Project Management Institute

The path to the top



QUESTION: “In my firm, taking a job in project management is seen as a good move for people early in their careers. But I have my sights set higher, and I’m concerned that a project management job will take me out of the mainstream in terms of becoming a CEO. Are my fears justified?”

ANSWER: Yours is certainly a pertinent question. Just three months ago, PM Network's cover story “CEOs in Training” examined challenges facing project managers who aim for the executive suite.

The subtitle of that June article was ominous: “So why aren't more project managers ascending to the ranks of president and CEO?” Yet it acknowledged that project managers were, in fact, being promoted to the highest positions, just not yet in the numbers we might like to see.

As one might expect, companies that make the most use of project management provide the most fertile ground for the upwardly mobile project manager. Boeing provides some good examples: Phil Condit, who led the development of the wide-body 777 jetliner, rode the success of that project all the way to the CEO position. (His subsequent well-documented demise showed that ex-project managers enjoy no special immunity once in office.) At this writing, Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Mr. Condit's successor as 777 project manager, is contending for the top job at Boeing's parent organization.

So project managers can become CEOs, and of course they do. “First, the best project managers actually become the ‘CEOs’ of their projects,” says Kent Crawford, former president of the Project Management Institute and founder and CEO of PM Solutions Inc. “The breadth of experience ... provides exposure that otherwise may only be gained in middle management and higher. Second, project management is only recently being recognized for the measurable value it brings to strategic corporate initiatives. Third, the complexities of dealing with multiple projects while optimizing the firm's project investment are driving organizations to consider a new role—the chief project officer.”

QUESTION: Which project management traits are most applicable to the role of chief executive?

ANSWER: The list is long: conceptualizing, planning, leadership, conflict management, organizing, communication and the budgeting/ cost-control aspects of financial management. Skills in these areas can be seen as stepping stones to top management positions.

At the same time, there are areas in which most project managers are not likely to get much exposure, yet are crucial for chief executives. One is marketing. Of course, project managers constantly sell their projects and ideas to all sorts of stakeholders— that's not the kind of marketing required. Rather, a CEO needs strong familiarity with marketing at a strategic level, including all aspects of the “product—price—promotion—distribution” model that makes up the foundation of strategic marketing management.

Perhaps a bigger gap between the skill set of a typical project manager and that of a CEO involves finance. All project managers work with financial issues daily, but while project managers watch variances, budgets, funding and earned value, CEOs design capital structure, meet stockholder and Wall Street expectations and—in these days of Sarbanes-Oxley—attend to the complex aspects of corporate compliance.

QUESTION: How can an ambitious project manager gain exposure to these areas?

ANSWER: One solution involves education, in which technical skills are complemented by advanced business training.

Another complementary strategy is career broadening: to reach the top, you must learn more than your own discipline. The best way to do that is through a series of well-considered job rotations. The emphasis must be on supplementing one's skill set. In other words, just going to a different job is not enough; the move needs to be made, in the words of business guru Stephen Covey, “with the end in mind.”

“While I don't think that a great project manager is automatically a great CEO,” Mr. Crawford says, “a project manager is a good role to round out an aspiring CEO.” In today's complex organizations, a career path totally focused on any one field—project management included—is less likely to lead to the very summit. PM

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is professor and chair, Department of Management, and associate dean for Graduate, International and Community Programs of the Raj Soin College of Business at Wright State University.


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