What’s Keeping Project Managers From The C-Suite?

Project Management Strategy From Sun Tzu

Image Credit: Celestine Chua (Flickr)

Look at the top leaders in government, the Fortune 500, and the non-profit world. What patterns do you see? I notice a great deal of lawyers through all levels of government. In the corporate world and non-profit world, sales professionals (called fundraisers in non-profits) are well represented. Often, you will see engineers, accountants (in the CFO role and elsewhere) and other professionals well represented in the executive ranks.

When was the last time you saw a project manager promoted to the executive suite? I can’t think of an example. You might think that executive positions are only for those who want outsized pay and perks.

We need project managers in the executive ranks to make contributions and increase results. Disciplined project management and strategy is a key way to respond to our changing world. So, what explains the lack of project managers in the C Suite?

The Dark Side of Technical Focus Or Success as The Triple Constraint

Do you remember learning about the triple constraint when you studied project management? It is one of the profession’s basic concepts. This conceptual tool makes it possible to quickly measure the health of a project. The utility of the triple constraint is undeniable. Like any tool, it has limits.

Unfortunately, too many project professionals define success solely in triple constraint terms. It’s good to deliver your project on time, on budget and on scope. But what if your end customer is disgruntled and refuses to learn the new process? That’s a bad sign – you could even call it project failure.

It’s understandable that you have focused on the technical project management skills. Many project managers cut their teeth in technology projects and construction, industries that prize technical expertise. Project management certifications, books and courses often emphasize these skills (e.g. Amazon has over 1200 books on Microsoft Project).

The dark side of technical knowledge is that you miss the big picture. You ignore strategy announcements from the CEO because you’re concerned about your budget. You spend hours standardizing fonts in PowerPoint presentations to meet corporate standards (I’m guilty of that!). Fortunately, we can draw hope and inspiration from our friends in accounting.

Accountants start their careers with very technical training. Yet, there are accountants who join the executive ranks every year. Those who make the switch understand that technical expertise is the start of the journey, not the end. Project professionals need to learn how to made a similar evolution.

Why IBM’s Success Depends on Strategic Project Management

In the 1990s, IBM was in trouble. As author Carol S. Dweck describes in her book “Mindset” as follows:

It had a culture of smugness and elitism. Within the company, it was the old We are royalty, but I’m more royal than you are syndrome. There was no teamwork, only turf wars. There were deals but no follow up. There was no concern for the customer. (pg 129)

Under the leadership of Louis V. Gerstner (CEO of IBM, 1993-2002), the company reinvented itself. To overcome the lack of follow up and delivering for the customer, IBM adopted project management as “a core competency of the corporation… [and] turn IBM into a project based business.”

IBM’s commitment to project management has rightly become famous throughout the technology industry and beyond. Here is how IBM connected project management to the organization’s strategy. As noted in IBM: Keys to Building A Successful Enterprise Project Management Office published by the Project Management Institute.

  1. Executive Support For Projects.

In the 1990s, Gerstner established an executive steering committee to promote project management. Strategy is partly a question of emphasis and deciding where to allocate resources. IBM leadership made a clear decision to elevate project management and use a project approach to transform the company.

  1. Explicitly Link Project Management To Corporate Strategy.

In some organizations, strategy appears to be a theoretical exercise divorced from day to day work. In 2011, IBM’s project management leadership linked their efforts to IBM’s Roadmap to 2015. From time to time, strategy changes – remember to adjust to stay in alignment. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that projects are automatically in alignment with strategy.

  1. Build Corporate Memory Of Best Practices.

 “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” – Marcus Cicero

 Substitute “before your were born” with “before your project began” and you can easily apply Cicero’s observation to organizational life. The opposite of project management maturity is a childish lack of focus.

 IBM did not rely on knowledge management software along to share project management wisdom. The company actively encouraged project management classes and mentoring. Taking this approach fosters pride in work. With that foundation in place, IBM significantly improved the problem it faced in the 1990s: “There were deals but no follow up.”

Strategy recognizes the importance of ideas AND follow through. Strategists also understand the importance of leadership . New ideas and practices rarely take off without concentrated effort and focus of leaders.

 Strategy Is The Way Forward

Strategy “is the result of choices executives make, on where to play and how to win, to maximize long-term value.” – Strategy: An Executive’s Definition (Strategy + Business)

For the rest of October, I will be exploring how project managers can become strategists. You don’t have study Napoleon (though I have and I welcome you to do so). You don’t need to be a current or former executive to become a strategist. You do need an understanding of where your organization is going. If you’re used to focusing exclusively on your department’s concerns, you will need to think more broadly.

Strategy is an essential skill to learn if you seek to manage programs and portfolios of projects. If you aspire to join the C-suite, it is mandatory. Stay tuned for interviews with strategists and other insights exploring strategy for project managers.

In the meantime, I suggest getting started with Ryan Holiday’s excellent article 24 books to hone your strategic mind. Here is how Holiday describes the importance of strategy:

Strategy isn’t something that’s taught well in school. Hell, most people probably couldn’t tell you the difference between “strategy” and “tactics” (or even know there is a difference.)

This is unfortunate, because strategy is something that is critically relevant to all of us – not just those with careers in the military. We all have goals, we all have obstacles to those goals and we all live in a world we do not control. Those things combine to create the necessity of strategy.

The better we are at it – the better we are at doing what we want and need to do.

How do I accomplish what I need to accomplish? How do I find my way, deliberately, instead of stumbling around, in a reactionary fashion? Too many of us live our lives in a sort of haze, acting without a plan or guidance. Too many of us make unnecessary mistakes (costly ones at that), because we lack the ability to craft a strategic vision and a plan.

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4 thoughts on “What’s Keeping Project Managers From The C-Suite?

  1. Great article, Bruce! I’m seeing more focus on strategy in the last year, and know that more organizations are thinking about alignment between projects and strategic goals and objectives.
    Thanks for including the Ryan Holiday’s list! Many of the books on the list are new to me, and I’ll be adding quite a few to my reading list.