Doubt and the Project Manager

So, what does a Project Manager actually do?

Apollo-era astronaut looking defeated and confused.

Impostor syndrome is pretty common in the workplace. Maybe more common than you think. Project Managers might be particularly susceptible to feeling like an impostor because we don’t really produce anything. At the end of a project there’s no widget or code we can point at and say I made that. The best we can do is say I made that happen, which feels hollow and makes you sound like a bit of an ass.

What makes the situation worse is the fact that many don’t value or even understand the role of a Project Manager. From the perspective of those who are focused on the concrete aspects of actually making things, your I make things happen skill set can seem silly and superfluous. Any organized person could either do that work themselves and/or doesn’t need someone looking over their shoulder all the time, right?

What does a Project Manager do?

Soon after I got my first, official job in project management, I was struggling with defining my role. What was I supposed to do? All the books I read made it sound like project management was some kind of cult with a secret handshake—if I had to ask what a Project Manager was, I wasn’t one.

It was then that my boss passed along some valuable insight: people don’t really know what a Project Manager does until something goes wrong.

From that point forward I saw the project through a different lens. I looked for what was going wrong now and what had the potential to go wrong in the future. I saw my teammates in terms of who I needed to talk to, and who needed to talk to each other, to solve those problems. I thought about long-standing procedures and what role they might play in making things go wrong.

For me, this was like seeing in colour for the first time after nothing but black and white. The secret all those books were keeping from me was that being a Project Manager isn’t about having the right procedures, charts, best practices, and credentials—it’s about knowing what your team needs to get done, and making sure nothing, including you, gets in their way.

Know your worth

When you feel down about yourself at work, when it feels like everyone’s wondering what the hell it is you do all day and you start to doubt your value, know this: you’re not superfluous. You’re magical. You make people’s problems disappear so they can focus. You’re the windshield wipers in a downpour. You’re the noise-cancelling headphones as your team walks down a busy city street.

The next time you think someone's questioning your value, take it as a compliment. As a Project Manager, when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all (h/t Futurama's “Godfellas”).