This question gets asked so many times, and the interesting thing is many of the questioners assume the answer is obvious – though they may come down on different sides of the equation!
In a sense, the question comes from the name Project Management Office, which is a bit of a misnomer given the charter of modern strategic PMOs. Originally, a PMO was a temporary structure that ran the administrative and governance functions of large projects or programs. It lived and died with the life of that project. With that charter, the obvious choice to head the office would be a talented program or project manager.
But the charter has changed. First, the PMO became a permanent structure charged with oversight of all the important projects in an organization. This meant creating a standard methodology, monitoring status, and ensuring projects were executing according to plan while delivering value. This initial type of PMO was still squarely in the realm of the project management discipline.
As those projects were listed and reported to management they became portfolios of projects. Naturally, questions were raised about how projects came to be in the portfolio. Was the list the right list? Was it aligned with strategic objectives? If there were more project ideas than funding or resources, how should we decide which to fund and which to decline or defer? Someone had the bright idea to look at projects like financial investments (which they are, of course) and project portfolio management was born. And investment decisions are definitely in the realm of business planning, not project management.
Then while attempting to ascertain the resource capacity to take on the proposed projects, it became obvious that said capacity was constrained by non-project workloads. So allocating and tracking work across resource pools became a must – and became the purview of the Project Management Office. While program and project management looks at allocating staff across a project or program, this was much broader. Clearly, this is a business resource management challenge.
So now, instead of being a Project Management Office, the PMO has become a blend of Strategic Planning, Portfolio Management, Program/Project Management and Resource/Workload Management.
With today’s modern PMO charter, having project management skills – even if you’re really good, isn’t enough. While Project Management is still one of the charges of the PMO, it’s only a portion – and not the main driver. Strategic PMOs are really facilitators mediating the tough negotiations and decisions about how work is allocated and investments made across a diverse portfolio. If you’ve ever chaired a steering committee meeting full of VPs arguing for their projects, you get the point. If you’ve had those tough conversations with business counterparts about how many resources are allocated to KLO (Keep the Lights On) work, you understand. If you’ve ever tried to answer the “what has your PMO done for me lately” question, you really get it. Thus, the emphasis is on business management, strategic planning, and facilitation skills.
So, do good project managers make good PMO Directors? It depends on the PM. If they are good at understanding business strategies, if they are good at understanding what makes their company’s business model tick, then probably. Of course, we think good PMs are not just task, issue, and risk managers. We think the best project managers are true leaders that know how to lead projects to achieve positive business outcomes. And since they also understand and embrace project management, those project/business leaders can often make strong PMO Directors.