Some time back I was talking with a fellow project manager about a difficult issue he was having with his new boss. The thumbnail summary of the discussion was that the project manager was feeling overly scrutinized and micro-managed. Now I knew the project manager to be a capable professional who could confidently handle the work assigned to him. Yet his boss insisted on managing every detailed aspect of his work. More so, his boss was very critical of the work being done even though it was performed to professionally acceptable standard. The situation became unbearable for the project manager; he ultimately left the organization.
As I thought about this situation, I noticed an interesting parallel to other leadership situations I have seen and been part of. Both the project manager and his boss had similar backgrounds and similar years of experience. Although the boss had been a manager for years, he tended to surround himself with younger, more inexperienced managers. Having a more senior and experienced project manager reporting to him was clearly something that took him out of his comfort zone. Rather than embracing the experience, the boss felt threatened by the project manager and worked to "keep him in his place".
As I added things up in my mind about the situation one thing came clear; the boss' own insecurity was a key problem driver and was hampering the group's potential.
The one nugget here is this: honestly think through whether or not you are an insecure leader or a secure leader. If you fall on the insecure end of the spectrum, do some deep soul-searching as to what is causing you to feel insecure about your leadership abilities. Find a trusted mentor or colleague to help you dig into things and to shore up the areas which you need to address. Recognition and acknowledgement of your improvement areas is the most important step to growth. Don't kid yourself into thinking you're something that you're not.
Want to know how to succeed under an insecure leader? See part 2: How to Succeed Under and Insecure Leader.
So let's get right into this....
Upward management is one of those skills that some do very well, many never seem to master, and virtually all learn only through on-the-job lessons-learned. When done well, both the manager and employee work as a team to ensure each other is informed, address problems before they spin out of control, and be more effective at managing. When done poorly, both manager and employee are not only ineffective at getting the job done but are chronically frustrated due to missteps and surprises.
So how do you avoid missteps in managing upward? Give this baker's dozen a look and see if one or two of these nuggets can help you be a better upward manager:
Great Sponsor + Great PM = Great Success: Ten Truths of an Effective Project Sponsor/Project Manager Partnership
A sad tale of a how a sponsor/PM relationship killed a project...
Exec identifies a need for a project and nominates self as sponsor. PM gets assigned to project and assembles project team. Sponsor is vague about problem to be solved other than "we need a new system". PM can't communicate problem to be solved to the team because he doesn't understand what the problem is. Sponsor continues to ask for more and more things to be included in project, PM doesn't have courage to say no. PM treats sponsor as "that person in the corner office" and doesn't know how to ask for help, so he escalates everything. Sponsor has to make some tough decisions but is unwilling to do so because of the political fallout. PM provides bad information about decision alternatives so sponsor ignores him. Due to changing priorities project no longer makes sense to do, but PM lobbies to keep the project going. Sponsor loses interest because there are bigger fish to fry. PM and team are disillusioned because sponsor doesn't care. Project dies a slow death. R.I.P.
While this is a fictional story, you can undoubtedly relate to most of these things happening on one project or another in your career. The sponsor/PM partnership on a project is one of those "soft skill" factors that gets frequently overlooked when assessing a PM's skills but is a key determinant in the success or failure of a project. Under a healthy partnership, the sponsor and PM work as a singular unit to ensure the project gets what it needs to be as successful as possible using only as many resources as absolutely necessary to secure success. Under a less than healthy relationship the project will undoubtedly cost more in time and money assuming it even gets completed at all.
Throughout my career I've been both a sponsor and a PM and have first-hand experience in how this relationship needs to work from both sides of the desk. Through my experience, I've locked down on ten truths which I feel are crucial to securing a healthy sponsor/PM partnership. See if these resonate with you:
Truth #1: Great sponsors clearly articulate a root-cause problem to be solved. Great PM’s make sure the team knows (and remembers) what problem is being solved. No surprise that great projects start with a great problem statement. Where things go awry is when there's fuzziness about the problem statement between the sponsor and PM and when they aren't completely unified on the problem being addressed. The sponsor needs to be clear about the problem, the PM needs to keep it at forefront and never allow the team to drift from solving the problem.
Truth #2: Great sponsors ensure the solution solves the root cause problem. Great PM’s don’t allow solutions to lose focus. It's so easy for a project team to get all lathered up in the coolness of a solution and the incremental value which can be had by just taking on a bit more scope here and there. I love when project teams can kill two birds with one stone, but at the same time the sponsor and PM need to be very disciplined about keeping the project team focused on solving the root cause problem and not allowing scope to explode due to emotional frenzying.
The project sponsor/project manager relationship doesn't have to be contentious or stressful. When both are rowing in the same direction it can greatly reduce friction on on projects and make for more effective execution. Take the time to build the partnership.