The Medal-Worthy PMs Executives Are Desperate To Hire

by Cinda Voegtli, President,

I watched the Olympics last week and was astounded anew. Yes, by the sheer speed and strength of the athletes. But much more so by the infinitesimal differences between the medal winners, and even among the top 5-10 athletes in some sports! "Oh, she was really slow ... she finished 0.4 seconds behind the leader – not good enough to even come close to a medal. Tsk tsk."

0.4 seconds. Only 0.4 seconds! And among the medal winners the gap was often much smaller than that. To be judged medal worthy (or not) on such a small difference?

It got me thinking about project managers' performance and what separates the best from the rest. This is important to me as I think about project management talent to hire for the company; it's important to all of us as we strive for the best careers possible. But that statement of importance doesn't capture the emotion I feel around this subject. At some points in my history of managing and coaching PMs, I have found myself feeling truly desperate to find another (sometimes elusive) "medal-worthy PM."

Why my feeling of desperation? What's the problem? The fact is that there really are plenty of good project managers out there. Good at scheduling, running meetings, communicating, following up on details. But when the stakes are high—the business is on the line; the customer deadlines are short and demanding; the environment is uncooperative, chaotic, and seemingly impossible—"good" is usually not good enough. There are subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the medal winners and the rest—differences that can absolutely make the difference on your projects, and in your career!

I've learned that other executives feel the same. Lately I've been doing some informal polling of colleagues who manage project managers—Directors and VPs mostly—about what they value in a project manager. Who are their very best and brightest? Who's likely to get the best rewards and promotions? Who do they depend on the most for results – who is 'indispensable'? And why? As I suspected, the crazy environment so many of us operate in leads these executives to a very specific and thought-provoking set of "hot button" differentiators their medal-contender PMs exhibit. But before I let you in on those ...

What the Ads Say People Want in PMs
For grins, as I jotted down my own "great PM" attributes and gathered them from colleagues, I decided to check out advertisements for project manager jobs. What do companies say they're looking for in these ads?

Here are some very standard words pulled from various job postings, covering a mix of PM skills and personality attributes:

  • Proficient in project planning, organizing, team motivation, and delegation.
  • Budgeting and data analysis skills.
  • Understanding and experience with related business and development processes
  • Goal-Oriented, self-directed, needs little direction.
  • Strong communication and customer service skills.
  • Excellent documentation skills.
  • Team player and able to manage others through teamwork.
  • Excellent written, verbal, and interpersonal communication skills.
  • Excellent organizational skills and attention to detail.
  • Excellent time management skills.
  • Ability to work with tight deadlines in an ever changing environment.
  • Fast learner with ability to operate effectively in new environments.
  • Able to work independently on multiple projects and also collaborate as a strong team member in a fast-paced environment.
  • Ability to integrate information from multiple sources in order to anticipate issues, come up with solutions, and resolve the problems.
  • Ability to influence individuals at all levels in different departments, including senior executives.
  • High degree of commitment, flexibility, self-motivation, self-confidence, assertiveness, and high tolerance of ambiguity.

Of course I agree those are all important. And the items near the bottom start to approach the flavor of the attributes I consider "medal-critical." But even those items don't capture how the attributes play out daily on the ground – what the medal-winning performances "look like."

The Medal-Contenders My Executive Colleagues Are Looking For
Now for what I've heard from colleagues about PMs they've valued the most highly or what they most value in PMs in general.

From a Director of Hardware Engineering: "He cares deeply about making the right product and technical decisions for the company. He speaks up on his convictions, even challenging the CTO on the product definition, and shows leadership on the toughest issues we face— he drives us to solve them, he gets the right people in the room, he doesn't shrink from tough trade-off discussions nor wait for us to initiate them. He drives."

From a VP of Engineering: "She commands the teams' respect across functions—she is respected for her knowledge of customers and our system and is proactive on cross-functional issues such as deployment that can cause big problems after delivery. She is also a vocal 'teacher' about how to do it right, which helps bring our developers up to speed. And they accept her knowledge, even about 'dreaded process,' because she's respected."

From a President of a small company: "He's different because he both understands methodologies—project management and development processes, for example—but also because he understands how to make it work for our environment. No bureaucracy, lots of flexibility, the right steps we need to get a project completed fast but not skipping steps that will impact the financial outcome of the project. That is critical for project management to work for us here."

From a VP of Marketing: "He is very much a driver, knows how to get things done, doesn't take no for an answer. He has an excellent understanding of the company and the business and he knows how to use to facilitate fast project decision-making. There's always more we could do than we have time for. It is critical here to have someone leading the tough project decision-making. I always have confidence in his recommendations, know he's involved the right people. He saves me a lot of time and angst. And I trust him to get things done and let me know if there's an issue that really needs my involvement."

From a Director of Software Projects: "When I consider what PMs I will 'invest in' to grow and promote in the company, I value the PM's philosophy over their initial behavior. I need the PMs who understand the business, and understand the pressure I'm under to balance company financial goals with speed and quality constraints. I need them to be able to work with me to pro-con the best approach and handle the risks of whatever we choose. If they have 'behavior' issues—I mean the need to work on people skills, meeting management skills, whatever—I can deal with that as long as they're also willing to be coached. But it's much harder in my book to change someone's basic philosophy toward what the PM's role is supposed to be: flexible, driving, business-aware, problem-solving, and mature."

From a VP of a Technology Development group: "The people who get promoted here and given big opportunities are those who take initiative to solve tough problems; whether problems happening within their existing projects, or problems that would require us to start a new project to address. The best ones do this before the executives have realized there is one. Then they bring us solutions. We are more than happy to trust them with the next set. They've proved they take a wide view and are looking out for the interests of the overall organization."

From a Division Director: "I'm not an operational detailed guy. I set the vision for our programs and tend to assume it's all happening unless I see or hear differently. I can't work with people who bring me copious project detail and expect me to 'get' the bottom line. I value the people who can speak to me quickly, bottom line, with impacts and recommendations. I can make decisions fast in that mode and I develop a trust for the info those people bring me. I cannot adjust to those who can only relay details. They will never be seen as executive material here—nor treated as right-hand-person to any executive."

From a VP of a Product Line: "You know, I don't even know that much detail of exactly how our project managers do everything they do—what tools they use, how exactly they go about scheduling. What I do know, and look for, is whether they are on top of things and can give me a bottom line answer whenever I ask for it. By that I mean, what is the bottom line state of the project? What are the risks, and are they handled? The quality of their answer drives my trust in their project management. And within that, I personally look for thoroughness in areas that I know drive our profitability. Have we tested something adequately before we put it out? Has the cross functional team truly considered costs? Our best PMs are those I've learned to trust in those areas."

Wow. Although none of this contradicts those job description bullets, to me it certainly paints a clearer picture of the ultimate in strong PMs.

What I take away from this (and my own opinions are in line with those above) are two key elements:
  • Business-driven, bottom-line communication and decision-making: Being able to lead the project through the craziness with the business goals firmly in front and provide executives the information they need—and the pushback they often need on unreasonable demands!—in a framework the executives will understand.

  • Leadership and initiative: Doing what's needed in tough situations, unbidden, and with a mature attitude. Executives are looking for PMs who act and operate nearer their executive level than PMs might have realized!

It's not that traditional PM skills like scheduling, tracking, and meeting management don't matter. But the executives words certainly seem to indicate that those skills are not the career-driving differentiators of the 'medal-worthy.' So as we think about what we're getting judged for in our own careers, and what will enable our path forward, these medal-driving qualifications are critical.

So What Does This Mean For You?
It means you have opportunity! Even if the above aspects have not been a key part of your PM development yet, if for any reason this sounds overwhelming, it shouldn't. Herein lies a wealth of opportunity for your career that is nowhere close to impossible to achieve.

  • Executives are desperate for leadership at all levels of their organization. Projects require leadership. If projects were all easy, we could get by with clear-cut uncomplicated management of the tasks and deadlines. But in reality our projects typically require strong leadership: vision-setting and communication, keeping the business in mind, making tough calls among different options all along the way. The more project experience you get, if you're paying attention to the business aspects and taking initiative to solve the problems you see (and if you're willing to step outside your comfort zone when necessary), you will be exhibiting leadership. Executives desperately want people who can lead. They will respond favorably when they see it in you!

  • The business-drivers can be learned. I know that some environments treat PMs as schedule managers and don't particularly think they need to know much about the business driving the projects. But even if you're in that situation, "the business" is swirling all around your project efforts. It's driving executive decisions anyway. It's up to you to learn about those business-related drivers. Read the Marketing specs. Take a product manager or business analyst to lunch. Keep up with other projects and the decisions they're making and why. Understand the company's market or customer base. It can be done! Then you can participate, and even anticipate, instead of just being on the receiving end of executives' business-driven decisions on your project. Plus you'll make a name for yourself as 'someone who understands the business."

    If you already have this business understanding, make sure you're getting credit for the extra value that it brings. Look for places where your business understanding could be brought to bear on project decisions and take the initiative to insert yourself into the decision-making process to get your knowledge and perspective into play. The more you contribute, the more the executives will notice.

    Re-read all those executive quotes above and count how many times it got mentioned. This is a career-driver!

My Closing Words on Medal-Worthy PMs
The athletes in Torino got gold, silver or bronze and some cash, and some will get career-building advertising contracts and retirement-from-competition job opportunities. The medal-worthiness of a PM can lead to a lifetime of benefits as well. I know that when I've found them, I've rejoiced, hired them, found money for raises and perks, paid attention to their career goals, and vowed to never let them get away as long as we've had a reason to work together. And I've kept in touch with every single one I've ever known ... in case I ever need them again!

Related Links

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Victims and Vanquishers at the End of a Project
PM Raves: On Being a PM I Want to Hire -- Standing UP for Real Release Dates
An Executive View of Career- and Success-Limiting "Boxes"

Mini-Case Studies (read them in about 15 minutes each):
How an IT Team Broke Free from the Requirements Morass
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Practical Ways to Expand Your Skills
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PM Support Survey - PREMIUM

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