Selecting the right projects is as important to an organization as picking the right stocks is to an investor. In both cases, making the wrong choice can lead to big losses. But when it comes to making strategic project decisions at the highest levels, most organizations fail to put project management experts in charge.
PMI's Pulse of the Profession™ survey found that only 22 percent of respondents said their organization has someone in a project management-related role at the vice president level or higher.
Without senior-level project professionals leading the charge for strategic alignment, key organizational goals can quickly take a back seat to conflicting departmental objectives. In fact, the Pulse survey found that only 12 percent of departments are primarily focused on strategic organizational goals.
To learn how a project executive can provide the kind of strategic oversight most organizations lack, it's important to first understand how the role differs from those of project and program managers. Today's project executive isn't the project manager who happens to have the most experience or highest comfort level with Gantt charts. Rather, he or she plays a number of critical roles at the highest levels of the organization, including decision-maker, business strategist and change agent.
“It's up to a project executive to examine a company's major goals, to inform board members what they can expect in terms of results and to put a strategy together to meet those expectations,” says Gino J. Robert, PMP, CEO and founder of ProPM Global Inc., a consultancy in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. By liaising with other members of the executive suite and strengthening top-down governance of projects, project executives can ensure that a company's entire portfolio is driving organizational strategy.
A project executive is responsible for defining the scope of projects across the entire portfolio in accordance with an organization's short- and long-term goals. He or she must communicate each project's parameters, strategies and objectives with project leaders throughout the organization. At that point, the project executive must do something many may struggle with: Let go.
“Project managers will take these strategies, build on them and manage them from end to end,” says Mr. Robert. “A project manager is more focused on what has already been decided by the project executive.”
Once major goals have been set and properly communicated to project managers, the project executive assumes the role of change agent, ensuring that each project in the portfolio remains aligned with the organization's strategic objectives throughout its execution.
The objectives that most concern project managers tend to relate to customer satisfaction and operational efficiencies, rather than the bottom line. “Project managers are more concerned about what they plan to deliver to the customer,” says Nelson Jose Rosamilha, PMP, a project executive at PMI Global Executive Council member IBM, São Paulo, Brazil. With a project executive in charge of authorizing expenditures, however, a project has a much better chance of abiding by budgetary restrictions.
Project executives must play a wide variety of roles: business leader, change agent, project evangelist, customer-relations expert. But acting as a project manager isn't one of them.
A project executive is ultimately responsible for a project's financial results, says Nelson Jose Rosamilha, PMP, IBM, São Paulo, Brazil. As a result, “the operational side of a project must be the responsibility of a project manager.”
So while a project manager develops a project plan, keeps stakeholders satisfied and manages the performance of day-to-day tasks, it's up to a project executive to determine high-level goals and strategic direction, says Andre Butters, PMP, Foursite, Washington, D.C., USA. Any hiccups at the project level should be communicated to the project executive using status reports or risk-management assessment tools.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rosamilha adds, “project executives can mentor project managers. After all, we were once project managers as well.”
“Project executives can mentor project managers. After all, we were once project managers as well.”
—Nelson Jose Rosamilha, PMP, IBM, São Paulo, Brazil
“It’s up to a project executive to examine a company's major goals, to inform board members what they can expect in terms of results and to put a strategy together to meet those expectations.”
—Gino J. Robert, PMP
The benefits of having a project executive on board extend far beyond scope-setting and oversight. Project executives typically enjoy a direct link to organizations' top decision-makers, and having an open dialogue with the CEO or CFO is key to building a project portfolio that's in line with organizational goals, Mr. Rosamilha says.
Andre Butters, PMP, says a project executive can also be an advocate for projects within the portfolio. “Having a project executive be able to attend those boardroom meetings and listen to feedback from various business line leaders is very valuable,” says Mr. Butters, a project executive at Foursite, a real-estate software company in Washington, D.C., USA.
Communicating regularly with organizational leaders about the portfolio's successes and failures helps set realistic expectations throughout the course of every project and keeps everyone on the same page, he says.
Taking an active role in high-level personnel discussions can also yield success across the entire project portfolio. “You need someone who can detect the right people and identify the right partners for the right projects within the portfolio,” says Mr. Robert. “That's the job of the project executive—to identify who can get the job done.”
But just getting the job done isn't enough to be successful. To be seen as a real business leader, project executives need to be able to tie project success directly to business results.
“Project executives must be able to show the metrics of a project's success and to translate how each project team's actions are impacting the bottom line,” says Mr. Butters.
The metrics that govern projects on a day-to-day basis won't gain traction in the boardroom. Instead, project executives must present value-based metrics that demonstrate how the portfolio is advancing the organization's goals. These metrics may include estimation accuracy, stakeholder satisfaction, number of hours spent on a project and cost performance index.
“The project executive must be keen enough to establish his or her criteria to make sure things are happening according to plan,” Mr. Robert says.
Breaking into the executive suite may seem daunting—but it doesn't have to be. Alanh Husson, PMP, chief project officer at Unigestion, an asset management firm in Geneva, Switzerland, offers these tips for rising up the ranks:
|1||Seek out projects that align with the organization's business goals. Demonstrating strategic alignment makes a practitioner more likely to get noticed than focusing solely on tactical execution.|
|2||Welcome exposure to VIPs. Whether it's signing up for the organization's mentoring program or seeking out higher-profile projects, the exposure can both demonstrate and sharpen strategic-thinking capabilities.|
|3||Embrace challenges. Project executives must juggle disparate projects and programs with calm and grace. Jump into higher-risk, bigger-budget projects with both internal and external stakeholders to sharpen negotiation skills and improve poise under pressure.|
Criteria, metrics, bottom line—they're not buzzwords; they're terms that must be part of every project executive's vocabulary. As business leaders, these project professionals must tailor their messages to their audiences, from customers to project managers to executives.
Mr. Rosamilha recalls a time at a previous organization when a number of orders weren't being properly billed. When customers began to complain, the project manager offered a technical explanation for the holdup. But because the customers' concerns were business-related and not technical, Mr. Rosamilha had to intervene and relate what was going on in terms they could understand.
“The project executive must be able to explain the situation in a customer's language,” he says. “However, the role also requires being able to explain the situation to the CEO in his or her language.”
As with most high-level positions, effectively wielding power is a must-have skill. Knowing how to navigate conflict and identify effective compromises goes a long way toward helping the organization meet its goals. “As a project executive, there's just so much coming at you from all directions—stakeholders are asking for all different types of answers,” Mr. Butters says. “The ability to influence is probably the strongest of all the personality traits you need to have as a project executive.”
Integrating this power and influence into the organizational structure can be challenging, particularly if well-entrenched hierarchies exist. Yet even newly minted project executives in an established organizational structure shouldn't shy away from difficult tasks that can boost the bottom line, raise the corporate profile and ease resource strains. For example, Mr. Butters volunteered to oversee the revamping of the company's entire website, in part to raise his profile among fellow executives. “Our stakeholders see that I've stepped up to the plate and have a history of completing successful projects in the past,” he says.
Showing the value of having a steady hand at the helm may be the best way for a project executive to gain acceptance. Once missed deadlines, blown budgets and customer complaints disappear, so too will any skepticism about the value a project executive can bring. PM
“The project executive must be able to explain the situation in a customer's language. However, the role also requires being able to explain the situation to the CEO in his or her language.”
—Nelson Jose Rosamilha, PMP