Aspects of Being a Great Project Manager

This week I’ll be writing about what it means to be a great project manager – from the perspective of my own career and interactions with other PMs; from what i’ve heard executives say about what they value; and from the unique, interesting and opportunity-filled career paths I’ve observed and heard about specific project managers pulling off!   As a sneak peek at the week, those aspects will hit on what leadership means and looks like in the PM role, what execs say they want in a PM (vs. what all those PM job advertisements might say), whether it’s possible to change someone’s perspective of a PM from “ho hum” or even negative to “great PM”, and what contributes to a PM being able to switch industries.   This all comes down to the concept of being VALUED as a project manager. We all want to be valued for what we do and contribute–but it’s not automatic!  

To start, I’ll quickly cover how my perception of what a project manager is and how to be a great PM evolved over time. Frankly I feel like i got incredibly mixed signals all along the way!  And I see this all over still – how do we know, and especially how do brand new project managers know, not just the tasks related to their job, but what it means to really excel, and what they might have to do to get there and be highly valued as a PM?

The evolution of my understanding of the PM job through the lens of my career:

 – 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 and asked to provide status slides for VERY SERIOUS STATUS MEETINGS with the customer.  (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 the commercial side, employee number 4 at a networking start-up, and built my own hardware engineering department.  I set every schedule, managed my group to them, coordinated with software director, coordinated with manufacturing…. eventually managed full product releases too.  No titled PM in site, it was just part of our functional Director jobs.  (PM = just part of the management job to get things out the door).

Interim comment – looking back at what i’ve written so far: ho hum, pretty standard stuff, no great shakes impression of “huge positive value”, just necessary,  gotta get it all done…

 – Same start-up company, couple of years down to road – Acquisition!  And now the new parent company gave us a Project Manager of our very own.   All of a sudden, new paperwork to do – charts, reports, etc etc.  Parent company had PMs as coordinators and status reporters.   (PM = someone who makes us fill out paper we don’t think we need).

 – Move to Division Senior Project Manager for 4 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 in each large functions (engineering, marketing, manufacturing etc.) across divisions worked behind the scenes to resolve issues, alert each other to issues, make it flow.  Still did schedules etc.   But now — “PM = creative facilitator and solver of complex interdependencies through good working relationships with people.”  I was REALLY starting to like the feel of this now.

– 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 and even a little suspicous of someone 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 were skeptical that it 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 = might be just overhead without value add.)   Slowly, working with the people in each instance, I started to get the feel for where people naturally saw me as adding value vs. what they didn’t get.  I developed my own perspectives of how to be a better and better project manager….  PM = flexible enabler working with lots of individuals to and get things done in spite of often hairy problems.

– Eventually started doing coaching of new project managers and interfacing with their executives to agree on expectations and then support the new PM in their very new role.  Over and over, my key contribution ended up being getting rid of preconceived hard-wired notions about “I’m supposed to make them do these kind of schedules”, “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 – cognitive dissonance, reluctance to act, fear of things not going well for reasons you can’t even articulate…)    Instead, helping the PM think through what would be the most effective way to create schedules, communicate, understand progress etc. FOR HIS TEAM, HER COMPANY.    This enhanced my own understanding of  PM as facilitator of a team of specific people just trying to do their best towards an important project goal, creatively making PM tools work for very particular people and 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?    This other emphasis was certaintly 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 so much paper – and countering the impression of PM as someone who makes us fill out all that paper in the dreaded “Big Process Binder” –  I had to work 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 – the methodology simply provides guidelines for doing that.”      


“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 to get us there and use the right tools from the methodology to get us there. 

[PM as leader (and effective methodology-user)  to meet the business goals.]”  Well, this is certainly getting closer to the “money” – we’re talking business goals here, that certainly should help keep me closer to the value proposition….

– Now I help manage projects in our own company   I’m the exec 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 etc.  We’re a relatively small team each with our domain specialties.  The main need for each project is  making sure that everyone understands the goals of the company that are driving the need for the project, 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 all stay in sync.  (PM as goal-champion and communication framework provider, no micro-management required or desired).   Without that focus, with always so much we could be doing, it’s just too easy to get working on things that are NOT the most important, or NOT get something out soon enough because of misunderstanding etc.    So again – operating “close to the money” – the goals of the business!  Absolutely critical to deliveriing value as a PM – and being consistently seen as delivering value.

Perhaps this all seems obvious and trite – but I don’t think I’m the only one who started doing PM work with the sense that it was about paperwork and coorination and “stuff” that was not necessarily seen by teams or execs as being 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 got me promotions, what got me follow-on consulting jobs, what made my company successful.   To summarize a few personal conclusions from the path of  my “PM perception evolution:”

– Beward 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, identifying goals, work, problems etc.  But the paper part of our jobs can’t get us all the way to solutions for complex problems etc. and focusing too much on that aspect can turn people off to what we also 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 a party line on what the PM job is.  Ask questions, listen, demonstrate flexiblity, and 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.   (More on this later this week). There is huge career value hiding here.

– And finally –   I don’t even like to think about how long a time my perceptions evolved over.  Don’t we owe our new PMs a faster understanding of what it means to be a great PM so they can pursue it from the beginning?   How many different ideas of great PM-ness are we fostering in different companies or even different groups in the same company?

To do my part to  help with that last item :-),  the rest of my blogging week will be devoted to elaborating on a few aspects of what I’ve come to believe about great PMness (including impressions from Executives, those who hire us and sign our checks), and from team members (those who we’re supposed to be helping and serving).

Cinda Voegtli


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