PM Articles > Executive View > Executive Views on Great PMs

Executive Views on Great PMs

by Cinda Voegtli

So what DO executives think of us as project managers and what do they value? I know from conferences and other interaction with project managers that being valued by their executives is something of a holy grail—and seemingly not nearly common enough. Thinking back, I realize that I was about 7 years into my career as an engineer and manager before I got even a first inkling from an exec of how they personally thought about project management. And I was 12 years in overall and about 6 years into project management work before I got really good role-modeling of true project leadership behavior—what upper-level courageous and business-focused PM role looks like—and direct messages from executives that “this is what I’m looking for.” (Gad! How can we do these jobs for so long without better clues from the ultimate customer of our work?)

Well, perhaps controversially to some, I’d maintain it’s at least partly due to the fact that as we are introduced to our PM role, we are taught some about philosophy and a LOT about the mechanics.

Gotta learn it all—scheduling, estimating, communicating, detailed techniques for doing so. We’re sent to class to get some starting foundation; we are handed the methodology binder of “how we do things” if our company has one; we hear the emphasis on professional certification around the right way to do things, and we see our company’s emphasis on corporate compliance through processes and documentation. Overall, we learn what we’re “supposed to do” as PMs. And a lot of what we’re evidently supposed to do is, in my opinion, focused on those mechanics of project management. Or if our company is new to project management, and everyone is sufficiently busy, we may get none of the above inputs to start, and fly by the seat of our pants WONDERING what we’re “supposed to do” and always being on the lookout for clues.

What I’ve learned from dealing with executives is that their higher-level view of the world comes in really handy for helping project managers focus on what’s most needed and what is therefore most valuable. And it may not be exactly what we feel all those other sources are telling us we’re “supposed to do” as PMs!

My first exposure to an exec’s view of PM came after my start-up had been acquired, and the president of the parent company was going to visit to check us out. Mass preparation around demonstrating competence to the new boss! Especially important to us, the managers in the old start-up were all in our late 20s, we were concerned that this was an important referendum on our fitness to stay in our positions. I was overseeing a big release at the time as Director of Hardware Engineering and by that time we had been given a project manager by the parent company. I was instructed that we needed to demonstrate our handle on the release schedule by printing out all our detail, hanging it on the wall, wowing the guy with how much we knew, referring to it when making a status presentation. So we did—hours of printing, hanging detailed schedule pieces on the wall to get ready (schedules I knew would change the next week in places….but oh well).

The exec arrived. Serious meeting began. It was time to present schedule status. We gave the milestone overview and waved at the wall detail to cover more detail. He looked around the room briefly at all the detail on the walls. Then he beckoned me to one chart and pointed at a milestone and said something along the lines of, “So tell me how you handle this milestone for transitioning from the first phase of the project into full development. How do you know you’re ready enough, so you don’t send 50 programmers off doing work that will be off target and require big changes or even totally thrown away?” So I briefly mentioned our spec reviews, how we decided than an area of the spec was good enough to allow work to start, how we used our own form of design review to keep tabs, and under what circumstances we’d let risky stuff start because we had to do some design and coding before we could even know what we had. And that was it. He said “Good. That’s a place a lot of money can get wasted.” And he sat down and was ready to move on.

What did I learn from that? To this exec, PM effectiveness wasn’t about pre-set assumptions on the “right” quantity of detail in a schedule, or exactly how we wrote specs, or any level of mechanics detail. His only “supposed to do” items were at the high level—things that would impact the business decisions on the project, the money spent executing it—and whether we seemed to know how to use our “toolkit” of mechanics (whatever they were for us) to keep on top of the business aspects. He focused there to judge our competence and credibility. Looking back at my answer, I actually felt a sense of liberation. I really DID think highly of how we made those transition decisions; we had worked them out as part of our functional manager/project manager dual roles, in a way we felt worked well for our technical projects and our teams. This President DIDN'T put me through the wringer over a certain way to do things. I felt he rewarded our thinking (and our creativity with our own management processes!) with his executive stamp of approval.

That one experience was pretty eye-opening for me. I realized I truly had had feelings of fear getting ready for that presentation. I was afraid I’d be told I was wrong, that I wasn’t doing it the right way, that I wasn’t up to snuff as a manager. Talk about bad for your confidence level! His unexpected response—validating my using my brain to be the best manager I could be for the situation—started me on a path to viewing every new management challenge with more freedom to think and design and try. While I still wanted to learn all I could from classes or books or possible ways to do things and what other people were doing—I felt very free to NOT let those sources get in the way of just working with my teams and using our own judgment to make project management and technical management processes work best for us and for the business. I came to believe that part of being a great PM is to not be afraid of, limited by, or unduly influenced in your situation by what anyone else has said you’re “supposed to do.” It may or may not be a good idea for your company, your team, your project, the situation you’re facing this week.

In short, I believe that one key to being a great PM is to be able and willing to work with people, work with the project situation and goals at hand, and do our PMing in a way that makes sense and gets the job done. Thank you Mr. Executive!

If you're an executive responsible for projects and/or project managers, does my take ring true for you? What areas do you value; are there particular specific processes you really DO need people to do a certain way, vs. this spirit of flexibility and creativity to make it work for the team? (In my book there are times for both, it's the emphasis on following rules instead of making judgments to adapt and make things work for a team that was my key learning.) Fire away if you've got strong opinions on this; project managers want to know.

If you're a project manager, do you agree or disagree with this philosophy? If you've had similar experiences I'd love to hear them. (And if you've had experiences that run totally counter to mine, I want to hear that too!)

Let me know what you think! Post your comments or questions below.

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Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thoroughly agree with your assessment of the executive response. In the Australian Tax Office we are currently working on delivery of Stage gate guidelines and tools for sponsors. We have distilled our sponsor requirements at these transition points, down to a set of questions around project health, project intent, and the corporate and/or external project environment (to get to alignment etc). We are busy trialling these products and hope to have some useful feedback by March. I would be very interested in suggestions about how to encourage buy-in for governance measures from an executive group which is not necessarily across PM disciplines, and seemingly not always interested.

Hi Cinda

This really rings true for me (another Australian.)

I have always been at the frontline of projects dealing with business managers and so my view of how projects run is very much in this vein.

We are there to deliver business benefits and that's how we should focus our work; what is important to them?

Hi Cinda,

Totally agree with you! What an experience that you've had! Just a brief walk-through of one of the wall charts and your Exec's understanding is complete. That's perhaps because he saw what he wanted to see and you confirmed your preparedness - the business risks that you anticipated and your mitigation plans.

In essence, more than the nuts and bolts of every day planning, tracking and reporting what the top management wants to see are:
1) A summary view of how the project is progressing to meet its objectives
2) What business benefits would it provide when it completes
3) A dashboard of KPI/Critical metrics that would convince them that parameters such as cost, risk, schedule and quality are under control.

Well narrated experience…Keep writing!


Spot on with your observations and feelings.

I'd make the music analogy to your scenario. You can't be a great jazz musician without first learning your scales.

Once you have mastered your toolset - you can devise your own approach to a given piece and you have the freedom to be expansive and develop to greatness.

Often - working with new execs you will have to prove you know your scales (your detail preparation and wall hangings) before you are allowed to shift your thinking to a higher level.

Once your credibility is established you will then be better able to match the execs level of thinking - further building the connection between what he wants/needs and your ability to deliver.

Execs often want to hear sound-bites - but to know they are built on solid foundations.

But it seems this is what you've found.


This definitely rings true for me! I was thrown into Project Management and the primary focus was to gain my PMP. But, what about all those great team building, leadership and people skills I had -- not to mention the business acumen? I have learned as you have, that it takes a heck of a lot more then books, and seminars to make a great PM!

So true.

A PMS experience and people skills are a true compliment to the structured book process we all learn. Being able to communicate with the business management team is a golden rule in project management. Quality communication leads to a successful project.

You touch a good point, PMs need to be confident.

Hello Cinda,

I had an PM instructor once who said that the PM mechanics were child's play and anyone could learn and execute them. Harsh, yes, but there is truth in that.

On a more telling occasion, I set up a Project Review Board. Weeks, months of preparation for project teams to review projects with 3 Directors. After a morning of what I deemed very 'successful' presentations - actions and minutes taken and lots of nodding, we broke for lunch. One of the PM's (who worked for me in my PMO) broke into the room, pulled the Director's aside and made a compelling case to 'invest' money to increase the scope of his project - and how it would enhance their overall business objectives. They approved $200K on the spot. So much for my processes.

I shook my head and realized that our project reviews did not focus on money, ROI and the key link to corporate objectives. So the Directors were being nice, as they had invested in me and my PMO, but in the end, we were overhead. From this lesson, we totally reworked the Project Review Board to talk about 3 things that Executives care about. Deliverables, Dollars and Dates. I like to call it 3D Project Management.

That's what I learned and btw, your article is incredible. It confirms for me that the true value of a PM is their ability to execute projects in the context of the overall organizational objectives. If your project does not do that, then what exactly does it do?

This article is dead set on. Execs don't care to hear about which tools you used to get there. They trust you're doing your job successfully. The execs want to see creativity used to bring about a sound solution.

Thanks to everyone who has posted this week. Great comments and war stories. Thanks for reinforcing the message. As I said in my post, looking back it astounds me that it took so long for me to understand what really mattered - long time to do a job without that wisdom! It's become something of a holy grail to me to give new PMs the benefit of this "what matters most" perspective as early as possible in their careers!

As a follow-on - the flip side, I have learned that some PMs are not ready for the responsibility (or is it just the ambiguity?) of the less constrained, more creative and "leadership" version of the PM role.

I find this to be particularly true of individual contributors thrown into their inaugural PM roles. All they wanted was to do their own work, maybe take a lead role in that functional area of a project... now the whole project is their problem, and not only the yucky mechanistic things like scheduling, but scary things like facing down an executive over the project definition too?!

Thought I'd highlight that for some PMs, I do believe that the business-focused, creative version of the PM role may be seen as not liberating at all, but instead as a very big turn-off. "More responsibility than I wanted!" From my experience it's possible (at least sometimes) to change that perception....I'll probably write about that in a future post!

As a business executive, I have some very clearly defined objectives: Increase revenue, reduce costs, avoid or mitigate unacceptable risk. As a project leader I must deliver the means to achieve the increased revenue, reduced costs, while managing the risks. Understanding the perspectives of the various stakeholders in any project is critical to defining "success". The ability to take on the executive perspective when leading a project enables us to support the goals of the business, which is the reason we are doing the projects in the first place. Fear? That's normal when you care about the results, but remember, you know more about the project than any exec. As long as you are representing their interests and willing to listen to their perspectives, the fear turns into butterflies, and you just gotta keep them flying in formation! - Kimberly

My experience in handling multiple project recovery situations and managing projects match the expectations listed in the article - executive views on great PMs. While I do not consider myself a great PM, I have always perceived that executives want from a PM to understand the risk to the business and that the strategies proposed are in alignment with business needs and realities. The other PM process stuff is just mechanics to provide information and detect deviations.

For instance, when called upon to reorganize the Y2K program for a large telecom company, I changed the focus from a technology mitigation to a risk mitigation strategy by asking the questions - what do the lawyers need to have to defend the company from a class action suit (if there were problems); and what were the critical processes that need to be protected to prevent the company having a black eye in the marketplace. As a result, we detected numerous deficiencies in critical processes and predicted indirect power blackouts due to switching off and on equipment creating electrical harmonics.

Edgardo Gonzalez, CMC, ISP, PMP, CSM

In my opinion, preparation lends the confidence to answer tough questions right. The executive had seen the preparation and the answer has confirmed that your preparation is in the right direction. Had you not displayed the information, I am sure there would have been more questions.

Excellent Post! Expanding on Gandhi’s comment, I would add that interest in the details is often the result of non-performance. I had a Fortune 100 middle manager client tell me once their senior management wanted all the details, and I countered, no, they don’t. They drill in when they hear something bad because they know it’s much worse than presented, and they are trying to get to the truth! They want to assess risk, and determine of the response going forward is adequate. Give senior management some credit. They know project management is messy, and they will accept some confusion and chatter at the details level, if the view on top is aligned with the business problem to be solved, and progress is proceeding to plan. It was a gutsy move, because the VP was sitting across the table at the time. I even went so far as to say you will get more time, or money (or both) if you can show you have not wasted what you were given, and, more makes sense for the company. Management’s biggest fear is committing time or money that does not deliver value. To the astonishment of the middle manager, the VP then noted what I said was true. That’s when I know, like you, I was on track. I also sold a start-up in my late 20’s, but it took me many more years than you to figure this one out!

Its a great post.
We have learnt a lot while going through this post and passing our comments. Well, I agree with Cinda on the statement, "In short, I believe that one key to being a great PM is to be able and willing to work with people, work with the project situation and goals at hand, and do our PMing in a way that makes sense and gets the job done". Thanks also to all for posting their experiences.
Here two factors are discussed, One PM managing the tasks and PM from the view of Directors. Managing the tasks, yes we have lot of tools and still improving day by day contribution of many great PM's at work. I believe one important tool for this to make sure about our milestones, about our plannings is checklist. Every process should have a checklist to bridge between team deliverables matching requirements, During this process we can have risk identifications and mitigation plans. The second, very important is "PM from the view of Directors", this is where a PM should express the deliverables in the form of business benefits. If a PM can clearly fit in both the roles, he shall never fail in delivering values.
To conclude, we all have expressed almost similar views in different ways.

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