Project Managers and Success

Being a good PM can be a thankless, grueling job.  You are constantly herd your team, chasing down deadlines, reminding others of their commitments, begging for extensions to deadlines or budgets and, in the end, telling everyone that it was the team that made it all work, and you were just along for the ride.  If you are a good one.

A bad project manager, ironically, has a much easier time.  Your point your finger at those who don’t perform, you watch helplessly as deadlines pass with no action, you alienate others by constantly haranguing them about their responsibilities, sit and worry about missing milestones or your spending going off the rails, and in the end get very little credit for the job.  You get stuck as the project manager with the fallout, while your technical and functional experts go on to bigger and better things.

The irony, of course, is that the differences between those two jobs are mostly attitude and interpersonal skills.

I’ve worked with very experienced project managers who were like a dark cloud hanging over everyone’s head.  The team lived in dread of weekly meetings, not because of failure to perform some critical task, but because of the pain involved in talking to that PM for an hour.  Those teams generally slogged through their project with a general malaise, not engaged, but not willing to quit the project.  I like to think of those projects as begrudgingly successful, when they were successful at all.

I’ve also worked with very experienced project managers who could get that team on a call, whip through the agenda, summarize and coordinate next steps, and get minutes distributed with action items before the dust had settled.  The team was willing to work together, hold each other responsible, and take on whatever came their way.  That’s the team you want.

One of the key tasks for project champions and sponsors we’ve discussed in the past is having ownership, not ceding it to the project manager.  And part of that ownership has to be recognizing when that project manager is the wrong one, and making a change.  It’s not easy, but it sometimes needs to be done.

I’m reminded of advice Jack Welch once gave about his theory on firing your worst performers.  It is better for everyone, he said.  The low performers know they are on the bottom, and they carry the weight of that knowledge every day.  A bad project manager should know they are bad.  Getting them onto another project where they can be successful will help both the project and the person.

And if they don’t know they are bad…well, that’s a whole different story.  But it usually ends the same way.

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