Evolution of a Project Manager

by Cinda Voegtli, President, ProjectConnections.com

What makes for a great project manager: one sought out for projects, one teams want to have in charge, one known for handling difficult projects with panache? What are the traits, actions, or capabilities that create pervasive success in the project manager role?

If you're a new project manager, do you know for sure what will make execs and team members think you're doing a great job? How do brand new project managers know not just the tasks related to their job, but what it means to really excel and succeed on the toughest projects? And what might they have to do to get there and be highly valued as a PM?

My perception of what a project manager is and how to be a great PM varied greatly over time, because I got incredibly mixed signals all along the way. Fortunately I eventually became very clear on what mattered most. I want to trace the somewhat wacky evolution of my understanding of the PM job to those conclusions-through the lens of my career-because I think it's fairly typical, but something we really shouldn't be putting new project managers through!

  • My first job was as an engineer on a large government-related electronics project. I was handed down specs and schedules from a pretty much unseen (at my level) program manager. I had to fill out a schedule status sheet once a week, and was asked to provide status slides for VERY SERIOUS STATUS MEETINGS with the customer. That was my only contact. Thus:

    (PM = keeper of the schedules and reporter to the feared Customer.)
  • Next in that company, I was a group leader for a new development effort, now responsible for setting my group's schedules in the context of the program, working with the program manager.

    (PM = integrator of the schedule puzzle and sync-meister of a very complex set of stuff going on all over the place.)

    (OK, I was starting to get a little of the value that could be part of that job...)
  • I next jumped to a commercial company, employee number 4 at a networking start-up, and built my own hardware engineering department. I set every schedule, managed my group to the deadlines, coordinated with the software director, coordinated with manufacturing... Eventually I managed full product releases too. There was no titled PM in sight; it was just part of our functional Director jobs.

    (PM = just part of the management job to get things out the door.)

Looking back at what I've written so far: ho hum, pretty standard stuff, no great shakes impression of "huge unexpected differentiated value," just a necessary part of getting it all done.

  • Same start-up company, couple of years down the road-Acquisition! And now the new parent company gave us a Project Manager of our very own. All of a sudden, we had a lot of new paperwork to do-charts, reports, more meetings, etc. The parent company had PMs as coordinators and status reporters.

    (PM = someone who makes us fill out paper we don't think we need.)
  • Later, at the same company, I moved into the role of Division Senior Project Manager for four engineering divisions of the parent company. Now it gets more interesting: complex releases; lots of scattered cross-functional departments to work with; resource conflicts; PMs across divisions in each large function (engineering, marketing, manufacturing, etc.) working behind the scenes to resolve issues, alert each other to issues, and make it flow. I still did schedule work and status. But now my sense of the job was richer:

    (PM = creative facilitator and solver of complex interdependencies through good working relationships with people.)

I was really starting to like the feel of the job now.

  • Next I jumped the corporate world to do contract PM. Ha! Even the companies that thought they needed "some kind of help getting this project done" were not sure what that should look like. They were even a little suspicious of someone actually called a project manager. The execs just wanted more hands keeping it organized and telling them it could and would get done; the people doing the work believed a project manager would be just one more person watching them and causing more paperwork.

    (PM = split personality: someone execs wanted to trust, someone workers didn't naturally trust. PM = just overhead without value add?)

    Slowly, working with the people in each instance, I started to get a feel for where people naturally saw me as adding value, and what parts of my role and my requests of them they didn't get or value. Over time I developed my own perspectives of how to be a better and better project manager focused on things that helped the project and its people.

    (PM = flexible enabler working with lots of individuals to get things done in spite of often hairy problems.)
  • Eventually I started coaching new project managers, interfacing with their executives to agree on expectations and then support the new PM in their very new role. Over and over, my first key contribution was getting rid of preconceived, hard-wired notions like, "I'm supposed to make them do these kind of schedules," or "I'm supposed to do these kind of status meetings," and the fear and uncertainty that came with it. Yes, fear! If you feel you're "supposed to" do something that doesn't feel right-maybe it seems like too much paperwork for this particular project, or too many meetings, or just a management activity that doesn't provide enough value-the result can be cognitive dissonance, reluctance to act, fear of things not going well for reasons you can't even articulate.) Instead, I helped the PM think through the most effective way to create schedules, communicate, understand progress, and so on for his team, for her company. This enhanced my own understanding of the role.

    (PM = facilitator of a team of people just trying to do their best towards an important project goal, creatively making PM tools work for very particular people and projects and their unique goals.)

Hmm. Could this really be part of becoming a great PM-this continued emphasis on flexibility and creativity? Who'd a thunk it, when I started out being told it was about schedules and status reports that seemed like really rigid PM "rules" I had to follow? This other emphasis was certainly feeling more and more fulfilling to me!

  • As I coached PMs and did methodology work inside companies (mostly to get PM and development processes actually working for teams as opposed to being just so much paper), I realized that part of my role was to counter some bad impressions, and get people to see that a PM is not just someone who makes us fill out all that paper in the dreaded "Big Process Binder."

    Bolstering this realization, as I worked with executives more and more, it was fascinating to hear them talk about what they wanted the methodology to do for their teams and the coaching to do for their PMs. "I just need teams to not repeat stupid mistakes we should know how to avoid," they would say. "The methodology simply provides guidelines for doing that." And, "I need the PMs to lead their teams through tough decisions. We can never do it all-so tell me how we can meet the most important company goals with the people and the money we've got. Then work with all the different personalities and abilities we've got and use the right tools from the methodology to get us there."

    (PM = leader, and effective methodology-user, to help the team meet the business goals.)

Well, this is certainly getting closer to the money-we're talking business goals here, what the company needs to accomplish. That emphasis certainly should help keep me and my project manager role closer to the value proposition.

  • Now I help manage projects in our own company. I'm the executive sponsor for many, and serve as project manager for some. Projects are generally no more than a quarter long and many are a week or so-very fast iterative development. What matters most is not detailed task lists and schedule tracking. We're a relatively small team, each with our domain specialties. The main need is making sure that everyone understands the company goals driving the need for each project, and what each project most needs to accomplish to meet the immediate company goals. Everyone has signed up to specific deadlines, and keeps interacting enough through questions and changes to stay in sync and make sure they're working on the right priorities in the midst of multiple projects..

    (PM = goal champion and communication framework provider, no micro-management required or desired.)

Without that focus, with so much we could always be doing, it's just too easy to get working on things that are not the most important, or to get something out too late because of misunderstandings. So again-operating close to the money-the goals of the business! This is absolutely critical to delivering value as a PM-and being consistently seen as delivering value.

Perhaps this all seems obvious and trite, especially to those of you with lots of experience. But I don't think I'm the only one who started doing PM work with the sense that it was about paperwork and detail coordination that execs and teams didn't necessarily understand or see as highly valuable. I had to develop my own personal sense of the value proposition over time, seeing what helped people, what resonated with executives, what helped solve the tough project problems. And what ultimately got the seemingly impossible projects done in spite of it all, got me promotions and follow-on consulting jobs, and made my company successful.

To summarize a few personal conclusions from the path of my "PM perception evolution," that I think matter for all our careers:

  • Beware the perception of PM as paper-pusher. Schedules, status, coordination, all matter. But if this is what people think our job is, forget about being highly valued. Paper is a tool for, and can help with, analyzing, summarizing, communicating, and identifying goals, work, problems, etc. But the paper part of our jobs can't get us all the way to solutions for complex problems-and focusing too much on that aspect can turn people off. If that happens, they may never see the highest value we do have to offer.
  • Being genuine with people, treating them as the customer of whatever you as PM are doing, matters a huge amount. Do not spout the party line on what the PM job is. Ask questions, listen, demonstrate flexibility, and be willing to help people get their work done in a myriad of ways.
  • Even the scariest-sounding executives really just want a credible partner in getting things done, someone with the moxie and courage and persistence to tell it like it is and help wrestle problems to the ground. There is huge career value hiding here.

This seems very clear to me now! But I don't even like to think about how long I took to develop these perceptions. Don't we owe our new PMs a faster and more consistent understanding of what it means to be a great PM so they can pursue it from the beginning? How many different ideas about this are we fostering in different companies, or even different groups in the same company?

In other special career-oriented newsletters during the year, I and others will elaborate on aspects of what we've come to believe about great PMs, including impressions from Executives (those who hire us and sign our checks), impressions from team members (those we're supposed to be helping and serving), how to bring new project managers up to speed on all these aspects of the role, and a variety of other career-related subjects. Meanwhile, check out the related site resources we've noted below, and sound off below if this is something you're passionate about!

Cinda Voegtli

For another perspective on how we confuse new project managers (by not admitting to the realities of the job) see Kimberly Wiefling's article this week: Wild Success in 2008 through Optimism and High Self-esteem

Do I have it right? Do you think I'm way off base? Have I missed something critical? Send me your passionate thoughts on what really matters.

If you're a new project manager with more questions about what you should be focusing on to really survive, succeed, and shine, send me your questions.

If you're responsible for multiple projects and project managers and intensely interested in how to best bring new PMs up to speed, oversee those multiple challenging projects, and help those PMs deal with issues and get it all done, write to me with your best approaches to creating groups of great PMs, or your biggest questions and challenges in doing so. (Surely we're not the only ones who are passionate about this, and I'd love to hook up with more like-minded colleagues!)

Selected comments may be posted on the site unless you request otherwise. Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Lynn B
Oklahoma, USA
I do believe that one of the many attributes of a successful PM is the ability to adapt to the many different personalities present on any given project team. (I have been on projects where the PM expected the team members to adapt to them and she struggled quite a bit!) I would be very interested to hear how other organizations are managing their Project Portfolios. The tools they are using, what type of information they are reporting to the various levels of management within the organization and the level of complexity that the tool is to use.

Naeem C
I am working for a relatively new Telecom Company in Pakistan and my perception of Project Management differs with that of the General Manager. He thinks that Project Management is only about getting the different stakeholders together, holding meetings and reporting whether deadlines are met or not to the Board. I do believe that his goals are part and parcel of a bigger package which includes day to day monitoring of the different projects, suggesting measures to improve the targets, cost control and helping the contactors and their subcontractors to improve their performance. I would love to hear what you think of my approach.

Mark L
Miami, USA
Building a great project management team, much of the material posted on this site is right on with respect to building a high functioning PM team. First and foremost each and every slot must be filled with a confident leader. Too many groups staff PM slots with little more than administrators. Methodology can be taught much easier than leadership can. From a group perspective the methodology must be taught as a tool set with very practical application. Again too many shops spend a great deal of time turning these common sense set of tools into rocket science that our customers find confusing and see little value in. Leadership combined with practical application are the building blocks of a great PM shop that delivers tremendous value to the customer.

Debbie L
Kentucky, USA
As a relatively new "official" PM, I've searched and searched for articles describing what makes a good PM. Not really finding anything, I just approached my project management with the attitude that I would do whatever worked best for each particular project team and got the project moving towards a successful completion. I always do the mandated paperwork, although I tailor my WBS's to the needs of the team, i.e. a high level WBS vs. a detailed task oriented WBS. Your article helped me to feel more confident that my style is what will make me a great PM in time. I know that I have the respect of my teams and that they feel I'm very helpful to them in getting the project work complete; I've just had a difficult time believing this was enough to make me a good PM.

Rudy L
Chicago, USA

I especially enjoyed the following:

Even the scariest-sounding executives really just want a credible partner in getting things done, someone with the moxie and courage and persistence to tell it like it is and help wrestle problems to the ground. There is huge career value hiding here.
I am new to project management, with no formal training in this process. I had to sprint out to a bookstore and snag a book that promised to teach me what I needed to know. What I found most interesting were not the forms, but the methods for sorting through the thinking process. But, again, the most important part is getting the job done, on time, and your quote, snipped above, is the single most important reason for developing the skills of project management. So many times we get ambushed by the process and forget that, in business, it's all about getting results.

Karen W
Maryland, USA
You are right on Cinda! I was a computer programmer who really fought to get the job of technical PM at my company. Interestingly, I started the same way you did - creating documents and schedules and trying to convince people why they were important. After four years, I finally feel respected and valued. Is it because I made people fill out a bunch of paper work and stick to a schedule? No. It's because I manage their projects to completion and maintain the focus. I concentrate on the details they may have forgotten. I jump in and simplify things when they get overwhelmed. I respect and value their time.

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