I would say the syndrome is broadly general about promotion, but it certainly fits most appointments to the project manager role, especially for people who have not managed before.
Consider: You get good at what you do, so good that people look up to you, admire you, compliment you, want you on their teams. Then the moment comes when you are asked to share your excellence by becoming the leader/supervisor/manager of other people doing the same work, and possibly some doing other stuff.
Celebration all around! You and your family and friends rejoice at this recognition of your hard work and signal achievement. Your co-workers are happy for you. Your bosses delight at the prospect of having someone of your quality join their ranks. What a moment!
This is when the virtual black hole appears on the near horizon, looming as evil as those real ones we envision in the (hopefully distant) universe, swallowing all nearby matter with implacable and irresistible force.
The concept creates a powerful metaphor in the working world for the movement of the superb individual contributor into the world of management. In job and career terms, this moment of promotion (or appointment to lead a project) is the place where you pass through a black hole into a universe where everything is upside down.
Things They Don't Teach You
Several zillion books have been written with titles starting “The Things They Don’t Teach You at (pick your prestigious institution of higher business learning).” Those authors are all on the right track, of course. Life as it is lived has a tough time in the classroom – I know I’m working at it.
Here, our area of interest is the lot of project managers, and the matter is never more serious than when the promising young management talent is tossed unprepared into the bramble patch of your typical project.
One important exception: In my lifetime, I have occasionally encountered people whose organizations thoughtfully and competently designate the gifted go-getters for training and mentoring in advance of movement into responsible positions. Fervent congratulations to them. I repeat, this is an exception.
For the vast majority of newly minted project managers, introduction to the realities of supervision and leadership can be shocking. They have become accustomed to their own competence, consistently performing excellently in the skills they have devoted themselves to learning.
Now you, the brand-new project manager, find that demands in bewildering variety are streaming at you, with no time to think, study, plan, practice, consult. Now you’re “the boss.” People want decisions, and it is not unusual that they demand action they know is impossible – but that’s YOUR problem. The challenges sometimes seem couched in attack strategies, promoting one side at the expense of another.
And you don’t know the answers. Your experience did not equip you to handle the exceptions to expectations, the collisions between people’s needs and organizational components, the baffling puzzles that demand instant decision.
Snap decision. That is the area most stressful for the tenderfoot in the land of the land mines. Unfamiliar situations with complex issues and threatening constituents are thrust at you in a context that plainly makes them your problem. Right now.
Perhaps the most devastating feeling of the rookie project manager is the growing suspicion you develop that some of your former co-workers who wouldn’t dream of taking on this job are gleefully yanking at the rug under you. If you’re not careful, you can become over-sensitive, making things infinitely worse. You need to stay above it.
In this career phase, the young person develops survival skills – or else. These survival skills are the practices that get you through the crisis, maybe through the day, and allow you to live and fight again. Maybe you pick up some useful tactics, and maybe you don’t.
This process does NOT equip you to manage well, most definitely in the project arena. You do not rise from the black hole simply by keeping it from swallowing you, however vital that is at the time.
Developing good project management skills, growing professionally to achieve excellence, requires shedding the defensive armor of the survival period while distilling the lessons learned from it. Survival skills are not project management skills. Survivors are not particularly good managers of teams, and rarely are leaders.
That takes conscious effort and quite a bit of time. Knowledgeable mentors are invaluable, but far too few. The good project managers are those who have found ways to work their way out of the hole.