The title “Project Manager” covers a huge range of responsibilties. Sometimes it describes a role doing little more than running a spreadsheet to track tasks. At other times, it’s the job title for someone who will be managing millions, even billions of pounds, and a huge project team, to deliver a major infrastructure project.
Only as good as their last project?
But for project managers at every level, project management can be a tough world in which they’re only as good as their last project. For contract PMs, the initial contract is very often six months, even though the project is expected to run for longer. At the end of that time, the client can end the contract if they don’t feel the manager is performing.
Hit the ground running
The ability to hit the ground running is vital. Projects are notorious for their uneven workflows and one of the pinch points is mobilising the project, when a great deal needs to be done at the same time. Recruiting a team, aligning them around the project goals, writing the initial documents and risk assessments, holding the kick-off meeting, getting to grips with the business, preparing the plan and budgets and getting everything approved - it’s hectic. And it’s during these activities that the organisation is forming an impression of the manager and deciding whether to stick with them over the life of the project.
It’s not unknown in very rigorous project management environments, such as the oil industry, for an audit team to arrive and start an investigation because the project hasn’t started and ramped up quickly enough but has been spending money - not a good start for a project manager, the client has perhaps lost faith in them already.
Hover above the detail but swoop in when necessary
What distinguishes the successful project managers from the rest? The difference is often in the approach to detail. One successful project manager was described as being a bit like an eagle - hovering over the project, taking in the whole picture, but able to swoop down and pick out a detail if required. This is very different from most management roles, in which delegation patterns are pretty fixed, and the manager doesn’t need the ability to switch focus in this way.
Resilient and a good negotiator
Projects never run smoothly. If they did, they wouldn’t need project managers. So a key skill for the project manager is resilience when things aren’t going right, together with the courage to tell senior management the truth if delays or overspends are likely. (Taking for granted the fact that a competent PM has enough grasp on the spending and schedule to spot this early on).
Getting extra resources, whether it’s budget, time or people, is where the negotiating skills come in. If the PM has been straightforward with the organisation, reporting regularly, it’s much easier to explain to senior management why extra resources are needed. On IT projects it can be very difficult to assess how much of a system has been built successfully, and management has to trust the PM to tell the truth.
Smart PMs know the value of a project office
A PM who really knows how to run a project realises that their job is to manage, motivate and communicate, not to collect information or process it. That’s the job of the project administrator or PMO. Cost collection and calculation alone can be incredibly time-consuming, particularly where a project is working across multiple currencies, and using accrual accounting, while being billed by contractors and others.
Successful PMs at this level know the value of a PMO, know what they want it to do, and appreciate the business intelligence it provides, because they need that information to run a project that delivers on time and to budget.