top of page

A graduation letter: Look good in the hat that's on your head and other PM words to live by

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Last week we celebrated the graduates of UW's continuing education certificate programs, including those of you who rocked it to receive your certificates in Project Management. As one of the instructors in that program, I'm so glad to have been a part of your journey, since teaching project management is such a fundamental part of mine, and I have some go-forward thoughts to share that I think PMs in any stage of their career can get behind:

1.    Welcome to the community!

First off, welcome!! Project management professionals are members of a tribe. Our discipline unites us, and our commitment to our values connects us beyond today’s project, team, or even organization. We keep each other learning and growing, as I know many of you who joined up to prepare for the PMI exam of your choice well know. We do seem to learn best together in packs, whether we learn from fellow PM videos, meet-ups, or formal communities like PMI, Scrum Alliance, SAFe or others. You’re probably a member of a few LinkedIn groups already! But when looking at groups to support you as leaders, supporters, sounding boards and just venting partners, be sure not to over-affiliate with one specific group or PM mindset. Instead, try being...

2.    Purists in mission, not method.

Excellence in delivery means adapting to the needs of the work, balancing goals and objectives with stakeholder needs and expectations. One method does not fit all, and it’s a sign of great tradecraft to be able to mix it up to create the right blend of sequential, incremental, iterative and gated work to leave room for learning AND manage risk while guiding your team to their success. (whew!) Can you build in an iterative learning flow as part of requirements gathering prior to formal scope approval? Can you use leadership decision gates and formally defined decision criteria to confirm approach approval in the middle of major executive stakeholder change? Being ready to use project delivery wizardry to keep momentum toward your project's true north means you have to get really nimble on your tools and techniques, so that leads me to...

3.    Always be a learner, not a knower.

Keep learning, keep reading, keep asking and listening. It actually took a lot for me to feel like I was credible as an instructor, and I followed the “learn one, do one, teach one” motto to start, along with a lot of storytelling I hoped would serve as evidence that at least I’d been there. The best hybrid projects use approaches from many “methodologies” to come up with the best way to get each thing done for your specific intersection of the 4 Cs: Criticality, Complexity, Culture and Compassion. That means you stay curious, and open, to the best way to solve a problem. I had a colleague really early on, at Applied Materials during our big SAP implementation, who taught me a lesson that has stuck with me ever since, "You can learn something from everyone, either what to do, or what NOT to do." Being interested in other perspectives also keeps your priorities straight and focused on the problem, not just your point of view, however well informed. You stay flexible, adaptable to situations and needs. That being said...

4.    Your integrity is not for sale.

A project manager has one asset that needs to be guarded and protected at all costs: your reputation. Senior, early career, scrum master or portfolio manager, your reputation for trustworthiness, authenticity, and dedication to doing the right thing for the highest purpose will outlast any title, any method, any team, sponsor, project or even organization. No one can make you do or say anything you don’t believe in. There will always be another project, another team, as long as you stay true to your reputation. That reputation travels through networks you may not even realize you’re a part of, so...

5.    Stay connected and grateful.

Here in a city like Seattle, a big little town, we do know each other. People move between companies, bring their experiences with colleagues with them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone ask me about someone who has Starbucks or Nordstrom on their resume, or someone, of course, who’s been through either the CityU or UW PM programs. But it doesn’t stop there. The network of PMs goes where we do, so I’ve gotten outreaches from all over the world, and you will too as your career grows. Each time, if I do know the person and I understand the situation, I’m thinking of the good of our entire network, not just my reputation, before I answer, considering both sides of the equation. Will that place be good for that person? Will they be able to make the kind of contribution that will grow them and deliver value? Can I provide that feedback both ways? We help each other, protect each other, and respond to asks for help whenever we can, and it’s often the unexpected return favor that presents the richest opportunities. Gratitude and respect for the golden rule makes all of that really natural, and also reinforces one of the other fundamental truths of project management... 

6.    PMs lead PEOPLE.

We always say project managers manage tasks, functional managers manage people. And in the formal terms of lines of authority and performance management, that’s true. At the same time, most of your resources are people, and the resources that are not human will be used by resources that are. “Soft skills” are table stakes for project management professionals, from seeking out and having a conversation with a project detractor to find out what risks this person sees that you actually need to bring into daylight to navigating how to help an executive team fully understand and make an informed decision. Having the patience to enable others rather than perform tasks is a required virtue, and that means you really do have to...

7.    Wear one hat at a time.

Those who’ve had me as an instructor for the topic of project procurement processes know I introduce the topic by saying “don’t do someone else’s job.” It’s true far beyond that one process area. A project manager has a few jobs of her own to do, and one of them is helping team members and other stakeholders build a body memory of being successful. Each project we lead gives someone an experience, hopefully a good one!

The experience of successfully performing an activity that we structured and prepared for is something we owe to our team members and can’t cheat them of. 

It’s hard, and there will be time when the stakeholders seem to agree that you have to fill the gap. That’s fine, but call out that you’re NOT wearing your PM hat when you do, and use the coverage need as an opportunity to model how the job would be done by the person who really ought to own that hat. You may flip hats fifteen times a day, but you can only really wear them well (and look good doing it) one at a time. And it is a good thing to know your hats really well, which means that... 

8.    It’s good to have a domain. 

We talk about it all the time. How much should a PM know about a subject matter area to be a good PM? My stock answer is “enough to ask really great questions”, but there is more to it than that. Just about any domain will do, but you need a function, an industry, a technology to hang your hat on so you have a basis mental model to use to understand other things, and to relate to the jobs your team members need to perform. I started in accounting and finance, which is kind of a cheat, because accounting is basically a mathematical process map of how organizations work, but any core function will do. The framework of project delivery helps make the translation. I’ve had the privilege of working with some folks moving from the military to civilian life as PMs, and the translation of gathering things to help people achieve a defined objective works between a military deployment of people, equipment and support to do a mission to a corporate project needing to use internal and external team members to implement a system. The framework of people and stuff to get stuff done bridges learning different types of work, leadership and decision-making.

So…to recap:

1.    Welcome to the tribe of success enablers!

2.    Be outcome zealots, not method martyrs.

3.    Learn one, do one, teach one.

4.    Know your family and remember who lifted you up.

5.    The job is helping people, first and foremost.

6.    Do one job at a time and look good in the hat that is on your head.

7.    Go deep to understand wide.

And I have to reiterate my favorite quote, given to me by Kathy Doiron at Starbucks going on 8 years ago now in a team holiday quote exchange. Kathy taught me best the power of feeding a team’s heart to let their heads and hands get the job done, and she shared this:

“There are two ways in spreading light: the candle and the mirror that reflects it.” (Edith Wharton, 1902)

13 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page