Project Practitioners > The "Secret Sauce" that experienced PMs have and new PMs need

The "Secret Sauce" that experienced PMs have and new PMs need

By Cinda Voegtli

A couple of weeks ago I unexpectedly had to help my usually independent daughter confront a new challenge. I say "unexpectedly" because I knew she had the basic skills for the situation. But it turned out she didn't know what to do with those skills in the new situation. In helping her, I was reminded of capabilities that often aren't there yet when a totally new PM starts out - the "secret sauce" that comes with experience - and the role that experienced PMs can play in helping new managers develop those capabilities more quickly (with real benefits for both parties).

My daughter's goal was to solidify an internship at a local recording studio. The loves music, she found the opportunity, she was vibrating with excitement over getting to run the mixing board during real recording sessions. The challenge was that the studio owners were very willing but VERY busy and hard to reach. So nailing down the details and specific time commitments to get the internship truly under way was going to take some basic but very persistent communication. (Just like project managers having to chase executive sponsors down at times!). Sounded straightforward to me. A few emails at decent intervals....

But this effort was not proceeding in a nice painless straightforward way for my daughter. Now she is generally well-spoken and polite and writes well too. She had already made first contact, sold them on the idea, and gotten a verbal Yes to the internship. All she had to do was keep communicating to nail down the rest. Yet there she was, seemingly paralyzed at crafting a simple series of follow-up emails. Helping her write the first one was like pulling teeth. She seemed agitated. She needed to hear me riff and craft a few example sentences. At first she wanted to write down what I said word for word. She kept obsessing about little details, asking "What about this?” "What about that?" All with a fair amount of stress in her voice I found myself thinking, ”Why are you making me do this for you, isn’t this obvious, what is the big deal??” What was going on?

And then it hit me. It realized that this was not about a lack of skills or ability. It was simply a lack of confidence on her part. She had never used her writing skills for exactly this kind of communication before, with an unknown adult to boot, and with something she REALLY cared about at stake. Thus she just didn't trust that she knew how to apply her writing skills correctly, that she'd make the right judgment calls on how to do so.

How did I know this was a confidence and judgment issue? Because near the end of that one 30-minute session, I finally saw her absorb the ideas and feedback from me and start making her own decisions. I’d riff a sentence and then explain why I phrased it that way. “You’re asking for their time, so if you put it like that, you might seem disrespectfully demanding. If you put it like this, you’re acknowledging that you understand they’re busy – but you’re still letting your persistence and passion and interest show through in a good way.” And “Put Mr. Riley in the TO: field and Mr. Johnson in the CC: field. Because Mr. Johnson (the head guy) said you needed to deal with Mr. Riley on the details. If you put both of them in TO: field, it might look like you ignored what they said before and it also makes it less clear who’s responsibility it is to answer your email!" As we got to the end of a second work-through of the email, she started mostly ignoring me, tweaking some sentences herself, verbalizing what she was changing and why. She still asked for my opinion a few more times, but she didn't sit there paralyzed and scared. She finally "knew what to do."

In the realm of project management, any of us who've been doing this for a while KNOW that it's not just the mechanics, the basic techniques or skills. Every situation is a little different. We hit new things and have to decide exactly how to handle them, including adapting our planning techniques or our communication style or our project methodology, to the situation at hand. The more we do it, the more confidence we get, until we just do it naturally without thinking about it.

Yet I think we may forget about that critical evolution of judgment and confidence, when we throw new PMs in - even if we've given them a bunch of training to get them going. That's a great foundation, just as my daughter's writing classes were. But there will always be new situations calling for new applications of various skills. We can help new managers a great deal by coaching them on and modeling how to make judgment calls, how to apply the basics, how to adapt to different situations. That help is not about telling them exactly what to do, it's about helping them see what the options are and why one way might be better than another and how to decide for this situation. The more comfortable they grow making those judgment calls, the more confidence they'll develop and the more they’ll feel able to take on the next round alone - and very competently!

So just a reminder to experienced PMs to NOT take for granted the nuances of things you now do naturally as an experienced project manager, and to take opportunities to spread the wealth. Help new PMs by generously offering your nuanced "know-how" as they take on new situations. Some companies set up formal ongoing coaching of project managers to provide this kind of "instruction". But there should also be plenty of opportunities to provide just-in-time informal "how to help", as a new challenge comes up, an unfamiliar situation unfolds, for managers who've had less judgment-and-confidence-building time than you. To newer PMs, I'd encourage you to ask for such how-to advice. I'd hope that most experienced PMs would agree with my philosophy that "no one should have to live through it to learn how to do it" and thus be happy to help.

One last note: I also realized that I really enjoyed showing my daughter the ropes in this way. It was fun to have to voice my reasons for handling things a certain way, and rewarding to see her confidence blossom and see her go her way so much more independently to work with the studio owners. And it was cool to know that I could actually teach something that useful in a pretty short period of time! I've experienced the same thing when it was my job to coach new project managers. The palpable relief at having an ear, newfound confidence going forward - SO worth the time and energy!

So don't underestimate the positives of sharing valuable "life lessons" from your own hard-won project experience. You and the newer managers should all benefit, and certainly everyone's projects will be the better for it too!

Related Links
If you'd like to get (or give) a little sage advice, we've got advice for setting up a coaching arrangement with more experienced PMs. If you're coordinating several such arrangements, check out our coaching check-in calendar and worksheet to help you keep track of it all.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Part of my training was in the 6 Sigma PM methodology which uses 5 clearly defined stages of a project. The workbook we used was "The 6 Sigma Field Workbook" and I found it particularly useful because it has a list of 'Power Tools' for each stage of a project. This can be a great way to dish out the secret sauce as new PMs can browse the tools to find one that they think will be appropriate to the problem they have - so not necessarilly 6 sigma tools, but perhaps a library of your own tried and tested tools that you know work and can share?

Hi, thanks for commenting. Yes on recommending tools. That's actually what we mean our template library on the site to be about and we do have them set up by phase. But what happens is that the more useful tools you add, the more it CAN be hard for a new PM to figure out what matters most, of course.

We did recently add an updated "fast track" for those new(er) to managing projects, with a condensed phase by phase, "step by step" approach, with a small subset of templates linked in, as well as typical "burning questions" about that activity. It is at this link:

But your comment also inspires me to write a few posts about "things I wouldn't do a project without". A few of these tools, gleaned from others over the years who had more experience than me at the time, have really been especially eye-opening in their impact. I will get going on that :-) Thanks again.

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