What is Your Mandate?  Who are You?  How Can You Learn?

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

How do you join an in-progress program so that you rapidly come up to speed while avoiding the downside of exhausting yourself in the first few weeks?

When a new program manager joins the team, it can be stressful for everyone.  You can ease that stress with a solid approach to coming into the program.

This article shares elements of the approach I tailor as the situation warrants along with some helpful tips.

How do you join an in-progress program so that you rapidly come up to speed while avoiding the downside of exhausting yourself in the first few weeks?

When a new program manager joins the team, it can be stressful for everyone.  You are an unknown for business leaders, stakeholders, and the program team and that introduces uncertainty.  From your perspective, just about everything is an unknown and you want to learn everything instantaneously.

I've encountered programs where my arrival created barely a stir.  People willingly volunteered their time and information and I was welcomed with open arms.  In other instances, team members, business leaders, executives had a dearth of free time, and my requests for introductory meetings were perceived as an intrusion.  A disciplined approach helped me assimilate well in both types of situations.

Here are elements of the approach I tailor as the situation warrants.

The Program Manager's Mandate.  My starting point is the initial expectation set for my involvement.  This helps me prioritize people and roles for my first encounters and helps tune my ear to the information I need to be hearing.  The mandate might or might not be public information - here are a few that have come my way:  "Don't break anything, it's working fine," "Rebuild Trust" (e.g., with the business leaders), "Fix our broken processes" and "We have a crisis - quickly fix the low quality of the early deliverables."

 

Your Self Introduction.  Early in my career, I gave no thought to having an introductory pitch - my introductions were impromptu and inconsistent from one meeting to the next.  One time, during my first meeting with a dozen leads, I cavalierly said "There's a new sheriff in town," which sent a strong negative signal.  Not sure why I did this, but it was disastrous.  It took weeks before most of the leaders were having open conversations with me.  Now I outline my introductory remarks.  You'll be introduced to a lot of people for the first time during your first few weeks.  Have a clear, concise introduction of yourself and use this consistently.  Establish credibility and very briefly outline your experience, but don't brag and don't pretend that your prior experience means you know exactly what to do here.  This introduction must serve to build a bridge and aid your assimilation into the program. Coming in with an orientation of partnership, curiosity and a desire to learn will get you further than telegraphing that you are arriving with all of the answers and you will "fix" a broken program.

 

Knowledge Transfer from the Program Manager.  Pull every bit of information that you can imagine needing.  Program history, company culture & program culture, walk through information repositories, review the calendar of recurring meetings, recommendations on people to meet.  Of course, you'll need to have a first look at the tools used in managing the program and the details of the program itself (plan, risks, issues, dependencies, status reporting, action items, commitments, performance, stakeholder management, budget, customer relations).  In short, become familiar with everything that will become your responsibility.

 

Meetings!  If you are fortunate to have an overlap with the prior program manager, leverage this to the max!  Participate as a spectator in every meeting that the current program manager leads or attends.  For larger meetings, have a pre-briefing to understand the meeting purpose and learn about the attendees; a post-meeting debrief can ensure you don't miss the nuances of the interactions during the meeting.

 

Priorities for the First Few Weeks.  You might be tempted to meet everyone and learn everything during an exhausting first week.  Instead, consider taking a measured approach.  With the help of the current program manager, create a priority list of how to spend your time across an introductory period.  Some items will need your immediate attention and time allocation.  Others, while important, can wait until a later time in coming weeks.  Keep this list as guidance, to help remember areas to explore:

  • Connecting with people - with whom should you meet first
  • Program information - commitment/expectations, plan, status, risk register, issues log
  • Calendar of recurring meetings and your role in those meetings
  • Process/methods used by the program
  • Company required compliance and other training
  • Insights about the company and program culture

 

Program Deep Dive.  Your initial onboarding activities are effectively a broad-brush introduction to people and the program.  Proceed from that into a more in-depth examination of the program.  Here's a short list of areas to study so you are prepared to be the program manager:

  • Strategic Alignment.  Understand the alignment of the program's contributions to the company's objectives and goals.  What is the program's commitment?
  • Program Stakeholders. Talk with stakeholders to understand their expectations and concerns.  How do they want to be stay connected to the program and what are their communication preferences?
  • People on the Team.  How's their morale?  Are their accomplishments recognized?  Are adequate support mechanisms in place to help overcome obstacles?
  • Program Performance.  What is the current state of program execution and the prognosis for success?  Validate the accuracy, completeness, and usefulness of current status reporting.  Use existing methods (or create new) for managing risks, issues, dependencies, and program changes.
  • Dependencies.  Understand where this program is dependent upon others and how that dependency is being managed.
  • Untethered Efforts.  Identify activities that are consuming resources but may not be directly contributing to the program.  Collaboratively determine whether they should continue.
  • Communication.  Ensure mechanisms are in place for bi-directional communication within the team, with stakeholders and with business partners.  (This is more than just periodic email messages.)

 

Tips that have helped my onboarding:

  • Take notes. Increases your changes of remembering significant interactions and information.
  • View each interaction as an opportunity to learn.  Ask questions with the intention of learning.  Follow up with thoughtful probing inquiries. Maximize listening, minimize your speaking.
  • Don't struggle too hard to reconcile conflicting opinions, just recognize their presence and consider them when making decisions and working with team members.
  • Your first few weeks are for learning.  Resist the urge to solve non-critical problems/issues - that type of action is best taken once you have a grounding in the program.
  • Company culture is a big deal and has tremendous impact on how people act and react.

 

I try to conclude each 1:1 and small group introductory meetings with this question:  I want to be successful in my program manager role, what advice can you give me?  This single question usually yields a wealth of relevant and valuable information, and often opens the door to discussion of topics I didn't think to bring up.

What techniques and approaches do you use when joining a program?