How to become an 'instant project manager'

BY H. KENT CRAIG MECHANICAL CONTRACTOR IT'S 2 P.M. FRIDAY. You've just learned that the senior project manager for your company, Mr. Alias, was fired Monday because of some " accounting irregularities" that were found in one of his jobs and that two of the PMs he trained, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, walked out in sympathy with him. Then the one remaining experienced PM in the company, Mr. OhBoyHereIt-ComesNow,

BY H. KENT CRAIG
MECHANICAL CONTRACTOR

IT'S 2 P.M. FRIDAY. You've just learned that the senior project manager for your company, Mr. Alias, was fired Monday because of some " accounting irregularities" that were found in one of his jobs and that two of the PMs he trained, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, walked out in sympathy with him.

Then the one remaining experienced PM in the company, Mr. OhBoyHereIt-ComesNow, was told he was going to have to take over the entire workload of the Infamous Three, so he quit Friday morning. Which now leaves your company with exactly how many project managers to handle the workload, plus start the biggest job in the history of your company next Tuesday? How many PMs are left to do that?

None, you say? Wrong! It leaves just one PM available, and that is you!

I know, I know, you're just the Senior Field Superintendent and have never fully managed a project nor have you actually wanted to. But your company needs you desperately now, especially with that monster job starting next week, so as of now you've been officially "promoted" to the company's newest and for now only PM. Myohmy, what should you do?

Well, you have three choices:

  1. Refuse the promotion and ask that you be allowed to keep your current position, keeping in mind that you may face some future negative consequences for doing so.
  2. Accept it conditionally with the understanding that you will be allowed to go back to your old job, should you find out that you really don't like being a PM and once other qualified replacements are hired.
  3. Gleefully accept your promotion, but, with a poker player's mindset, ask for the following so that you can hit the ground running as hard as you can:
  • Immediately ask for a raise and all the other goodies you might want to "cherry pick" while you still have some leverage in this "honeymoon" period.

Now, if you're grossing $75,000 to $100,000 with overtime, you might not want to push this raise-thing too terribly hard, but if you don't at least ask for a small raise then you're sending the wrong signal to your bosses.

You also need to ask for standard PM perks if you don't already have them, items such as a decent laptop, maybe a PDA, a company car or at a least decent car allowance, a company credit card if your company has such a thing, etc.

  • In that same vein, ask for as much day-to-day management authority over your job(s) as you can negotiate from your bosses. This is critical because without real authority to hire and fire or buy material on your signature, then you've just been promoted to the guy who gets the blame, not PM.
  • Ask to see the complete job file, not just the estimate. This includes, but is not limited to, phone logs, original quotes from all and not just winning vendors on bid day, handwritten notes from the previous PM and/or his PM daily logbook, field surveys, etc.
  • Then ask for a list of all available personnel with whom you might be able to man your job, including their salary and benefit packages. Now, your bosses might balk at this at first, but, hey, you are management yourself now and your job will be charged fully for their salary and benefits. You're going to have to make some hard choices on who may or may not be worth their money and then work with your betters to obtain your chosen members of your team.
  • Go out to the job immediately and survey the site. With your newly furnished company camera, take pictures, pictures, pictures, lots of pictures! And don't forget to take a helper with you along with a 100-ft. tape and verify field-critical measurements as well.
  • Ask for a quick one-day tutorial on company policies and procedures you might not be totally familiar with such as how to create and reconcile purchase orders, how to file weekly job reports or how to bill work to an existing schedule of values.
  • Ask for a complete inventory of all tools on all jobs as well as shop tools. If you don't think you have the right or enough tools to do your job, make your case for what you think you do need.
  • Don't be afraid to go outside the box to get the job done. Think you have access to better personnel than your company currently has? Ask to the point of demanding authority to hire from outside the company. Think you need more than the standard issue one job trailer for every sized job to enable better production? Demand it!
  • Play diplomat, i.e,. kiss your boss's rear just a little, even if it's not your nature, at least to extend your "new promotion capital" as far out as it will take you. You're going to need his cooperation as well as his signature on checks from now on, so try to build bridges, not burn them.
  • Seek a mentor. Contact Mr. Alias who was just fired (and don't get into company politics, stick to the matter at hand, the fact that you need help). Ask any other PM you know personally and tell him of your situation and ask for his help. Ask correctly and, nine times out of 10, they'll give it to you.

If you can't find a mentor, then demand that one of your bosses take time to help you when you run across problems, situations or job demands with which you're not completely comfortable. Better to ask for help that turns out to be not-so-needed than not ask and have a situation blow up in your face and cost you that hard-earned credibility that you've worked your whole career to achieve.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He can be reached by calling 919/291-0878, or via e-mail at [email protected]. His Website is www.hkentcraig.com