What Got You Here is Wrong for Performing Here!

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
This article is for those who are “moving up” in their project-oriented  organization, and for those who wish to. Not that everyone must do so; in fact, some of the most-competent, highest-performing contributors are those who are so good at what they do (and receive the recognition needed to sustain it) that they have no desire to do anything different. For the rest of us, however, there can be both excitement and danger in “moving on up”. We explore some of those factors here.

From Team Member to PM
Team Members who are high-performers sometimes have the opportunity to “move up” to Project Team Lead or Project Manager. The expectation is that your high performance will “rub off” on others. Sometimes that works, sometimes not, depending in part on your interpersonal skills, or as the USA-NCB (National Competence Baseline, based on the IPMA Competence Baseline) terms them, your Behavioral Attributes.

The challenge for this repositioned high-performer is that it is easier to do the toughest jobs yourself than to coach others through them. Not only that, but those of us who have been addicted to the adrenalin rush of significant accomplishment feel starved by the delayed trickle of appreciation that a Project Manager receives. Why? Your organization just expects that level of accomplishment from you.

The actions that brought you notice and acclaim as an individual contributor are the wrong things for you to focus upon as a Project Manager. Instead of brilliantly achieving, you must now carefully delegate, coach and nurture. Not at all the same set of competences, are they?

From Small, to Medium, to Large PM
Often, the progression as a Project Manager is to move from Small Projects, to Medium, and then to Large ones. And yet, the most-important competences that you demonstrate in Small Projects are the least important in Medium projects. Then in Large projects, they significantly change again.

We’ve known for years about the Fourple factor: That the skills, competences and performances in a thousand-hour project will work well for a twice-as-large project; will work with some adaptation on a three-times-the-size project. And are exactly wrong for a project that is four times the size. The Fourple factor is one reason why the wonderful Small project manager—that everyone thought would thrive—underperforms on a Medium project, and often totally fails on a Large one.

There are many different dimensions of this Small-Medium-Large (and larger) project phenomenon, including:

  • Coordinating while mostly doing, to leading half-time teams, to directing full-time, multiple teams.
  • Managing downward, to managing across to managing upward, to managing outward.
  • A continuum of approaches from mostly Tactical to mostly Strategic.

It is shocking the number of people who do not grasp this point, of the difference between competences needed at different project sizes. We will, however, highlight one competence you should master in this project-size progression that will help and accelerate all your following progressions. First, learn how to manage your Manager. Second, learn how to manage your Manager’s Manager. Managing effectively two levels up and two levels down is a consistent competence in high-performing, effective Project Managers and Managers alike.

From PM to Manager
You would think that the progression from Project Manager to Manager would be easy. After all, the high-performing Project Manager has learned how to manage downward, across, upwards, and out. And in fact for some, it is relatively easy. The big change here, even in the most projectized of organizations, comes from two areas:

  • Increased pressure from above.
  • Increased demand from below.

Simple, right? Well, not really. You move from a key, well-respected PM who has learned how to get what you need for your projects to succeed, to a competitor for your organization’s scarce resources. In addition, you now spend a significant amount of your working hours (all 20 of them per day) marketing your organization internally and externally, while defending it from the latest arbitrary 15% budget cut; and without cutting any actual programs.

Meetings with other Managers become part of the ritual, and you must learn how to turn them into your strategic advantage to supply your teams with resources. Or, you find ways to avoid the least-effective ones–thus cutting you off from the high-level negotiations of needed trade-outs: “OK, I’ll give you my greatest Business Analyst for a month if you’ll loan me your Procurement Officer”.

Some new Managers try the same actions that made them a great PM, such as single-minded focus on one set of clear objectives; exactly the wrong approach when you are juggling a dozen projects at once. Others risk becoming either a blockage in the vital information flow up and down the organization, or worse, a mere stovepipe, without any real elaboration of information coming down, or appropriate filtering of information sent up.

The worst of it is, you were probably a great Project Manager, but you have only two years (or so) in most organizations to learn how to be an effective Middle Manager. In this role, you must add value to everything you touch, or if not, you will become someone who hates their job, and is in no position to change it. Of course, we learned about the Peter Principle years ago, but still see it in every organization.

From Manager to Executive
You would think the next level would be easier, right? Manager to Executive is just a small additional bump upwards… Well, in some small organizations it can be. But we have seen organizations where there are 12 levels between first-level Manager and the Chief Executive. There are multiple reasons for all those levels in-between. In some organizations, the upward-mobile Manager goes through “Rotation”. This rotation could involve postings in other disciplines of the organization, or other parts of the World–or both. It could involve experience in both Staff and Line Managerial functions.

The greatest benefit of these rotations and upward migrations is to move you, for example, from an Engineering Manager’s perspective (narrow and deep) to an Executive perspective (wide and shallow). All while not losing any of your original strengths and competences. Of course, this is a generalization, but you can see the differences. And, admittedly, the market sector of your organization or government unit affects the extent of changed perspective that you need, as well as does your personal style.

We are talking about changing, over a period of time, the way you think; perhaps moving from a details orientation to a “big picture” one. Or, moving from a useful focus on the numbers to balancing that with a focus on the people. The good news is that thinking style is malleable, while the sociologists say behavioral style is not. That is one reason why you might think that manager you used to work for is still a jerk.

There is one problem with this level of transition (for those who accept this mission impossible): The upward movement becomes slower, limited by the movement of those above you. Except, of course, in times of major reorganization, economic trauma, or fortunate occurrences.

One example of this upward movement involves a Finance Manager in a major Utility company that we worked with in the 1980s. He was a relatively young Manager, who was incredibly effective and insightful. When I asked him about his upward-ambitions, he said his target was to be CEO.

I asked, what he was going to do about the perfectly-adequate and supportive Manager who was his boss. He replied, “I’m gonna push him up ahead of me all the way.” And he did. It’s a shame that we have seen some other Managers who have more interest in keeping their people down. I learned a lot from that Finance Manager, about how to demonstrate your “value add” to your Manager and beyond.

The Two-year Lag
By now, you have probably experienced a bit of agreement, and some disagreement with this article. This is for good reason; but it might be useful to understand the Two-year Lag. In some organizations, you might unofficially fill a role for up to years before you are promoted, and are given the recognition and authority of the position. Here is a scenario about Jo, that illustrates the Two-year Lag, and its potential benefits.

Jo worked as a Team Lead for two years, effectively performing most of the work of the Project Manager, while that person just seemed to be spending most of his time in meetings. Finally, she was promoted to Project Manager. In that role, she learned to appreciate the need to spend some of her time in meetings, in addition to working with the team. And, she decided that she needed to “bring along” some of the team members who demonstrated an interest in taking on more responsibilities.

She grasped that those who wished to progress in their organizations must do two things to realize that wish:

  • Don’t just keep doing the things that got you the promotion. Instead, also master the things you need when you get your next promotion.
  • Bring along the talent and responsibility breadth of your team members so it is easier for you to move up again, and at the same time, continue to improve the performance of your group.

I have seen too many cases where a great PM was repeatedly passed over in promotions because of Manager or Executive fear that there was no one good enough in the group to replace him or her. Then, of course, the Project Manager left to become a Manager at another company.

This Two-year Lag phenomenon is an exception to the rule expressed in title of this posting. Of course, understanding the exception helps to prove any rule. And another exception comes to mind: It appears to me that improving interpersonal skills, including leadership, persuasiveness, communication, flexibility, appreciation for a variety of differences, transcends this article’s theme. But that is another article.

Why You Care
As explained in the beginning of this article, many people are happy with their current role, and the rewards you receive from it. Others are ambitious, a path that is exciting and terrifying. Back in “the good old days”, attentive Managers would take all their talent “under their wings” and help them grow and develop. The rationale was that the primary job of a Manager was to grow their people. Over the last 40 years, that has changed for the majority of Managers; however, we do still find a few stellar examples of the old tradition here and there.

You care about this topic because today, you are the one in charge of your career, your growth, your challenges, and your rewards. Now, more than ever before, you need to demonstrate that Most of What Got You Here is Only the Beginning of Your Performance here.