coachable project management

The Importance of Being Coachable in Project Management

By: Collin McCarthy

My senior year of college was spent at the height of Covid uncertainty. Not only was there uncertainty in the world about where it was safe to go, how to navigate daily life without getting sick, or whether friends or family would fall ill but there was also uncertainty in the job market. Because there was so much up in the air, I had no idea where I would land post-graduation in my career. 

coaching in project management

One evening, while sitting around the table with some friends having dinner, I looked down and had a message waiting for me. A friend sent me an open position for a Supply Chain role. Initially, I had focused only on finding a job in Finance or Commercial Real Estate, but after digging deeper into what this role entailed, it became clear that it best fit my skill set and goals. 

On my first day at Blue Skies, I realized I made the right choice. I came in totally fresh but hungry to learn. That hunger was quickly reflected back by the team I joined through the constant fostering of personal and professional growth. My new team was willing to go out of their way to help me be successful. This mindset of helping others is infectious throughout Blue Skies. All of the tools needed to perform well are at my disposal. The only thing required of me, and anyone who enters a team, is to be coachable. Here’s what that looks like in practice.

To Keep Your Head Above Water, Ask a Lot of Questions

Being green in any space means you will embark on a large learning curve. At the start of that learning curve, information is inundated. You drink from a firehose trying to take it all in. 

That was the case for me when I first joined the Blue Skies team. I thought I was alone in trying to piece together the Supply Chain Operations, organizational structures, and agile program methodologies. Everything felt way over my head at first. As I was ingesting all of this new information, I had a mentor by my side. He helped me keep my head above water and my feet treading as I learned how to swim in this new ocean. As time went on, that process became easier and easier. Tasks started becoming muscle memory and part of my daily routine. It was at that point I was able to take on more and more responsibilities. Now, as I’m onboarding new folks, I’m able to see them experience the same inundation and coach them through the process of keeping their head above water.

One critical component to breaking through the initial learning curve is this — ask a lot of questions. While it might seem harder to ask questions, both because you don’t want to have to take in even more information and you don’t want to seem like you don’t know what you’re doing, this step in the process is vital. In the beginning, I worked hard to change how I went about doing things. That shake-up in my normal routine required me to ask a lot of questions early on so I could absorb the information better. 

As time went on, those questions tapered back. This translated to my daily operations, and I was able to feel settled. About six months into this new role, I was in a position where I could suggest new ways of doing things. That accelerated learning curve only happened because I asked the questions needed to get caught up with the others on the team and stay coachable throughout the onboarding process.

Stay Open to Change

From the second I could walk, I was an athlete. I played sports throughout my childhood and through to my junior year of college. In my junior year, I was pulled from the field because I had experienced too many concussions and my role on the team changed almost overnight. Rather than being in the locker room gearing up for the games, I was with the coaches. I went from practicing to filming practice. I drew up scout team plays throughout the week. I warmed up our goalies before the games. 

Regardless of this fast change of pace, I knew I was still part of a great team. Even though my role looked different, I had a job to execute every day. I was committed to doing whatever I could to help my team win — even if that was from the sidelines. 

One of my best coaches on the field and in life was my father. He always told me that I’d love being on the trading floor because of the intense and fast-changing environment. He knew I never wanted to be bored in athletics or in my career. That desire to avoid boredom has made me coachable over the years. 

Today, as a Supply Chain Analyst, I find myself adopting that same mindset. There are constantly new changes to navigate, such as conflicting priorities, interdependencies because of the programs’ complexity, or risks to navigate. These can change at the drop of a dime. To help stay open to these ongoing changes, I like to consistently ask, what’s next? 

Looking at large projects as small mini projects in themselves allows you to stay open to changes along the way. No two days are ever the same, so looking through the lens of the first 30, 60, or 90 days allows you to shift priorities when needed and adjust to resource constraints. Even when you’re faced with the same problem ten times, you’re able to find unique solutions to mitigate those risks in the fast-changing environment. This can only happen if you stay open to change and coachable through those adjustments.

Seek and Implement Feedback

Early on in my career at Blue Skies, I learned the importance of seeking feedback. Rather than looking at this feedback through the lens of criticism or critique, I was taught to view things as learning iterations. For example, in my first days on the job, every day was a new learning iteration. These daily iterations would then allow me to plan out my week and view things in weekly clips instead. Eventually, after making it through those iterations of learning each program phase, I was able to plan for longer and go deeper in the process. Now, after a year and a half on the job, I have successfully completed my first full deployment iteration. 

These iterations happen because of the incremental feedback I get along the way. Growing up, my dad was my coach. He was one of the toughest people riding me throughout my sports career. We’d get heated but through that heat came a lot of good feedback. It taught me to want feedback, seek feedback, and then use that feedback to become a better performer. 

To be coachable, feedback is crucial as you’re working through each learning iteration. It starts by actively seeking feedback. Asking for that feedback doesn’t have to be formal, either. It can look like asking your leadership to stay back for a few extra minutes so you can find out what else they need, or where else you could’ve helped out. 

As a stoic Kobe Bryant once said, “Job’s not finished”. After you receive that feedback, you must actively implement what you learned. Getting feedback doesn’t matter if you don’t show that you’re open to making changes and adapting to what’s needed. For example, if the director of the project asks you to bring better slide templates next time around, you should not show up with the same slide templates in hand. 

Being coachable means actively listening and pursuing that next better version of you in your role. Without that active pursuit, it’s all for naught.