A Leadership Profile of American Project Managers Essay

Although the needs and demands of clients have always been the highest priority for any project manager, increasing global competition, ever heightening client expectations, and the magnitude of the projects impact on a firm’s bottom line has begun to place greater emphasis on the skills necessary to successfully lead today’s project teams. Historically, strong technical skills and knowledge of the industry would have been the key selection criteria. It was, in many cases, simply assumed that men and women who possessed these qualities would lead the project to a successful completion.

Today’s complex project environments require even greater skills at leadership than ever before. “Cookie-cutter” formula-based management was probably never correct, but in today’s environment it will inevitably lead to disaster. Performance expectations for quality, cost effectiveness, timely delivery, and a host of other client measures are ratcheted-up a notch each year. In the highly competitive arena in which most projects operate, be they external or internal, the requirement to produce results that exceed client expectations has become the norm.

As one respondent shared, “I have not worked on a project in the past five years that was not viewed by the client as being ‘fast track;” The stakes are high, and getting higher. The days when cost overruns and delayed completion were common are history. So are the projects where technical personnel were once allowed to “experiment” until they got it right. With the managerial practices of outsourcing, downsizing, total quality management and continuous improvement becoming even more prevalent in our organizational environment, it can be expected that project managers are experiencing increased performance pressures.

Internal project managers are possibly just as vulnerable to not having their contracts renewed as external consultants and contractors. Recent Literature Jeffrey Pinto and Om Kharbanda shed light on this problem in two journal articles published in Business Horizons, “Lessons for an accidental profession” (1995) and “How to fail in project management” (1996). These authors emphasize the increased need for projectmanagers. Increasingly technically complex products and processes, vastly shortened time-to-market windows, and the need for cross-functional expertise make project management an important and powerful tool in the hands of organizations that understand its use” (Pinto & Kharbanda, 1995).

In their follow-up article, “How to fail in project management,” the authors write a stinging criticism of the practices that combine to produce project failures (Pinto & Kharbanda, 1996). Karen Ayas (1996) takes a broader brash to the whole issue through what she describes as a “project network structure. The design of the system should “stress the synergies between organizational strategy, structure, culture and systems to allow organizations to build and expand learning capacity. ” The application of “process management view” to project management was reported recently in Harvard Business Review. The study of leading companies such as AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Raychem over an eight-year time span led the author to report that, “managers can benefit by applying a process management approach to their product development process.

Companies can create an aggregate plan that allows them to assign practices to theirprojects with an estimate of needed resources … managers can eliminate congestion and long hours by evening out workloads” (Alder, Mandelbaum, Nguyen, & Schwerer, 1996). (See also Jungen & Wowalczyk, 1995. ) Bob Lewis (Info World, 1996) sets forth the five keys that he believes differentiate successful projects from the others: scope control; regular, concrete, reasonable results; weekly status meetings; team buy-in to the plan; and walking around.

Project management is considered a vital tool for the implementation of business process reengineering. “Project management allows organizations to break things down into simple processes and assign these activities and modules to individuals. This approach helps organizations identify existing built-in dependencies among processes … A multidimensional forum for enterprisewide visibility is essential and will lead to significant productivity and cost savings. …

Project management is the organizational ‘glue’ that binds together dispersed, high accountable teams throughout the organization. Teams will seek and demand a framework to ensure their success under the new rules of rapidly changing intensely competitive markets. Project management provides the framework, encourages dispersed leadership and provides visibility of effort to stakeholders throughout the organization” (King 1996). Clearly, project managers are being viewed as pivotal leaders in the introduction and implementation of both operational and behavioral managerial changes.

Are project managers viewing their roles and responsibilities in the same light as the authors of leading journal articles? What do practicing project managers believe are the critical characteristics necessary to be effective? On the other hand, what factors contribute to producing ineffective project managers? On the operational side, what do they see as the primary causes of projects that fail to meet budgetary and time constraints? What do they see as the most effective project management “tools,” and the extent to which these “tools” contribute to the success of a project?

Finally, how powerful is “the leadership factor” in the success of a project and what are the specific characteristics and behaviors of leaders that will have a positive influence on organizational effectiveness in the next decade? The authors found no research that specifically addressed these questions nor reported results obtained directly from project managers.

Research Instrument Design The research instrument was compressed of both open-ended and forced-answer questions. In addition, the respondents were asked their agreement or valuation of several statements through the application of a traditional five-point Likert scale ranging from a high of 5 to low of 1. The completed instrument was then pretested by 12 project managers and executives in a number of firms. All suggestions were incorporated into the final research instrument. The research instrument was then mailed to a selected sample of 100 senior-level project managers who, it was assumed, would possess a wealth of experience regarding the issues being studied. The authors received 76 usable responses to the research instrument from the mailing of 100.

The extremely high response rate was due in part to an aggressive premailing and postmailing telephone campaign. The respondents were all relatively senior project managers with a minimum of 10 years experience in projectmanagement. All of the project managers surveyed were employed in large architectural and engineering consulting companies. Research Results and Discussion What Are the Characteristics of Effective Project Managers? The following results (presented in Table 1) were obtained from an open-ended question that asked respondents to list, in rank order, the characteristic that they believed was essential for effectiveness.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the project manager’s responses to this question was the fact that technical competence was the third highest rated characteristic. Eight of the nine characteristics were managerial in nature, reflecting a basic understanding that effectiveness is directly related to the ability of theproject manager to lead and manage more than simply possess exceptional technical skills. This finding is consistent with the academic literature, but is more powerful when drawn from open-end responses of experienced practicing project managers.

What Factors Contribute to Ineffectiveness Among Project Managers? In order to examine the question of effectiveness in a different light, the project managerswere then asked, via open-ended questions, the specific nature of personal flaws of project managers that directly contribute to ineffectiveness, as well as the organizational factors that produced the same results. The intent of these questions was to identify how both personal flaws and organizational factors contributed to producing an ineffective project manager.

To a large degree the personal flaws are a reverse image of the characteristics of ffective project managers from Table 1. There seems to be a good deal of internal consistency among the respondents (see Table 2). The organizational factors that contribute to becoming an ineffectiveproject manager are equally relevant, but not surprising. Lack of upper-management commitment and support is a well-documented source of project problems. Theproject management literature has addressed each of the organizational barriers to effectiveness and it is again reinforcing to discover that the responses document that practicing project managers’ perceptions fully support the literature.

The past few decades have not seen the elimination of these classic sources of organizational ineffectiveness, although their negative impact on project performance has been known for some time. Resistance to change and a reactive approach to environmental turbulence are signs of a firm struggling with adjusting to new competitive conditions. Traditional reward systems are generally not well suited toproject management. Traditional reward systems tend to have very little direct linkage between the performance criteria of a project and compensation.

With competition being very intense in some sectors, some projects are priced and sold at dangerously thin multipliers with little opportunity to show a significantly positive return. When the realistic expectations for the project are not considered in the compensation plan, it can be expected that dissatisfaction with the compensation or reward systems are bound to be voiced. Project managers know that under difficult competitive conditions, jobs are taken to keep the staff utilized and the expected profit margin is possibly at breakeven.

It is often just as difficult to manage a project with no expected profit than one with above average profit expectations. In addition, reward systems seldom reflect the nature and varying degrees of difficulty of the task and often focus solely on the final profit numbers. Failure to develop a reward system that reflects the specific nature of the project can create potential long-term conflicts. Consider how new market entry is normally achieved: the firm “buys” a project. The firm intentionally bids a project below what established competitors minimum bid to get the work and, hopefully, enter a new market successfully.

Logic would suggest that a firm would want one of its best project managers to lead such a project to ensure success. But if the projectaffords no opportunity to earn a performance bonus based on project profitability who would volunteer to “take on” a known loser? In too many cases, organizational insensitivity to the negative realties created by poor organizational practices and policies are not understood or simply ignored. The result of these negative practices and policies is the eventual erosion of a potentially high-quality professional staff.

The lack of upper management support and commitment results in a complete breakdown of trust and respect. One of the sure killers of motivation is when project managers become conditioned to being abandoned by their management at the first sign of client conflict. As one project manager described the situation: “it’s like discovering that your management is sitting on the client side of the table at every meeting, and that you are left alone to defend every decision. ” It doesn’t take too many such experiences beforeproject managers modify their style of management to protect themselves.

Under these conditions one is not likely to find that the project team is performing to the maximum potential. What Are the Primary Reasons That Projects Experience Budgetary and Timely Completion Problems? Table 3 reports the respondents’ reasons for why projects run into budgetary and timing problems. The most frequent responses reflect both organizational and managerial problems. As an example, “failure to utilize the toolsavailable to manage a project to completion in a timely fashion and within budget” was the most frequent response. Poor leadership on the part of the projectmanager” was the second most frequently reported cause of problems. “Lack of effective interorganizational communication” and a “lack of timely decisions and corrective action” were also reported. The only external factor mentioned by the respondents was “the client’s failure to respond in a timely fashion. ” Almost everyproject manager has dealt with clients who seemed unable or unwilling to make timely decisions yet retained their expectations that the project would be completed on time and within budget.

It seems that managing the client is an art that only experience can teach. This need to learn the diplomacy of client management becomes increasingly important as a client-oriented strategy is recognized as essential to survival. What Are the Project Management “Tools” Most Often Used and How Effective Are They? Managing the project requires the skillful application of projectmanagement tools that are designed to assist the project team complete the project on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of the client.

Table 4 reports the responses from experienced project managers regarding the extent to which they use eight recognized project management tools and the extent to which the tools contribute to the success of a project. As you would expect, the two highest rated tools (actually tying for first) were the project schedule and theproject budget. Irrespective of project size or complexity, these project tools were rated highest in use and first and second in terms of contribution to the success of the project.

Of the eight project management tools that the respondents were asked to evaluate, none were reported to be of no value. Some of the more detailed tools were used less often and consequently may have been perceived as less valuable to project success. Despite the discussion in the projectmanagement literature regarding the need to increase the degree of accuracy in the determination of the percentage of project completion, the “earned value reporting tool, was rated the least used and correspondingly reported to have made the least contribution to the success of a project.

The top five projectmanagement tools most often reported as used (project schedule, project budget, project cost system, project execution plan, and client communication log) were also rated as making the greatest contribution to the success of the project. Clearb; more effective project managers exercise managerial discipline in the consistent application of what they have found to be the most valuable project management tools for achieving success.

What Are the “Other” Factors That Contribute to the Success of a Project? In addition to the direct managerial actions that project managers can take through the implementation of project management tools, project managers focus on their managerial and leadership skills as controlling sources of influence that contribute to the successful completion of projects. Table 5 reports the source of influence on successful completion of a project as reported by the project managers surveyed.

As expected, “the decision made by the client” was the strongest influence, with “responding to the changing client request” second. The third source of influence on the successful completion of a project is the “desire to excel,” reflecting the strong positive personal motivation of project managers to make every project they lead a success. “The decision made by the project team” and “the pressures from inside the project” were the next highest rated sources of influence reflecting the need for the project manager to focus on the leadership of the project team.

Equally interesting are the lowest rated sources of influence on the success of aproject. Respondents give little or no credence to “luck” or “external politics” as barriers to success. How Critical Is the “Leadership Factor” to Project Success? Given the many factors that can directly or indirectly influence the success of a project, do projectmanagers believe that there is one overriding factor that contributes to whether a project will be a success or a failure? In fact, the answer is yes.

When asked to weigh the percentage of success or failure of a project that can be contributed directly to the pressure of either positive or negative leadership the responses were powerfully revealing (see Table 6). Positive leadership contributes almost 76% to the success of a project. Consider what this response means. Variation in projectsuccess can be contributed to the leadership displayed on the project by 76%. Equally meaningful is the second statistic: negative or poor leadership contributes 67% to the failure of projects.

Clearly, firms that fail to train and reinforce the need for project managers to practice positive leadership seem to run an unacceptable risk. In a recent interview with five vice presidents of major engineering consulting firms, a question was posed regarding the number of projects in the past five years that failed due to a lack of technical competence on the part of the project manager or the project team. In what was estimated by them to be more than 1,000 projects, both large and small, the executives could recount only 10 failures due to lack of technical competence.

Yet, when you ask most company executives what the most critical criteria for promotion to project manager is, technical competence generally leads the list of responses. Possibly what is absent is the recognition that technical competence must be supported by persons who are capable of managing a project and providing positive leadership to the team. All the evidence of recent research supports the idea that successful projects are led by individuals who possess a blend of technical and management knowledge, but beyond both, leadership skills.

Sensitivity to the client’s needs, the composition of the project team, the strategic importance of the project to the firm, and the technical requirements of the project reflect themselves in a continuous stream of communication and personal interactions that serve to reveal the true nature of theproject manager. Project managers were asked to rate 50 characteristics or behaviors that they believed, based on their experience, would have a positive influence on organizational effectiveness in the next decade.

Tables 7 and 8 highlight the highest and lowest rated characteristics and behaviors and reveal some very interesting findings. The highest rated characteristics and behaviors build a profile of an individual that most of us would wish to work for. The profile reveals a leader who recognizes that it is absolutely essential to build aproject team, reinforce positive behavior, communicate, demonstrate trust and respect, develop team members and empower them to perform and set goals while remaining flexible to respond to the inevitable changes.

Important by their absence from the “golden dozen” are characteristics and behaviors such as technical expertise, individualistic, effective organizational politician, or detail oriented. The profession has moved beyond the mind-set that the best-qualified individual to promote to the project manager’s position is the best technical person or some flashy politically savvy character with the “right contacts. ” Table 8 reports the characteristics and behaviors that practicing and experienced project managers rated as the 12 least important characteristics for the achievement of organizational effectiveness.

Some of these responses were a surprise to the researchers while others were not. Project managers rated “strategic thinker” very low. This may be explained by the fact that many project managers are totally operations-oriented and become involved only when the job is sold. In terms of preparation for promotion into the firm’s executive ranks this shortcoming could be costly. Yet, this lack of recognition of the need for the practice of strategic thinking may explain the managerial practices of some firms who employ project managers.

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