The path to excellence

Recently I attended a Commonwealth Club lecture on Women in Business. Ilene Lang, President of Catalyst, was there and brought forth some sobering statistics about women in leadership positions.

I must admit, I tend to be very cautious when statistics are tossed out without adequate context, but looking around the web I was unable to find a comprehensive study that disputed her numbers.

Some of her findings:

  • 16.4% of top positions are held by women
  • Women are 46% of workforce, and 50% of management
  • However, women comprise only 10 CEO’s in fortune 500 — 2%

At this rate, parity will take another 40 years! How can we address this issue?

One surprising solution? A new look at project management. Corporations have traditionally built career ladders from functional management. With the rise of project-related work and project management, those career ladders have not changed, so project managers often complain about an inability to advance in their careers beyond project management.

Corporate leaders justify this issue by writing off project managers as tactical executors, not as strategic thinkers. However, what good is a strategy if leaders cannot draw a clear line from idea to execution? The lack of project management discipline in the corner office has brought a lot of frustration to organizations, who can’t understand the disconnect between idea and action. Project management can fill that void. Project managers who can think strategically, then determine objectives, targets, measures and execution plans will be far more successful than a corporate leader without those abilities.

Great! So we get more project management capabilities into the corner office! Now, how exactly does this help women? Women make up a larger and larger percentage of project managers (by some counts more than 50%), and their ability to multitask better than men has helped them excel in this field. As we open up executive opportunities for project managers, we can be simultaneously achieving our diversity targets, without reducing our standards for excellence.

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “The path to excellence”

  1. User Avatar


    I understand and agree with your strategy for growing future executives from the PM ranks. I hope your observations for PM experience at the C-level is a continuing trend.

    Unfortunately, changing the view of project managers one executive at a time is about the rate it’s going. =))

  2. User Avatar

    Thanks for your comment, Frank! You express a frustration long held by project managers.

    I agree — project management has traditionally been a dead-end job. However, I’m finally starting to see a change in that. Job postings for C-level positions are starting to request project management experience. (It’s worth noting that in most corporations, project management is still a young discipline.)

    Also, I’m not advising women to pursue project management as a path to the executive suite. Rather, I’m suggesting that corporations look to project managers as potential leaders in their organizations, which could help with execution and diversity issues in one fell swoop.

    I’m all for changing the tactical view of project managers one executive at a time. = )

  3. User Avatar

    I guess I have a problem with the rationale of suggesting women can excel into the highest executive offices though a portal which is considered by most senior executives not to be portal to the senior executive suite. Having a greater number of women in project management, no matter how good they are at multi-tasking, is not, in my opinion, going to change the widely held corporate attitude that program management is a dead end path to the executive washroom.

    If anything, program managers have a reputation as detailed “nuts and bolts” people and not as charismatic visionaries. In fact I would say the best project mangers will always remain project managers. The bad ones will be terminated or returned to the technician pool. The really bad ones may get “promoted” to executive row. Don’t laugh, I have seen this happen a couple of times.

    My advise to aspiring CEOs, both male and female, is to steer clear of project management because project management is not respected as a true profession. Maybe that attitude will change one day, but suggesting women use project management as a stepping stone to the stars is, in my opinion, bad career advise.

    By the way, I hired the first women program managers for my company many years ago. Until that time we were a “good old boys club” in the military electronics systems business. The women PMs turned out to be the best of our breed and they worked hard to prove themselves successfully. However, none made it to the executive suite.

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