Introduction

Ever wondered why there is stiff competition between an accountant and a Project Manager? Because they are both quite creative: the former with the money, the latter with the work estimates. Humour apart, Project Managers (PMs) are still much sought after as a ridiculously popular profession in today’s industry. Mostly because today’s businesses attempt to squeeze the most margins in revenue while keeping costs low. PMs can make sure that will materialise (or that is the industry’s viewpoint?).

I have spent the best part of the last three years managing projects in a global financial firm. Whilst not all of them were a success, none of them were absolute project failures either, as we built a strong network of people along the way. Looking back, one of the key reasons for project success having a clear understanding of the role of empathy and respect for people in a project environment. This allows the PM to step in with his or her team in project execution, and take a step back when needed to see how his people are really doing in terms of their need for support and their overall aspirations.

In one global organisation where the revenue model was based around financial businesses, PMs were hired as experts to formalise project environments and implement small specialised projects to big-budget regional projects. One would encounter PMs who were independent contractors, permanent employees as well as management consultants. While this would produce and concoct a heady mix of personalities in the workforce with diverse PM experiences and expertise in methods such as Agile, it would also require collaborative working to meet the firm’s goals.

I was in a fortunate position to work with multiple PMs with various functions in the department. While from a serious perspective, we would all work our daylights into making each of our projects a success, there was a humorous and lighter perspective to the environment, which I would like to share.

The Monk with a King’s Desire

This is a short story of a PM did not want any recognition or compensation for overtime. Nor did he like being recommended for a new project within the department or any praise in his name for his achievements. The person kept a “low profile” by not stepping on the toes of any senior management member. He had a lot of years on him, therefore quite senior in the organisation. Tasks or projects in which no one else was interested were assigned to him and he would gladly accept them. This was the set perception, and I gathered that he quite liked it that way.

This did not; however, reflect well within his team. Whilst on one of my audits, I heard from one of his colleagues that the person was extremely harsh on his team members. He would not allow them to be recognised or rewarded for their work. Yet no whistle was blown because no one was brave enough to come forward. The person was a senior individual with a decent reputation on the board. One day the PM was briefing one of his team members who stood by his desk blocking the PM’s view to a bright lemon yellow, open-planned office environment. This team member was a relatively big person who resembled a heavyweight wrestler in dimensions. It was the start of the planning cycle, so quite a lot of emphasis was placed on getting the estimates done for the respective projects. Over the brief, the PM started to give the team member a hard time. The team member was pale and scared, as usual, with eyes on the ground while the PM rambled with a heavy breath and a dark tone. A threat was made that if the team member did not achieve his objective, he would not be allowed to go home for the day. Apparently, the PM was notorious for keeping his word. As the hours passed on the day, the pressure built up. People had started to leave for the day. The team member skipped lunch and tea breaks, but did manage to produce a draft of his plan by the end of the day. The PM had long left for the day by then. Next day at the board meeting, the PM presented the draft plan, which was received quite positively. The board thanked him, and he acknowledged the appreciation with a remark that it was part of the job.

One voice arose after the applause faded. “Meet me after the meeting.” This was a senior director, the PM’s boss. Soon after the meeting, the PM went religiously straight to the director’s office with a gentle smile of accomplishment on his face. The director remarked on his entry, “Credit goes to the big guy who stood in front of me without whom I wouldn’t have seen how my project is being run today.”

The PM’s smile broadened. He thanked him and repeated his words that it was part of his job to do so. To this, the director said that he was really referring to the PM’s team member as the “big guy.” The director further explained that he had stood right behind the team member the previous day, when the PM was giving him a hard time over the brief. Because the guy was so big, the PM couldn’t see his director standing behind him!

The PM’s smile was now replaced with a frown accompanied by dancing droplets of sweat in his boss’s cabin. The director further said that his people shouldn’t have to suffer at the cost of projects being managed by severe task masters who positioned themselves to be accomplished PMs. The credit (and the PM’s job) went to the big guy indeed – for being big at heart, and for doing the hard work! The PM was fired from the job and moved to another branch. He was never again seen in the department. The new PM did get a slap on his wrist for not raising the red flag that his PM was too harsh with him and the team. Nevertheless, this was a needed change to the organisational culture at large and the boss understood it was something that couldn’t be achieved overnight.

In conclusion

From what I have seen and experienced recently, PMs today are pivotal roles especially in project-based organisations pursuing innovation and transformation initiatives. Projects are run at a mad pace. However, even in this situation, one should not lose focus on being a good person. Having empathy and mutual respect for people in the organisation will go far in terms of building networks and being successful. As a message to bosses, building perception is the most part of playing the career game, but only if genuine and people-focused, is it sustainable. Like I said, respect and empathy goes a long way the unfair world of highly political organisations.


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