Project Management Institute

Unclear on the concept

Does that job description sound ideal? Think again. Many organizations don't know what a project manager really should do.

by Grace Willis, PMP

The ugly truth of project management job opportunities—often discovered after a candidate has been interviewed and hired—is that many hiring managers don't really know what a project manager does or is supposed to do.

The job title “project manager” has been bastardized, with actual role responsibilities ranging anywhere between that of an administrative assistant to a subject matter expert and even a software developer.

The title “project manager” has also been whitewashed in some organizations, given to everyone from a Project Management Professional (PMP)®-certified veteran to a marketing traffic manager or office coordinator.

This happens everywhere from small mom-and-pop operations to Fortune 500 corporations.

Here's a summary of (cough, cough) “activities” I've been assigned or had to undertake during my career in project management:

  • Explain to developers in a purported long-standing agile organization expectations of a daily stand-up meeting, what planning poker cards are used for and the importance of actually checking user requirements before coding
  • Write governance and company policy documents for an application's inhouse use
  • Code in XML
  • Organize hotel, car rental and catered lunch for visiting vendors during a project strategy session

In all these roles, I worked for executives who hired me as a project manager, yet when it was time to get down to business, they didn't know what project management was.

Project Manager…or Supernanny?

You know that line in the job description that reads, “Excellent interpersonal skills and capable of dealing with all levels of staff”? Well, for many hiring managers, this line seems to mean that the project manager is to function like the neighborhood babysitter—working for “that family with the crazy kids.”

The hiring manager is akin to the stressed-out parent who needs Supernanny to help clean up the mess of the project, control the team of rogue employees who won't cooperate and manage the overpriced, underachieving third-party vendor that no one vetted before contracts were signed.

Another catchy line in job descriptions for project managers is the “establishes trust” requirement. In my career, that has meant sharing personal details with my boss and team to be perceived as “team player.” I've survived everything from a boss who was comfortable discussing her likely divorce to a developer who felt free to use team lunches as the opportunity to discuss bodily functions.

Supposedly, this was how they established trust. I was told I needed to share my feelings more.

Another example where I may have botched “establishes trust” was the time I voiced concerns to my director about developers who thought it was OK to habitually show up late to daily stand-ups and surf the Internet on their cell phones during sprint planning sessions. I also called out a business product owner who didn't quite understand the concept of locking down user stories for a sprint—and instead went directly to developers to “sneak in” a request.

The response to my concerns? I was told to turn a blind eye and let the team members do what they wanted.

Questions to Ask—and Answers You Don't Want to Hear

Thus far, two hiring managers have admitted to me that they thought they needed me—but they weren't quite ready.

I resigned from one job after quickly assessing the lay of the land. In the role, I had primarily sent emails and filled out spreadsheets with information no one ever read. During the two-week period after I gave my notice, they transitioned this burdensome (I'm being sarcastic) duty to the receptionist. Yet, when I looked at the job ad for my replacement, they asked for a PMP®-certified project manager.

In another job, I was basically hired to revive dead-end projects that were never properly vetted in the first place. The executive sponsor took a laissez-faire approach, and ignored my recommendation to either kill the project or start over properly.

So why does this happen and what can be done about it? I have two solutions: educate and interview more thoroughly.

The burden is on us project managers to educate the hiring community. Part and parcel of the education process is digging deeper during interviews. In hindsight, I can definitely say that

I was at fault for having gotten myself into these roles because of my lazy interviewing approach. Remembering that interviewing is a two-way street can help circumvent career mishaps. Interviews provide an opportunity to learn if the role is real project management à la PMI standards…or its evil twin, “faux project management.”

Here are some questions that you absolutely must ask in interviews, and some warning signs to look for:



  • Does your organization have a project management office? (Red flag: They don't know what PMO stands for.)
  • If they do have a PMO, are the project managers in it PMP-certified? (Red flag: No, you'd be the first.)
  • Describe the existing project management process. (Red flag: They don't have one, nor can they articulate what they expect.)
  • Which project management tools are you currently using? (Red flag: Excel spreadsheets and emails.)
  • How familiar is your team with the concept of project management and how have they worked with project managers in the past? (Red flag: Long silence.)
  • Can you describe a successful project from beginning to end, and what tools, documents and business procedures were used? (Red flag: No answer.)
  • Can you describe how you would support the project manager's role within the team and across departments? (Red flag: The expectation is that the project manager relies solely on winning people over with his or her charming personality to get folks to cooperate.)
  • Have you had a project manager on this team before and, if yes, why did he or she leave? (Red flag: “Things just didn't work out, and we decided to part ways.” This could be a sign that the project manager fell victim to the scapegoat's guillotine.)
  • Would you describe this organization/department as weak, mixed or strong matrix? (Red flag: The hiring manager doesn't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about.)
  • Does a project management culture exist organization-wide? (Red flag: The department for which you're interviewing is the only one using it, and the hope is to push project management tools and techniques from the bottom up.)

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should definitely help you glean enough information to determine if you should run for the hills or prepare yourself mentally for what you'll be dealing with. You'll also know more about the competence of the person you're most likely going to be reporting to. So good luck, colleagues. Go forth and conquer. PM



Grace Willis, PMP, is an independent consultant for business process optimization in the automotive industry in Berlin, Germany.

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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