The mentoring meeting

by Joan Knutson, Contributing Editor

NOVEMBER'S ARTICLE, “The Consultative Role of the Project Manager” began exploring the various roles of the project manager, a theme we will continue this month. In this article, we focus on the mentoring role of the project manager; in other words, that role of establishing and maintaining a personal relationship with the team leads, or core team members, who in turn establish and maintain a relationship with their team members.

In the simplest of terms, the mentoring meeting is the part of mentoring that sets up a process for regular, structured communication. By regular I mean that the project manager and each core team member “meet” once a week (every other week at the least), face-to-face, one-on-one. If face-to-face is not possible for each session, then a phone conversation will suffice.

The project manager holds a half-hour one-on-one meeting with each of his or her people each week. The core agenda is predefined so that all project team members, as they compare notes, see that there is a consistent approach to this mentoring effort.

In addition to being held regularly, these sessions need to be structured so that the same topics are reviewed each week, along with one unique “topic-of-the-week.” Having consistent topics allows team members to think ahead and prepare to respond to them. It becomes a comfortable and safe exchange of information, thus building a trusting personal relationship. In addition, this structure allows the project manager to see a trend in the types of responses (issues, problems, and successes) and the energy and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) in the responses. The “topic-of-the-week” adds a change of pace and a new twist to every meeting, while allowing the project manager to explore more human-behavior subject matter.

Let me be clear: this meeting is not a status review of the tasks for which the team lead is accountable. It's much broader in scope. The objective of the discussion is to allow an exchange of good news and bad news, frustrations, dreams, goals and expectations between the team members and the project manager.

Now that you understand the purpose of mentoring meetings, let me share with you a model agenda that will facilitate building this personal relationship with your team members. The agenda is divided into five segments: organizational issues (consistent), relationship building and personnel development (unique), open dialogue (consistent), vision/dream (consistent), and action items. I'll describe each of the segments and then, in a future Executive Notebook, I‘ll offer a 10-week suggested “special topic list” to be used in building relationships and developing a team esprit de corps.


Organizational Issues. This segment of the discourse is addressed during each meeting. It is broken into three subsets: the job, special project-of-the-month, and roles/procedures.

The job. open the dialogue with the team member with the topic most near and dear to your hearts: the job that the team member is doing. The first question is, “What accomplishments did you make last week and what insights, if any, did you have while making those accomplishments?” These accomplishments can be things relative to completing the project, or working better with project stakeholders, or using a process more efficiently.

Talk about any stumbling blocks that the team member encountered during the previous week. This gives you, the project manager, the opportunity to resolve those problems or to add them to the action items list.

The last topic relative to the job the team member is performing concerns any lessons learned and any support needed. That support might be in the form of a tangible tool, political lobbying, information, or knowledge unavailable to the team member that you can provide.

Notice that each of these topics is designed to unearth possible problems while they are still small and manageable. Documentation of these issues, problems and successes becomes a wonderful base for a continuous improvement report at the end of the project. It's a blow-by-blow of what is going right and what is not. Think how helpful these lessons learned could be for the next similar project that you or an associate might run!

Special project-of-the-month. Ask each team member to take on one unique effort that will in some way aid the operation of the team. This special project is not a task within the project's work breakdown structure, but is instead an effort that can help the total project. For example, one might take a special topic concerning the technology being used, research it and make a presentation to the entire team; or someone might take on the job of refining the status reports to make them more meaningful to all the constituents on the distribution list.

This personal project is something that can be accomplished in 30 days or less. The purpose is threefold: to get people focused on certain short-term but meaningful projects that will help the project as a whole, to teach people how to initiate and to execute projects within limited time constraints and thus develop good project management skills and practices, and to have people see something that will benefit the smooth operation of the team and to help team members feel the accomplishment of a job well done.

Each of these projects should begin with a Project Request, which is reviewed and approved by the project manager. Once the project is under way, your goal in this part of the conversation is to determine the status and to assure that these special projects are going to meet their time frame and create a quality product. Once a project-of-the-month is about to be completed, then both of you need to be setting up the next project.

Roles/procedures. The last part of this segment of the weekly mentoring meeting is to ask the team member if any clarification is needed relative to his or her role within the project or relative to anyone else's role. This is also the time to find out if there is any confusion concerning the process or the specific procedures that the team member is being asked to follow.

I realize that this role clarification and procedural definition is done during the launch of the project. However, things change and what may have been clear at the beginning of this effort may become muddy as the project evolves. Why let confusion and misunderstandings undermine the assignment? Here is the perfect time to bring to light any issues concerning roles or process.

Now that you and the team member have thoroughly reviewed the job, his or her project-of-the-month, and any possible misunderstandings in roles and procedures, it's time to move on to a more “behavioral” subject.

Relationship Building and Personnel Development. This part of the meeting focuses on the people-management part of your job. Your goal is to help people build their knowledge base relative to the organization as a whole, to the project and to their relationship with you, their project manager. A new and different topic should be introduced each week. This takes the monotony out of meetings and builds the bond that creates the synergy necessary to make the sum greater than the total of the parts.

In a future issue, Part 2 of this Executive Notebook article will offer 10 topics. Select those with which you are comfortable and that you truly believe will add value to the relationship you have with your team members. If the topic sounds phony to you, don't use it. You must be sincere in order to make the discussion genuine. When you run out of the 10 suggested topics, get creative. Make them up, but be consistent with each of the team members when you talk to them. They will compare notes and no one wants to feel left out or given more or less information than a colleague.

Now that you and the team member have looked at the organizational issues and at a relationship-building topic, it is time to allow for some unstructured dialogue.

Open Dialogue. This is a dealer's choice. You and your team member direct this part of the conversation as you see fit. It is time to bring up those “by the way” or “I‘ve been wanting to talk to you about” subjects that often never seem to find the right time or place to be aired.

Vision/Dream. In an attempt to end every meeting on a positive note and to encourage people to start being creative, encourage the team member to think about what Utopia would be for them within your project. Ask them to complete the following sentence: “If I could…, I would…” or “If we, as a team, could…, we would…” I have received such answers as “If I could learn more about XYZ project scheduling product, I could use the reports better.” and “If we could have some time as a group off-site, we might get rid of this them-versus-us feeling.”

Even though this is a “consistent” topic, it amazes me how spontaneous and genuine people are with their responses. It is like asking them what they see in the ink blot—they often share some very insightful feelings.

Action Items. Even though this is the last section on the agenda, use it to fill out any action item that has been agreed upon during all of the previous discussions. It becomes very important that you keep track of these action items and see that they are completed. If you have made a promise, keep it. If the team member has been assigned an action item, follow-up with them to be sure that it really happens.

PROJECT MENTORING MEANS working at building a relationship with those key players upon whom you rely to get your project done. This relationship is not built on platitudes proclaiming your great intentions of being “a good manager”, but on serious hard work. This means taking the time and making the effort to establish that communication link with your team members and using this forum to first solidify the relationship and then to continually reenergize the connection between you and your team leads. ■

Joan Knutson is president and founder of Project Mentors, a San Francisco-based project management consulting and training firm.

PM Network • January 1997



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