Project Management

I Just Wanna Be a PM!

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The Scenario: 

Adam, an individual contributor, just finished project-managing another successful project at his company, Conset.

After the project ship party, Adam’s manager asked him to take on a people-leadership role.

Adam was very reluctant to take on a people-leadership role. He just wanted to keep delivering great projects as an individual contributor and didn’t feel comfortable taking on the cultivation of followers.

Adam finally relented, feeling the pressure to fit into the mold of “You must aspire to be a people-leader.”

Six months into the job, Adam was the most unhappy he’d ever been at Conset. He couldn’t spend time delivering great projects like he loved. He was mired down in management meetings, addressing people issues, and trying to craft the vision for his organization.

Adam’s followers grew increasingly disgruntled with Adam’s leadership style and began leaving for other jobs inside and outside of Conset.

Nine months after taking the job, Adam had had enough and left Conset; taking a project manager job at a competitor.

The Message:

Before we get any deeper into this, I want to make something painfully clear: There are leaders I would never ask to project manage a mission-critical initiative, and there are project managers I would never expect to be inspirational people leaders.

There are plenty of project managers who also aspire to be great people leaders. They can paint an inspiring vision and cultivate a high-performing organization to achieve results. They actively understand the goals of their organization’s followers while equipping them to achieve those goals. They excel as inspiring people leaders.

At the same time, I’ve worked with some outstanding project managers who can paint a very straight line between the current and future state, and effectively drive team execution to successful completion. They aren’t particularly charismatic or good at imagining a tomorrow, and they aren’t especially good people cultivators. They are simply good solid project managers.

And that’s completely OK.

All too often, leaders expect that others, particularly project managers, should aspire to be inspirational people leaders. It’s as if being “just a project manager” is somehow less important or doesn’t utilize them to their full potential. Putting (or even worse, shaming) a project manager who just wants to manage projects in an inspirational people leadership role is not only potentially damaging to delivering results, it also carries the potential to adversely impact careers. Not every inspirational people leader wants to be a project manager, and not every project manager wants to be an inspirational people leader.

Project managers and leaders share many of the same attributes, such as great communication skills, removing roadblocks, providing clarity, accepting accountability, sharing praise, and problem-solving. At the same time, I see three key areas where leaders and project managers have different but complementary skillsets, as follows:

  1. Great leaders must define vision; great PMs must execute vision – Great leaders are able to articulate what could be, thinking outside of the box and imagining a new and innovative way to solve a problem. Great project managers need to be able to understand the vision, define a clear path from current state to future vision, identify and alleviate roadblocks, and deliver the vision.
  2. Great leaders must cultivate people; great PMs must optimize for results – Great leaders are able to cultivate and grow people to their greatest potential. Great project managers need to ensure the right people are doing the right things to get the right result and adjust when team staffing issues occur.
  3. Great leaders must charismatically inspire; great PMs must intentionally execute within cost, schedule and scope – In painting the vision, great leaders know how to invoke passion and excitement to align followers and motivate them to perform. Great project managers need to complement a leader’s ability to inspire with believability through effective delivery within cost, schedule, and scope constraints.

The Consequences:  

Assigning an unequipped or unwilling project manager to a people leadership role can result in the following:

  • Visionless organization – Putting a project manager who doesn’t possess a visionary skillset could result in an organization that doesn’t keep pace with the future and doesn’t articulate a compelling “what could be.”
  • Unhappy followers – It’s only a matter of time for followers who aren’t inspired, challenged, and cultivated to become unhappy with their leader.
  • Apprehensive project manager – Having a project manager fail in a leadership role due to the project manager being neither equipped nor having the desire to lead can shake his or her confidence and impact future delivery.

The Next Steps: 

Are you a project manager who is contemplating or being asked to take on an inspirational people leadership role? Consider the following next steps:

  1. Honestly assess your visionary, people-cultivation, and charismatic inspiration skills and document skill gaps.
  2. Ask a trusted advisor to review your assessment and skill gaps.
  3. Decide if any of the skill gaps are areas where you can and want to grow.
  4. If you decide to proceed with taking on a leadership role, put a plan in place to address the skill gaps.
  5. Monitor your skill-gap plan and use your trusted advisor to help you with any needed course corrections.

Effective project managers are highly sought after and can be worth their weight in gold in driving on-time, on-budget, and within-scope delivery. If you just wanna be a PM like Adam, then don’t fall victim to thinking “you need to be a people leader.” You don’t. Just keep delivering great projects.

Posted on: September 26, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (18)

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Luis Branco CEO| Business Insight, Consultores de Gestão, Ldª Carcavelos, Lisboa, Portugal
Dear Lonnie
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thanks for sharing and for your opinions.

A project manager, in my opinion, must have skills that allow him to lead and manage people

At a certain point in your article, you promote the project manager as a leader and he is unhappy because he is unable to formulate the vision and to mobilize and train people.

As if, in real life, a project manager would pass directly to CEO

Sarmad Azhar Managing Member| Azhar Consulting, LLC
I wish my other certifications were acknowledged by the PMI

Vagner Antonio da Silva São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Yes Mr. Pacelli, that's a frequent occurrence in other areas than just PM too, as you know. Particularly in PM, is expected in some time of his/her journey that the leadership can blossom naturally and make part of the character, helping the coworkers to grow inspired in his/her behaviour and teachings. As well the uniqueness of the projects also are the people. That being, not everyone engaged with PM will be a leader at its essence as currently are so wanted by the organizations as are the good outcomes. Thanks for sharing on the brilliant insights.

Yu-Ju Tseng Taichung, Shigang Dist., Taiwan
Thank you for sharing, it helps a lot.

Tyrone Moss Loris, Sc, USA
Keep on informing brother

Latha Thamma reddi Sr Product and Portfolio Management (Automation Innovation)| DXC Technology Mckinney, Tx, USA
Nice information, keep on informing...

Gianmaria Borgonovo Partner| Gamma-Pi Informatica Seregno, Monza Brianza, Italy
Good points, thanks!

Piotr Hajnus Poland
Thank you for sharing. That's interesting how a person could be misguided. Good point and clear next steps.

J SURING Malaysia
Leaders do right things right while mangers do things right.

Velmurugan Balraj Bangalore, Ka, India
The information is very simple and lot of insights. Being a leader is very tough position and its really an art than a science. Most of the time emotional intelligence plays a major role in achieving the result.

Ritesh Shinde Principal Analyst| FIS Solutions (India) Private Limited Pune, Mh, India
Interesting Thank you

Jihad Hamdan Projects manager| Arrand engineering consultants Beirut , Haret Hrek, Jem, Palestine, State Of

hamdy donia alhussan Tanta, Gh, Egypt

Antonio Villarruel Project Management Coordinator| Saputo Inc. San Fernando, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing

Tiago Lourenco MSc, PMP Candidate Green Project Manager, Founder| Structured PM London, Eng, United Kingdom
Sarmad, can you please elaborate on your message?

Lonnie, great work!

Laurie May Bautista Projects Delivery Engineer| RED SEA HOUSING SERVICES Dubai, Du, United Arab Emirates
Interesting! Thanks for sharing!

Surupa Chakravarty Senior Business Consultant| PwC Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Quite interesting

Erin Thomas Florida, USA
This is very interesting and insightful. As I am studying to transition into project management, everything that I read stresses the importance of being good a both people leading and managing projects. There hasn't ever been a time where it has mentioned embracing someone who is simply good at the project aspects of the job and allowing someone else to step in on the people leadership aspect. I'm interested in how companies and employees feel/manage that. Are people open to "sharing" that responsibility or do they hold some sort of "resentment" because they feel that the project manager is lacking in a critical skillset? Also, as someone looking to transition into the field, how do you go about this in an interview? These are very vague questions that popped in my head as I was reading. Loved this! Thanks for sharing!

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