Project Management Institute

Chain of command

PROJECT MANAGEMENT SKILLS OFTEN EQUATE TO LEADERSHIP SKILLS. SO WHY AREN'T MORE PROJECT MANAGERS ASCENDING TO THE RANKS OF PRESIDENT AND CEO?

BY ANN C. LOGUE

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARLES LEDFORD

Ken Bell, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Orbital Sciences, Dulles, Va., USA

IN March 2005, Sasol, a South African chemicals and fuel products company listed on both the Johannesburg and New York stock exchanges, announced that its current CEO would retire in July. His replacement: Pat Davies, who joined the company in 1975 and who served as project manager on the company's Mozambiquan Natural Gas Project from inception to completion. He used that expertise to manage the globalization of the company's gas to liquids technology. In July, Sasol itself will be the entity he must manage.

There aren't many project managers in executive ranks, but some are working their way up. Just as projects need managers, companies need leaders. Someone must ensure that strategic goals are targeted and accomplished.

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THE PROJECT MINDSET HELPS ME BREAK THINGS INTO WORK THAT IS MANAGEABLE AND THAT FITS INTO THE STRATEGY.

–KEN BELL

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1. In leading an enterprise, CEOs often manage a series of strategic projects—whether they realize it or not. However, many companies value financial skills over project management in leadership.
  2. Unfortunately, many who make promotion decisions see project management as a tool and not a profession.
  3. Prospective CEOs may make themselves known through careful project selection and by taking on line-management positions.

If projects are strategically essential to an organization, it would make sense that CEO would be a logical destination on a project manager's career path. Yet, it's uncommon to hear about project managers who reach the top. In fact, 37 percent of CEOs who sought a non-MBA degree in 2004 earned law degrees, 33 percent have international experience and only 9 percent have remained in one function throughout their entire careers, according to Chief Executive magazine (“Route to the Top,” January/February 2005).

Because of their ability to meet objectives systematically and consistently, project managers may make the best executives—their hands-on execution skills can translate to big-picture prowess. It is possible for practitioners to overcome misconceptions of the profession, acquire the needed leadership skills and combine them with their existing expertise to make waves organizationwide.

“Project management skills are so important to the course of running any business,” says Joe Onstott, managing director at The Onstott Group, a retained executive search firm based in Wellesley, Mass., USA. He's placed many CEOs, CFOs and CIOs over the years, many of whom have had direct project management experience.

The PR Problem

While it may seem logical that project management skills are leadership skills, not everyone is convinced. “To most of the world, project management is a tool and not a profession,” says Adesh Jain, president of the International Project Management Association, Nijkerk, The Netherlands, and honorary president of Project Management Associates, Noida, Delhi, India. He strives to change that perception, but acknowledges it will take time, especially as the profession itself continues to evolve.

FIVE STEPS TO SUCCESSION

Unfortunately, Lack of a clear succession path can cause tremendous variability in performance from one executive to another. Mary Pitsy, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search, says that looking at a company's succession plan and revising it—or creating one if none exists—is the first step for her engagements.

 

1 Create a compelling leadership culture. “Taking care of your executives is the most important thing you can do. That's how you attract others,” Ms. Pitsy says,

2 Help employees acquire the skills they need to transition into leadership. Ms. Pitsy recommends that companies invest in Long-term human resources, including good coaching programs to help executives develop and hone their high-level Leadership skills. “I always have a list of good coaches in my pocket,” she says.

3 Analyze the company's current and competitive needs. Joe Onstott, managing director at The Onstott Group, says that an analysis of the leadership background at similar companies can help determine what mix of skills may contribute to success or failure.

4 Develop an exit strategy for current executives, possibly incLuding a formal retirement package and structure, so that a timetable is set.

5 Establish a risk management plan so that a leader can be appointed when a CEO is incapacitated. This sort of planning allowed McDonald's Corp. to continue thriving when CEO James Cantalupo died suddenly.

Project managers with an eye on advancement must demonstrate the value of their leadership internally, and they need to work on developing marketing and financial skills. They need to put themselves up for promotion to division manager, says Bob Brudno, managing director at Savoy Partners, a retained executive search firm in Washington, D.C., USA. In every review, they should show how their skills tie to the overall vision and strategy of the organization.

Every CEO may be a project manager in terms of skills set, according to Marjan Bolmeijer, CEO coach and founder of Change Leaders, New York, N.Y., USA; however, very few have had explicit project management experience or training over the course of their career. This may because project management is a relatively new discipline—PMI just celebrated its 35-year anniversary in October 2004—but most seasoned CEOs have 20 or 30 years of corporate experience behind them.

In addition, executive positions require leaders to think strategically over the long term, while project managers are expected to focus on shorter-term deliverables. Take Ken Bell, senior vice president and chief information officer at Orbital Sciences in Dulles,Va., USA, who started his career in the U.S. Army, where he ran projects and received formal training in project management through courses offered by the U.S. Department of Defense. When he entered civilian life, he joined the consulting practice at Touche Ross, now part of Deloitte & Touche, where “everything was organized around projects.” He joined Orbital in 2001 as CIO. “The project mindset helps me break things into work that is manageable and that fits into the strategy,” he says.

 

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LOOK AT OTHER LEADERS AND DECIPHER WHAT IT IS THAT YOU APPRECIATE IN THEIR LEADERSHIP.

Marjan Bolmeijer,
CEO Coach and Founder, Change Leaders, New York, N.Y., USA

CROSS-FUNCTIONAL CEOS

Skill sets for project management compare directly to those of executive Leadership.

Leadership Skill CEO Responsibilities Project Management Equivalent
Selling Up Board and Shareholder Relations Winning Stakeholder Buy-in
Selling Down The Entire Firm and its Customers The Project Team
People Skills Creating Followers Earning Respect
Strategic Planning Big-Picture, Long-Term Vision for the Organization Project Scope Planning and Definition
Finance High-Level Budget and Funding Skills Project Resource Planning and Cost Control
Marketing Product Management, Public Relations and Advanced Promotion Skills Project Vision Statements, Communications Planning

Mr. Bell sees that emphasis on strategy as a key difference between his project management life and his executive one. “You have the assumption that you're not going to leave at the next budget cycle, so you can set up really long-term objectives and then create projects—pieces of work— to get you there,” Mr. Bell says. This means that budgets have to be considered over years, not quarters, and that corporate agendas other than the project itself have to be taken into consideration.

Companies traditionally have looked to the finance department for a CEO, but that gives a limited perspective, says Jim Bush, a former project manager and chairman of the board at Johnson & Galyon, a commercial construction company based in Knoxville, Tenn., USA. He feels that many companies have failed because of the inability to execute and an inability to break things down into doable pieces of work. “Our business starts at the estimate,” he says. “Then the project comes in, and you have to build it. Then you need to account for it, to see if you made any money. If you want to be CEO, you need to know a little of all three.”

Developing Skills

Project managers sometimes are concerned that they are stuck in middle management forever, while the financial whiz kids ride all the way to the top. Are project management skills enough for entrée into the executive suite? “The road from being a project manager to being a CEO is a long one,” Mr. Brudno says. “Prospective CEOs may make themselves known when they move from project manager to division manager.”

While project management may be an important skill set for executives, others are needed as well. Mr. Brudno notes that project managers often lack functional experience in marketing and finance, which are crucial to successful executive leadership. Some of these skills can be acquired through classes or by careful project selection; others may require a rotation through the relevant departments. At the largest firms, this may mean, in performance reviews, emphasizing an interest in marketing and financial experience. Other approaches include working in consulting, which helped Ken Bell find a wide range of experience that could be applied to a senior-level position.

 

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BY IDENTIFYING A SPECIFIC PROBLEM AND TACKLING IT, PROJECT LEADERS CAN POSITION THEMSELVES FOR BIGGER MANAGEMENT ROLES WITHIN THE COMPANY OR OUTSIDE OF IT.

Mary Pitsy,
Managing Director, Boyden Global Executive Search, Brussels, Belgium

CEOs also need people skills, which are notoriously tough to define and learn. “Look at other leaders and decipher what it is that you appreciate in their leadership,” Ms. Bolmeijer says. By taking a close look at the prominent skill set of those in authority, project managers can understand which skills their companies value most. That allows those with an eye on a corner office to figure out what skills they may need and develop a plan to obtain them.

Mary Pitsy, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search, Brussels, Belgium, has advised executives to take less-than-ideal positions, viewing them as career development projects. By identifying a specific problem and tackling it, project leaders can position themselves for bigger management roles within the company or outside of it. This may mean running a smaller business as CEO before moving into that role at a larger or more prominent firm. “CEOs mature over time,” Mr. Onstott says. “A person who has been a CEO before often does better the second time out.”

Mr. Bell recommends that anyone interested in an executive position work on a variety of business challenges— problem-solving around a project management framework is a great way to do that. “It gives you a range of experience that might be tougher to develop in the same amount of time in other positions,” he says. In addition, successful projects that deal with finance, marketing and strategy are good for building a CV. PM

Ann C. Logue is a freelance writer based in Chicago, ILL., USA. She also writes for Barron's and Compliance Week.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | JUNE 2005 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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