Project Managers in the C-Suite

From the Voices on Project Management Blog
by , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Conrado Morlan
Kevin Korterud
Peter Tarhanidis
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
David Wakeman
Jen Skrabak
Mario Trentim
Shobhna Raghupathy
Roberto Toledo
Joanna Newman
Christian Bisson
Linda Agyapong
Jess Tayel
Rex Holmlin
Ramiro Rodrigues
Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina
Wanda Curlee

Recent Posts

Mix & Match

Agile Evolves

3 Tips to Enhance Your Leadership IQ

3 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener—and a Better Project Manager

Maximizing the Value of Agile

Categories: Career Help

I've seen some articles and heard some commentary lately that lament the fact that there doesn't seem to be a clear career path that leads from project management to the so-called C-suite, also known as the "executive suite."

Where I work, there is no direct path that leads from project management to the executive ranks. Occasionally, a person who has worked as a project manager becomes an executive, but it's certainly not the norm.

From my own point of view, this isn't a problem -- on the contrary. Had I wanted to be a "line" executive, I would have stayed in line management. I chose project management because I saw it as a means to manage the kind of work that I really enjoy most: the realization of ideas.

For me, career growth means managing projects that are more important, more valuable, more interesting or just more fun. Often, this can mean bigger teams and bigger budgets, but for me, that doesn't necessarily translate into bigger thrills. Career growth does not mean at all that I need to become an executive to feel fulfilled.

I see project management and executive management as complementary, but very different, skills. To me, that means that the two fields will appeal to two very different kinds of people, depending on individual temperament.

Project management is very tactically focused. It's all about defining the job and getting it done. It seems reasonable to me that the kind of person who manages projects is also tactically focused, and temperamentally oriented toward the realization of ideas.

On the other hand, I see executive management as more strategically focused, more about defining a strategic vision and deciding which projects to undertake to realize that vision. It seems reasonable to me that the kind of person who becomes an executive is also strategically focused, and temperamentally oriented toward defining strategy and how to achieve it.

What do you think?

Are project managers under-represented in the executive ranks? If this is true, do you see this as a problem, generally speaking? Personally speaking?

Do you have aspirations to become an executive? If so, do you see being a project manager as an obstacle to those aspirations?

Do you believe that project managers are temperamentally different than line managers? Why or why not?

Read more posts from Jim De Piante.
Read more posts about improving your career.

Posted by Jim De Piante on: June 09, 2011 03:58 PM | Permalink

Comments (13)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item
How about consultants and their project managers? Top 3 (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) gives a lot of CEOs.

Of course, project management in consulting is not done according to PMBOK :)

Himanshu Bansal
I believe that executive managers are different from project managers in the sense that projects are temporary endeavors while c-suite executives jobs are more like static functions. There is thrill in both jobs.

In static jobs you add value by making improvements, having a vision, realizing the vision by concentrating the effort on promoting such projects.

In project management, you are overtly occupied while the project is in progress and you have lean time in between. You see the extremes in this role while extremes are less in static jobs such c-suite executives.

I believe that there is a path towards the C-suite for Project Managers. It grows from a PM to program manager to portfolio manager. And later on I can see this person becoming one of the key person to realize the strategic direction for the company; maybe as CTO or CIO.

This is looking from IT industry point of view. The question is whether or not the said project manager is willing to make the transition and well... wear the suit!

Saira Karim
I recently interviewed two executives for magazine articles and what became very apparent is that both did not know the details of the projects we were discussing.

They were able to talk to me about the organizations' 'dreams' and 'wish lists.' However on the projects I wanted to focus on, they could not give any of the details of how it all comes together and the challenges faced.

The project manager is the one who translates these dreams and wish lists into a reality and responsible for making it happen.

I completely agree PM's are more tactical and detail orientated and this requires a set of additional skills. Whereas these executive managers were clearly the visionaries and business developers.

It would be fantastic if executives had more PM training but I do believe each role needs it own set of personalities and skills.

PM's are 'doers / constructors' where as the executives are more of the painters and creators.

Both need each other and are complimentary roles, and there should be some PM representation in executive management.

Matt Kirchman
This is an interesting topic, and one I've seen debated more frequently in the last year or so.

To me, it seems like one of those things that certain members of the profession are promoting primarily to provide a route to the C-suite, regardless of whether there is actually benefit to the organization as a whole. I can't fault them. Who doesn't dream every now and then about being the CEO?

In other words, the whole debate sounds a bit self-serving to me. But I think that in reality, most are in love with the idea of being in the C-suite, but not the reality.

I tend to agree more with Mr. De Piante. Project managers, though ensuring that their projects are strategically aligned, are more tactically-oriented. And that is as it should be.

I think of accomplished project managers as the NCOs (non-commissioned officers) in the military. They are the ones that help a unit (or team) accomplish a particular goal, and their effectiveness is based on respect for what they can do, not for their rank.

Conversely, I see this debate as being about providing additional opportunities for "rank enhancement" among the project management profession. But I think Mr. De Piante is correct when he says that those seeking to move up the chain of command should focus on line management opportunities.

I think it will continue to be rare for project managers to move to the upper-echelon of management, and I'm OK with that.

Luis Seabra Coelho
Hi Jim,

I agree that the necessary set of skills are different.

I actually remember someone talking on a PMI Congress about the underlying leadership skills on both cases and then mapping them to the military. With no surprise, project managers' leadership skills are mapped on to a sargent role while an executive is mapped to a general. Could that be you presenting this?

I found this so relevant to project managers that I also wrote about it on my Ah-Ha-Moments.Net blog on an article entitled "Developing Leadership Skills." Just because executives are higher positioned, it doesn't mean that project managers can grow into executives?

Thank you for sharing this, Jim.


Joe Tinger
Interesting article and in some aspects I agree that project management and the EC suite are two different subject matters.

Mostly, the use of the left and right brain are used in managing projects; however, C-suite personnel mostly would use one-side or the other side of their brain.

Career growth is a different spectrum and in managing a project, a PM must remember the values of project management and that is the end result of a project.

Don Kim
I take the exact opposite view. I think working as a PM is like training to become an effective C level executive.

Your argument may have been more relevant in the past when companies had a few products that generated the majority of their revenue. These days though, there are more and more new products and technologies that have to be deployed as projects. Someone who knows how to effectively and efficiently manage these projects in our fast paced world, would be best served to move up the ranks.

I think the best C level executives these days, run their companies as a strategic portfolio of projects and project management competencies is the core of this.

Of course this assumes the person has the aptitude, desire and drive to become a C level executive, but that would apply for any person moving up the ranks.

In my personal experience, I was an executive manager and transitioned into the project manager role. I find that the basic skill set is the same but the focus is different.

Executives do focus more on strategy and developing a plan to implement that strategy. Then, they plug the right people into the right places to implement that plan.

Project managers do the same thing but there is a more focused and specific outcome at the end of their project. They take on a project for a specific reason and purposefully plan for it to come to an end at a pointed time.

Executives take on a challenge and plan for that challenge to not have an end, but to only grow and develop into a bigger and greater challenge.

As someone else accurately stated... executives set the vision and project managers make that vision a reality.

I think this really depends on the business the company is in. If construction, engineering, software or certain type consulting firms are considered, the CEO will more than likely have project management background.

This is my experience in the U.S.. In emerging markets, managers with strong sales networks or technical backgrounds can have a better chance for the top spot regardless of their project management background.

I've seen visionary CEO's that effectively implement/leverage a PM role in their organization to execute strategic initiatives and (especially in start-ups) I've seen CEO's manage at a PM level.

Having PM skills will make you a more rounded CEO, however, without bus dev, marketing, financial, and especially some keen leadership skills - I don't see a PM being a great CEO.

I don't see the typical PM role having a direct path to the C-level office, but each individual is different. It's all about what you put into it...

Rod Buckham
In the business I just came from--a large Defense consulting firm--winning proposals and successfully executing contracts is the natural path for budding managers and for consistent growth of line management into executive positions.

Generally line managers start out as key personnel on winning proposals. Governmental organizations increasingly want key personnel that are bid on proposals to have the project management certifications. So just having the PMI certification is often necessary to start one who is oriented this way down the C-Level career path.

In agreement with several other posts, it can only be a good thing for those bound to the executive path to have the basic certification training. I personally aspired to the PMP certification for other reasons...

Rod Buckham
My experience working as an Avionics shop supervisor (line management), squadron maintenance controller (project management) and many observations of leadership and management then and in my "second" career in Defense acquisition projects have led me to make a significant distinction between the actual work of project management and line management.

Early on I chose project management, and Jim's statements relating his choices resonate with me.

I do think there are temperamental factors in choosing one career path over the other--or falling into it as the case may be. For instance, if you look at the 16 definitions of Myers-Briggs (Personality) Types you can read characteristics that fit better in either Project Management or Executive/Line management. At the risk of "putting myself out there", here's mine, as a ENTP:

Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outspoken. Resourceful in solving new and challenging problems. Adept at generating conceptual possibilities and then analyzing them strategically. Good at reading other people. Bored by routine, will seldom do the same thing the same way, apt to turn to one new interest after another.

Projects accomplish a goal and then are done. They demand all of my Spidey senses when in the midst of the challenge. That fits me. So do many of these carefully chosen (to be positive) statements. The whole profiling of personality has to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when scoring mid-way between the extremes.

For instance, although my "Characteristics Frequently Associated with Each Type," in Myers-Briggs language, says I rarely do things the same way twice, that goes against best practice implementation, good project management, and systems engineering. But there's often room for improvement each time through, so that covers the bases for me.

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"The degree of one's emotion varies inversely with one's knowledge of the facts--the less you know, the hotter you get."

- Bertrand Russell