Listen up, an old man telling a story…….

My entire career has been based on project management and I personally think that I am absolutely terrible at project management and have not even yet come close to executing a project perfectly. There have been projects that have failed miserably and others where we might have stressed out over details that we thought would ruin a product, but it did not matter and it ended up being a success anyway.  I have been fortunate enough to receive promotions and continue to get opportunities to expand my team.  Why?  If I feel I am not “good” at project management, somebody must think that I am doing something right.  I am guessing that I am viewed as being an effective project manager and whatever I seem to be doing is yielding results.  So, taking a step back what are the traits that I have learned or put an emphasis on that has made me an effective project manager?

Here’s my top three:

1.) How you “manage up” is just as important how you “manage down.”  This goes over the head for some people and it amazes me.  If you are indirectly throwing your team under the bus while trying to “manage up” you will never have long term success.  You have to know how to play the game politically in both directions.

2.) No job or task is below you and never be afraid to get your hands dirty.  This mantra has made my team and I feel like we can take on and accomplish anything, sometimes faster and more cost effectively.

3.) Know the business and the strategic direction, and then take it to a deeper level.  The better knowledge and understanding you have on the business the easier it is to make decisions and/or present details on decision points to management.  In many cases, we end up knowing/learning the business on new projects better than business managers themselves and it has helped in increasing the overall success of certain projects, reduced timelines as well as mitigate risks.

As I mentioned above and even in these areas I know that I am not perfect, but when I am with my team I always try to point out to them others within the company that are very strong in these areas.  Before a meeting, I will say “Really watch how this person commands the room and builds up his group at the same time,” or “There is a VP taking on a menial task for one of his direct reports” so it is more than just me saying it but also giving other examples.  Anyway, I am sure there is an entire laundry list of what makes a strong project manager, but these three are the ones I have picked up over the years that I think really stick out.  How about you guys?

11 thoughts on “Listen up, an old man telling a story…….

  1. I believe that the traits you mentioned are transferable to any profession and not just applicable to PM roles. However, understanding the importance of those qualities to me seems to be a crucial component of a successful PM.

    To comment on the first trait. “Managing down” and “managing up” is a great way to phrase this. I believe that accountability is important in any line of work. Here you have to build trust and a positive professional relationship with your team. They need to feel that they have your support. However, they need to understand that you need their support to do your job effectively as well. Transparency and communication is key.

    As to the second trait. I believe the attitude toward a project is set by the PM. It seems that you have a positive and motivating personality which allows your team to feel competent and energetic to accomplish “anything”. Believing and trusting your team allows them to feel more appreciated which helps with the overall dynamic of the group.

    The third trait you mentioned is critical for a PM to understand and realize its importance. However, it is the PM’s responsibility to remind the team of how the team fits within the strategic plan of the company as a whole. This allows the team to feel that they are part of the bigger picture for the company.

    I enjoyed reading this especially coming from you. You tend to be a little hard on yourself and so it is important to step back and realize your strengths, and not always think about he weaknesses. With some new tools we learned in class it will hopefully give you a better understanding and/or framework going forward,

  2. Interesting post, thank you. I think the emphasis on managing up is a critical and underutilized one in managing a successful team or project. Rather than thinking of it as politics at my company, I tend to look at it more as managing the message and flow of information upward. For me “managing up” comes down to three categories with my manager: 1) What does he want to know 2) What does he need to know and 3) What do I need from him in terms of support. Those three vary in significance depending on the risk and overall project direction, but I tend to focus on #2 and 3 more when managing up. He may want to know all the specific details of the project, but if I can reassure him that my team is handling it allows him to focus on other tasks that help me with #3. The goal is to eliminate any surprises and if there are any major changes I want to be the one managing the message to him on those. If I can educate him on the important aspects of the project, that same correctly crafted message will make its way through executive management in the same process.

  3. Thank you for an interesting post. I believe that you have described some of the most important traits of the successful project manager. Personality and attitude towards the project can make a huge difference. Good project manager should possess strong interpersonal skills leading the team and communicating the results to project executives. Effective project manager should also know how, when and to whom to communicate the right information. I think that successful PM should find enjoyment and satisfaction from the project management work despite any challenges and should not be afraid of failure.

  4. Kevin, your second point is so very true. It really comes of as arrogant when a manager or even an employee isn’t will to do a task that they consider to be below them. When working on team it’s motivating when you know that everyone is willing to do what it takes to get a job done. There’s something about being in it together that can lead people to accomplish great things.

    Your third point is very insightful and I’ve added it to my list of reminders as I try to move up in my company. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Thanks for the insightful post. I am not in a project manager role, but your third point resonates with me. I’ve been in my role for less than one year. I’ve been on loose project teams where we’ve been assigned to some hot topic projects. Basically, putting out fires and filling in gaps. There was some turnover and several projects were left unfinished. I’ve been able to learn the business quickly and provide some unseen insight to the business development manager. The combination of a fresh perspective and living the details have led to successful projects. I hope to always be reminded of this trait as I progress through my career, along with incorporating the other two that you mention.

  6. You know, after the experience I’ve had as our team’s project manager I know exactly how you feel. You’ll hear more about it Saturday, but far from being a well-oiled machine, I often felt as though I was leading our team along a jackknifing path and couldn’t buy a clean win to save. There was more than one time where I questioned why I decided to take the lead on my team, and honestly felt that I was being incredibly ineffective. But every once in a while I’d get an email, text, or phone call from someone on my team that told me that I was doing good, and that was enough to keep the energy up. And then, when we get to the finish line and see how things executed, I don’t think anyone would have guessed how much we all went through.

    I agree with your three, especially with number two. You’ve got to get your hands dirty, full stop. One other thing I’d add, as something I learned this quarter, is that it’s important to know your team, and it’s just as important to promote openness, trust, and sharing the load. It took me a couple of weeks before I learned that lesson, but once I really got to know and appropriately empower my team things became a whole lot easier.

  7. Kevin – I love your first point. This is why you are a great Project Manager and more importantly, this is why you continue to get promoted!
    I think your example of “managing up” has one more dimension. In order to be successful, I think you need to keep the management aware of the challenges (or mini successes) you and your team came across. There is no way you will be recognized if you do a good job when your boss is not aware of that. I have learned this a long time ago that even though my boss in not involved, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to know about where you are with the project. If you praise your team, they will do the same for you and they will work for you so much harder.

  8. Kevin, you make some valid points. I think the points you mentioned are applicable to any supervisory/ managerial role though. With that being said, project management definitely need to utilize those points, in order to create a strong team dynamic. The first point is great, and many people like to downplay politics. People like to think that their work should be the only qualifying measure. Although the quality of work plays into promotions, politics is important too. Politics is a form of interacting with others (soft skills). The second point sounds like a cultural aspect to your team. It shows that management is personable and there’s a flat hierarchical structure within the team. The final point is the most important in my opinion. If you understand the strategic direction, you’ll be able to adapt your proposals to that direction. Upper management will most likely see the relevance of your requests and support you behind your goals.

  9. Excellent post, Kevin! I find your approach to project manager as a good mix of both technical (business and strategic direction) and sociocultural (managing up, showing you’re a true team player on tasks). We discussed in our first class of the quarter that 1) a project management process is both an art (sociocultural) and science (technical) and 2) a project is a one-time or temporary event with a result (beginning and end). Isn’t it awesome when you realize the continued success of multiple projects is due to the consistency of a project manager? If I am able to be less critical of myself as well, I hope that I can find my top three of what has worked for me. One of those that comes to mind at the moment is being genuine and truly appreciative of other people. I feel when you show appreciation, you’re willing to admit you are not able to accomplish something without their help. I appreciate you reminding me to take that step back and try to reflect on the good!

  10. You’ve listed three great categories of essential skills for a project manager, and I thank you for posting these gems of wisdom that you’ve gathered through experience. At least one other reader commented on your self-deprecation in the post, and I agree that you’re being too hard on yourself when you claim to be a “terrible project manager.” This does introduce another important trait for project managers (and all human beings) to possess, and that’s self-reflection. Reflecting on both personal and team results are important activities during a project. Whether it’s a review of progress performed during the course of a project or a “post-mortem” analysis of a past project with suboptimal execution, analysis of results is necessary to accumulate knowledge and wisdom. Appropriate application of the knowledge and wisdom gained through experience enable the project manager to anticipate potential problems and deal with them effectively. Continuous improvement is a noble pursuit, and self-reflection is undoubtedly necessary in that endeavor.

  11. Good title first and foremost. It definitely got my attention I like soaking up knowledge from the old and wise (LOL). I like the point you made in number two. I believe that is my greatest attribute when I am involved in projects. In order to cut down the lead time on certain items. I take matters into my own hand. Having delegating authority is positive when you are the head of a project, but sometimes it more cost efficient and time saving to tackle some task yourself . It is a balancing act since I don’t want to step on someone toes I will rather wait than to try to attempt a job that I am not qualified for. At that point it is best to leave it to the professional. Quality is key to a successful project. Lastly, one of my previous managers was great at doing this we was the VP of manufacturing but would get out there with us and do some of the grunt work. He meant business and I have tried to take on that mentality and practice that in my own career.

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