Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Project 'Manager' - have we got the name wrong?

Everyone has their own term for the role of project manager and most of them aren't printable. I've heard the good, bad and downright ugly.

It's now become a generic title that people give themselves whenever they are managing a piece of work that has to be done by a particular date.  Phrases like 'I'm managing this project', 'we're going to treat it like a project', '[insert name here] has asked me to project manage it' have become part of our daily conversations regardless of whether you're a HR advisor, database administrator or Director of Special Projects (don't get too comfy in that office).

I believe that everyone should have a base level of project manager knowledge as - done well - it can enhance how you deliver tasks, but that's not to say that you should rush to call yourself one.

The title of project manager has become watered down and now covers a multitude of roles and people. Add to that the fact that some project managers and PMOs have become too focussed on the processes and templates rather than the softer skills that will actually provide the basis for success and you have a profession that's forgotten what it looks like.

Here in Melbourne the marketplace is full of people who've worked on projects or else passed a 5-day course and now call themselves project managers, with one recruiter telling me last week, she'd had 120 applications for one senior project manager role, with only half having a track record of successful project delivery.

In my experience the most successful people in project management roles have been great leaders. People who know how to create and maintain a great team; know how to delegate; create a strong vision and plan and ensure that the culture is both fun and output focused. In a nutshell, when it comes to successful project delivery, leadership (not management) is where it's at.

Worryingly, the dominant methods that guide project management - PRINCE2 and PMBOK - are both light on leadership, with PRINCE2 only mentioning it once in its role description of a project manager. Notably it is way down the list and placed underneath management tasks such as maintaining the various templates associated with the method. It is mentioned more in PMBOK, but only as a key attribute that a project manager must have rather than it being a key component of the body of knowledge, which I find both odd and disproportionate when it will always be people that deliver projects, not process.

Projects are a mix of leadership, culture and methods. If project managers are missing just one of those skill sets, you can expect the project to struggle. Leadership is undoubtedly the core skill required by those in charge of projects, so maybe a change of name is in order?

In his highly underrated 2004 book 'Agile Project Management', Jim Highsmith correctly states that 'most projects are over-managed and under-led' and quotes Admiral Grace Hopper 'you manage things, you lead people'. Our world has changed and projects can't be managed in the same way as we were doing it 10 years ago. We have seen a move towards feminine leadership values such as empathy, caring, compassion and above all co-operation and collaboration, so more than ever PMs need to listen, lead then manage.

So what do you think? If we recruited project leaders not project managers would it make a difference? Would it create a recruitment environment where the emphasis was on leadership first? Would the competencies required for the role be different as a result? If HR/IT departments dropped the requirement for a certificate (from a 5-day course) as a qualifying criteria and focussed instead on behaviours would it improve the talent pool available to organisations? Or is it down to the individual to demonstrate that project management is a mix of management and leadership?

What is your organisation doing to turn its project managers into leaders that build environments of success?

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