Zero to Hero: Mentoring the Black Sheep
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
Short version: I helped a project management student get the skills and habits needed to be hired by a AAA studio.
At the beginning of the Malediction project, I was given a scheduler with a bit of a negative reputation. He showed up late to class (if he showed up at all), had a loose interpretation of what a deadline was, and was very new to project management. All in all, not the best combination of traits you'd want in a scheduler. This meant I had my work cut out for me.
First thing I did was give him a dose of real talk; his reputation would make earning the team's trust difficult. With me, though, he'd start fresh and we'd work together to fix his reputation. This would require us to address four things: time management, punctuality, project management hard skills, and project management soft skills.
To address his time management, he needed to know how he spent his time and how to better organize it. We sat down and created his daily schedule in Excel, in 15 minute increments from the time he woke up to the time he went to bed. This was a start, but the next step was to hold him accountable to this schedule by addressing his issues with punctuality.
Teaching my scheduler the habit of being on time wasn't going to be easy. I knew telling him to meet me at 10 every day would only work for a short time; once he felt he'd proved the point, he'd go back to his old habits. It was this stubbornness I used to my advantage. I set my clock a couple of minutes ahead. On the first day, he showed up exactly at 10 as expected, proud of himself for being on time. He was less pleased when told he was late, insisting my clock was fast. Admittedly, it was picky, but it demonstrated that perception mattered, and had the added benefit that it shifted the point he wanted to prove; it was no longer about proving he could show up on time, but that he would show up at 10 by his clock. It had become such a habit for him that on one occasion a few months into the project, I told him he arrived on-time and he went into his regular rebuttal, before stopping himself once he realized what I'd said. I considered that a success in creating his habit of punctuality.
Teaching my scheduler the hard skills of project management was a straight-forward, but on-going, process. We started with the basics: organizing information on spreadsheets, creating charts, and learning how to use Jira to create and assign tasks. Once he got those down, next up was getting him the skill set to create custom Jira dashboards, exporting Jira data to import into Excel to create data-visualization, and walking him through some visual basic. Once the project was in its final stages, we covered how to properly organize the QA effort, how to create useful bug tracking documentation, and how to display that information to stakeholders.
Last, but not least, we developed his soft skills. My scheduler has a natural charisma, so it wasn't his interpersonal skills that needed work, per se, but rather his inexperience with management. For skills such as running a meeting, I taught by example. Once I felt he had a good grasp of the method, I gave him the opportunity to apply what he learned, under supervision, until he got the hang of it. He also picked up a lot of what I'd learned from experience on how people work. Whenever I made a decision on how the team should be run, I always walked him through my reasoning and made sure he understood. A simple example of this was when I had him make meeting announcements in the team Slack as well as sending out an Outlook invitation. He felt this was a redundant effort, but I explained that people have a tendency ignore singular messages, unintentionally or not. Sending it via multiple channels not only ensures they're more likely to see it, but it makes not having read the message far less excusable. He was doubtful at first, but saw the merit of the lesson when he forgot to make the Slack announcement and a third of the team was missing from a meeting.
Helping him grow as a project manager is something I'm particularly proud of. It was definitely a challenge, but it was also a bonding experience. I was glad to see that he had reformed his reputation amongst not only our team, who appreciated his efforts, but that the other teams were also impressed by his change. Not only that, by the end of the project, he'd developed his skill set to the point that he was immediately hired by a AAA studio. That's one hell of a turnaround.