Executive Views on Being a Great PM – Part 2

Continuing my observations on what executives value – what THEY think makes a great PM.   First, by contrast, it’s interesting to note what the job ads for project managers say.  Here’s a sampling of line items I’ve seen in such ads, 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.

You could argue that they’re all important.   But the items near the bottom start to approach the real differentiators.   But even those items as worded don’t capture how the attributes play out daily on the ground: what great PM really “looks like.”    To get that flavor, here are some comments I’ve gotten from executive 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 that 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 within 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 PMs’ 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 even a need.  Then they bring us solutions.   We are more than happy to trust them with the next set of issues or projects.  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 a 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 this picture doesn’t contradict those job description bullets, to me they certainly paint a clearer picture of the ultimate in strong PMs than the standard job description bullets.    What I take away from this: and my own opinions are in line with the 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 they pushback they often need on unreasonable demands!   in a framework the executives will understand.
  • Leadership and initiative  â€“ 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, meeting management don’t matter.  But the executives words certainly seem to indicate that those skills are not the career-driving differentiators of the truly great PMs.   So as we’re thinking about what we’re getting judged for in our own careers, and what will enable our path forward, these qualifications seem critical !

I’ll use the next two days’ blogs to talk about more about aspects of PM greatness including more about leadership in the PM great-ness context;  whether you need to be “technical” to be a great  PM in a tech company or IT;  and a few more thoughts on what this all means to our careers!

Cinda Voegtli




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