PMO leadership

a catalyst for accelerating growth within the information technology project management office

Laura Aziz, PhD, PMP, Senior Consultant, Computer Sciences Corporation


A properly equipped Information Technology Project Management Organization leader can be a catalyst for PMO maturation. After introducing the concept of PMO maturity, this paper focuses on the specific skills needed for PMO leadership. It concludes with practical action planning steps for leading the PMO and incubating leadership within the PMO staff. The practical experiences of the authors and supporting research materials are utilized to illustrate the importance of the PMO leader.


One of the more recent developments in project management is the project management office (PMO). The PMO has been created to help standardize project management beyond the skill of the single project manager, to help provide consistency across multiple projects, and to provide consistent progress reporting (Tousignant & Reddington, 2002).

With the rise of the PMO comes the need to focus on the skills required for PMO leadership. The skills and characteristics of the PMO leader are a primary focus of this paper. A skilled PMO leader can act as a catalyst for maturing the information technology--based PMO. In addition to outlining skills of the PMO leader, we as authors will attempt to delineate the leader's individual role in guiding the PMO in its development from “infancy” through “adolescence” and on to “adulthood.”

Without focused PMO leadership, a PMO can struggle with its identity and the role it plays in the parent organization. A PMO that lacks strong project management--focused leadership can become stunted in its growth, and its ultimate value to the parent organization can be hampered., With proper leadership, the mature PMO, on the other hand, can stand on its own, providing undeniable value to its customers as well as to its staff.

Leadership is a broad topic. An search for “leadership' in May 2008 yielded search results of 265,038 books. Project leadership itself is a huge topic. A similar search for “project leadership” provided' search results of 7,720 books. These searches do not begin to include the periodicals, online documents, and non-English publications. Clearly much has been written on both leadership and project leadership. Less well established, however, are the role-specific leadership skills required of a PMO leader. Techniques that make a project manager successful in leading delivery projects may need to be redirected and transformed to lead a PMO successfully.

This paper will focus on the role of the PMO leader and how the PMO leader can accelerate growth of the PMO itself. In addition to looking at research materials, we, the authors, will draw on our own practical experiences both in leading and being led in various PMOs. Where possible, our experiences will be woven into this paper to illustrate the ever-evolving role of the PMO leader.

Rationale for the Study

In 2006, while writing “Growing Up …The Information Technology Project Management Office (PMO)'s Journey from Infancy to Maturity” (Woerner & Aziz, 2006), we felt that the topic of PMO leadership is key to the development of PMO maturity. However, because this is a topic in and of itself, it is not covered in detail in this earlier work. The more we examined our experiences in leading PMOs and being PMO members, and the more we considered the literature, the more we realized the importance of strong leadership to PMO maturation. In our opinion, a skillful leader with project management expertise can accelerate the PMO on its road to maturity. In the same way in which certain chemicals can function as catalysts in a chemical reaction, a solid PMO leader can increase the speed with which the PMO matures.

This paper focuses on the PMO leader and the key skills that this position requires, so that others can learn how to apply PMO leadership to accelerate the maturation of the PMO. We will reveal how the PMO leader is a transformational leader, requiring the ability to transform his or her focus as the PMO moves through the stages of growth.

Furthermore, there appears to be a need for practical action planning steps for establishing PMO leadership direction, including: 1) PMO organizational leadership; 2) developing a mission statement to support the organization's business; 3) establishing governance, best practices and quality measures, and success criteria; 4) creating a culture of goal setting, flexibility, and continuous improvement; 5) incubating leadership skills of project management practitioners within the PMO; and 6) managing change.

Historical Background: How PMOs got Started and, with it, the PMO Leader

In the early days of project management, IT management would select project managers from out of a pool of resources with the following send-off; “We need this done by such-and-such a time, and here's your funding. Good luck!” This sink-or-swim induction to project management is how many project managers got their start (Harris, 2000).

Project management evolved to fill the needs of the project manager. The project management processes of Initiation, Planning, Execution; Control and Closure (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2000) grew out of this. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) has gone on to become the de facto standard for project management (PMI, 2000).

Once project management became a recognized skill, the next step was to build organizations to foster consistency. This was the birth of the PMO. Companies set up PMOs “to ensure that a particular project is planned and executed well.” During the last 20 years, organizations have come to see that project management is a unique, “value-added” discipline for the enterprise. This value is measured in terms of either cost–benefit achieved or the return on investment (ROI). The PMO provides a home for project management and is an entity from which to effectively manage delivery (Harris, 2000).

Once a PMO is established as an organizational entity, it needs an administrative leader. In some PMOs, the leader is chosen from among the staff of the PMO itself. In this model, the most experienced project/program manager is appointed the leader. However, although such leaders may know how to lead a project, they may not understand the nuances of managing the PMO nor understand the internal politics of the parent organization. Techniques used to lead projects successfully may or may not be applicable to leading the PMO. In other cases (particularly in the early stages of PMO maturation), a generalist manager with little or no functional project management experience will be anointed the PMO leader. This model often stagnates when the management generalist fails to understand the nuances of PMO leadership. In the “best of both worlds” scenario, the PMO leader will possess project management functional knowledge, hands-on experience in managing projects, and administrative management experience.

The PMO concept continues to evolve. A more recent development (in late 2006) is the creation of The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006a) and The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI, 2006b). These two additional standards will need to be considered aspects of the modern PMO and how a PMO is led and/or managed.

Mature PMO Characteristics

To lead the PMO and be the catalyst for growth, one needs to understand what PMO maturity looks like. In our assessment, a PMO will be “grown up” when it masters the process side of efficiently managing its internal operations and is also able to provide business value in managing portfolios of project-based work. Another critical success criterion for PMO maturity is the ability to execute project plans. In a project setting, this means that projects are delivered on time, on budget, and with quality and customer satisfaction. To achieve this status, the PMO needs a well-defined organization structure, strong leadership, and a general orientation (culture) towards execution and “getting things done.” This ability to get things done is a key aspect of a mature PMO that is juggling multiple deliverables.

We believe that the mature PMO has several characteristics, which fall into four general categories: Strategy, Operations, People, and Metrics. Within these four categories, there are numerous characteristics that become aspects of the roadmap for PMO maturity. A detailed description can be found in “Growing Up … The Information Technology Project Management Office (PMO)'s Journey from Infancy to Maturity” (Woerner, 2006).

Understanding what PMO maturity looks like is only the start. Buying a map or printing out directions on does not take person to the destination or teach a person how to travel to the destination, but merely establishes a path for getting there. In the same way, knowing the road to maturity does not automatically take the leader there. It does, however, provide help for the journey.

PMO Leadership versus Project Delivery Leadership

Project delivery leadership focuses on the successful implementation of a project within scope, budget, and time constraints, and with quality and customer satisfaction. In this role, the project manager focuses his or her energies on the project itself and will have skills for achieving project delivery within these constraints..

By contrast, PMO leadership is a multidimensional, organizational leadership role that encompasses organization building and establishing the foundation necessary for running a business.

Leading and Managing the PMO

Leadership has been defined generally as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members” (House, 2004). By applying the leadership definition to the PMO, we could further refine the definition of PMO leadership as the ability to influence, motivate, and enable the project management office and project manager to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the sponsoring organization.

Leadership is often associated with management, with some viewing management as a subset of leadership. Considered in this way, a leader knows where to go, with management skills being how to actually get there. (Leadership 501, no date). To further elaborate, there are managers and there are leaders, but there also are managers who can lead and leaders who can manage. The key is effectiveness, especially in inspiring others, guiding change, sharing a vision, and (when necessary), resolving conflict.

To be a PMO leader, one needs to possess management skills. Bennis (1989) used specific distinctions to distinguish managers from leaders (Exhibit 1).

Managers vs. Leaders (Bennis, 1989)

Exhibit 1 -- Managers vs. Leaders (Bennis, 1989)

In our experience, successful PMO leaders will possess key skills in both areas (Exhibit 2).

PMO Key Management and Leadership Attributes

Exhibit 2 – PMO Key Management and Leadership Attributes

Throughout history, great leaders have in fact been good managers, as well. If we consider the great leaders of history, general management was often part of their overall leadership and was the “medium by which changes in societies were accomplished.” (Cleland, 2006) Many of the great leaders throughout history were indeed managers---with their areas of management being political organizations, kingdoms, explorations, wars, social change, and so on. These leaders who were at the core “managers” needed to deal with change that affected their societies or created change for the better (Cleland, 2006)

Leading Leaders

Another aspect of PMO leadership is leading a team of individuals that are themselves leaders. Project managers are used to “running the show” on their respective projects. Regardless of whether the project managers have a reporting relationship as direct reports or in a matrix structure, the PMO leader must lead these managers, who are themselves leaders. The PMO leader will successfully delegate the leading of the projects/programs to the individual project managers and be available for support. An example of how this might work can be seen in how a primary school principal and teacher collaborate on the education of students. The principal will on occasion “drop in” on a class, but primarily the principal's duties are more in the back-office areas of coaching, supporting, and administering, so that the teachers, with the full backing of the principal, can focus on educating their students.

Project Delivery Leadership

The PMO mandate and core competency is execution---project execution---the art, science, and discipline of getting things done. To accomplish this mandate successfully, the following must be the main areas of focus:

  1. People. People must be the primary focus of the PMO; people make things happen. The competencies, capabilities, and maturity level of the people involved in the PMO should be taken into consideration when forming the PMO.
  2. Process (operations). Process is the bread and butter of the PMO. Definition, standardization, and consistency of processes make the PMO stronger, more efficient, and more effective.
  3. Technology. Technology is an enabler of effective project management. It is not the driver. It comes after people and process are considered and defined, and it is there to support them. Enterprise Program Management (EPM)/Project & Portfolio Management (PPM) systems are often complex, and understanding their functionality and setting them up correctly is vital to supporting people and processes.
  4. Customer satisfaction. Understanding customers' needs and managing expectations is a key function of the PMO leader and the project management team
  5. Strategy creation and implementation. Strategy creation and implementation with a focus on framework, structure, system, style, staff, skill, and overarching goals are foundations concepts to aid in successful project delivery.

Striking a balance among the above five areas of focus is key for successful project delivery. Each is important, as they coexist throughout the project life cycle (Gage, 2005).

Multiple Careers Paths of the PMO Leader

A discussion of PMO leadership would not be complete without touching on the general career path of the PMO leader. To understand this career path, it helps to spell out the general hierarchy of project-related positions. Rad and Levin (2002) describes the career roadmap as having six levels:

  1. Project team member
  2. Associate project manager
  3. Project manager
  4. PMO staff member
  5. Director PMO
  6. Vice president of projects

In Rad and Levin's model, the first three are project-focused positions, whereas the final three positions are enterprise focused. To this, one could add the recently minted program manager and portfolio manager titles (PMI, 2006a, 2006b).

In our experience, the hierarchy of roles in the industry is evolving to look something like this:

  1. Project team member
  2. Associate project manager
  3. Project manager*
  4. Senior project manager*
  5. Program manager*
  6. Manager PMO/portfolio manager**
  7. Director PMO/portfolio manager**
  8. Vice president of projects/chief projects officer

* Note: Many still use the term project and program interchangeably. For sake of the hierarchy, we consider all of these discrete roles.

** Note: The role of portfolio manager could fall to the PMO manager or the PMO director, depending on how the role is defined.

In this model, all roles from manager PMO to vice president of projects/chief projects officer could serve as catalysts for PMO maturity.

Transformational Leadership

The PMO leader is a transformational leader---a leader who brings about change and innovation. The PMO leader is a project leader, general manager for the PMO, and the central voice for project work in the organization that it supports. The PMO leader is also a chief officer of project works. A new term has been established in some organizations: “chief projects officer (CPO).”. All organizational projects need to come under the jurisdiction of the PMO, and the CPO needs to be aware of and prepared to address issues as they arise.

A CPO can provide a new communication channel to assist the chief executive officer (CEO) in integrating the business needs with corporate strategic and operational initiatives. The CPO ensures alignment of project management with the strategic decisions made by other functional executives. This alignment can improve company performance. Moreover, the CPO and in fact all PMO leaders regardless of their level can work with project managers to convert strategic goals into tactical objectives with projects (vertical communication). Project managers at the tactical level can better understand corporate strategies communicated by the CPO. Managers throughout the corporation will appreciate the CPO position as they will no longer be burdened with carrying the project managers' requirements to the C-level. (Piazza & Baweja, 2006)

The PMO concept is still, generally speaking, new, and there is not a great deal of history and experience from which to learn. Therefore, the learning is done by inference, observation, and extrapolation. It is learning by doing, keeping track of lessons learned, and learning from mistakes. As Wheatley (2007) points out, “It's surprising how many companies don't go back and say ‘How did it go?’” Learning from mistakes can be “low-hanging fruit” that the PMO leader can use to accelerate PMO progress in a short time.

In a similar way that a parent's role evolves during the development of a child, the PMO leader has an evolving role as the PMO matures. What works in dealing with the “child” PMO will need to evolve as the PMO matures. Perhaps this concept can be illustrated
by the way in which a child learns to ride a bike: in many ways, the leader of the PMO needs to lead the PMO “with the training wheels on.” The “infant” PMO may not even understand the basics of project management as outlined in the PMBOK ® Guide. During this stage, the PMO leader may need to spend a disproportionate amount of their time in establishing the basic structure of the PMO and in the skills development of the project management staff. Similar parallels between child development and PMO development could be drawn for every stage of PMO maturity.

Accelerating Growth: Utilizing Project, Program, and Portfolio Standards

In order for the PMO to continue to grow towards maturity, PMO leadership needs to foster adherence to professional standards and to strive to update organization behavior to be based on generally accepted professional standards, such as the recently published The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006a) and The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI, 2006b).

Ways to Accelerate Growth of the PMO: A Plan of Action

Based on our own observations and supported by the literature, we consider the following measures to be key focus areas for the success and maturity of the PMO. These focus areas need to be developed, sustained, reviewed, and optimized by the PMO leader on a regular basis to ensure the sustained success of the PMO:

  1. PMO leadership characteristics
    1. Well connected and respected in the organization
    2. Strong interpersonal skills, including motivation and listening (Wheatley, 2007).
  2. PMO vision and mission that aligns well and supports the organization business goals and overall long-term strategy.
  3. Governance structure: the PMO needs to establish a high-level organizational governance or steering committee to project prioritization, funding, and resource allocation.
  4. Key success indicators: the PMO must define key success indicators that are needed for strategic and operational alignment.
  5. A communication strategy to keep stakeholders apprised of the role of the PMO in the following:
    1. Supporting the organization core business
    2. Setting and monitoring quality measures
    3. Maintaining an optimal operating model
    4. Developing, updating, and enforcing relevant policies and procedures.
  6. PMO core competencies
    1. Roles and responsibilities
    2. Career path for project managers and other staff members of the PMO
    3. Developing technical and management skills
  7. PMO culture characteristics that need to be fostered:
    1. Creativity
    2. Flexibility
    3. Goal-setting
    4. Regular assessments and reassessment
    5. Continuous improvement
  8. Leadership skill development for project management practitioners within the PMO
    1. Succession planning
    2. Program management
    3. Portfolio management
    4. Managing multiple project
    5. Leading a team of leaders

PMO Leadership: A Balanced Approach

In addition to the action planning described above, the PMO leader can utilize an approach that balances multiple complementary skill sets. The purpose of the balanced approach to PMO leadership (Exhibit 3) is to build on individual skills and to serve as a benchmark for others in leading their PMOs.

PMO Leadership: A Balanced Approach

Exhibit 3 -- PMO Leadership: A Balanced Approach

Some keys to using this approach are to employ the following techniques used for strengthening business:

  1. Attract and retain key talent (effective, efficient, energetic, and passionate)
  2. Build a creative, innovative, and agile PMO
  3. Maximize project management performance, profitability, and competitiveness
  4. Improve critical project management processes and workflows (change and integration management/project intake requests/project request assessments/project prioritization and alignment/project approvals/scope change request/budgets allocation)
  5. Improve project management work force effectiveness
  6. Manage project risk, compliance, and enterprise governance
  7. Manage change


The PMO leader who can put the above action plan in place and who displays the skills outlined in the balanced approach will establish the cultural foundation for accelerated PMO maturity. By combining the general leadership skills with project management--specific expertise, the PMO leader can be a driving force for progress, PMO maturation, and, in turn, the overall effectiveness of the PMO.


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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 or any listed author.

© 2008, Bruce Woerner
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – São Paulo, Brazil



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