Rob Thomsett

by Rob Thomsett

As some of you will know during the break, I have been thinking and presenting a webinar about building great teams and questions around project team leadership and motivation However, the need for virtual project management during the COVID lock-down prompted me to think about the underlying assumptions about the role of a project manager.

Many years ago, we visited Stonehenge.  I have two striking memories. One was how relatively small Stonehenge was and the other was of a mural painted on the walls of a tunnel leading to Stonehenge, It depicted a group of people (probably slaves) struggling to move huge pieces of rock across crude wood rails. The only person not struggling was the Stonehenge Construction Project PM who was standing upright pointing (I guess towards where Stonehenge was to be ultimately built) with a whip in his hand. Aaaah! To be a project manager in ancient times. Great motivation techniques on display here also. To be fair to Stonehenge, similar depictions of a whip-wielding project manager exist for the Pyramids and other ancient works.

So, there is a view, thousands of years old, of the project manager as this type of alpha human who is the “master and boss” of the project, the team and all aspects of the project including technology solution and so on. A classic hierarchical power model. The PM leads and the team follows.

As I have written about many times, this type of project manager, rather than owning the processes of project management begins to own the project, in effect, they unwittingly absolve the sponsor and stakeholders from any responsibility. Their ego becomes entangled with the success of their project. Any criticisms, whether from the team or stakeholders, is perceived as a personal attack. They are no longer client-focussed but self-focussed. They have crossed the line, often making decisions that should belong to the sponsor and critical stakeholders.

My experience is that a PM crossing the line of who really owns projects inevitably leads the project to disaster .. for the PM and their client.

However, there is another and very different view of the project manager. It is clearly (and entertainingly) depicted in the great movie – Apollo 13. In this movie about the crisis project to get the failing Apollo 13 capsule and its astronauts back to Earth, Ed Harris plays the role of a truly great project manager – Gene Kranz. Kranz, who had managed a number of Apollo missions, created an environment where his team, all experts, were supported, encouraged and empowered to use their skills and creativity to find solutions to a number of complex and unique problems. The classic Gene Kranz quote:

“Let’s work the problem people.”

Rather than leading the people directly, he allowed people to find the leadership within themselves. Like all the team, he was committed to the urgency of the crisis, and he maintained the focus but trusted the members of his team to do the job. He used support, encouragement and trust as the key leadership tools.

Of course, by now, many of you may recognise echoes of Robert Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership (he has written a number of books on his ideas).  To be honest I wasn’t planning to talk about Greenleaf’s ideas but, it become clear that my view of how great PM’s lead is very similar to Greenleaf’s view of leadership in general.

I believe that great project managers, like Kranz, use:

  • Listening;
  • Empathy;
  • Persuasion and influence;
  • Ensuring that the team has the right resources;
  • Commitment to the growth of team members; and
  • Building a shared vision and shared team-ness;

to create a team culture that inspires all team members to do their best. (For folks new to my articles I hope you will check out my LinkedIn series on building great teams.)

Most importantly, great project managers are focussed on what their client requires and knows that it is the client that is paying for the project. Simply, the client owns the project and the project manager owns the process of delivering it.

While I acknowledge I am dealing here with two simple stereotypes of project manager behaviour and I am assuming that the team members are competent, when thinking of what makes a great project manager I think of two great statements,

One is from Steve Jobs:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

The other is from a person who I will call Chris. Chris is one of the really, really great project managers I have had the privilege to meet in my journey. Chris was the go-to person for all the organisation’s most difficult projects. He always delivered. When I asked him how he did this, he replied:

“You know, people constantly ask me should we do this or should we do that? What package should we choose? My standard answer was .. I have no opinion, I am the project manager. What I can do is help you find the best person to answer your question.”

See you next article and hope you all stay safe.

Footnote: In searching the Web for information about Servant Leadership I did discover this great article by Mike Clayton where he makes a similar argument about the use of Servant Leadership approaches in project management, Check it out.