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How to mentor new project managers

Software project management can be learned through one-on-one sessions with a mentor. Expert David Christiansen discusses methods you can use to help new project managers hone their skills.

I am responsible for mentoring staff with aspirations to be project managers. I've given them assignments to help them develop, but I'm not sure what else to do. Any suggestions?

I like to use one-on-one meetings to help new project managers grow. If done well, these meetings can be valuable learning sessions for you and the new PM. If they aren't done well though, they quickly become a waste of time. Here are a few hints for making them effective.

* Don't have an agenda, per se. An agenda is useful for limiting the scope of meetings. You don't want to do that in a one-on-one. You want these meetings to be as open-ended as possible, to create an atmosphere where you and your trainee can talk about anything that is troubling them.

* Do have a few standard questions you care about, and let them know you're going to almost always ask those questions, but not to consider them a formal agenda.

* Don't turn it into a status meeting. Do that some other way. One-on-ones are for building skills, not reporting status.

* Take notes during the week about your observations. If your trainee does something well, write it down so you can mention it when you meet. Likewise, if you see them struggle to do something effectively, note it and come to the meeting with ways to improve.

* Talk philosophy. Learn about what the trainee thinks is the "right way." Talk about concepts in books about project management and give reading assignments.

Project management resources:
Succesful project management: It's the person, not the process

Learning Guide: How project management methods can improve software

ALM 2.0: Application lifecycle management changing to meet development organizations' needs

* Ask the trainee to research things you're not very good at and teach you how to do it better. This will help the trainee develop confidence and feel more comfortable providing critical feedback to superiors. It will also help you improve, provided you listen.

* Ask the trainee how you can be a better project manager. You're doing this to them every week, so it's only fair play to give them a chance at it as well. Don't be defensive or petty -- take your lumps and learn from them. It will make you better too!

Good luck.

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