By Mauro Piloni
If you work as a project manager (or were recently offered a role), you were probably pulled aside by management and informed that a long-term initiative was in the works. This project requires the most important ingredient – the right leader – and that frontrunner is you.
What comes to mind when hearing this? You probably feel proud. You are one of the few, if not the only one, called upon for this role. You will have access to needed resources – your wants and needs will be fulfilled. All of them: power, money and career. What a drug.
After a couple of days of contemplating the offer, you accept, the announcement goes live, and you are ready for a bright future. The end, right?
Reality, however, differs greatly. It’s not that your supervisor knowingly misrepresented the role. The problem is that even those in top leadership positions maintain limited influence on the “company world” around them. Everything can and will change, yet the expectations for your performance will remain – unless you leave the company. Considering that the average project lifespan runs two years, imagine the number of changes that can happen in the organization and market during that time.
Understand that when you accept the offer to lead a project, you accept it unconditionally. Deciding to direct a long-term project is somewhat like getting married. The moment arrives when someone asks if you will stay “in good and in bad.” Your choice doesn't usually depend on what might occur in the future. You speak those vows because you love (and believe in) your partner. Certainly you could become poor or rich, but that doesn’t alter the decision made at the ceremony.
The Four Steps in Deciding
While assessing the project management opportunity, one must understand how the environment may change during the life of the assignment, and anticipate and mitigate potential problems. Here are some important steps to take before diving in.
1. Understand the “why me.” Why did you receive this offer? Are you really the most suitable person for the role? Three possibilities exist:
- You’re developing quickly in your current role, but no advancement opportunities exist. In essence, the project is a parking spot, a way to exercise your skills while awaiting other internal move options.
- You’re viewed as a roadblock for another person who the organization wants to place in your current position. Moving you would free up an internal “domino,” and in that case, you are just entering the “exit” room.
- You might very well be the strongest candidate for the role. If so, then accepting this offer can greatly advance your career.
2. Investigate the project’s origins. Ask some questions and find out if the initiative comes from the entire organization or just your direct supervisor. The cross-functional dimension of a project-leadership role implies that you will report to a number of leaders. If the assignment came from the broad population of leaders then you know you would have support.
- If the plan was generated solely by your direct supervisor, then keep in mind that if your boss ever loses credibility, encounters other priorities, or leaves the company, the idea about needing you in this role will drop.
- How do you assess this? Talk to your supervisor about meeting one-on-one with the other leaders and key stakeholders to discuss their expectations for the project. If you sense resistance from your manager, it may be a red flag indicating the project probably lacks approval and backing from the larger organization. This could leave you vulnerable.
3. Research the organizational climate and the potential changes. In the duration of the project leader role things in the external world and in your organization will change dramatically. The only constant is that you cannot give up in the middle of the journey. Therefore, you must clarify the scope of the project and its intended outcome. Also, spend time learning about the business environment that generated the need for this project. You might interpret the overall situation differently than those choosing you, and realize that the idea presented may not be what the organization needs. If this happens, you could develop and suggest a different proposal before committing to the role.
4. Verify the availability of resources. So often I hear from other project managers that their organizations promised all the needed resources. But then they discover that their organization’s operational approach is completely disconnected from its financial means. Make sure the project appears in the organization’s spending plan (for the number of years required to complete). If you don't see it listed (or if that data is not available to you) then take note that a considerable amount of energy could be spent on obtaining approval for continued funding. Certainly occasional budgetary adjustments will be needed, but the majority of a project manager’s time should be focused execution, not proving value.
Make the Call, Then Find the Focus
Unconditional acceptance of the project in the context of its current (and future) climate is key to the decision process. So, check where you sit right now before agreeing to start the journey. Because once you begin, you cannot leave that path. If you can ensure that your position is solid and the project has a strong infrastructure of broad support and funding, then organizational changes will not lead to derailment.
If you do accept the offer, you will have just one goal: to bring this project to a positive conclusion. Focus your actions there, and with some strategy everything else will flow around you. Your life, then, is the project. You can fully dedicate your mind, your body, and your heart with no room to worry about other matters. With this level of concentration, you are more likely to overcome unforeseen circumstances and experience a successful end.
If you are ready to move forward, read my next blog where I discuss the next steps of this journey.
Mauro Piloni is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of EXEVER S.r.l.