Dear Newly Named Project Director,
Congratulations on your new assignment. Whether this is your first stint as a project director or if you have done it many times, this is an exciting moment. We are glad to have hired you. You have a chance to make a significant difference in this new endeavor. If it is a brand new project, then you are facing the challenge of coloring in a blank slate. If it is an ongoing project, then you have the opportunity to push it in new directions.
We expect you to do more than to keep the project on track, write reports, and balance the project's checkbook (although you must do these three perfectly!). We selected you because we need someone exceptional to make our work remarkable. To get you off on the right foot, I suggest that you start by focusing on the following challenges:
1. Become the expert that we and our donor think you are:
You were probably hired based on your technical expertise and are therefore an "expert." But I'll bet that, although your expertise applies to this project, there are gaps. Study the project documents, contract, and any bidding documents as if they were sacred texts with clues to eternal life. You want to figure out both what the donor originally wanted and what we planned on doing. Before you can propose any deviations from the planned strategy, you need to understand what was planned.
Then read anything you can find about both the country where you will be working and other projects in the area. One of your key roles as project director will be to explain the local situation to outsiders. You need to be an expert on it.
Thirdly, seek out the local experts and pump them for advice while taking exhaustive notes. Don't worry about appearing ignorant. For many years I was one of the experts on the Haitian-Dominican border. I always enjoyed playing the role of senior advisor when someone new came to town. Your goal is to move as quickly up the learning curve as you can. Besides, this group of experts is likely to beyond peer working group. Doing them the favor of asking their advice is a great way to break the ice.
2. Get to know your donor and your organization:
Whether you are funded by a foreign government, multilateral, or the host government, you need to get to know them and how they work. If you only talk with them when you have a problem, you will be viewed as a source of problems. Make time to visit them when things are going well and you don't need anything. Attend the cocktail parties and receptions--these are the grease that allows the gears of collaboration to turn smoothly.
The same is true of your organization. Figure out what we want from the project. Is this a for-profit, one-shot project where the goal is to squeeze the maximum profit? Is this project seen as a pilot where extra time and resources need to be invested to allow for greater returns later? Does your organization have sacred cows--things that just have to be done even if they don't make sense? Better to learn these issues up front to avoid heading down dead-end alleys later.
Finally, what information does your donor and your organization need from you? Most donors and organizations have very specific financial and technical reports that they need to complete. The better that you understand their needs up front, the better that you can design your own systems to comply with them.
3. Get to know your people:
Get out to the field and meet the people who will be impacted by your work. Drink tea with the local doctors who will benefit from your project. Walk the fields with the farmers who will be participating in your workshops. Even if you are required to hold formal launch workshops, create time for one-on-one interactions. You need to hear their stories both so that you can understand firsthand what their concerns are, but also so that you can repeat them. Even when I have had a hundred people working under me, 90% of the stories that I repeat came from my field visits rather than from my staff.
4. Write-up a report:
You have been taking notes all along, right? If you don't write up your thoughts, you will forget them. If the project is moving in the right direction, then this report might be for your own benefit--to concertize in your own head what you have learned and what you think. If you want to propose changes, this report is a chance to document your view of the situation and to outline what needs to change. By writing down and sharing your thoughts, you give other people a chance to correct your mistakes and to clearly understand what you want to accomplish. It is much easier to propose concrete changes ideas based on a written document than one framed in a general discussion.
5. Begin with the end in mind
Your project probably has a definite lifespan with a handful of specific goals. Your focus is on achieving those goals within the project lifetime. But what will happen the day after your project closes? When I built roads, this was easy to answer--we would pack up and move on and people would drive on the new road. When my goal was to build the capacity of local organizations it was trickier. We expected them to continue to stand on their own and to continue the good work that they had been doing but without our help. By beginning with the end in mind, the whole close-out process will be much smoother and you will have a ready answer for those tricky sustainability questions.
I am trusting that you know the basics--how to develop a Gantt chart and how to use it to track your progress, how to read your financial reports and how to track your spending (and the difference between tracking spending and tracking progress), and how to write effective reports and get them submitted on time. You have to get the basics right.
Once you do have the basics down, the next challenge is to be great. Your best guide to being great is Jim Collins book Good to Great. In an annex to the audible version, one of his students asks Jim, "Why should I strive to be great?" Jim replied that being great was no harder than being just good and in many ways easier (although it requires more discipline) and it was infinitely more fun. You need to be great not just so that your project succeeds, but also so that you can line up your next project.
Other books that I would recommend are:
Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? and All Marketers are Liars (with a New Preface): The Underground Classic That Explains How Marketing Really Works--and Why Authenticity Is the Best Marketing of All (both by Seth Godin): The first is on how to be extraordinary even if your organization isn't and the second is how to frame the story of your work so that others will believe you.
Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening (by Roger Nierenberg):This is a wonderful business parable about how different parts of an organization view the organization differently and how by getting each to understand each other's point of view a bit better, they can make beautiful music together.
What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (by Marshall Goldsmith): Yes, you are awesome. But you are not successful because you are annoying. You are successful despite it. This shows how to change.
Again, congratulations on your new post. It should be a great adventure. Let me know how it goes!