The Myth of the Powerless Project Manager

powerless 2It’s not uncommon to hear from worried Project Managers (PMs) that although they are held accountable for the success of their project, they aren’t given the necessary authority to control it. They say their Sponsors are no-where to be seen and their stakeholder support ranges from ambivalence to hostility. These PMs believe they are powerless to perform the responsibilities they’ve been assigned and ask for advice. My advice?…Stop allowing yourselves to be victims and build your project authority by beginning with taking control of yourself.

Experience has shown me that most PMs that claim to be “powerless” really do have the necessary talent to enable them gain the influence and control that they seek. They are only as powerless as they allow themselves to be. In my opinion, the notion of the “Powerless Project Manager” is a myth. This blog post offers a few suggestions for PMs on how they can avoid, or perhaps recover from, being a victim of powerlessness.

I suppose I should start by admitting that those of us who have chosen project management as a career, have done so, at least in part, because we have an inherent need to be in control of things. In return for the privilege of having project control, we are willing to take on the heavy responsibility and accountability for project success. Legitimate project control and authority, isn’t positional, that is, it isn’t given to you when you get the Project Manager title. You must earn it by demonstrating to the Project Stakeholders that you have the knowledge, good judgment, character and leadership skills to make the project and everyone associated with it successful. So, if you’re pursuing a Project Management career because you want to be in control, be the kind of leader that you’d want to follow.

Here are a few suggestions for building legitimate project influence and control authority.

Know and Trust Yourself. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses and knowing when, and how, to leverage them with the strengths of others on your team is emotional intelligence. It’s a critical leadership competency and a powerful self-confidence builder. Understanding and believing in yourself is a necessary first step in gaining influence and control authority you require to successful lead all of the other project elements.
Build an Effective Relationship with Your Project Sponsor. Project Sponsors are responsible to the business for authorizing the project itself and for empowering and supporting you, the Project Manager. Your authority to execute the project comes from them and you must hold them accountable for making it clear to all Project Stakeholders that you are empowered to make decisions, set priorities and direct the allocation of resources related to your project. Meet with your Sponsor before the project starts to establish a set of mutual expectations. Agree on, and document, in a Project Charter, your mission, goals, and you resource control and decision authority. If you don’t feel that you have been adequately empowered to make decisions, or you are concerned about passive or uncooperative stakeholders, then make sure that the Sponsor knows that, and that both of you agree on taking immediate corrective actions.
Build Effective Relationships with Matrix Organization Managers. If you are leading a project in a matrix organization environment, although you own the project, the people, equipment and facilities you need to execute it are “owned” by Functional Managers. By building relationships with those Functional Managers, so that you understand their needs and concerns and they understand yours, you will reduce the risk of resource conflicts that impact your project, or at least make them easier to resolve when they do occur.
Build Relationships With Your Key Project Stakeholders. The term Stakeholder implies a person who has a vested interest in the success of the Project. If they are true stakeholders then, they should also have a vested interest in your success as the Project Manager. Do the best that you can to understand what their interests are and work to integrate those interests into your Project Plan and the processes you will use to execute to the plan. Keep them informed. That doesn’t mean they will always be happy, but the more open and honest you are with them, the more likely they will be to be supportive of your project needs.
Know and Be Engaged With Your Project Team Members. You earn you the privilege of having control and authority over your team by gaining their trust and respect. Communicate with them honestly, and frequently. Get to know them as people…their strengths and weakness, what fulfills them, what pisses them off, and what scares them. You must do this in addition to the managing the mechanics of the project management process. It takes time and it isn’t easy, but it’s necessary for you to consistently demonstrate to your team that you care about them as well as the execution of the project.

As you can see, I believe that gaining and maintaining legitimate project control and authority is all about the art of project management. Certainly the science of Project Management as embodied in the PMBoK and other standards, but it’s the art of leadership that enables PM’s to earn, own and exercise the control and authority to successfully plan and execute their projects.

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About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
This entry was posted in Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Myth of the Powerless Project Manager

  1. Pilar Gomez says:

    Thanks Don, I agree with all your points.

  2. khmmu says:

    I agree 100%. We had these issues and used most of the points listed above to overcome them.
    (I work in the UK Public Sector on large IT Programmes and Projects.)
    Whilst working collabratively with other teams is always the best way of getting results we have the added control that all project Instructions have the authority of the Project Sponsor.

  3. Dan Vickers says:

    Excellent article! Exercising principled leadership and making quality decisions are art, skill, and leadership. I appreciate this blog.

    • Gaurav Arora says:

      Very apt Article ! I had been heading operations for long and recently took a new role responsible for managing delivery of Programmes. I face the same kind of problems as discussed in this article. I totally agree on the approach discuss and would like to congratulate you on coming up with such practical thoughts !

  4. Antonio Romero says:

    I just found your article translated (Spanish) and posted online somewhere else, http://www.realtechinternational.com/newsletter/newsletter81.html ~ apparently it’s a consulting company – thought you should know in case you were not notified about it and you’re not being properly credited.

  5. Roberto Guandique says:

    Antonio is right we reprinted the article and added some thoughts in Spanish. We received the article from a colleague, just the contents. We already sent you a note on this Don, through email and LinkedIn. Thanks

  6. Great goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely great.

  7. Samir says:

    Thanks for this good article, I always approach my projects with these top 3 things in mind –
    1) Project is everything! Question, Challenge, Support, Escalate – do anything to keep it on track
    2) Honesty at all costs – Stick to the truth – even though it is not pretty at that time.
    3) Professional attitude – Give and demand respect in everything you do – no insults, no personal remarks, no sarcasm.
    4) Manage risks – very critical. Remember, almost each task on your list may fail and may need to have a contingency planned in advance.

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