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Realising project success through mentoring

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Long ago a 16 year old version of myself told my dad that I was not going to go into “data processing” or become a programmer or follow the same technical path he did. No, I was going to be a pharmacist. Many years later he brought this up to me and we both got a good laugh out of it. He was my father, my friend, my role model and mentor... and a great man whose footsteps it was an honour to follow. 

Gene Egeland is the man I am speaking of and he passed away last year at the age of 85. I lost my dad and my small hometown lost a smiling face and great friend and example to live by. He left Iowa State and went directly to a small, but growing, Mid-West grocery company called Hy-Vee. He created their data processing department (the old term for IT department) from scratch in 1952 and stayed with them for 35 years till my mom's failing health required more and more of his care and an early retirement. He left the organisation as a very highly respected vice president. I worked for him through high school and periodically during my first two years of college for a total of four years and that experience was the main impetus for my switch from a pharmacy major to an MIS (management information systems) major at the University of Iowa and my jump first into programming, management, and then project management and consulting... - yes, in direct contradiction to what I told him I would not do many years ago. He was my mentor and obviously had a greater affect career-wise on me than I ever imagined. Thank you Dad.

Using mentoring to grow a project management infrastructure

Enough about me and my fatherly tribute. On to mentoring specifically and it's importance on bringing out the best of those capable, qualified and ready for a specific career. For the purpose of this article I'm focusing on IT project management.

When you're setting up a project management organisation, you're likely going to suffer from some budget constraints. So it's apparent that you can't just go out and hire 10 project managers with 15 years of experience. The price for something like that would be just too high for an organisation building a new project management infrastructure. This is where mentoring comes in. And here is my recommendation:

Go with some experience.  If you're just building from scratch, you must have some experience. And by experience I mean some real, successful, project-proven and road-tested experience. Think, 10+ years experience - not less than that. These individuals will help develop your project management methodology, the templates and processes you will use and follow, and the documentation that you will build your project management infrastructure around. They will be both managing projects and “managing” /mentoring younger less experienced project managers, in a sense. Have them play in the background on smaller projects that new project managers are assigned to and have them lead the larger, more complex projects while new project managers assist and watch from the shadows on those engagements.

Hire qualified project managers.  Certification presents a common language, but experience is also valuable. It will be good to staff one or two certified/ qualified project managers in your fledgling infrastructure or PMO (project management office) - if you prefer to start out right away with a PMO (but then you should also consider staffing a PMO director which implies even more cost from Day One). With one or two less experienced, but qualified project managers onboard, you may find a great balance between tried and true project managers and specifically schooled project managers with some more structured processes to toss into the mix, which will bring a level of professionalism to your project. Qualified project managers can still benefit from being mentored by those 'older and wiser'.

Fill the rest with new graduates or apprentices eager to learn.  Finally, look to cheaper labour – meaning skilled business talent right out of university. You may eventually weed some out along the way as project management isn't easy and it isn't for everyone. But you will get eager fresh faces to work alongside the small, experienced staff you're starting out with.  Likely you'll find yourself 10+ years down the road with a highly successful project management organisation that is very entrenched in great project management processes and best practices.

Summary / call for input

If you're looking to start a project management practice, don't go too big too fast. It won't be cheap. But by hiring some experience and relying on mentoring to shape your infrastructure, it is very possible to grow your business quickly and turn out some very good project managers in the long run.

How about our readers – what are your thoughts on growing the project management infrastructure? Have you mentored other project managers or perhaps you have a mentoring story of your own to share? Please share and discuss.

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