What Makes a Good Project Manager?

I recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of having achieved my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.  The last 20 years have seen tremendous change in the field of project management.  Google had just started a couple of years earlier, and Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet.  The changes in technology and in our society have presented a lot of challenges and opportunities to project managers.  However, the fundamental truth of project management remains.  Project managers get things done.

Project managers are, by our very nature, people who get things done.  We organize, we communicate, we hold people accountable.  We define the scope of our projects and pursue our goals with dogged determination.  We don’t have all the answers, but we know where to go get them.  The phrase “it’s not my job” is not in our vocabulary.  When something goes wrong, we step up to the plate and we bring people together to tackle the biggest challenges.  We are responsible.  We are flexible.  We are determined.  We are… project managers.

Technology changes.  People change.  Culture changes.  And so do project managers.  But our core function has remained the same as with the large weapons development projects of World War II.  If you ask any project manager “how do you eat an elephant?”, the response will invariably be “one bite at a time”.  The tools we use have evolved and improved.  The human resources we rely on may change their priorities, their focus, and their capabilities.  But we still need to find the right resource for the job, we still need to break down the project into manageable chunks, and we still need to set priorities and deadlines.  And we need to make sure everyone who needs to know, knows.

I have fewer project management years ahead of me than behind me, and in all this time I will share that the most important tool in my toolbox has been the relationships that I’ve built with my teams.  Whether project resources, resource managers, stakeholders, or fellow project managers, developing strong relationships with them has helped me complete more projects successfully than not, and has helped me grow in my career. 

If you are just starting your journey into project management, or you are a seasoned veteran, mind the relationships with all the people that have a role to play in your project.  Keeping open, honest lines of communication with them will go a long way to helping you be a successful project manager.  Oh, and be sure to get your PMP.

Bridging the Gap Between IT and the Business

Information technology (IT) has come a long way in 30 years. In many ways technology is as ubiquitous as the telephone or the calculator. But is technology helping the business ultimately succeed?

The goal of a great IT organization should be to help the business achieve its goals through the application of technology. So if the business is to manufacture widgets, how can technology be applied to make more widgets, faster and cheaper? And how can technology help distribute the widgets so they end up with customers?

In order to do this, IT leaders need to understand widget manufacturing. And hence the dilemma. Does the IT Leader focus on technology or on the business?

The easy answer is both, but reality is a bit more complicated. As with many other professions, people rise to the top when they’re good at what they do. The top sales rep gets promoted to sales manager. This dynamic ignores the fact that the skills to be a top sales rep are not the same as those needed to be a good manager. A similar dynamic applies to IT leadership jobs. Often the best technologists are promoted to leadership positions without regard to their abilities to understand, and therefore support the business.

This is not to say top technologists don’t make great IT leaders. What I am saying is that there needs to be a balance between technology and business acumen. IT organizations need highly specialized technologists, and they also need highly skilled business leaders. Only then can they bridge the gap between IT and the business.

This also applies to the top leadership role in an IT organization. The Chief Information Officer (CIO) needs to be an integral part of the senior business leadership team. His or her job is to understand the business and apply technology to help the business succeed, or to make sure he or she has the IT team necessary to accomplish this goal. And the journey begins with making sure everyone in the IT organization understands the company vision, mission, and strategy. IT folks are smart. They’ll get it. But you need to show them the way.

Consider business workshops for your IT teams. With a continuous training program aimed at improving business skills and understanding, you help bridge the gap. And consider seeding savvy business leaders in your IT teams. The technology can be taught, but the business knowledge and experience can be invaluable. And ask yourself this one question every day. What did I do to help the business succeed?

Positive Leadership

I’m currently taking a leadership course at work, and one of the important aspects they teach is “positive leadership”. Being positive, having a positive attitude, and approaching others with a positive mindset in an important part of being a good leader.

This seems self-evident, but apparently not as evident as one would hope. There are still many folks who don’t subscribe to this philosophy. I recall management types from the 80’s, “management by intimidation”, and the like. But as the workforce makes a generational switch to millennials, positive leadership takes an even more important role.

As a leader, I cannot rely on “because I said so” to get folks to do what I need them to do. That really never worked, not for any length of time, but especially not now. People want to know why they do things, how they are contributing to something bigger. People need to be “engaged”, they need to buy into whatever it is you are selling. They need to follow you because they want to. The hierarchical relationships of the past do not hold the same influence they once did. And someone can pretend they are following you only so long. Eventually they will need to follow you even when you are not looking, and that is where the true believers and the sceptics can be found.

There are a lot of elements in the workplace that cannot be controlled, but of the few that can be, your attitude is one you can control. How you react to situations, to people, to challenges, defines you and affects those around you. You can choose to meet challenges with a smile or as a grouch. Guess which one will affect your colleagues more positively?

Maintaining a positive attitude during a challenge allows you to think more clearly, to project an image of confidence, and opens doors of possibilities to meet the challenge. It inspires people around you and creates and image of competence. Insurmountable challenges are rare. They typically spell the end of an organization. Most challenges can be overcome. But you have to maintain a positive attitude. Not only for yourself, but for those you lead.

This requires to maintain focus on your attitude. From the moment you wake up until you go to sleep, did you have a positive attitude? Did you smile? Did you say “thank you”? Did you offer praise? Did you give any feedback? Did you receive any? Getting angry and being grouchy only serves to make you less effective, less capable, and it is a complete turn off for those around you. Think about that when you face your next challenge. Take a deep breath, smile, and keep a positive attitude. This will get you a lot farther than the alternative.

My personal leadership philosophy

As a leader, I will work to inspire you to do better and to succeed. I see it as my personal responsibility to support you, to provide you with direction and encouragement, and to help remove any obstacles that may be in your way to accomplishing your goals. I believe that your success is my success.

I value honesty, integrity, and hard work. I will always choose to do the right thing, I will give you honest, direct feedback, and I will always put forth my best effort. I expect the same from you.

Accomplishing 80% of something is better than 100% of nothing. I believe in quality but not at the expense of accomplishments. Making mistakes in pursuit of a goal is ok as long as you learn from them and improve.

I will maintain a laser focus on my customer. Who is your customer? What are their needs? Maintain your focus on them, and make sure your actions are designed to meet their needs. Focus and base your decisions on them, and you will be right more often than not. Be confident of that. Don’t be afraid to act.

I do not tolerate dishonesty or laziness. Work hard and always strive to do the right thing even if it is harder. I prefer you fail attempting to do the right thing than succeed doing the wrong thing.

Have fun doing your job. I don’t mean cartwheels and dancing, but rather enjoy what you do. I can’t guarantee every day will be smiles and sunshine, but I expect you to wake up most mornings enthused to come to work. What can I do to help make sure this happens?

I like people who are energetic, motivated, who take the initiative and who are not afraid of making mistakes. I prefer a “glass half full” attitude. I dislike “analysis paralysis”. Make a decision. If you are unsure, ask for help. Asking for help or guidance from me is not a sign of weakness. Know I am here to do everything I can to help you succeed.

Why I chose to become a project manager

The original title of this post was “Why I became a project manager”. But I noticed it implied happenstance. It just happened. And that is not true. I chose to become a project manager. Through many decisions along my career I always chose a path that kept me tied to this profession.

Why? Because I like to get things done. It’s as easy as that.

I’ve been involved in technology project management for over 20 years. I started at a time when this role was ill defined in the technology industry. Salespeople managed projects. Engineers managed projects. Product trainers managed projects. The concept of a dedicated, professional project manager was foreign to many people. But there were some who took up the cause. I admired them. Why? Because they got things done.

Project managers are a rare breed. We are often responsible for getting things done but are rarely given the authority or resources to do it right. We have to beg, borrow, and steal resources, and we have to lead. We have to deliver results. We have to communicate with everyone who has a stake in the project and keep them informed. We have to escalate issues, we have to manage scope, and we have to demonstrate an uncanny ability to negotiate, navigate the rough political waters, and drop the hammer when necessary while maintaining good relations with everyone.

It’s a tough job. Not everyone is cut out to be a project manager. You need superior organizational and communications skills, you need to be able to juggle multiple conflicting priorities, and you need to keep your cool under pressure. Your authority comes from your ability to lead others and convince them you’ve got what it takes to get the job done. It’s all about getting the job done.

Despite the challenges, project managers are driven by the need to complete their project on time and under budget. The satisfaction that comes from a post implementation review where everything went well is great, but rare. Something always goes awry. What separates a good project manager from a great one is how they handle change. A change in scope, a realized risk, or a change in environment that challenges the project. These are common. Project managers that rise to the occasion and steer their projects true are not.

I’ve had the privilege of witnessing great project managers throughout my career, and my desire to be like them drives me to constantly challenge myself, learn new skills, and strive to be the best project manager I can be. I’ve learned through the years that great project managers strive to deliver results to their key stakeholders. It is the pursuit of this greatness that fuels my desire to keep working at this, to keep getting better.

Project managers are truly special people, especially in a technology environment which requires a steady hand and leadership to ensure technology delivers clear business results. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to be in their company.