It is quite common to hear project managers complain about having insufficient formal authority to make decisions on their own without having to seek approval from more senior stakeholders. While it can be frustrating to try to meet deadlines when decision making is prolonged, this also shelters the project manager from the consequences of making the wrong decision. This is not a luxury that most senior executives enjoy – with greater power over decision-making, comes greater responsibility such as the inability to pass the buck if a bad decision is made.
So how can you start to demonstrate this ability when you might not be vested with any formal decision-making authority?
One way is by committing to your recommendations in the face of resistance – be decisive. Yes, you may not have the final say, but demonstrating a track record of standing by what you’ve determined to be the right course of action and being willing to share in the pain if the decision is wrong will usually be viewed positively.
Strategic thinking is another critical competency for an executive leader. The purpose of your project is not to create deliverables but to generate business value. When contemplating a course of action, such as a response to an issue or the analysis for a change request, are you considering the impacts on business value realization? Or are you just considering impacts on your project’s budget and timelines?
Extend your perspective beyond just your project and consider its place in the overall portfolio. A decision which might be in the best interest of your project could end up negatively impacting others within your project portfolio or could end up generating technology or process debt which will cost the organization more in the long run. This requires increasing your business process knowledge as well as extending your gaze by understanding the dependencies between your project and others in the portfolio. It will also affect how you communicate with your stakeholders. Frame your status updates or calls for action in terms of overall business and not just project impact.
How do you manage risk in your projects?
Formal project risk management is insufficient. Yes, that can help to identify and respond to threats and opportunities, but a CEO is responsible for incorporating risk as part of every key decision. Experiment using tools such as expected monetary value to help you determine which is the path which best fits within your organization’s risk appetite. Whether it is deciding on the specific practices or methodologies that best apply to your project, or building support for a change request, demonstrating that you have comfort with risk-based decision-making is critical to transitioning to a more senior role.
How well do you manage expectations?
In publicly traded firms, the persistent inability to meet or exceed shareholder expectations for financial performance usually results in the removal of the CEO and other key senior executives. On projects, it is no different. I’d written an article five years ago that explained why I felt that the elevator pitch for selling the value of project management is predictability. Whether your project is running smoothly or is encountering chronic difficulties, you need to learn to manage stakeholder expectations so that they are not surprised.
Remember that “what have you done for me lately?” applies equally well to project managers as it does to CEOs. Just because you’ve managed a string of projects successfully doesn’t mean that you can get away with one or more project failures. If anything, a consistent track record of success will usually raise expectations for future performance.
Are you an effective leader through both good and bad times?
Some project managers are at their best when things appear to be at their worst whereas others are only good at keeping a project running when all is well. A successful senior executive should be able to inspire commitment and alignment from the organization regardless of how dire things are. This requires developing and communicating a vision compelling enough for team members to embrace and being able to draw out the strengths of the team to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Yishan Wong summarized the responsibility of a CEO with the following quote: “Everything ultimately becomes the CEO's problem, no matter where it starts.”
Do you manage your projects keeping that in mind?