Want to Lead? Consider Becoming a Project Manager

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Project Managers are the quiet heroes of today’s organizations. After all, just about any major new initiative in an organization takes place in the form of a project. From new product development to implementing a new software system to executing on key strategic initiatives, we live and work in a world of projects. And, it’s the project managers who shoulder much of the burden for bringing these initiatives from paper and presentation to reality. It also turns out that the role is one of the most challenging leadership positions in any organization.

For anyone interested in developing as a leader, getting involved in project work and eventually taking on the role of project manager is a great way to pursue your goals. Here are some of the core leadership tasks of today’s project manager, along with ideas to help you get started.

8 Core Leadership Challenges of the Project Manager

  1. Dealing with uniqueness. Projects by definition are temporary and unique. They are all of the work done once to create or complete something new. Every new product development effort is unique; implementing a new software system is a one-time affair and executing on a strategic initiative requires different initiatives this year than the strategy three years ago. While project managers learn lessons from past projects, they are leading and guiding something new and unique every time.
  2. Assembling a team in a hurry. In many organizations, project team members are drawn from the different functional areas and assemble as a group to focus on a new initiative. From assessing and negotiating for resources with functional managers to assembling the team and bringing it to life, this is a challenging leadership issue for the project manager.
  1. Navigating complex customer and stakeholder needs. Project success is often a function of how effective the project manager is at assessing and meeting the needs of all involved parties for project quality, timing, budgets and resources. A stakeholder is any individual or function touched by a project, and managing these stakeholders, including executives, is a full-time job in leadership, negotiation, diplomacy and communication.
  1. Helping the team move from forming to performing. According to Tuckman, teams move through a number of phases in their lifecycle, from forming to storming and then on to norming and performing. If you’ve been a part of a hastily assembled team, you can relate to the storming phase in particular. Project Managers are effectively team coaches, helping members define roles, understand their work and then navigate key discussion and decision points—all challenging leadership tasks.
  2. Scheduling the resources. If you’ve ever attended a circus or, if like me, you're old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan show, you may have seen the plate spinner who strives to start and keep as many plates spinning on sticks as possible. Most project managers describe feeling like this circus performer from time to time, and striving to gain the right resources at the right time and place is their equivalent of plate spinning. Creativity, negotiation and diplomacy are once again key attributes of the effective project leader.
  3. Forming an environment for success. Teams like individuals do their best work in a healthy environment where they are trusted and trust their co-workers. Yet the pace and demands of schedules create stress points and can foster disagreement and even dissension. The project manager owns the hard work of ensuring a healthy environment where issues are resolved respectfully and efficiently so team members can proceed with their work and provide their creative best in the process.  
  1. Managing the money. With leadership comes financial responsibility, and the project manager is accountable for not only the quality and timeliness of the work, but the cost of the work.
  2. Ensuring quality and delivery. At the end of the day, the team is delivering something new and unique to a customer or group of customers. The project manager is accountable for ensuring the completeness and quality of the offering—on time and at budget.

Project Management as a Career

Every year I teach an MBA elective course in the fundamentals of project management. When we started this course, enrollment was typically 14 to 20 students. Now, the class has exploded to fill the 48-student maximum with more on the waiting list. One year, I agreed to teach two combined sections with over 80 students.

The word is out—project management is a great career and a great way to learn to lead.

It also offers a non-traditional entry point into a leadership opportunity. Instead of competing for the limited number of functional leadership and management roles, you can pursue the nearly insatiable need for project managements skills in most organizations.

I’m incredibly proud of the number of my former students who have moved on to earn the challenging and important Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute. Often, their pursuit of this role and designation starts with a discussion and assignment around exploring what it means to be a project manager.  Here are some ideas to help you get started.

5 Ideas to Help You Explore the Role of Project Manager

  1. Interview a project manager in your firm and learn more about the role and your firm’s formal practices. Ask about how he/she moved into this role. Indicate your interest in supporting a project team and learning more about the role of project participant and project manager.
  2. Meet with an executive and learn more about some of the key project work in the firm. Are there innovation initiatives underway? These are most definitely projects. Is the firm installing a new software system? How are new products developed? Let it be known that you would like to work on a project team to contribute and to gain experience.
  3. Explore the resources available at the Project Management Institute.
  4. Read. My favorite source of information comes from an eminently readable and inexpensive book entitled, The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management by Eric Verzuh. I’ve used Verzuh’s book in lieu of an expensive text for many years and the students give it glowing reviews for its clarity, ease of reading and usefulness.
  5. Volunteer to lead an initiative. There’s no shame in volunteering to head up the holiday party or company picnic. The same project management practices apply and you gain valuable project experience in the process.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Developing as a leader doesn’t require you to follow a traditional path of supervising and then managing a function. Projects and project management offer a great way to learn and practice leadership while actively contributing to the success of your firm.