Project Management Institute

The right stuff



Although many project managers may harbor dreams of making the leap to the upper echelons of a company, it may not be an easy transition. Successful executives are known for their strategic vision and leadership, while project managers have a reputation for sweating the details. Anisha Mason of Project Solutions Group in San Francisco, Calif., USA, and Chris Towler, Ph.D., of Imperial College London, London, U.K., discuss whether project managers can make it to the top.

Should there be executive-level project managers?

Dr. Towler: Here at Imperial College, we have multiple levels of control within projects. The overall ownership of a project—delivering it on time, quality and budget—falls to an executive person called a project director. Working for that person is usually just one—but sometimes more than one—project manager, who does the actual day-to-day coordination, chasing, management of budgets and so on.

Because there are multiple levels involved, I have to say, yes, we do have executive roles involved in oversight and management of projects. But we don't call them project managers. We restrict the project manager title to the people who are doing the day-to-day coordination, planning and so on.

Ms. Mason: I think it depends on the organization. In my estimation, project managers are responsible for making sure the details of the project get done successfully—on time and on budget while optimizing quality. It's a very detail-oriented focus, which is not necessarily appropriate at the executive level. However, the project manager should interface with an executive-level individual. In Dr. Towler's organization, this executive-level individual is a project director and in some cases it might be a chief operations officer. That interaction needs to happen in order to provide the appropriate performance indicators and escalation needs.

The project managers who have promise are the ones who can communicate effectively with executives. Good project managers know not only how to build a solid plan, but also how to present it to executives and make a convincing case for the budget and timeframe they need. They understand the type of data they need to make this case and how to best articulate that data to an executive. They know how to tie the needs of the project with the executive's ultimate goals. If a project manager demonstrates those skills, he or she may have the raw talent needed to make that leap.

Dr. Towler: The only thing I would add is that one of the strengths of having two levels is that project directors often manage the politics around projects—things that you may not expect to be in the skill set of a project manager.


Executive Character

Here's what it takes to move up the corporate ladder:

  • Chris Towler, Ph.D.
  • * Gravitas
  • * Credibility
  • * Focus on outcomes
  • * Astute sense of politics
  • * Good communication and negotiation skills
  • Anisha Mason
  • * Persuasion and communication skills
  • * Ability to motivate teams
  • * Effective delegating
  • * Strong management skills
  • * Ability to define and executive strategic vision

How can a project manager transition to project director, head of a project management office (PMO) or chief project officer?

Ms. Mason: It can be a difficult for a lot of project managers because they have to transition from a detail-oriented vantage point to one that requires a synthesis of more strategic-level information. Some project managers are really good at getting things done—managing the budgets and delivering on schedule—but they sometimes lack that vision needed for an executive role.

How can project managers then lead the people who were once their peers?

Ms. Mason: Being a good project manager is all about building credibility, which also is very important toward being a good executive. Having been a project manager puts an executive in a unique position to understand the pressures and constraints facing ex-peers that may now be direct reports. This awareness—and empathy—can be used to garner support for early decisions and key initiatives.


The project managers who have promise are the ones who can communicate effectively with executives.

—Anisha Mason, Project Solutions Group, San Francisco, Calif., USA

However, I do think that many project managers can develop an executive skill set through managing large programs or heading up a PMO where portfolio-level decisions are made. That type of role forces them into making the more strategic versus tactical decisions.

Dr. Towler: Yes, I think that's right. There's a sort of feeling of gravitas that's needed to act at the executive level with authority and to make strategic decisions about projects. Some project managers will innately have that. Some may be able to develop it, and some are better suited to employing their skills at the more operational level. Much of it depends on personal qualities.

I'm a big believer in the carrot-and-the-stick philosophy toward implementation of decisions. You need the stick, which is the mandate from the executive level that staff must do X because it meets certain company goals. But a good executive recognizes that you also need the carrot, the incentives that help drive staff to execute your vision. An ex-project manager should be keenly aware of the “what's in it for me” type questions and be able to respond to those concerns with policies that emphasize the carrot in the equation.

Dr. Towler: As with all staff members who rise to senior levels, this move will require championship from other executives who are likely to look for an ability to think strategically, a track record of “being right,” and an ability to communicate succinctly and persuasively. Without such skills, it would be impossible for a high-level project leader to direct peers or even more senior staff members within a matrix organization.


The people who make it are those who show an attention to detail and a real impatience with poor quality.

—Chris Towler, Ph.D, Imperial College London, London U.K.

Are there skills that project managers bring to the table as an executive that those without a project management background don't?

Dr. Towler: I think project managers do have different skill sets from executives, and there are some project managers who can make the jump and some people who can't. In my mind, there is something quite different about working in the project management field. It's about being able and comfortable in a fairly ambiguous world. Project managers work in a matrix of responsibilities, where they may have a lot of accountability for delivery, but they may not be responsible for the people who are actually delivering the project.

Ms. Mason: I think that's right in terms of working in ambiguity. Project managers excel at it. There's a flipside to that. Because most businesses today are matrixed, and project managers don't have accountability for resources, it can be a bit of a struggle for them to move into a role where they have direct reports. It is a very different type of environment. Executives have to take full accountability versus a project manager who doesn't. You don't own those resources. There's always somebody else who's managing those people day to day.

Are there any organizations or industries where executive-level project managers are more common?

Ms. Mason: In the U.S. government, you frequently see the role of chief administrative officer. This role often provides oversight over the structures that manage projects. In the manufacturing industry, I've seen project managers who have been really good at delivering products to market quickly and managing very challenging programs rise up the ranks and become executive-level people in the organization—by virtue of their ability as good project managers.

Dr. Towler: I've certainly seen it in the pharmaceutical industry. The people who take on the executive responsibility for major programs have to be senior-level.

As well as managing in-house resources to deliver a project, they often have to talk to government agencies—the regulators, opinion leaders, leading doctors and specialists in their fields. These people must have credibility, gravitas and often the ability to make decisions on the spot—away from home base. Quite often, this can be a tricky judgment job, which requires an executive-level role.

What advice would you give to a project manager who's hoping to pave a path to the executive level?

Dr. Towler: Oh—give up and go home! [He laughs.] What I suspect is needed in an executive-level project manager, project director or whatever we want to call them, is somewhat dictated by the culture of the organization and the management team you're working with. Executive-level project managers are more likely to be required in organizations developing services or products with high legal or financial risk or great complexity as a consequence of the number of different operational functions that need to be aligned and managed in a coherent way to deliver a project's “product.” Exemplar industries would include pharmaceuticals and financial services. In both cases, development of a product or service involves management of complex interactions of design, regulatory boundaries and customer demand plus strict adherence to legal restrictions on marketing approaches. But certainly, the people who make it are those who show an attention to detail and a real impatience with poor quality.


Points of View

Anisha Mason is a project partner and manager of West Coast operations at Project Solutions Group, a project management consultancy in San Francisco, Calif., USA.

Chris Towler, Ph.D., is director of project management at Imperial College London, London U.K. Prior to that, he headed up a project management organization within GlaxoSmithKline.

Ms. Mason: I would say when project managers communicate with executive-level folks, they should really make an effort to do their homework. They should make sure they understand the two or three top drivers for that person. How can they present their project plan to that executive at a level that's going to be meaningful to that person?

If project managers do that, they can start to build their reputation, which is important in jumping to the executive level. They also can begin to learn how to align their day-to-day tactical business with the business of running a company, which is really what's important at the end of the day. PM

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