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Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching or mentoring is probably the single most effective way to spread experience and skills across an organization. It’s also one of the best ways for people to learn new skills, or enhance existing ones, in the work place. This article offers some tips on this valuable process for project managers from both the coach/mentor and the recipient perspectives.

Coaching and mentoring are terms often used interchangeably when referring to the process of a senior practitioner imparting experience and skills to a junior one. There is actually a subtle difference however. Coaching is a formal relationship that involves a senior employee with the valued experience and one or more employees who will benefit from that experience. Coaching relationships are usually set up with certain performance improvement targets in mind. Coaching can be conducted in a wide variety of settings from one-on-one face to face to lectures. There are even professional groups which accredit business coaches.

Mentoring involves a relationship between a senior practitioner, called the mentor, and an apprentice, or protégé, called a mentee. The relationship is one on one and more informal, less focused than the coaching relationship. The purpose of this relationship is to develop the skills of the mentee by exposing them to someone with experience using the skill set in question. In this case, the skill set would be project management.

The most common examples of this relationship develop informally. A junior worker identifies a skill set they admire and would like to acquire in a more senior worker and they develop a relationship with that worker in order to learn from them. The relationship can be developed the other way around, with the senior worker identifying a set of traits in a more junior worker which they think would make the junior worker an ideal practitioner in whatever it is they do, and they take the junior worker under their wing to impart their knowledge to them. These relationships aren’t formally defined, so they can be as enduring or as brief as their partners wish. Good ones will last until such time as the initiator’s goals have been met. The relationship may then turn into friendship without the mentoring element, or may end. Savvy people who wish to emulate the successes of those they admire will establish these relationships to further their interests and senior people who are concerned with the continuity of their organizations or disciplines will establish the relationship to further that interest.

Good Project Management Offices, or Project Management Centers, will have formally established mentorship programs. These programs set boundaries on the relationship between mentor and mentee, specifying things like how many hours per week mentors and mentees must commit to, how many face-to-face meetings are required, the feedback process that happens at the end of the process, etc. These programs take the guess work out of the relationship and mentors and mentees can concentrate on taking maximum advantage or making a worthwhile investment in the process.

Project managers working in organizations without a PMO or PMC which offers a mentorship program can still take advantage of opportunities to hook up with a mentor or mentee and get the same career boost or satisfaction from seeing a mentee advance their career as those in a formal program. They just have to make the initial contact without the benefit of the third party.


Finding the Right Mentor

The process of connecting with a suitable mentor will be defined for you in cases where your organization, or PMO/PMC, has a mentor program already set up. For those potential mentees who don’t, seek out a project manager who has the experience you’re looking for. This person doesn’t always have to be someone who is senior to you; they might be someone who is junior in terms of length of time managing projects but have more experience in some aspect of project management than you do. Your mentor should also be someone whose performance you admire, both in the areas you seek improvement in and others. They obviously need to be amenable to mentoring you as well.

Start your search with people who have mentored someone previously and meet the rest of your criteria. This person need not have mentored someone in the areas you are interested in. The ability to mentor is a skill that spans areas of expertise. If they have mentored someone in managing project budgets and also have expertise in managing project change, they will be equally adept at mentoring you in that area. Look for someone whose leadershipand influencing skills you also admire. We tend to look up to people whose values we share and whose accomplishments we admire. Connecting with your potential mentor is best done in a casual setting. Tell your candidate mentor what it is you are looking for, mentoring in some area of project management to improve your proficiency, and ask if they would be willing to discuss mentoring with you. Discussions of this sort are often best conducted over a cup of coffee in a neutral setting (neither your office nor theirs).

Mentee’s Responsibilities

You need a plan going in to the mentor/mentee relationship, including goals, objectives, and milestones. I’m not asking you to treat this as a project with an SOW, WBS, schedule, etc., etc., just to have a clear idea what you would like to gain from the relationship and how quickly you’d like to progress. Your goals and objectives don’t have to be specific at the outset of the relationship, but should be clear enough for your mentor to address. The area you are looking to improve in will determine how specific you can be with your goals. Your goal might be to be considered a subject matter expert in the area of managing project change for example, with the SME designation being verified by the fact that you are consulted in that area by other project managers in your organization. It will be a little more difficult to set a specific goal for enhancing your influencing skills. You should also have an idea of how long you feel the process should take and how many hours a week you might have to devote to it.

Actually working with a senior project manager is an ideal way to gain all around project management skills. This mimics the apprenticeship role which has been used for centuries to teach skilled traces. Large projects will sometimes employ a senior project manager and a project administrator who is responsible for admin duties such as maintaining the MS Projectfile. The role of project administrator is an ideal opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from a senior project manager. Consider an opportunity to fill the role of a project administrator working for a senior project manager that you admire as a means to have that project manager mentor you. Stipulate that you expect the mentoring to be part of your reward for undertaking that role. Working with the right senior project manager/mentor will make this role worth your while, even if it is a step down for you.

Once you’ve established a mentor/mentee relationship with your mentor and you’ve agreed on the goals and timeline, you need to work with your mentor to establish a plan for observing your mentor at work and the specifics of how you’ll gain the expertise you seek. Let’s take the example of a mentee who is wants to upgrade their level of proficiency at managing project change. There may be an opportunity to devote a few hours a week to the mentor’s project as a change administrator, someone who processes the change requests, archives requests that have been decided on, communicates decisions, and updates the change register. In return for that, the mentee should have a chance to observe the mentor with the Change Control Board (CCB), executive sponsor, steering committee, or other decision makers. The mentee should also have an opportunity to review the Change Management Planwith the mentor and learn why they adopted the approach to change management described in the plan.

Work with the mentor to identify check points along the way at which you will meet with them to evaluate your progress. The mentor should set you some tasks, or ask questions about the work, which will allow them to form an opinion of your progress towards your goals. Assume as much responsibility for the work being undertaken as your mentor will allow. Sticking with the change management example, look for opportunities to present changes to the CCB, executive sponsor, or steering committee. Look for an opportunity to make changes to the change management plan as the project changes. Look for opportunities to make decisions on requests of lesser importance (assuming the plan calls for some decisions to be made by the project manager) and to communicate those decisions. Your mentor will need to see you in action in order to successfully evaluate your progress.

Wrap up with a final review session at the end of the relationship. The mentor should provide you with an assessment of your progress towards your goals. The assessment will confirm your attainment of the goals, or provide you with an action plan to close the gap between your current abilities and your goals. Don’t forget to say "thank you”. Your mentor has invested time and effort into this relationship so that you could obtain your goals so make them feel that their efforts are appreciated.


The Right Mentee

The mentee should initiate any mentor/mentee relationship because they want to learn from you. They have chosen you because you have demonstrated proficiency with some aspect of project management that they would like to learn and it is very likely that they admire you because of your reputation and leadership skills. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this relationship will work for you. There are some checks you need to perform before committing to this relationship.

The first check should be your availability. This relationship will require you to invest a significant amount of time so don’t enter into it lightly. You may have to decline or postpone the mentoring until such time as you’ve put that fire out or rescued that project.

Verify that the mentee has clear, specific goals and a schedule for obtaining those goals before committing to the relationship. Avoid becoming a mentor to someone who is simply looking to enhance their own reputation by taking part in a project that you are managing. Reputation polishing is not a valid goal for mentoring and will result in frustration when you attempt to impart knowledge to the mentee. It is valid for a mentee to want to learn leadership skills but if that is the goal, ask them what it is they have observed about your work that led them to ask you to mentor them. They should be able to provide you with specific examples of what you did that they would like to replicate. You may have to consult with your peers who know the candidate mentee to determine if you’re dealing with someone who is serious about being mentored. If the candidate has a reputation for wasting mentors’ time, or polishing their reputation by attaching themselves to successful projects, just say "no thanks”.

You won’t be working side by side with this person full time, but you still have to spend a few hours a week with them and during those hours you may be side by side so don’t enter into a relationship with someone that you dislike personally. You don’t have to be their biggest booster but should at least be comfortable working with them.

Mentor’s Responsibilities

The plan for the mentor/mentee relationship is up to the mentee to draw up. You need to verify that the plan is a reasonable one given the mentee’s current skill levels, their goal and schedule, and the mentoring opportunity (i.e. the project you are currently managing). You may have to help the mentee to articulate those goals and choose a suitable schedule. You may even have to work with the mentee to choose a more feasible goal.

I mentioned the "apprenticeship” opportunities offered by some of the junior project management roles on large projects, such as project administrator. Junior roles on the project will give the mentee opportunities to learn from you in all facets of project management and a broader, less focused set of goals and objectives is feasible. Once you have agreed on a set of goals and objectives and schedule that is feasible, you can plan the relationship.

Engage the mentor in your project in whatever capacity you and your project can support, and the mentee can support. Taking the example of a mentee who wants to learn your secrets of successful project change management, identify the tasks in your Change Management Planthat can be safely assigned to the mentee. There will be some temptation to offload all the clerical tasks that you don’t like doing onto the mentee, but try to avoid this. The mentee will soon realize they aren’t getting the tutoring they want and may either end the relationship or perform their tasks poorly. The work the mentee performs on your project is your reward for the relationship; make sure that the tasks include those that will further their progress towards their goal. Carrying on with our change management example, your first step in the plan should be to review your Change Management Planwith the mentee so they fully understand all aspects of the plan. Particularly important will be your approach, why you chose that approach, and how you tailored it to suit the requirements of this project.

Look for opportunities to test the mentees progress. This may come in the form of the mentee taking charge of a meeting, doing a presentation, or making changes to a project plan. Keep the goal of the relationship in view when deciding how much responsibility you will allow the mentee to take, the greater the responsibility the greater the opportunity to learn. Keep them away from politically dangerous situations to that a bad experience does not frighten them away from further learning, but allow them to take as much responsibility in the project management area they are focusing on as possible. One of the best ways to measure a mentee’s progress is the updating of project plans as the project evolves. Let the mentee adjust the plan and then review the update with them, pointing out both the good points and the areas for improvement.

Set review points with the mentee and meet at those points for the purpose of reviewing progress and adjusting future activities as necessary. Determine whether the mentee is on track to meet their goals and either adjust the activities they perform so that they get back on track, or modify the goals so that they are feasible at the current rate of progress. Don’t be afraid to set stretch objectives with the mentee if they are ahead of schedule. Your project will probably benefit from the stretch objectives and even if it doesn’t the sense of satisfaction you will enjoy will make it worthwhile.

You should hold a final meeting at the conclusion of the relationship. Determine whether the mentee met their goals, and if the goals were not met, explain your view of why they weren’t. Review their accomplishments and suggest next steps to bridge the gap between their current level of proficiency and their stated goals (where a gap exists). Make suggestions to your mentee regarding the advancement of their career. The PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP®) is an excellent place to start, if your mentee hasn’t already gained this designation. Do some research and suggest a PMP course or other PMP exam preparation training that you think would be suitable for them. PMP certification isn’t the only formal training that a mentee could benefit from, there are others offered by the PMI, such as the PMI-SP®, or PMI-RMP®. There are also many training service providers offering courses in project management.


There are many benefits to mentoring. From the organizations point of view it is a cost effective way to propagate project management skills throughout the organization. From a mentee’s point of view it is an opportunity to learn from a person they admire and respect. It is an opportunity to learn from an expert in a safe environment and have some fun doing it. From the mentor’s point of view they gain some valuable help running the project and have the opportunity to give back to the organization.

The tips and tricks described in this article implement some of the best practices promoted by the PMI (Project Management Institute). These are taught in most PMP®courses and other PMP® exam preparation training products. If you haven't been certified as a PMP® (Project Management Professional) by the PMI and would like to learn more about certification, visit the three O Project Solutions website at: http://threeo.ca/pmpcertifications29.php. three O Project Solutions also offers a downloadable software based training tool that has prepared project managers around the world to pass their certification exams. For more information about this product, AceIt, visit the three O website at: http://threeo.ca/aceit-features-c1288.php.