Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

I'm all about Building Thriving Leaders™ This blog is based on over 35 years of project management and leadership successes and failures. Get practical, concise nuggets on both hard and soft skills to help you deliver projects successfully with minimal friction.

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Recent Posts

I Just Wanna Be a PM!

The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership

Ten Ways to Grow your Followers into Leaders

Ten Points to be a Better Up and Out Influencer

Giving Back to the Next Generation of Leaders

I Just Wanna Be a PM!

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 (5)

The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership

The Scenario: 

Vera and Tam have just left their manager Walt’s office.

“Did you get what Walt wants us to do?” Vera asked.

“Nope, as usual. We must have asked him five times to explain what he wanted and why it was important. Just got word salad. Again.”

“And were we supposed to do something? He just kept saying ‘the team’. That could be any of several of us. Are we supposed to communicate it out to everyone else?”

Tam smirked. “Then he launches into a diatribe of how we’re supposed to do our jobs. And I’ve got no idea not only of what he wants but when he wants it by, or even how to prioritize it with the 30 other things on my to-do list.”

Vera nodded her head. “You know how it is, he blathers for a while then forgets he even asked for something. Just stay low and do nothing, this too shall pass.”

“Agreed,” Tam said as he pushed the elevator button. “Thai for lunch?”

“Yup, then it’s back to getting real work done,” Vera said as the elevator doors opened.

The Message:

You may have been in Vera or Tam’s situation; a leader who isn’t clear on what he or she expects followers to do, why it’s important, appropriate advice on how to execute, when it needs to be done, or who is expected to do it. Worse still, perhaps you recognize some of yourself in Walt; a leader who gives fuzzy direction and leaves his followers wondering what in the heck he is talking about.

Through the years I’ve made many mistakes with how I lead others; either being overly prescriptive and turning followers into errand runners or being so vague that followers couldn’t pin me down on what was needed. I’ve learned that good leadership means ensuring clarity on why, what, how, who, and when and ensuring you as the leader don’t over- or under-function in how you lead followers. To that end, I have developed a simple rule I call The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership, as follows:

Articulate the Why
Align on the What
Advise on the How
Hold Accountable the Who
Agree on the When

Following the straight A rule helps ensure leaders and followers understand why something is important to do, what needs to be done, what constraints need to be considered during execution, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done. Embracing the straight A rule won’t guarantee great leadership skills, but it sure as shootin’ will help the leader be a better leader and scale up into an intentional leader of leaders.

Interested? Read on for a more thorough explanation of each:

  1. Articulate the Why – Followers want to know that they are spending time on something important. Being clear and precise as to why something needs to be done, the positive impacts of doing it, and the consequences of not doing it are crucial to getting buy-in. Skipping this step or assuming the why is clear to followers will make this a tougher slog for both you and the followers, particularly if tight deadlines accompany the ask.
  2. Align on the What – Clear understanding on what the “done” needs to look like is crucial for followers to internalize what the deliverable expectations are. It’s important to be as quantitative as possible and it’s certainly within bounds to share examples if applicable. It’s important to be collaborative and not dictatorial; if followers have an opportunity to influence the deliverable, then they are more likely to own it.
  3. Advise on the How – Many leaders are in their position because they have done the job their followers are now doing. Coupled with that experience comes a desire to want followers to do things the way the leader has done it or thinks it should be done. Leaders need to throttle how directive they are with the how considering the following:
    1. More experienced followers will generally need less direction; less experienced followers will most likely need more direction.
    2. If there are policy, regulatory, or legal constraints dictating why something has to be done a certain way, then the leader needs to ensure the follower understands the constraints and adheres to them.
    3. When providing advice to a follower on the how, ensure that it’s clear you are giving advice and that the follower has the option to accept the advice on the how, providing the what and when needs are met.
  4. Hold Accountable the Who – Having singularly-named persons accountable for delivery is paramount to ensuring things get done. Putting multiple names or “the team” as the person accountable makes it more likely that things won’t get done because it’s too easy to assume someone else is working on them. If you do need to put multiple names on a deliverable, I like to bold the person primarily accountable for delivery so even if there are multiple people named to work on something, one person is accountable for the resulting deliverable.
  5. Agree on the When – Ideally, the accountable followers will set a due date for the deliverable. Many times, though, a date is coming either from above or from a customer. When that happens, the leader should provide guidance to followers:
    1. Ensure clarity on the due date expectation and the practical consequences of not hitting the due date.
    2. Provide guidance on priority relative to other priorities the followers are working to. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority :-p.
    3. Give the followers an opportunity to assess the work involved and come back to you with what they need to meet the due date.
    4. If the due date is truly impossible to achieve, instruct followers to provide what, if anything, can be done by the due date and an alternate plan to meet the what.

The Consequences:  Ignoring the 5 A’s when leading followers can mean the following:

Missed or delayed dates – Misaligned expectations on the five A’s can lead to deliverables that are late, not done at all, or need rework to meet the need.

Follower frustration – Followers will get frustrated with a leader who doesn’t provide clarity on the five A’s. While it’s incumbent on the follower to ask questions if unclear, the leaders should be proactive in providing clarity in the first place.

Poor leader work/life balance – Deliverables missed by followers could spell late nights for the leader to make up for any expectation shortfall.

The Next Steps: 

Next time you have a deliverable needing to be done by followers:

  1. Write out an articulated why statement, including the consequences if not done.
  2. Have a picture in your mind (or better yet, a sample) of what the deliverable needs to look like.
  3. Provide any guidance on how the deliverable needs to be produced, putting particular focus on legal, regulatory, or policy factors affecting delivery.
  4. Be clear on who should own the deliverable.
  5. Communicate any date expectations and give the accountable owner an opportunity to understand the work and what can be achieved by the due date.
Posted on: September 19, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (16)

Genuinely and Humbly Seeking Wisdom

The Scenario: 

  1. Frank has just been promoted to project manager.
  2. Frank had worked under several project managers and is determined to show others what a good project manager is all about.
  3. Iris is a peer project manager with many years of experience managing very complex projects.
  4. Frank’s manager has asked him to meet with Iris as a peer mentor to help him on his first project as the project manager.
  5. Frank reluctantly agrees to meet with Iris, believing he is equipped to manage the project without her help.
  6. Frank meets with Iris several times, each time leaving the conversation thinking what he knows is sufficient and Iris’ advice isn’t necessary.
  7. Several major issues crop up on Frank’s project that Iris had warned him about and he didn’t take her advice.
  8. Seeing that Frank’s project is in trouble and he is not getting it back on track, Frank’s manager removes him as project manager and gives the project to Iris.

The Message:

I can freely admit that this situation happened to me. I was Frank. It was painful. It was humiliating. It was also what I needed to accept that I wasn’t “all that.” I needed to be humble enough to listen to others when they were telling me the stove was hot and if I touched it I’d get burned. That’s not to say I have always put in motion any wisdom given to me, but I can say that I now genuinely seek wisdom from those equipped to give it. There have been countless times my path was altered because of wisdom given, and I’m thankful for it.

Simply put, seeking wisdom is critical to your growth as a leader and can save you a lot of heartache. Give these nine principles a look and see if any resonate with you:

  1. Seeking wisdom must be genuine – Your purpose for learning from others needs to be because you truly want to learn and benefit from others who have the experience and wisdom to help you avoid mistakes.
  2. Don’t use seeking wisdom as a weapon – Seeking wisdom to get others to express a point of view in order to attempt to prove your own superiority is not only disingenuous, it’s flat-out rude. By all means, ask clarifying questions, just don’t use the opportunity to show someone more experienced how smart you are.
  3. Don’t worry about exposing your own lack of wisdom – Being guarded or cagey about seeking wisdom out of fear of being “found out” means you’ll likely miss out on opportunities to learn. Filtering questions to protect your own pride can lead to not getting the best possible advice.
  4. Don’t selectively seek wisdom to prove a hypothesis – You may have strong beliefs on a specific topic and want to learn more, not so much to understand the pros and cons but to support a hypothesis you’ve already formed. Be open to hearing different points of view even if they don’t align to what you want to hear.
  5. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn from others – Being silent or hesitant to seek wisdom when an opportunity presents itself is truly an opportunity lost. Seize the moment and learn what you can from others, even if your original intent wasn’t to seek wisdom.
  6. Learn from bad behaviors as well as good – Some may share wisdom not because they’re interested in candidly sharing, but to prove a point, make you feel less significant, or just plain boast. Observe not just what is being shared but how it’s being shared, then model the good behaviors and strike the bad.
  7. Look for trends – If you ask five trustworthy people for wisdom on a topic and all five tell you the same thing, that’s a pretty good sign you should heed the advice given. Look for trends to help better inform you on what wisdom you should put to use.
  8. Make sure the person providing wisdom has the credibility to share it – We all have experienced a know-it-all, the person who professes to be expert on just about any topic. Your job is to pragmatically assess the credibility of the person providing wisdom. If they don’t have the stripes to be giving wisdom, then beware of their advice.
  9. You retain the right to decide what to do with what you’ve learned – Seeking wisdom doesn’t mean you automatically put it to use. You’ll get a lot of points of view on different topics; at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what to do with what you’ve learned. Make sure you have a reasonable explanation as to why you’ve chosen a different path and aren’t just being stubborn.

The Consequences:  Not genuinely seeking the wisdom of others can lead to the following consequences:

  • Avoidable mistakes – Thinking you know better than those with more wisdom can lead to mistakes that could have been avoided had you taken the advice.
  • Wasted time and money – Recovering from an avoidable mistake can take extra time and money that could have been avoided.
  • Greater difficulty seeking wisdom in the future – If you gain a reputation for not heeding wisdom given to you, then others will be less likely to offer up wisdom in the future. Why would someone waste their time trying to give you wisdom if it’s unlikely you’ll use it?

The Next Steps: 

  • Examine past situations where you either sought wisdom or someone offered you unsolicited wisdom.
  • For each situation, be honest and ask yourself:
  1. Did you genuinely seek the wisdom?
  2. Did you do it to prove superiority?
  3. Were you guarded about asking for wisdom, or (4) Did you squander the opportunity to seek wisdom?
  • If your motivation was to not genuinely seek wisdom, assess what your typical attitude was and is about seeking wisdom.
  • Decide that you want to genuinely seek wisdom. Remember that you can choose whether or not to accept the wisdom, but have a rational explanation as to why you didn’t do something with the wisdom provided to you.
Posted on: July 01, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tomorrow (Almost) Never Comes

Tom looked at the clock.

“Midnight,” he said to himself as he took a sip of coffee. The milestone review for the second phase of the project was the next day. As he updated the project plan, he came across the organizational change management tasks that were supposed to be done in phase one that got pushed to phase two. He saw that the tasks were still zero percent complete.

“We’ll pick them up later,” he said to himself as he added the tasks to the phase three workplan.

During the milestone review the next day, Tom’s manager, Gayle, asked about the incomplete organizational change management tasks.

“Ran out of time,” Tom said. “We’ll get them done in phase three.”

“Isn’t that what you told me three months ago during our phase one review?” Gayle asked.

Tom looked down. “Um, yeah,” he said.

“Phase three is even more intense than phase two, what makes you think you’ll get the OCM tasks done in phase three if you didn’t get them done in phase one or two?”

“Gayle, we’ll get them done,” Tom said.

“OK, I’m holding you to it, Tom.”

Three months later, at the phase three milestone review, Tom walked through the workplan, then got to the OCM tasks. Tom knew what was coming.

“Still not done,” Gayle said as Tom avoided her gaze.


Before we go any further, I want to articulate a principle that I’ve not only seen in countless projects but also experienced personally:

The closer you get to a project delivery date, the less time you have to complete tasks kicked down the road from prior project phases.

It’s rare that availability to do work increases as the project gets closer to its final delivery date, and that tasks deferred throughout the project now have extra time to get done. Typically, the project team is working hard to accomplish the only-most-crucial tasks to meet delivery, with other tasks either deferred to post-release or not done at all. The attitude is that those tasks can be completed later when there’s more time. I have two problems with this:

  1. If the task was important enough to include in the original plan, then why is it now unimportant enough to be pushed to tomorrow (or not done at all?)
  2. Tomorrow (almost) never comes.

To avoid the temptation of kicking tasks down the road only to have them die on the vine, give these five takeaways a look:

  1. Don’t short-change planning – Pick your quote: Fail to plan, plan to fail; You don’t have time to do it right, but you always have time to do it over; Measure twice, cut once. The bottom line is to have a realistic and believable plan that focuses on deliverables, has an understood critical path, specifically named task owners (not “the team”), and clear dates. Just make sure the plan supports the project and doesn’t become a project in and of itself.
  2. Resist the urge to push tasks off – OK, sometimes hard choices need to be made and something might need to get pushed off to a later date. This becomes a problem when it’s the rule more than the exception. If you chronically push tasks off because you’ve run out of time, perhaps something in your planning needs to change.
  3. When you have to push tasks off, articulate the implications – Putting something off until later or cutting the task altogether means the project will incur some incremental risk (assuming the task was value-added in the first place). Have mitigation in place for managing any incremental risk.
  4. Adjust the plan when things hit the fan – I’ve seen it many times: a project starts out great, the plan is reviewed on a regular basis, life is good. Then something goes wrong. More often than not, the plan either doesn’t get updated to reflect reality or it gets abandoned altogether. Keep the plan current and drive decisions on hard choices when tasks must be deferred. Just remember to articulate the implications (see takeaway 3) of the choice. Keep the plan current and realistic.
  5. If it’s truly not necessary, then cut it – When planning your project, do a reality scrub to ensure only must-need tasks are included. Ask yourself, “What’s the consequence if this task isn’t done?” If there’s no clear consequence, then consider not doing it. Just make sure the project team agrees with cutting the task before it goes in the shredder.

Remember, the closer you get to a project delivery date, the less time you have to complete tasks kicked down the road. Resist the urge to push tasks off until tomorrow, because tomorrow almost never comes.

Posted on: December 02, 2021 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Three Questions to Help You Keep Perspective

Friday looked to be like any other day.

I got up, had breakfast, and left the house around 8:30 for a day of meetings. We had planned on having another couple over for dinner that night and a day trip with our son on Saturday. About noon, Patty called me saying she had a pain in her abdomen since getting up and it was getting worse. I asked her if she wanted me to come home. She told me she didn’t need me home, but that we should probably cancel dinner in the event she had something contagious. I was out for a few more hours and came home to her sitting on the couch, saying the pain wasn’t going away. Her temperature was 101. We talked to a tele nurse who suggested it might be an infection and that we should go to urgent care. After a short wait we got checked in. The pain continued on, now accompanied by nausea. They ran blood tests then, after seeing the results, decided to do a computed tomography (CT) scan of her abdomen. What did the blood tests reveal? Why the CT scan? What were they looking for? What’s going on? These questions raced through my mind as they took Patty away for the scan. About ten minutes later she came back, where we sat and waited for about two hours; Patty’s pain stubbornly persistent along with the nausea. Then the doctor came in.

“There’s some stuff going on,” she said as she came into the room. In that moment I don’t know how many thoughts went through my head. “It’s appendicitis,” she said. “We’re going to keep you here overnight and get you in for surgery in the morning. Pretty routine.” A huge wave of relief came over me. Certainly, the fact that Patty was going to need surgery wasn’t good news, but on the spectrum of bad news in my head this was about the best bad news we could have gotten. She stayed overnight, then around 1:30 in the afternoon went in for a laparoscopic appendectomy, where they made three small incisions in her abdomen and, using telescopic rods and a video camera, removed the angry appendix. We were back home by 5:30PM, only four hours after the surgery, where she began her recovery.

I am writing this on Sunday, the day after her surgery. She is resting comfortably and has eaten, showered, and put on her makeup. I am so thankful that it wasn’t more serious and that she is going to be back to normal in no time. What the events of the last couple of days did remind me of, though, was two words that we as leaders need to remember:

Keep perspective.

In my career I’ve had plenty of times where I thought the whole world was crashing around me. Whether it be a slipping (or failed) project, difficult issue with an employee, or totally unforeseen issue that consumed my time, in nearly every circumstance the crisis was dealt with and didn’t impact my long-term career trajectory. I’ve had a number of times in my career where I was “reminded” that what I was dealing with was minor in comparison to major life issues such as losing a loved one. Losing my sister to cancer at age 54 was a massive wake-up call to calibrate the crisis of the day and keep perspective on problems we deal with.

Now I’m not saying that we as leaders should be tone deaf when problems arise; by all means we need to address issues and not put our heads in the sand. What great leaders do, though is address issues focused and deliberately without creating additional stress along the way.

Through my career I’ve learned to ask myself three questions to help me keep perspective when dealing with issues:

  1. Will the crisis impact me in the future or will I have long forgotten about it a year from now?
  2. Will someone be harmed in any way because of the crisis?
  3. How does this crisis compare with things like sickness or losing a loved one?

As leaders, it’s easy to get consumed by the crisis du jour and allow it to wreck your day. My ask to you is that you keep things in perspective and ask yourself the three questions when you’re dealing with you next crisis. Hopefully it will give you some peace that, while the crisis is important, it may not be as earth-shattering as it feels in the moment.

Posted on: November 01, 2021 08:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, 'hmm.... that's funny...'"

- Isaac Asimov