I may be a newbie to the Atomic team, but I know a thing or two about leadership. I spent eight years in the military, first with the military police, leaving as an Army lieutenant. At my last project management position (for, ahem, the U.S. government), I was a liaison between a group of engineering students and state officials.
The engineers were brilliant—in the laboratory, they made magic. But when they had to explain their ideas to a room full of senators … well, there was a disconnect. That’s where I came in.
Some people think project managers just kick people’s butts until they get their work done—and they’re right. But the best project managers are also great communicators.
Here are some communication tips I’ve picked up:
Learn to read people. Take note of clients’ differing communication styles. I picked this skill up through my military police training. Body language speaks volumes; take note of people’s actions and follow their lead. Once client may want to be kept up-to-date daily; another may need no more than a call every few days.
Practice active listening. I learned active listening from a great book, Verbal Judo (I can hear the groan from the Atomic office now—everyone’s sick of hearing me talk about it). It’s a form of conversation that helps you engage with the person you’re talking to, often by rephrasing one of their statements in question form. So, for example, if your client says, “I think users are confused by the navigation menu,” you could reply, “So you think the structure of the navigation menu is difficult? Tell me more about it.”
When two sides aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, try, “I understand what you’re saying, but …” It lets the other person know their concerns are being heard, and lets you offer your two cents.
Mix it up. Try out different forms of communication, even the ones you’re less comfortable with. Practice makes perfect.
Projects are a mess of milestones, expectations, plans, ideas, people, and messages. I arrange them into a well-oiled machine that gets the job done. To stay organized, you can use sophisticated software or a good old-fashioned to-do list (I use both). Choose what works for you—just have a system.
Here are more tricks I’ve learned:
Automate as much as possible. For example, I’ve got my iPhone sending task reminders to my e-mail, in addition to my pencil-and-paper lists.
Get everyone in the loop. Try a project management system like Basecamp. The tool allows users to upload files, share a calendar, and set milestones. It’s a great way to keep communication on track.
But wait for the go-ahead. Make sure everyone involved is willing to use the system you’ve chosen. If you throw a system at them that they aren’t familiar with, you’re going to run into problems.
Though it may seem obvious by now, another key quality of a good project manager is strong leadership. My time in the Army taught me firmness and compassion, but most importantly, respect.
While it’s often tricky for ex-military people to transition to the business world, I’ve made my experience work for me. Here’s what I recommend.
Be who you want to be. There are endless types of leaders—I’m a lead-from-the-rear kind of guy, but it’s up to you to decide what sort of leader you want to be. As with your communication style, choose an approach that fits both the client’s and the project’s needs.
Step up to the plate. Always let clients know that you’re leading the project—they’ll want to know who’s in charge.
Embrace conflict. When you’re handling multiple projects, sometimes you have to decide which one you’re going to stay late for (sometimes, the answer is both). Things may not turn out how you expect, but you’ll always learn something you can apply to future projects.
Project management is tough. But the results are worth it. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To do great things is difficult, but to command great things is more difficult.” I try to do both every day at Atomic!
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