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Does the project manager need to be an actual manager?

Yes, but what are they managing?

Last week I ran a workshop on project management with the management team of a company. Together we studied the role of the two agents in the project manager/sponsor tandem.

Everyone agreed that the project vision was the sole preserve of the project sponsor, while the project manager was responsible for seeing it through. This responsibility gives him de facto control of the project budget as well as the leadership of the individuals assigned to carry out the project tasks.

Everything was going well, and consensus seemed to be achieved. Suddenly, a member dared to ask the question that I had actually felt coming: “But our project managers are not management-level employees!”. A long discussion featuring arguments and counter-arguments followed. The discussion was soon interrupted by the managing director, who announced: “Friends, let me stop you there. This point was discussed at headquarters and it was decided not to give project manager management-level status. It’s up to us to legitimize their role”.

I cannot but applaud. I have been managing projects for over 30 years and have never been a management-level employee and a project manager at the same time. In fact, I had never even realized that fact before this workshop. I must say that it never prevented me from successfully managing the projects assigned to me. At all times, I have assumed and inhabited this role of project manager, for two reasons, I think:

  1. I was fortunate to have project sponsors who understood the role of project manager and who did not confuse it with a coordinating role – they gave me legitimacy.

  2. I always knew what the framework of my responsibilities was. I manage what is allocated to me for the project – no more, no less – and I know my role is temporary: it stops with the end of the project.

In a hierarchical structure, most of the time people are grouped by job – accountants report to a CFO, salespeople to a sales manager, fitters to an installation manager and so forth. These line managers define work procedures and quality standards for their team members. They are also responsible for the advancement of their team within the company.

Next consideration: a project is launched to adapt a way of doing things, develop a new product, set up a service for clients. The first thing to do is to identify who the project sponsor is – i.e. the person carrying the vision within the company, whether his own or the vision of an external client – and the project manager. This project manager must be skilled in leadership, communication and organizational skills. The team leaders will loan the employees needed to complete the project. It will be the project manager’s responsibility to define, with this team, the action plan needed to achieve the results, then confirm the period in which everyone will have to be seconded to the project with the respective line managers.

Throughout the project, the team members will consult the project manager when carrying out tasks. In parallel, the rules specific to each area of business, defined by the relevant managers, continue to be upheld.

As one of the workshop participants summarized, “project managers help us. We can then dedicate ourselves to the implementation of efficient processes for our people, while project managers are responsible for achieving results for the various projects.

So the answer is no: the project manager does not have to be a management-level employee. It can even be considered a drawback, as the person is then juggling to jobs: ordinary manager and project manager.

What about you? Do you have similar or different experiences ? Let me know, I'll be happy to discuss it with you!

Artwork : Mélanie Bénard Tremblay, 2019, © Marakoudja.

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