Executive Views on Being a Great PM – Part 1

So what DO executives think of us as project managers and what do they value?   I know from conferences and other interaction with project managers that being valued by their executives is something of a holy grail – and seemingly not nearly common enough.  Thinking back, I realize that I was about 7 years into my career as an engineer and manager before I got even a first inkling from an exec of how they personally thought about project management.   And I was 12 years in overall and about 6 years into project management work before I got really good role-modeling of true project leadership behavior – what upper-level courageous and business-focused PM role looks like – and direct messages from executives that “this is what I’m looking for”.   (Gad!  How can we do these jobs for so long without better clues from the ultimate customer of our work?)

Well, perhaps controversially to some, I’d maintain it’s at least partly due to the fact that as we are introduced to our PM role, we are taught some about philosophy and a LOT about the mechanics. 

Gotta learn it all – scheduling, estimating, communicating, detailed techniques for doing so.  We’re sent to class to get some starting foundation; we are handed the methodology binder of “how we do things” if our company has one; we hear the emphasis on professional certification around the right way to do things, and we see our company’s emphasis on corporate compliance through processes and documentation.  Overall, we learn what we’re “supposed to do” as PMs.   And  a lot of what we’re evidently supposed to do is (in my opinion) those mechanics of project management.   If our company is new to project management, and everyone is sufficiently busy, we may get none of the above inputs to start, and fly by the seat of our pants WONDERING what we’re “supposed to do” and always being on the lookout for clues.

What I’ve learned from dealing with executives is that their higher-level view of the world comes in really handy for helping project managers focus on what’s most needed and what is therefore most valuable. And it may not be exactly what we feel all those other sources are telling us we’re “supposed to do” as PMs!  

My first exposure to an exec’s view of PM came after my start-up had been acquired, and the president of the parent company was going to visit to check us out.  Mass preparation around demonstrating competence to the new boss!  Especially important to us, the managers in the old start-up were all in our late 20s, we were concerned that this was an important referendum on our fitness to stay in our positions.   I was overseeing a big release at the time as Director of Hardware Engineering and by that time we had been given a project manager by the parent company.   I was instructed that we needed to demonstrate our handle on the release schedule by printing out all our detail, hanging it on the wall, wowing the guy with how much we knew, referring to it when making a status presentation.  So we did – hours of printing, hanging detailed schedule pieces on the wall to get ready (schedules I knew would change the next week in places….but oh well). 

The exec arrived.  Serious meeting began.  It was time to present schedule status.   We gave the milestone overview and waved at the wall detail to cover more detail.  He looked around the room briefly at all the detail on the walls.  Then he beckoned me to one chart and pointed at a milestone and said something along the lines of “So tell me how you handle this milestone for transitioning from the first phase of the project into full development.  How do you know you’re ready enough, so you don’t send 50 programmers off doing work that will be off target and require big changes or even totally thrown away?”    So I briefly mentioned our spec reviews, how we decided than an area of the spec was good enough to allow work to start, how we used our own form of design review to keep tabs, and under what circumstances we’d let risky stuff start because we had to do some design and coding before we could even know what we had.   And that was it.  He said “Good.  That’s a place a lot of money can get wasted.” And he sat down and was ready to move on. 

What did I learn from that?  To this exec, PM effectiveness wasn’t about pre-set assumptions on the “right” quantity of detail in a schedule, or exactly how we worte specs, or any level of mechanics detail.  His only “supposed to do” items were at the high level – things that would impact the business decisions on the project, the money spent executing it – and whether we seemed to know how to use our “toolkit” of mechanics (whatever they were for us) to keep on top of the business aspects.   He focused there to judge our competence and credibility.  Looking back at my answer,  I actually felt a sense of liberation.   I really DID think highly of how we made those transition decisions;  we had worked them out as part of our functional manager/project manager dual roles, in a way we felt worked well for our technical projects and our teams.   This President DIDN”T put me through the wringer over a certain “way to do things”.  I felt he rewarded our thinking (and our creativity with our own management processes!)  with his executive stamp of approval.   

That one experience was pretty eye-opening for me.  I realized I truly had had feelings of fear getting ready for that presentation.  I was afraid I’d be told I was wrong, that I wasn’t doing it the right way, that I wasn’t up to snuff as a manager.  Talk about bad for your confidence level!   His unexpected response  – validating my using my brain to be the best manager I could be for the situation – started me on a path to viewing every new management challenge with more freedom to think and design and try.   While I still wanted to learn all I could from classes or books or possible ways to do things and what other people were doing – I felt very free to NOT let those sources get in the way of just working with my teams and using our own judgment to make project management and technical management processes work best for us and for the business. I came to believe that part of being a great PM is to not be afraid of, limited by, or unduly influenced in your situation by what anyone else has said you’re “supposed to do”.   It may or may not be a good idea for your company, your team, your project, the situation you’re facing this week. 

In short – I believe that one key to being a great PM is to be able and willing to work with people, work with the project situation and goals at hand, and do our PMing in a way that makes sense and gets the job done.  Thank you Mr. Executive!

Tomorrow I’m going to take this executive theme further with some direct quotes from executives about what they value in PMs in their organizations (and look at how what they say matches up with what PM job descriptions typically ask for!)

Cinda Voegtli




1 thought on “Executive Views on Being a Great PM – Part 1”

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    Cinda, thanks so much for your article! It’s really inspiring! Lately I’ve began to change my project management view a little bit. I’ve realized that project management is not just about the project, but also about the people that take part in it. I know it might sound ridiculous, but well… You got to give your team a little bit more freedom of collaboration, but try not to miss control at the same time. Lots of project management tools, like Wrike for example help to give your people freedom and still let you be in control. What do you think? I’m really interested in this question.

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