Meet the project manager

the newest entrepreneur


Project management is a seller's market these days and whether you are offering your expertise to the public as a consultant or “selling” it within an organization, you're in the right place at the right time.

by Joseph M. Fleming

GE BOSS JACK WELCH has written, “Faster, in almost every case, is better. From decision-making to deal-making to communications to product introduction, speed, more often than not, ends up being the competitive differentiator.”

Speed—in particular the ability to execute initiatives quickly—is becoming a critical business attribute as companies learn how to manage and respond to a rapid pace of change. Barely finished with reengineering business processes to cut costs and become fashionably lean, streamlined and competitive, companies are now reengineering for growth. A hyperactive marketplace and proliferating technology mean that practically every modern organization at any given time faces several important new strategic business initiatives that are critical to survival: supply chain synchronization; the integration of sophisticated information systems; improved financial controls; expansion overseas; pursuit of state-of-the-art manufacturing and attendant certifications, not to mention compliance with stiffening regulations. Every one of these entails projects. They are all important. They all need to be implemented quickly and well. And they require, more often than not, the skills of experienced project managers. Consequently, project managers nationwide find themselves in the right place at the right time; ready, willing and able to bestow their hard-earned project management skills on a marketplace hungry for them. They are the newest entrepreneurs; able not only to thrive in traditional employment relationships but also faced with a growing opportunity to develop and work on assignments as independent contractors.


Outsourcing and the Flexibility Boon. Brisk demand for project managers is affording practitioners new challenges and excellent opportunities for advancement within their organizations. Also plentiful in the broader job market are interim or contract project management assignments. Companies that may lack internal project managers, but face multiple projects, are looking to buy talent on a justin-time basis. Consequently, they see contract project managers as a valuable extension of outsourcing, which continues to prove itself an indispensable business strategy.

Outsourcing is a $280 billion market that is growing 20 percent annually. In the early 1990s, following a wrenching era of downsizing, companies began the work of resizing, of defining and strengthening their core competencies. Next came the challenge of devising methods to quickly, successfully, and cost-effectively execute noncore functions and operations. Outsourcing and its later evolution, insourcing, became a big piece of the solution. Outsourcing allows companies to take noncore operations and move them out, or bring contract workers in to manage a range of functions and in so doing realize an excellent cost/value return.

As a result of outsourcing and its evolving themes, modern organizations are, over time, developing an efficient variable cost staffing model that has incorporated within it an essential ingredient for business success—flexibility; since it is organizational flexibility that permits responsiveness and facilitates much needed speed and ease of execution. As Exhibit 1 shows, companies, either deliberately or intuitively, are constructing more flexible organizations, developing inner cores of permanent managers and cross-functional teams that can select from a range of outsourcing alternatives: professional consultants, third-party service providers, outsourced staff functions and clerical temps allow them to move human resources in and out of the organization on an as-needed basis.

In this model of the flexible organization, each concentric circle represents a different level of contract services. At the center is the permanent management core that can select from the other outsourcing and contract service rings

Exhibit 1. In this model of the flexible organization, each concentric circle represents a different level of contract services. At the center is the permanent management core that can select from the other outsourcing and contract service rings.

Particularly popular are the growing numbers of interim and contract project managers. These provide the experience, expertise and benchmarking knowledge that companies need. They are available immediately to join a company's team and focus on a discrete assignment, working hands-on to implement projects. Their value lies in their flexibility, their focus on results and their willingness to work without the benefit of long-term employment contracts. The latter means the client company need not “own” but can “rent” project managers only for as long as they are needed. This is an important benefit, since companies daily face the need for talent they may not possess on staff and may only require for the short term. In the face of such a challenge, hiring every employee permanently becomes unwieldy, costly and impractical. The need for flexible staffing alternatives, therefore, is a key reason the market for interim and contract project managers is heating up.

Interim Management: How It Works. Known as portable executives, independent contractors, free agents or freelancers, professionals of all types are joining the contingent workforce. Acknowledging that jobs for life are scarce, perhaps nonexistent, workers are beginning to accept that mobility, not stability, will be the dominant theme of their careers as they apply for jobs in a marketplace where two-thirds of 5,000 recently polled executives expect their next job to last somewhere between two to five years.

While many contract project managers network to develop assignments, others rely on interim management firms to place them on assignment with client companies. Here are some of the facts that project managers can expect to face if they enter the world of contract management:

Interim management firms work fast. A substantial value that they offer to clients is the ability to identify and present candidates in less than three weeks, much speedier than the three-to-six months spent in traditional executive search. Rapid candidate location often comes as a result of an interim management firm's investment in technology that allows it to develop and maintain a nationwide community of readily available interim and project managers from all functions and industries. Signing up with interim firms can put project managers in the running for upcoming assignments.

The scope, estimated duration and desired assignment outcomes are spelled out clearly at the beginning of any assignment. While on assignment, the project manager works under the supervision of the client company, but remains on the payroll of the interim management firm.

Contract project managers are generally paid an assignment fee that is prorated and comparable to that which a full-time, permanent project manager would receive. But because contract managers receive no fringe benefits, a premium is generally added to their compensation. There can also be significant completion and success bonuses extended to help keep the focus on results. Exhibit 2 shows the contract employment continuum, the perceived market value of contract workers, and corresponding compensation. The more a company relies on strategic direction and the more complex any given project, the greater the remuneration.

The continuum of available contract services focuses on cost containment at the clerical and outsourcing level. As the continuum progresses into interim and project management and consulting services the emphasis is on adding value. The compensation or fees paid to contract workers increase in proportion to the perceived value added

Exhibit 2. The continuum of available contract services focuses on cost containment at the clerical and outsourcing level. As the continuum progresses into interim and project management and consulting services the emphasis is on adding value. The compensation or fees paid to contract workers increase in proportion to the perceived value added.

Getting on the Portable Path. Lack of fringe benefits combined with the transience of interim assignments might, on the surface, appear to discourage project managers from pursuing contract work. But it doesn't. Demand for interim managers, including project managers, is reported to be doubling, even tripling from year to year. And to meet demand there is a good supply of project managers signing on with interim management firms or pursuing assignments independently. Such willingness to work on a contract basis is a symptom of a workforce revolution that is under way and comes in response to dramatic marketplace changes that have taken place over the last decade.

Global competition, fast-moving hypercompetitive markets, and sophisticated technology are just three drivers that have transformed the business landscape. And in the so-called new economy, the old social contract of lifetime employment in return for hard work and loyalty to one's employer has become extinct. Workers are writing a new contract. Professionals are operating with a more autonomous, what's-in-it-for-me attitude. There is a quickening pace of manager turnover as companies continually reach out to find new managers who can meet their need for a changing lineup of executive skills and experience. Consequently, managers are beginning to accept that they may enjoy only a brief tenure with any given employer. Nevertheless, they are willing to work hard as long as they can be well compensated and given the opportunity to learn, grow and expand their portfolio of skills, which in turn make them more marketable to a range of future employers.

The Portable Mindset. To thrive in the contingent economy, project managers must learn to find market opportunities and be willing to move from assignment to assignment, transferring their project management skills to the growing number of organizations that need them. Working as an interim or contract project manager also requires a very different perspective and mindset than that of a permanent employee. Even for those project managers who remain on staff with one employer, a changing corporate culture requires a “portable” approach. This requires attention to the following:

Adopt a Portable Mindset. This means viewing yourself as a “personal service business” vs. an employee. View your skills and experience as your “product.” See your employer more as a client, and rather than working on the job, understand that your role is to use your “product” to add value to your client's operations, and to manage your project to achieve specific results.

Focus on Results, Not Status. Professional advancement is no longer about climbing the corporate ladder. To remain valuable and thus employable, you must constantly focus on using your authority to achieve results, rather than on relying on the status that your title gives you.

Commit to Continuous Learning. Many organizations are unable to afford the time, effort, and money needed to train managers in every new business approach and emerging technology. The onus, therefore, is on individual managers to maintain their knowledge and skills at the highest levels, ensuring they can apply the latest approaches and utilize the latest technology and processes that are quickly evolving in their function and industry.

Be Flexible, Not Rigid. Companies must adapt to changes that are taking place in the market and within their own organizations as they strive to remain aligned with and capable of serving their customers. This creates a culture of change where business models are examined and changed frequently and where processes are constantly fine-tuned or reengineered. Managers must become flexible in response, willing to come together with others on cross-functional teams that may disband before they move on to another challenge.

Promote a Spirit of Cooperation. Knowledge workers often know more about specific initiatives than their “bosses” who are dependent upon them to develop solutions. Workers must therefore collaborate as peers, sharing knowledge and solutions, as opposed to managers being “overseen” by bosses who ensure that they do their work correctly.

Look for Reward, Not Salary. Portable executives view compensation as a reward for achieving specific goals, as opposed to a salary that is paid for filling a particular position. ■

Joseph M. Fleming is regional vice president of IMCOR's Midwest office, based in Chicago, Ill. IMCOR is a division of Norrell, a flexible workforce solutions company. For more information, call 312/782-5200, or visit IMCOR on the Web at

PM Network • November 1998



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