Can Project Managers Become Senior Corporate Leaders?

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By David Barrett

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Project managers are the best-equipped employees to take on roles as senior leaders. They just need a little training.

If you think about the key qualities that make a great leader they would be:

  1. a great people person – compassionate;
  2. a visionary – can see the big picture and communicate the plan ;
  3. a strong business acumen – they can talk to authority, stakeholders and shareholders;
  4. a great quarterback – can guide us to the win – execute the plan;
  5. a process driven approach to work – they have a system that is reliable and repeatable.

The great news for the project management community is that they have three of the five qualities – and these are the attributes most difficult to find!

So what? So project managers need to look outside the comfort of their “on time, on budget, on scope” world and reach for the senior leadership positions within their organizations. They are prime candidates.

A great project manager should already be very good with people (#1). If not, they won’t be around long. The quarterback thing (#4) is a little more difficult to quantify but the great project managers I know are great quarterbacks: structured, visible, easy to get along with and very easy to follow.

#5 should be a slam dunk for any good project manager. They cannot manage a project without a process. A really good project manager will come to the table with process as part of his/her core competency. They know how to execute a plan – how to get the work done.

So how can they fill the gaps?

To become a great leader, they need to understand the business. They need to be able to work at a level far above the detail, to be able to see the vision (even to be able to create the vision) and manage the business.

I would love to say “quit your job and take an MBA” but I can’t – risky, inaccessible for many, overkill for most. So instead, here are my tips for closing the skills gap – getting from a good project manager to a great leader.

Understand how to manage change. Change is a reality in every business environment. Economies change, people change, and customers come and go. Change is a part of every leader’s daily life and he/she had better understand how to embrace it. This is not part of every PM’s fabric so there is a gap here.

Learn a new Language. My friend Gary Heerkins calls this the CxO language. (CEO, CFO, CIO etc.) Understanding how to talk to power is critical – so learn how to talk their language. If you want get involved in the business at a level above the project management circles you need to understand how to read a balance sheet and income statement. You need to understand how to calculate ROI and NPV. And you need to be able to make a cash flow statement sing.

Connect your work to the business. A very smart friend, Ken Robertson, tells the aspiring PM to understand “business outcome”. By this he means connect to the real purpose of your work. Where does it fit in to the big picture? How does it connect to the strategic plan? Start worrying about the portfolio of projects rather than just the projects.

Get out of your comfort zone – manage projects in other areas. If you stay in IT forever you will never be a valuable leader to the organization. Get out of where you are and into something different. Ask for a position in a completely different area. Expand your knowledge and experience. Tomorrow’s most valuable leaders know the business – all of it.

Project Managers, the really good ones, should feel very excited about their future. They have the core to great leadership – which most others do not. Filling the gaps should be easy.

Can project managers become senior corporate leaders? Absolutely.

(Originally published at www.DavidBarrett.ca, January 2014)

David Barrett is the founder and National Program Director for the Centres of Excellence in Project Management and Business Analysis at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. He is also a professional speaker specializing in project leadership, corporate leadership and strategy execution. He is the author of four books, a weekly blogger and the author of The Weekly One Minute Video Series. David was the founder and managing director of ProjectWorld Canada, Business Analyst and Project Summit USA and the founder and executive editor of ProjectTimes.com and BATimes.com. He can be found at www.SolutionsNetwork.com

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