Project Managers as Strategic Leaders – in the C-suite and Beyond18 Sep 2023
Project professionals turn dreams into reality by getting things done. But even in a profession centered around the ability to turn ambitious ideas and strategies into tangible outcomes, we continue to see a gap for project managers in reaching higher-level positions of leadership.
I recently had the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on how project managers can rise to new heights of leadership with Laura Barnard, Chief Impact Driver at PMO Strategies, at the PMO Impact Summit. The Summit is devoted to bringing together PMO and delivery leaders in sharing ideas and best practices for elevating their roles and impact.
As Laura said, “A common challenge for project professionals is being seen as a strategic leader. I can’t tell you the number of times that project professionals have come up to me and said, "My executive says I need to be more strategic, but I don’t know how to do that.” We talked about some of the common barriers and challenges that project professionals face in elevating their roles.
Clear communication is critical
Some takeaways from our discussion:
It is critical to clearly communicate the value of project management to senior executives in language that resonates with them.
Beyond traditional metrics like schedule, scope, and risk, project professionals must be able to clarify how their work aligns with broader strategic goals and how it makes an impact on the whole organization, both financially and non-financially, but also to express them in a very simple language, avoiding jargons or even words that senior executives may use differently, such as “value.” In short, think through the CEO perspective and what outcomes an executive would prioritize.
- Focus on Outcomes: Emphasize the expected outcomes and benefits of your project rather than just the technical details or processes; tie these outcomes to the organization's strategic objectives, showing how the project contributes to long-term strategy implementation success, how it benefits the business and/or its customers.
- Quantify Impact: Whenever possible, use data and metrics to quantify the potential impact of your project. Numbers and concrete evidence are more persuasive than vague statements.
- Tell a Compelling Story: Frame your communication as a narrative that engages your audience emotionally and intellectually; use real-life examples and anecdotes to illustrate the project's potential and its relevance to the organization's mission.
Enhance your leadership skills and take on more responsibility
Project professionals must continue to enhance their own leadership skills and expand their opportunities to take on more responsibility.
- Lean into the human side of leadership qualities: Project management is about much more than scheduling, budgeting, and scope alone, as important as those are. Especially in the era of AI, practitioners should lean into what we uniquely offer as human beings – the ability to influence, lead, and help others understand how to fulfill the strategic needs of the organization.
- Remember that growth and comfort don’t go well together: The more you multiply opportunities to get out of your comfort zone and maybe do stuff that scares you a little, the more growth you’ll see.
- You are the best project you can ever take on: Take steps every day to ensure you’re being intentional and working on improvement areas to create the life you crave, whether that’s in your professional or personal life.
Leadership isn’t dependent on a title
You don't need to be a CEO to lead. I have seen so many leaders who may never hold a CEO title, but they’re very effective at what they do and very fulfilled. On the other hand, we should all carefully reflect on whether a role like CEO is the right fit for us, regardless of the prestige. In a McKinsey article, Michael Fisher, former CEO Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said, “If the main reason you want to have the CEO title is for ego, that’s unlikely to be a sustainable motivator over time.” CEOs are bound to spend the vast majority of their time focused on transformation, and that level of ambiguity and complexity is important to keep in mind for anyone considering a CEO role.
With that caveat in mind, there’s still a lot any of us can learn from the pathways of those who ascend to higher leadership roles. Harvard Business Review published a study called The Fastest Path to the CEO Job – a 10-year examination of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments. The research identified some ways that you can take on more responsibility and amass more varied experiences, no matter where you are in your career path:
- Take a smaller role at some point in your career: Try starting something new, such as a new product or division. You may gain invaluable exposure and line of sight to sides of the business that you wouldn’t have if you stayed on the straight and narrow path.
- Make the big leap: Say yes to opportunities even when the role is beyond anything you’ve done previously, and even if you don’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead. Get out of your comfort zone, and it will always pay off.
- Inherit a big mess: For example, an underperforming business unit, a failed product, or a messy project or program. Take on a big problem—and fix it! Leaders must have an outsized appetite for taking on challenges that are often nebulous in nature. Learn to run toward the problems that everyone else is scrambling to get away from.
In short, whether project professionals work in a non-profit, a government body, or a corporation, learning to speak the language of ROI will help them elevate their profiles, skills, and pathways to leadership.
I enjoyed the discussion with Laura on how project professionals can continue to elevate their profiles, skills, and pathways to leadership. Learn more at https://impactsummit.global/.