Project Management Institute

Does somebody up there like me?




Every project manager knows the feeling—that deep pit in the stomach that comes when a superior hands down a maddeningly nebulous task.

Never mind that there may not be a lot of detail or direction. It has to be done. But just because you're not part of the senior management set doesn't mean you can't gain a little influence—or even better, get those higher-ups on your side and even offering advice.

“It's all about relationships,” says Peter Titmus, managing director at the Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates office of property and infrastructure consultants EC Harris. “Age and gravitas do help, but you can establish a situation where you have the influence required to make people go along with you.”

The problem is that in many cases the project manager is not in a position that naturally accrues power. That means they must learn to “play nice” with those above them to gain some of that power—or at least a modicum of influence—over their projects.

Sometimes, however, those in the upper levels aren't quite so responsive. “Your only course of action is to exercise leadership and advise on your impending course of action. In effect, get on with it,” Mr. Titmus says. “If [your superiors] have problems with that, then they can raise objections.”

Project managers need to be seen as providing solutions, constantly tailoring their approach to stakeholder requirements. “You need to come across as someone who has appropriate knowledge and someone who is differentiating between alternative courses of action,” he says. “If you can offer confident and cogent advice on the options available, you will be listened to.”

It may seem like the easiest route to gaining the attention of those higher up the ladder would be through flattery or attempts at friendship. But that's a big mistake. Such actions can compromise the project manager's integrity, or at least his or her ability to raise serious issues on the project further down the line. Instead, project managers should assess how their higher-ups work, realize their priorities and objectives, and ensure their own work, contributions and opinions fit into that framework.

What often prevents such analysis from taking place is the distance that exists in project hierarchies. Project managers may feel senior colleagues are out of reach, not to be challenged or approached. And the chain of command that contributes to this situation is often necessitated by the nature of the work.

“Hierarchy does depend on the size and type of project you're running,” says Karen Harkin, a senior project manager at IT consultancy Avanade in London, England. “If you're involved in a large program, there can be a very strict hierarchy comprising sub-projects, sub-teams and so on.”

However, Ms. Harkin doesn't believe this hierarchy alone dictates whether or not an individual is approachable. “It depends on personality and how controlling those managers want to be,” she says.

In other words, it's not always strictly business.

“Communication between junior and senior staff is largely dependent on the personalities of the senior people in the project, and particularly their views on developing junior staff,” agrees Sian l'Anson, a senior consultant at BMT Sigma Ltd., a program management consultancy in Bath, England.

For Ms. l'Anson, communication between levels of the hierarchy has often been facilitated through regular briefings designed to keep the entire team informed of progress and encourage input from all staff. “Projects with clearly communicated objectives allow everyone to know how their job contributes to the overall objective of the project,” she says. “It provides focus and enables constructive suggestions for improvements in the area where the individual is best placed to comment.”

Those lower down in the ranks must master the fine art of communicating with senior managers—and knowing when to go even further up the chain.

Randall Englund recalls when he and several of his project colleagues went against the decision of a senior manager on how a project should be conducted.

“He became livid when he finally discovered what we were doing,” and most team members ended up leaving the group, says Mr. Englund, executive consultant at Englund Project Management Consultancy, Burlingame, Calif., USA. He is also coauthor of Creating an Environment for Successful Projects [Jossey-Bass, 2004] and Project Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success [Jossey-Bass, 2006].

He acknowledges imperfections on both sides. The senior manager wasn't tolerant of other people's ideas, but team members should have done their homework. “A better outcome may have been possible if we had characterized the senior manager's style, researched the political implications of how he operated and what would be at stake if he appeared not to be in control,” Mr. Englund says. “[We could have] collectively discussed changes in language that appealed to his operating style. We also could have received advice from the manager's manager about how to work with him.”

Indeed, team members did get that guidance from the manager's supervisor—but it was too late. “He was very willing to advise us, but we had to ask,” Mr. Englund says.

playing POLITICS

Reaching out to senior management may mean brushing up on those political skills—to a certain extent.

“Be neither a political shark nor naive, but become politically sensitive,” says Randall Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy.

“Since power is the ability to get work done and project management is about getting work done, project managers need power,” he says. “The application of power is what politics is all about.”

Yet although people have been known to advance their careers by going the political route, it can be a slippery slope.

“The individuals that advance mainly through corporate politics are used to pushing and bullying to get their way,” says Larry Casey, PMP, a program manager in the project management office at Acxiom, a customer and information management solutions provider in Little Rock, Ark., USA.

Based on his past work experiences, Mr. Casey offers a simple solution to project managers who feel their position is being undermined by a politically motivated senior manager. “The best defense is clear documentation showing that issues were raised by the project manager and the individual actively made the decision to go forward anyway,” he says.




A Little Help From Above

Of course, companies can do their part to foster relationships between the upper and lower ranks. And they'll probably find it benefits the individual and company alike.

Value & Risk, a German company specializing in risk management for the financial sector, encourages communication between staff at different levels through mentoring.

“It's something every organization should foster because it means that while you make people accountable, you also give them the support they need to deliver,” says Wilhelm Kross, Ph.D., a project manager at Value & Risk's office in Bad Homburg, Germany.

As part of the reporting that goes on in any project, the company makes a conscientious effort to ensure less experienced employees develop relationships—and gain knowledge from—those above them. “It can be done through basic ‘traffic light’ reporting,” he explains. “If an issue is flagged as red, then clearly it is something that needs to be dealt with. It's a very effective way of escalating activities around that project and giving younger project managers the advice and support they need.”


You may believe you work for the best employer in the world. You may believe you always need to do what you're told to prove your abilities and further your career. But there will always be a breaking point, a time to draw the line—when a senior manager makes an impossible request and merely thinking about the task at hand is enough to make you break out in a cold sweat. So how do you react to an unreasonable demand without jeopardizing your relationships or your job?

> Determine whether the issues require action. “If I ever objected to a senior manager's wishes, I would have a good reason for why I had raised an objection and suggest a solution to the problem,” says Sian l'Anson, BMT Sigma. “Some issues are worth raising, but if it comes down to a difference in approach, then I wouldn't bother objecting.”

> If it is serious, make yourself heard. “The last thing we want to do is set ourselves up for failure because we failed to speak up,” says Randall Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy. “Our work as project managers will go unnoticed and unappreciated unless we first believe in the project management discipline ourselves and seek its rightful place in the organizations.”

> Create a paper trail. “Documenting the decision and the build-up to consequent problems means the project manager stays on top of the situation,” says Wilhelm Kross, Ph.D., Value & Risk.

> Find a way to do it. “If a project manager refuses to do something, then they fail at delivering their project,” Dr. Kross says. “Most will find a way through, even if it means a number of compromises.”

In some instances, a project worker may be all too aware of the support they need and it's up to senior management to be ready and willing to respond to that request.

Project engineer Michael Haddon was working with Warrington, England-based engineering company MWH last year on the decommissioning of Winfrith, a former nuclear research site in Dorset, England. His role was to research and evaluate a suitable crane for the job. Rather than carry out the task from behind a desk, Mr. Haddon wanted to go on site with Inbis, a design and engineering consultancy based in Preston, England, and one of MWH's contractors at Winfrith.

So he carefully crafted his pitch to his manager. “You need to know clearly what you want to do,” says Mr. Haddon of his initial approach to his manager. “Inbis had the experts in the area of cranes and I had the opportunity to work alongside those engineers and develop my knowledge and skills. It broadened my knowledge and meant I could report back to MWH in a valuable way.”

But he also knew the right way to sell the idea to his manager.

“He approached me with a clearly thought-out plan that outlined what he would achieve through the placement,” says Mr. Haddon's line manager, Gareth Mills, business development manager and project manager at MWH Nuclear Services. The idea so impressed Mr. Mills that he liaised with Inbis to set up the deal.

It seems even from the rarified air of upper management, some people can still see a good idea.

Simon Kent is a U.K.-based freelance writer who specializes in human resources, IT and training.

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.




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