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3 Friends a New Project Manager Should Make

There is plenty of advice in the project manager’s secret handbook about managing your team, your clients, and managing up – and almost nothing is written about managing sideways. Likely because a sideways relationship within your organization is not about managing a project – it’s about rallying your colleagues to a common cause – even if that common cause is you.

So as a first-time project manager, make three sideways friends immediately – one friend from Human Resources, one from Accounting and one from Systems (or IT, Computing Services, etc.). These new friends will save you hours of additional work, grief, and embarrassment and allow you to stay focused on hitting your milestones and keeping your clients happy.

Related Article: From the Sponsor’s Desk: A Great Project Manager – The Sponsor’s Best Friend

Making friends is easy when you are a new PM, and it’s the perfect time to start building relationships with your Big Three. They likely know that you are new to the role and will welcome an opportunity to connect, even if it’s for their own selfish reasons. Each of their areas, Accounting, HR and Systems are largely rule-based and protecting the organization, it’s data, and employees is one of their main responsibilities. They see you, as a new project manager, as someone they can influence to do things their way. The right way. Take this opportunity then, to do just that, and you will establish a reputation as a PM that respects and works with the support teams within your company.

Your relationship with these friends should be built like any relationship within your project team itself, through a regular series of business specific meetings mixed with more personal interactions to allow each of them to know, like, and trust you. The business meetings should be conducive to their style, at their convenience, and on their home turf. It is respect that support units often don’t receive, and it will make you stand out in a positive way.

If your friend in Accounting likes a written agenda ahead of time to allow them to prepare, make it so. When the systems manager only wants a quick meeting, pare down your items to the critical few and save on the stories and embellishments. If you have to schedule a little extra time with HR, because they want to chat about the team – then do it. Allowing each of them to work with you in a style that suits them will make them want to work with you more.

While the business oriented meetings are important to allow the Big Three to get to know you, it’s in the more personal interactions where they will actually start to like you. As long as you listen; we are hard-wired to like people who like the same things we do and the best way to demonstrate that is to listen, carefully. You don’t have to have the same passion for classic cars, beanie babies or baseball that they do, but listening while they talk about their passions, their hobbies, and their kids will create a relationship that is more than “just business”. That’s the kind of relationship that comes in handy when you need a special favour, a little extra time or maybe some forgiveness for an error in process.

Most days, however, you won’t need your Big Three resources for anything special, but you can still make them feel like superstars. One of the great joys of being a project manager is giving other members of your team a chance to shine in their area of expertise. Sideways managers or their staff are definitely part of your team and like anyone else they want to be recognized for doing good work.

Your friends in Systems can make or break the success of project because they control communications. Respect that. Don’t try to Control, Alt, Delete your way out of a software, hardware, network, Slack, Skype or conference calling mess. In fact, get ahead of the curve by reviewing your specific needs ahead of time and asking for recommendations on what hardware, software, apps, and connections are best. Respect their knowledge of the organization’s capabilities and limitations and play within the guidelines they give you.

Accounting staff spend their days, by choice, knee deep in spreadsheets, debits, credits and invoices. Some problem that seems complex and foreign to you, the new project manager, is likely right in their wheelhouse and can be banged out in no time. I’m sure you can spend time tracking receivables, calculating FTE’s and reviewing each item on the project budget, but why would you? That is not the important work of a Project Manager. Not the work that finishes a project on time. Not the work that receives recognition when they are handing out medals and promotions. Leave it to the experts, even if you think you are the expert.

Your HR friend is the same, spending their days with vacation policies, dress codes, workplace standards, terminations, disciplinary meetings, and FTE planning. Since building a high-performing, cohesive team is the most important work that you will do as a manager, having a partner in HR is crucial to your long-term success. It’s likely that none of your team members will report to you directly, which makes having an HR partner even more important. They can identify the performers from the malcontents and prevent a toxic person from poisoning the team and the project.

Since each of these groups is rules oriented, the biggest thing you can do to earn their trust is to support them – in front of your team and your clients. Don’t allow an end run around the technology because a member of your project team thinks they know better because they used to be a developer. Don’t try to sneak in another FTE. Keep your receipts and make your team do the same. Without this public support, your new Friends won’t trust you and will see you as someone that is “all hat and no cattle.”
When the project is done, make sure that your Big Three and their staff receive the same waves of praise that your team does. The first wave should be in public, verbally, and in front of the project team. A second wave of verbal praise should be in person to your friend specifically, over a one-to-one celebratory lunch or coffee. And the final wave should be in writing to the boss of each of your friends, formally praising their support and the part they played in making your project succeed.

When you find a friend, or Three, you give yourself and your project the best chance to have the biggest impact on your organization.

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