50 million Dept. of Education financial contract/program
*Chosen by the Dept of Defense as a subject matter expert (SME) to help select IWMS software provider for the largest IWMS implementation ever awarded

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