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Is a Project Manager a Glorified Secretary?

pain points philosophy Mar 15, 2024

I was chatting with a friend whose role is transforming more and more into a project-management-type role. Occasionally, even as somebody with the responsibilities of a project manager, she feels confined to tasks such as scheduling meetings for others that are traditionally associated with an administrative assistant—or in an age of rapid implementation of AI tools, tasks that could be the domain of a bot.

I’ve had requests like this made of me many times. Just a few minutes after my discussion with this friend, I found myself copied on a work email with a request to schedule a meeting for a specific group of people on one of my projects—less because I’m needed in the meeting, and more because they’re used to me scheduling their meetings.

What makes requests like this frustrating for a project manager? 

It’s not because we think the role of administrative assistant is inferior in any way. Administrative assistants manage an impressive volume and variety of tasks, and sometimes even projects! (Side note: project management can be a great role to grow into if you’re an administrative assistant today.)

But we have specialized contributions to make that are unique to our project management roles and experiences. I think we're less frustrated about scheduling a meeting or taking notes, and more frustrated by people not seeing the more specialized contributions we could be making, or by people who prevent us from making those contributions for some reason.

As a new project manager, I was more frustrated by these requests than I am today. That’s because I’ve found a few different ways to frame them in my mind. The framing varies by situation but is always empowering to me and my role. Let me show you how I do this, so that you too can stay in touch with your own professional value and have a clear sense of your options so that you don’t feel trapped in tasks that are the wrong fit.

When It’s Part of Your Role

As project managers, one of the major ways we add value to our companies and teams is to keep a project moving forward, whatever it takes (assuming the project continues to be strategically aligned).

We have a metaphorical Swiss army knife of tools at our disposal to do this, and often choosing the right tool takes creativity and ingenuity. Some of these tools are complex and difficult to apply. Some of them are simple and straightforward.

When I’m using my creativity and experience to choose a tool, sometimes I’ll choose a simple one. I might decide the best way for me to keep my project moving on a given day is to hang out in the background of a meeting until a decision is made, so that I know enough to get the next meeting scheduled. But this is more about me choosing this because it’s the straightest path I can see to the goal, than someone forcing me to spend my time in this way. As long as I have the freedom to choose the tool, and the choice of tool is how I’m adding value, then there’s really nothing confining about a simple tool being the right one for the job.

Have you ever chosen to use a simple tool to move your projects forward? Can you see how you add specialized value by charting the path to the goal, whatever tools you might use to get there?

When Your Abilities Aren’t Understood

Then there’s the other type of situation, when you ARE actually being confined to simple tools, and aren’t given the freedom to be creative and use your judgment to chart the project’s path forward.

This might happen because people around you don’t understand what a project manager is, and only know to ask you to do administrative tasks, because that’s a role they’re more familiar with.

It also might be because they don’t know and trust you yet, and so they’re slow to give you any real decision-making power over projects.

This is a genuinely frustrating situation to be in. I’m not trying to tell you it’s not. I was in a scenario once where I served as project manager with a new group of people, and I made my best initial plan to keep the project organized and to run our first meeting. When I got to this meeting, somebody with a stronger personality who was used to running meetings just ran the meeting, and I didn’t have a chance to share any of my plans or demonstrate my value.

That was a tough day. I felt ignored and steamrolled. But it also gave me the opportunity to get in touch with my options in a situation like that, so that next time I don’t have to feel so stuck.

Doing It Anyway for the Sake of the Project

Sometimes I allow myself to be limited to simple tools and tasks because internally I make the judgment call that it’s the best thing for the project. In a way, this is similar to choosing the tool that moves the project forward…I’m just choosing the tool of allowing myself to be placed in a confined or less-comfortable role.

This isn’t a passive process. I stop and think about it and acknowledge to myself this is what I’m doing, or this is the choice I’m making. I might also verbally process the situation with my project management team, and get their validation that yes, I could provide more value, but yes, me going along with the situation for now best serves the project.

Hopefully this is a temporary or occasional way to handle this situation, and you can acknowledge to yourself that this isn’t your “normal” and doesn’t define your role. If being confined to simple tools feels like too regular of an occurrence, I recommend you use the next approach at least some of the time.

Advocating for Yourself

Advocating for yourself can look like finding opportunities to speak up about what you can offer the project. It can also look like just taking the actions you have in mind and allowing people to see and experience the value you can offer.

Often I look for opportunities to just show people the value I can provide, because it helps them understand more easily. But when I do find myself talking about my role or explaining my value, I like the language of “most valuable actions,” courtesy of my previous project management coworker and mentor Elizabeth. I may be able to do almost anything with my work time, but what are the most valuable things that I, in my unique role, can do? How can I add the most value? How can I add value in ways that other people can’t? I might say the following during one of these conversations:

“I understand it would be useful if somebody took minutes in this meeting, and I would love to do that for you, except I think I can add the most value to the meeting if I facilitate the discussion and guide us toward the decisions we need to make. And unfortunately it’s hard for me to do both of those things well at the same time.

Could we identify a different person in the room to take detailed notes of everything that’s said? Or would it be sufficient if I share just a list of decisions or actions at the end of the meeting?”

You can be kind and collaborative, while still advocating for yourself. It comes down to showing how taking more of your “most valuable actions” more often benefits the other person or the whole team just as much as you.

What Does the Situation Require?

In the situation above where I didn’t get to demonstrate my value in an early project meeting, I used a combination of the “going along with it” and “advocating for myself” approaches. I started by simply scheduling further project meetings as requested, showing up, asking good questions, and keeping track of what I could. As the months went on, I found ways to demonstrate more and more of my value in small steps over time. Sometimes I did this by asking for opportunities to do more things. A few times I covered for a person who was out, and everyone was impressed by how well I did.

About nine months later, I found myself typically leading meetings on this project. I consider this quiet triumph of understanding that this team didn’t know me well or understand what value I could provide, being patient, and finding ways to demonstrate my value over time that ultimately led to me contributing in better-fit ways.

So sometimes you will choose to use simple tools to move your project forward because they are the right tools. Sometimes you will let your abilities be held back temporarily in the process of building trust with new people.  And sometimes you will ask people to go out of their own way to watch what you can do. Each of these is an intentional, self-respecting choice a project manager might make in the right situation. And each is a move you can make out of confidence, as the kind but powerful superhero that you are.

 

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