Why do project managers get passed over for advancement?

The late actor and food magnate Paul Newman lamented on classic bottles of Newman’s Own salad dressing that his neighbors once confined him in his basement until he satisfied their ceaseless demands for the home-brew potion. “A prisoner of my own excellence,” he called himself. So, too, are great project managers, who can be deemed far too valuable to do anything except project management.

The growing importance of project management hierarchy and new oversight and management roles in project management offices offers some opportunity for advancement. Even then, many in the emerging role of Director of Project Management come from a general administrative or operational background, rather than the project management discipline.

“It’s like any other corporate position—if you don’t have good succession planning, your people get stuck. It happens frequently in project management, field service, and supply chain operations,” says Michael Fritsch, COO of Confoe Consulting.

Can companies afford to have an advancement path for project managers that takes them to the executive office? Can they afford not to?

The project management boss: a stealth CEO?

Few project management offices look alike. In some organizations, the top project management role is an advisory or slack-filling resource to other project managers—a floating project manager with a fixed desk. In others, the director of project management acts in a true executive capacity, doing everything from hiring and firing project managers to defining procedures, budgets, and documentation.

“When you’re talking about that type, a senior executive managing assets of the company, that person is essentially the project management CEO,” says Martin Wartenberg, lead instructor for project and program management at University of California, Irvine.

This puts the cultural clash in sharp focus. Is the best project management boss the best-available boss, or the best-available project manager? “A good project manager has the skills an executive needs, but a [general] executive may not have those skills that are important to project management,” Fritsch says. “Interpersonal leadership, stakeholder management, and making sure things happen from folks you don’t have authority over? Those are all akin to an executive skillset.”

Pure project managers, however, may lack the institutional credibility to stand toe-to-toe with other leaders as they advance up the organizational chart. Developing as a successful director means building out cross-functional knowledge as well as the ability to marshal departmental budgets and personnel.

“The ideal person for that director role is someone who came from business functions and has enough subject matter expertise to earn the respect of the other groups,” Wartenberg says. “In industries such as tech, pharma, and construction, if you don’t have subject matter expertise, you will not be respected by the rest of the organization and will not be as effective.”

The director’s development plan

Startup and high-growth companies have an easier time promoting project managers through the ranks because they tend to be governed less by rigid hierarchy and more by a desire to meet pressing needs with the best available personnel. In more formal organizations, Wartenberg recommends parallel advancement tracks for technical, management, and project roles which encourage movement between the three categories without loss of salary or tenure.

Project management directors themselves should embrace the mission to develop and advance project managers in their group. “You’d like to see that the project management best practices center has a stated responsibility for professional development of project managers within the organization,” Fritsch says.

Navigating cultural hurdles

If corporate culture doesn’t encourage project managers to develop greater executive skills, some initiative is required. “Get on the board of directors of a small non-profit that you believe in, or become active in a trade association,” says management consultant Gary Patterson. “You will be thrown into situations that help you develop those management skills, and you can do it in a setting where stumbling and falling doesn’t have dire consequences.”

In the 21st century workplace, there are no secrets. A company that confines its project managers and PM leaders to a single silo won’t be smiled upon by the candidate pool. “If word gets out that your organization has ceilings that keep you in limited roles, you’re not going to attract the best or brightest,” Patterson says. “And that’s not just in the project management department, but the whole company.”

To earn the respect of the broader organization, project management leaders have to ensure that their discipline remains focused on helping the organization achieve its goals, rather than imposing a discipline for discipline’s sake. The director isn’t there to be the final word on by-the-book project management practices, but to help the company win through superior execution. “There’s a risk of a project management office becoming a bureaucratic entity that stands in the way of doing good, instead of enabling it,” Fritsch says. “When that happens, you become a net detractor from results.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.