Published here July 2009.


Musings Index

The Most Important Senior Project Manager Characteristics

It is often suggested that becoming a senior project manager of a major complex project is an excellent path to the executive suite. That's because running a large project with many stakeholders to coordinate and satisfy with information, and getting things done with attention to cost and schedule, is much like running a small company. If that is true, then perhaps the reverse is also true - that the most desirable attributes of the CEO are equally applicable to the senior project manager.

There does not appear to be a lot of dedicated research on most desirable senior project manager characteristics but there is on those of CEOs. In a recent piece titled: Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter, authors Steven N. Kaplan, Mark M. Klebanov, and Morten Sorensen observed:

"Success and performance are more strongly correlated with execution-type skills than with interpersonal and team-related skills."[1]

The authors studied the characteristics and abilities of CEO candidates for companies involved in buyout (LBO) and venture capital (VC) transactions and endeavored to relate those characteristics to hiring decisions, investment decisions, and company performance. The candidates were assessed on more than 30 individual characteristics. The authors found that two primary factors, one for general ability and one for team-related interpersonal skills versus execution skills, were important. Both LBO and VC firms tend to hire and invest in CEOs with greater general abilities. However, success was more strongly related to execution skills than to team-related skills. The researchers also found that success was only marginally related to incumbency.

Of course, in the case of project management, it all depends on what you mean by "success". We have discussed this at great length elsewhere on this web site, but for purposes of this comparison we are talking about success in terms of project management performance. That is, within the given terms of required product scope and product quality, how close we can get to a desired total cost and time for delivery.

In their study, the authors suggest that their results have several implications.

  1. It is possible to measure individual CEO talents and skills over and above the usual observable variables like age, industry, and college SAT scores.
  2. Their findings appear to matter because they are consistently correlated with hiring, investment, and performance.
  3. Success and performance is consistent with other researchers' results (in non-CEO contexts) showing that steadfastness - and traits such as unwavering resolve, fanatical drive, and workmanlike diligence - is more important than being a good listener.

The authors' findings are also consistent with results in the psychology literature that suggest that "conscientiousness" is the best predictor of performance. However, they do not support previous findings that successful CEOs exhibit compelling modesty, build strong teams, give credit to others, and take blame on themselves.

Of course, the authors issue the usual sort of caveat. In this case, they point out that their results reflect buyout and VC-funded companies only. While these are two quite different groups, these types of companies may have specific needs and, therefore, the results may not generalize to all companies, no doubt especially those that are not project oriented. Second, the performance data are coarse and potentially "noisy." But, that said, the authors' results correlate strongly with Peter Drucker's description of the effective executive. The attributes Drucker describes are largely execution-related and appear to correspond well to the "efficient," "persistent," "proactive," "commitment," and "analytical" skills in this study.

Why does all this matter? Because CEO talents and skills are apparently more strongly correlated with execution-type skills than with interpersonal and team-related skills. Due to the similarities mentioned at the beginning of this Musings, similar observations can probably be made about project managers.

So, all purveyors of the ever-popular project management soft skill practices might bear this in mind when it comes to delivering real value to senior project managers.

1. The NBER Digest - February 2009 National Bureau of Economic Research as reported by Lester Picker.
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