Five minutes ago a junior project manager in the company I am currently consulting to came to me and asked me a simple question. What makes a good project manager?
I asked him why he wanted to know, and he said, ‘Because that’s what I want to be, and you’re an outsider who knows about this stuff’. So this is what I told him. I think it applies to other kinds of manager too.
Master the basics
There is no substitute for doing the basics and doing them well. Planning, risk management, dependencies, team-working, and all the rest. And make sure that you really do them well – that issues and actions are routinely tracked, that you write formal work packages rather than just assuming that what you have said is clear, and so on. Qualifications are nice because they provide a structured model for management, but just learning to do the basics properly is a matter of attention, responsibility and commitment – virtues without which you will never be a good manager.
You can acquire any number of professional qualifications and certificates. But for other people to think you a professional, you need to be worthy of the name.
For example, when I recently gave a course on delivery management and suggested that the project manager’s ultimate responsibility was to make sure that the benefits our colleagues hope for are really achieved, one very senior manager responded with ‘That’s not my job’.
Well, no, if you define your job by your formal job description, maybe it isn’t. But as Max Weber – the man who practically created the idea of professionalism – said, an employee is someone you pay so you can tell them what to do, whereas a professional is someone you pay to tell you what to do. I’m pretty sure that a good project manager is a professional, not just an employee, and I cannot imagine how a project manager could ‘tell me what to do’ without understanding what, ultimately I was trying to achieve.
So if my plan says ‘meet these requirements’ or ‘deliver this system’ then I don’t doubt that I will fail if I don’t. But I cannot see how I can really succeed unless I understand the benefits you think these requirements and deliverables will give you, and make sure that I work towards them too.
There are a million other things a professional manager does as a matter of routine. Many of them are not unlike being a consultant. Indeed, I don’t think there’s much difference between a good manager and a good consultant – they tend to merge in direct proportion to their maturity. Think big, take pains, even all do those clichéd things like ‘going the extra mile’. And do not think ‘outside the box’ – just recognise that there is no box unless, out of fear or ignorance, you put yourself in one.
Master the corporate management system
The third (and probably biggest) item is harder, as it is not in the individual manager’s power to do much about it. It’s the corporate project management system – that can make more difference to being a project manager than anything else. In fact I regard it as the litmus test of my own work building management systems – that managers don’t have to do anything but manage. All the rest – the petty bureaucracy and standards and elementary tools, techniques and templates – are all provided in easily used form by the policies and systems and training I create.
On the other hand, if your system isn’t quite that friendly, it is still open to the good manager to take a hand. Except in the kind (happily rare) organisation where authority is either so rigid and draconian that you would be far better off getting another job, the reason the management system doesn’t support you is usually either because you don’t understand what it is trying to do or the people who manage it aren’t telepathic and they did not know that it was causing you problems. If it’s the first (and regretfully, it often is) then once you understand the problem (hopefully) goes away, but if it is the latter, then what is stopping you getting them to change it?
Ultimately you will know when you are a really good manager – it is then that working really is more fun than fun.