Filling Big Shoes: Taking Over for a Beloved Project Manager
Nothing terrifies a project team more than a change in leadership midway through a project — especially if the project manager being replaced is effective and popular. If you’re the replacement, the decks will be stacked against you before you even come in. You’ll have to meet (or exceed) the team’s high expectations. You’ll also have to deal with resentment from your predecessor’s departure, even though it’s not your decision in the first place; as his replacement, you’re the easiest and most visible target.
But don’t quit just yet! It’s going to be difficult, but you can work your way up from this dilemma and, if you play it careful, you’ll become just as valued by your team —and management— as your predecessor was, but in your own unique way. So how can you do this?
Shadow your Predecessor
If your hiring/departure schedules overlap, seize the opportunity and ask your predecessor/recruiter for a chance to job shadow for a couple of days. It’ll be a great way to figure out what he’s doing right, and therefore to see which behaviors you should be imitating. And don’t be limited to regular nine-to-five hours, either. If he comes in half an hour early every day, join him and find out what it is he does during that time. Then assess that behavior and see if it’s worth adopting. Obviously this option will not be possible if the previous PM is leaving on bad terms, or if they simply don’t want to help you. However, if you know that they are leaving on good terms, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask. They will probably appreciate the opportunity to support their old team that has allowed them to move on to a better role in the first place.
Shut Up and Listen
Whether your orientor is your predecessor, your manager, or a team member, they’ll need to impart a lot of information to you before you actually start the job. Now is not the time to be selling yourself! We all have the urge to show our employers how they made the right decision to hire you by pointing out all the things you already know and come in with guns blazing, offering solutions and recommendations left and right, but for you to get a full sense of how you can best contribute, you first need to know as much as you can about the current team and the environment.
Instead of offering your ideas, focus on learning everything possible in the first few weeks. People don’t want to hear you talk about how successful you were in your old company; they want to be reassured that you can maintain the projects’ momentum once you take over the reins.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Over the course of your orientation/briefing, ask which processes have worked for them so far, and why. Once you have that information, slap a big red mental “DO NOT TOUCH” sticker label on it.
No matter how much you may disagree with a process or think you have a better one, now is not the time to rock the boat and get people to adapt to a new one. Doing so kills momentum and diverts resources, and will turn the team from an effective machine into a disorganized mess. And it will make you very, very unpopular.
Don’t Try to Be Him
Was your predecessor a happy-go-lucky guy who took his team out for drinks every Friday night? You don’t have to be. Just like how different people have different personalities, you are going to have your own unique management style. But neither will the team automatically respond to you just because you’re their new leader. Focus on driving the project forward. Once they see that you can actually deliver the goods, they’re more likely to forgive your personality quirks and start seeing you as a person. Do try to keep activities that you know are popular with the team, which will enable them to adjust to you more quickly. After all, no one likes change if things are going well, and it will be doubly difficult to swallow if the change comes in with the team favorite biweekly social being cancelled!
The key is to acknowledge the fact that you are replacing a popular project manager, and to assure your new team and managers that you will do everything in your power to ensure continued success. Once they gain confidence in your abilities and intentions over the first few weeks, it will be that much easier for you to tailor the small things to what you believe to be the best for the project.