It has been a few months since my last article (compounded by the holidays) but I wanted to address a topic that I’ve been promoting for the last five or so years. The fact that project (or insert “program” throughout this article) managers (PMs), due to the cross-functional nature of their roles, are uniquely suited to senior level leadership roles within a company. Over the last 20 years I’ve spent most of my career directly involved in the project and program management function. Sadly, a consistent theme that I’ve observed is the number of project/program managers that stay in that role for a significant portion, if not all of their careers. It got me wondering, has the collective project management community undersold itself as the #1 source of future C-level talent?
In preparing for this article I reviewed the careers from public source information of the Fortune top-50 Chief Executive Officers. Of the CEO's on the list I was more than a bit shocked to find that one, just one, had come through the project or program management ranks (for those wondering, it is Mr. Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing). Why do I find this surprising? I would have expected more senior level leaders to have held some type of PM role in their careers (perhaps other C-level roles have a greater former PM representation but that is a deeper analysis limited by publicly available information and time). For example a company that I recently worked for had 10 functional groups from IT to disbursements to call center. While each functional manager possessed outstanding expertise in their given area, very few understood the other portions of the organization beyond a very superficial level. On the flip side, the project management team (both customer facing and technical project management) not only needed to possess proficiency at managing projects but had to understand all those business areas at a level that exceeded their functional peers. Simply stated, if I had to choose an individual to step up and run the organization, the first group I would survey for candidates would be the PM teams due to the depth and breadth of their knowledge. Why aren’t more PMs in C-level roles and what can our professional project management organizations do to change that? I’ll examine three primary reasons why I believe project management is under-represented in senior positions and will challenge those in the community to push to change that dynamic. Here are the three main reasons PMs face a challenge in rising through the ranks: 1) many PMs have hard-core technical backgrounds and never embrace the cross-functional nature of the PM role; 2) organizations don’t highly value and indeed fear the PM function (more on this “fear factor” later); and, 3) our professional organizations spend more time focused on generating dollars from “continuing education” to maintain a certification than promoting the value the PM career path provides to lead the larger operations of a company.
Let’s start with the first issue that I have observed that hampers project managers progressing beyond the PM role, and that is their deeply technical background. Well over 50% of the PMs that I have met (especially in highly technical organizations) came from an engineering or IT background. By no means am I condemning this, however it does have some drawbacks if the organization doesn’t effectively train and evaluate the PM in their new, less technical role. The natural habit of these PMs is to resort back to what they know and spend time “engineering” instead of project managing (this isn’t unique to engineers but I’m using them as an example). Indeed, during several years in a manufacturing company I saw multiple project managers promoted from the engineering ranks who spent a majority of their time still being an engineer. When needing an update on a customer schedule or budget it was very typical to wait for them to change gears and spend several days updating project plans. These plans would have been maintained had they focused on the project management portion of their role and not the technical position from which they were promoted. The question is how to defend against this. First, PM leadership must establish metrics and goals for the PM team and organizations need to invest in this project management leadership. Whether this is establishing a PMO or having a Chief Project Officer, a seasoned PM leader will establish metrics, set goals, and train PMs. This will ensure struggling project managers from technical backgrounds are focusing on the right areas and not falling back into the “sweet spot” of their previous role.
The second, and perhaps most controversial, reason that project managers are not in higher level positions in an organization is due to a lack of value placed on project management or even fear of the PMs. I’ll address the perceived lack of value first. In looking at organizations that many of my peers work in, there either isn’t a formal project management organization (aka PMO) or there are no project managers whatsoever. Now in a rote manufacturing organization that is run by assembly line with very repeatable processes it may not make sense to have a PMO, and that is absolutely OK. However, organizations that have complex and variable business problems that require someone to put organization to the chaos should embrace PMs or a PMO. That said, one key barrier that exists in the calculus of business is that the organization will decide it needs more sales folks or developers or “name your perceived revenue generator” than it needs people capable of planning and executing in a timely, efficient and budget sensitive manner. It is not unusual for these companies to generate a decent amount of revenue but at the same time can be challenged to reach acceptable profitability. Now as Alton Brown would say, “that’s a topic for another show”, or that is an analysis that I will tackle in a later article. The other issue with project management is the “fear factor” that I referenced earlier. To put it bluntly, employees in operational groups can at times fear or loathe PMs. This is culturally unique to organizations, and I’ve been in organizations that embrace/love the PM function as well as ones that fight the PMs tooth and nail. Without belaboring this, the fear stems from accountability. If it’s not ingrained in the fabric of a company to hold people 100% accountable, the project management team fights a daily uphill battle. I mean after all who wants to be held to a specific set of project goals within a specific time frame (mild sarcasm)? Or why do I, “the all-knowing developer”, need to be told what my software functionality needs to accomplish, and how dare you tell me when I need to have it completed? All PMs know what I am talking about here…why did Agile come into existence after all? It is a revolt by developers to being held accountable by PMs (not necessarily sarcasm – yup here come the death threats from developers). The challenge here is for PMs who are now in director or VP level positions to educate your fellow senior leaders in the importance of accountability and the execution that PMs provide. Remind them that every project that does or doesn’t make it to the finish line will have an impact on the bottom line.
Finally, lets address the role our professional project organizations are, or are not, playing in developing PMs out of the project management arena and into senior level leadership roles. If you look at some of the largest professional PM organizations, and I am a member of one, you’ll notice their courses revolve around developing your “project management capabilities”, your “project leadership”, or my personal favorite “maintaining your professional development status”. To be honest, this is about revenue generation at its core. Now is there value in a new or intermediate level PM learning more about their craft? Absolutely. Is it important that as business leaders we continue to learn and grow? Without question. But go to the websites of some of the leading PM professional organizations and the core topics on the training pages focus on Waterfall vs. Agile, managing project portfolios, requirements for certification and such. What is commonly absent or shoved to the bottom is leadership. Go to those pages and missing is training on leadership or growth beyond the project management level. Now I get that a professional organization has to exist and generate revenue, but I believe it is a systemic short-sighted approach in not promoting the value that PMs can bring beyond just being lifetime project managers. Again, I want to suggest solutions. First, I am starting with myself as someone who has been lucky enough to move into leadership roles beyond being a “PM lifer”. 2019 is the year I reengage with my professional organization and help our PMs reach outside their comfort zones; whether struggling to leave their old role behind and embrace project management or helping them move beyond their current PM job into a higher-level position. It is time for those of us who have moved up to give back and discuss our failures and our successes that have allowed us to dovetail PM careers into more senior level roles. I challenge my peers to do the same. Whether it is confined to the walls of your organization or getting out there and speaking to PMs at organizational events, let’s start developing the unique talents of our PMs into the next set of C-suite leaders.
Now’s the time to build our formerly technical employees into more broadly focused PMs, to promote the value of the PMO and project management in general within our companies and get involved with our professional organizations to help grow our senior leadership ranks. Project Managers are uniquely suited to manage in positions which require that depth and breadth of cross-functional understanding. The nature of business continues moving ever closer to a time where excellence in execution and on-time delivery is paramount. Organizations that cannot wrap their arms around the global market chaos, put structure to projects (scope), set people in motion to accomplish needed goals (resources), and do it on time to move the organization forward (schedule) will eventually fall by the wayside. Not only can PMs be at the forefront of this push, but they are, simply put, a unique set of business leaders that have a keen sense of evaluating risk, building in quality and creating a structure that keeps businesses moving forward while simultaneously satisfying customer (internal and external) needs.