The business case for superior project leadership

Project management formalized the process of turning a jumble of goals, budgetary restraints, and talent resources into predictable, repeatable success. That success has made basic project management a commodity rather than a strategic advantage.

“General, tactical project management is becoming part of standard expectations, so project management offices are extending beyond the ‘Project Police’ thing,” says Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, research program manager at research organization APQC.

A 2013 KPMG survey famously concluded that 93 percent of large enterprises recognizes that they must fundamentally change their business models. On this blog, we have discussed how even “safe” industries are impacted by rampant digital disruption.

That’s why the logical evolution of the project manager is into a true business leader. One who doesn’t just ensure that timetables are sane and milestones are reached, but can elaborate on how a successful project will improve business results, insulate the organization from shocks, and otherwise create a more efficient and effective enterprise. A PMI representative put the challenge plainly: “project managers are now becoming strategists as well as tacticians.”

Beyond the ‘project police’

Project management is increasingly seen as a discipline that provides support and backing of strategic decisions, not just tactical investments. “Project management was a very IT-focused discipline for a long time, but that’s changing because most organizations are overhauling departments or entire businesses,” Lyke-Ho-Gland says.

That finding is borne out in the data. According to an APQC survey, IT has fallen to third place in the market for project management office services, behind executive leadership and operations. As disruptive change affects a widening range of industries, project managers get their time in the spotlight as facilitators of major, strategic shifts.

The change hasn’t completely inverted the model of project management priorities. APQC’s survey shows that survey finds that completion, budget, and schedule concerns still comfortably lead all other measures of project management success. But over 30 percent of project management offices said they are now measured on enhancing quality as well as reducing risk.

These new priorities make project managers into responsible leaders who help the entire organization through painful change. “When you make a lot of major changes, you want to make sure you’re doing it effectively, so project management becomes very valuable to those organizations,” she says.

Designing the project leader

To find the project leader of the future, consider how David Evertsen, CEO and Principal of public sector consultancy Municipal Solutions, selects his contractors today.

Evertsen requires everyone in his organization, from interns to senior consultants, to be capable of project management as well as technical writing, marketing, and account management tasks. That’s a tall order for most management training curricula.

“Too many students are coming out of university graduate programs unable to perform in one of those areas,” Evertsen says. “But they still want to be handed the keys to a project with a high level of pay.”

When hiring from more seasoned stock, he prioritizes broad networks and exposure to a wide range of ideas and methodologies. “If I have two people to choose from for one project manager slot, and one has worked for a single company for 10 years, and the other has worked for five different companies for two years each, I’m going to choose that second project manager,” he says. “Their network is likely much larger, and they will have more tools in their toolbox than the person with the same company for 10 years.”

Creating room to grow

As project leadership becomes a more strategic function, organizations may need to shift the way they think about retention and advancement, and not just because executives like Evertsen appreciate wanderlust. Even among those organizations PMI identifies as having high-performing project management offices, only 62 percent have a defined career path for project managers. That number falls precipitously, to 32 percent, among those with lower-performing project management.

Can CEOs rise from the project management office as they once did from the mailroom? It’s possible, says Lyke-Ho-Gland, particularly in smaller organizations where the fast pace of new projects has long meant project management is seen as crucial to strategic success. Larger, older organizations tend to lock their successful project managers into narrower, tactical responsibilities with long-term job security but less advancement. Those will need a more radical adjustment in perspective if they want to keep leadership-minded project experts in the fold.

Perhaps project managers will take a dose of their own medicine and find the best way to keep themselves on a growth trajectory. The best already know that getting the job done is at least as much about applying the right pressures within the system as it is about following flowcharts.

“Project management is really only about 15 percent of the job,” Lyke-Ho-Gland says. “People skills are the other 85 percent, and that’s why people with high potential can extend themselves and their networks by becoming part of the next generation of project managers.”

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.