Are You Herding the Cats or Leading the Cats?

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Are You Herding the Cats or Leading the Cats?



As we are well into the last half of this decade, it is time to reflect on our past and contemplate the future. With the New Year we think about our families, our friends, our successes and failures; we think about our jobs, our professions, and the world of possibilities. We must reaffirm our true north and stay the course, make corrections, or find a new destination. As project managers, we must look at the changes in the discipline and translate those into a plan for our professional development—a plan that meets our needs and the needs of the discipline.

Tomorrow's Project Manager

As project managers, we have seen significant change. Over the last couple decades, the project management field has grown to be recognized as a professional discipline and many have benefited from the changing views of how projects are run. We have witnessed or implemented processes and procedures and have seen project management offices spring up to help prioritize enterprise portfolios and manage resource loading. It has been an exciting time.

In the last half dozen years, many have seen project management become a commodity. Various organizations push their certificates as the end all of employment requirements and companies have created checklists to qualify good project managers just as one might look at the functions required from a personal accounting program. Employment firms relying on high-volume placements capitalize on this attitude, realizing how cost effective the screening process can be. Meanwhile, thousands of people clamor for their project management certification so they can jump into the resource pool.

It takes more than a certification, however, to make a good project manager. The most valuable experience is coordinating all the stakeholders to achieve a common goal. These traits are difficult, if not impossible, to acquire in a class, let alone grade on a test. Process is a vital component; however, project managers must step beyond the role of processes and aspire to be leaders. This will manifest itself in three grades of project managers.

Tier One: The Coordinator

Today's certifications equip project managers to be coordinators. The expectation is that they herd cats. They work reactively at the rear and the flanks keeping the cats all going the same general direction.

The Coordinator


The expectation is that they herd cats.

This is a comfortable non-confrontational roll where a majority of project managers feel comfortable and nearly every company requires the trait. The coordinator implements processes and procedures, monitors timelines, reacts to problems, and escalates out-of-control issues. This is the area where project management has become a commodity—if you can get projects to be proceduralized anyone can manage them.

Hopefully, this notion has run its course as companies realize that this only works with highly repeatable projects, the paradigm must change to cover projects requiring innovation.

Tier Two: The Negotiator

The negotiator has a different set of skills—they run with the cats and apply reason getting them to head the correct direction. This requires that the project manager understand the stakeholder's needs and values and can mediate a compromise.

The Negotiator


They have learned to run with the cats and apply reason getting them to head the correct direction.

Once the portfolio develops past the point of repeatable projects, there is no longer a single possible goal a project. The project manager has to coax people to compromise and develop a mutual endpoint that provides value to all stakeholders. This is the first level of leadership.

All negotiators understand there is a process to follow—planning how to approach the negotiation, exploring options, proposing and bartering a solution, and executing the plan. However, few question that the majority of negotiation is art. The way people support their viewpoint, handle their demeanor, show confidence in their beliefs, and deal with rebuttals make or break a successful negotiation.

By managing a team in this manner, they begin to self-correct and adjust their course realizing the power of the team and ineffectiveness of running off on a tangent.

Tier Three: The Leader

The project manager that walks in front of the herd, the cats following, is at the highest level of aspiration. Leaders understand their mission, mold and maintain a vision aligned with the strategic goals of the organization, communicate the direction to the team, and inspire people to achieve that vision. The team becomes self-directing.

The Leader


They walk in front of the herd, the cats following.

Leadership can be learned, but not from a book or class. It is acquired from understanding the tools and applying them. It requires experience and an open mind.

The opportunity to enter into a leadership role presents itself to nearly everyone. We need to recognize that situation and know how to step in and lead the team to success. Our biggest obstacle is the courage and confidence to move in that direction—to know when the cats will follow. The first few attempts often lack the polish and finesse of the accomplished leader, but experience brings it rewards.

How to Get There

The key to the future is acquiring the soft skills to aspire to new levels of management. Minimally this requires education in organization development, sociology, business management, and leadership. However, the cornerstone is real-world experience. As with any discipline, education pales in the shadow of experience. Moving from a reactive to a proactive approach where identifying and addressing problems prior to them becoming issues is critical. This requires a calm, methodical approach and open communication channels with all stakeholders. The result is a high-performance, self-directing team that drives any project to its appropriate goal.

What Are Your Thoughts?

How do you see project management changing over the next five years? Please let us know.

Posted on: December 01, 2015 08:34 PM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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No problem, Howard. Thank you for reading!

Hi, Todd!

Thank you for Sharing.

Excellent Article, great insight and approach about subject.

I Totally agree when you mention "The key to the future is acquiring the soft skills to aspire to new levels of management"

Best Regards,

Thank you Andreia! Yes, soft skills are 80% of the PMs job.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Todd! I think that the best leaders have a great bank of both hard and soft skills to draw from. You mention education and experience as ways to develop these leadership skills. I have had the good fortune to have worked under great mentors who both educated and guided my experience as I (hopefully) learned some of the principles of "leading" the cats. To this day, I value any chance I get to be in the shadow of "great" leaders in the hopes that some of it will rub off. ;-)

Bruce,

Your comment on the 'shadow of "great" leaders' is the best learning ground. Thank you for your thoughts.

Cheers,
Todd

...soft skills....are a quality we can all practice!

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