Follow the leader

Throughout the year I speak with hundreds of project managers from around the world about their experiences with their respective PM colleagues.

I also have the opportunity to speak with dozens of potential clients about their experiences, expectations and frustrations with regards to the role of a project manager in the enterprise.

As expected, there are some variations in their responses, but one common denominator among them all is the reference to leadership.

Leadership is one of those broad topics that I think is easier to describe than it is to exhibit, teach and measure – similar to ethics or management.

People like to think they understand it and can often talk a lot about it, but have a difficult time putting together a training plan around. Worse yet, everyone just loves to sprinkle it in every business conversation, along with strategic, ROI and so on.

My latest pet hate is the increased use of thought leadership. With that said, when someone tells me they want to see more leadership from the project manager role, I am going to drive a little deeper on that and not let it sit at the high-level, catch-all phrase.

Here are some of the responses I get when I dig in further:

  • “Project managers tend to delegate things out and when the responsible team member doesn’t hit the date, they say “well it was in the meeting minutes and they told me the date!”

  • “The project manager doesn’t really know the details – they are just managing the team. If I really want to know what is going, I need to go to the respective subject matter expert on the team.”

  • “They are just going to ask someone else to do something, so it is easier for me to get it done and chase it myself.”

  • “I don’t really know who owns it.” And this last one comes in various flavors, but is by far the most common.

I don’t have fancy studies to back up my claims or quotes from popular CIOs, so you are going to have to trust me on this. If you want to be a value-added (another business term shifting to overuse) member of your organization, then you need to become a leader that manages projects well – a Project Leader.

Focus on the following two areas and you will certainly move in the right direction:

1) Own Your Project

Project Managers very rarely have dedicated resources that they manage or have direct responsibility for.

Almost everyone I speak with describes a matrix environment, in which they have assigned resources from another manager that ‘owns’ that resource. (I know some are getting bothered with the use of resource and owns, but these are just terms, not how I view my colleagues).

Also very common; project managers will explain that they are not subject matter experts and rely on others for that knowledge.

These two, very true concepts have too many project managers simply running weekly meetings and completing project documents. They meet week to week (I know, Agile evangelists can relax… during dailys) and simply ask “How is it going? Are you on track? Do you anticipate any issues? Need any help?” and so on and so on.

The problem is, they are not truly taking time to understand the issues, the effort, the dependencies and when questions come up from various stakeholders, the stream of emails start.

You respond, include subject matter expert on the string and were off to an email marathon. Even if you didn’t know, you should have gone to said subject matter expert, got the answer or understand what else is required and then gone back to that person with a response.

You need to own your project… be the single throat to choke. Of course there are times when a deep dive, tech conversation may require your SME to join but you need to own it.

Of course you want to give credit where credit is due e.g. great question – I spoke with Mrs. SME and she confirmed that A, B, and C would resolve the issue. I have that added for my weekly, to validate the progress, and will circle back with you next week.) but you must own it.

2) Drive Your Project

Everyone gets it, you aren’t the subject matter expert and even if you could be, it isn’t your role on the project. Unfortunately, when project managers do not know enough about a particular department/function on their team they tend to back off and not really question/push that person.

However, within reason you must stretch your team to ensure they are not being ‘comfortable’ with their estimates and delivery. This is one you want to be careful with, as most people want to do good work and will push themselves.

On a more serious front, project managers need to be more diligent in following up with team members, vendors and yes – clients.

If someone owes you something next week, then you should send an email or call them towards the end of that week to remind them and ask if you can help in any way.

Too many project managers simply show up the following week, open the project plan, and ask for progress; only to hear the person say: “Sorry, I am running so hard with so much on my plate. I will get it to you by end day tomorrow.”

Send meeting minutes with call to actions and owners, call them a few days later to ask how you can assist, send an agenda 24 hours ahead of the meeting with details of who will be asked to provide updates.

Considering ROI, thinking strategically and exhibited thought leadership really are important, but as a project manager there are few things more important than owning and driving your projects.

Save yourself a lot of grief and be seen as a project leader by owning and driving your projects.