Published here June 2007.


Musings Index

Am I a Good Project Manager?

From time to time our readers pose interesting questions that seem worth sharing. Of course, we try to give helpful answers but readers should apply their best judgment. Here is an interesting question: "Am I a good enough project manager to be giving advice to others?"

11/28/06, MK wrote:

Dear Mr. Wideman:

I have been a project manager for a commercial general contractor for about 4 1/2 years. During my relatively short career, I have been the PM on many jobs ranging from $30k to over $10 million. While most projects have been successful, there have been a couple that didn't finish so well. Even though I am less than 5 years into my career, I am starting to climb up the seniority level at my company. There are now assistant PM's looking to me for advice on what to do in certain situations. I find it a little difficult sometimes to give advice because I often wonder if I am a good enough project manager to be giving advice! What makes a good PM? Do good project managers use their superintendent and subcontractors for advice?

Even though I have been the PM on some large projects, I still feel there were other reasons the job went well. Mainly, I feel the superintendent has had a big part in making these jobs successful (or failure for that matter). Because I am only 26 years old, I often rely on the superintendents and PM's of the subcontractors to advise me on situations. And often, because I am not an expert when it comes to electrical systems or HVAC systems, I go with sub's recommendation. Does this mean I am not a competent project manager if I have to rely on input from other people to help make a decision? Is it wrong if the client asks me a question about the electrical system and I don't know the answer? I hold weekly site meetings and for the most part have the foreman of the subcontractors present.

I am not afraid of the spotlight, but I do put my superintendent in charge of the meeting since he is the one on site everyday and knows where he wants each trade to be and when he wants them there. I find that method works very well since those are the same people interacting in the field on a daily basis anyway. Would a good PM put someone else in charge of weekly jobsite meetings? (When I do Owner meetings, I do prepare the agenda and run the meeting.) When I was only a couple years into this profession, I felt it was okay to not know everything. But as each year or project goes by, I feel more and more pressure to be the sole reason the job is a success or failure.

I recently started reading your website and listening to the PM Podcast. It has revitalized me to be a great (not good but great) PM but at the same time has me questioning my skills. I can compare myself to colleagues at my office but if you have any input on what makes a good project manager, I would find that outside input very helpful.


11/29/06, Max replies

Matt, thank you for your Email.

I think that it is pretty well established that the project manager's job is to manage the project and that essentially means managing the people involved. In all but the very simplest of projects, it is someone else's job, a technical specialist, to manage the technology. It is not reasonable to expect a project manager to know all the technologic solutions for the project. In fact, a technological specialist rarely makes a good project manager because they tend to know one specialty area only and they default to solving problems in that area at the expense of other technical areas. However, it is essential for the project manager to know sufficient about the type of project being managed in order to understand the nature and importance of the challenges to be dealt with.

In the case of construction projects such as you describe, building any type of structure or infrastructure inevitably involves numerous professional skills in the design and correspondingly numerous skilled trades in the construction. So it makes good sense to have a project manager (someone who used to be called a project engineer) in charge of coordinating the design effort and a superintendent to manage the work of the trades people. A smart project engineer will know to whom she or he has to go to obtain a solution in any given discipline. Similarly, a good superintendent will know which trade to consult on a practical construction problem.

So, in your case, there are obviously some general things that you should know such as how to run a project effectively and efficiently, and you should have a good grasp of the basics of the technology involved. That is, you must know how a building gets put together. Beyond that, never be afraid to state that you have at your disposal technical and trade experts who will be in a better position to give definitive answers to specific questions. That means that on the project in question you know who to go and ask. And just in case you don't know who to go and ask, then explain that you would like time to think about the question - and then go and find someone who does know the answer!

This is a strategy that you can apply whether the questioner is your client, your peer or your subordinate. As I said, on today's projects no one can be expected to know all the answers. In fact it is probably better if they don't because that leaves their options open to get a second opinion.

From my description I think you will see that the way you are handling your two levels of meetings is exactly the right way. As for the success of the project, that result will be obtained when you are able to establish a real team effort by all concerned. When you manage to achieve that, you will in fact have been responsible for the success of the project and, I suspect, recognized for it as well with an appropriate accolade from senior management.

Hope that helps,

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