Friday, August 31, 2012

Project Managers and CEOs

There seems to be an increasing interest in weather Project Managers (PMs) in general have what it takes to become Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). I don't really know why this is happening, but I strongly believe that these two professions have a very different set of requirements and only a few PMs are able to cover both.
This article intends to expose these differences. So please keep on reading to find out the whys behind this topic.

An example

Ricardo Vargas is one of the greatest professionals I have the privilege to know. He is currently the director of the Project Management Practice Group at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and I had the real pleasure of interviewing him last year. If you haven’t had the chance to watch this interview yet I strongly recommend you do so. The interview was original posted on the PMI Informations Systems Community of Practice website here (as part of my volunteer work there) but in case you’re not a member you can access it here as well.
Now Ricardo has a fabulous series of weekly podcasts called the 5" PM Podcast and this week he published the podcast "Project Manager As The New CEO" based on a study sponsored by PMI and featured on their website as “Can a Project Manager Become the Next CEO?“. In short, Ricardo argues that PMs have the necessary core competencies to become CEOs and I couldn’t disagree more with him - which is actually a good thing. And why is that?

This doesn’t mean a PM can’t be a CEO

Well, Ricardo does present examples that are all true. The fact is that some CEOs have a Project Management background. In fact, that was the case of Ricardo Vargas before moving to UNOPS - he was a PM and ended up as CEO of a company. So at least you know for a fact that being a PM doesn’t prevent you from becoming a CEO. And this is no isolated case, the same is expected in consulting companies that usually have a projectized organizational structure - the way to reach the Board is to work in the company and if you work in such a company you probably have been a PM somewhere along the line.
So it is possible for a PM to be a CEO. But that doesn't mean that any PM have what it takes to become a CEO...

Isn’t a company a project anyway?

This is one of the arguments that Ricardo presents in his podcast, that there are more similarities than differences between projects and companies. Although there are similarities there are 2 crucial differences that set a very different context. The first one is the time frame. You usually don’t run a company to end it someday like you do with projects. Except for some very particular cases, you run companies to make the most money and make it last in time. If you don’t have the later on your mind you’ll soon kill the company - with short term decisions that give you a large profit but compromise the future, not investing in innovation and R&D and getting outdated fast by the other companies that do, by paying low wages thus not having the best resources on the market and so on.
The other difference has to do with focus. In a project, your objective is to deliver something. Just that. But running a company involves multiple concerns: there’s some stuff you have to make it happen (just like in a project) but you also have ongoing activities, the market to monitor, keep track of the competition, to make sure your company’s strategy is still the best for your current objectives, that your objectives are still what best suits your company and so on. The difference is that you don't have to focus just on one of them, you have to focus on each one. Of course you have a lot to take care of in a project: you have a sponsor and other stakeholders that you have to keep happy, you have a team to develop and protect, keep track of costs and schedules just to mention a few. But your only real concern is to deliver something, the rest is just because of what you have to deliver; but a CEO doesn’t have just one concern...

But I need to change my career path, right?

Ricardo also talks about this in his podcast and his thoughts on this are basically: no, you don’t need to change your career path.
I’d say this depends a lot on the maturity of the organization regarding Project Management. In my case, I don’t even have a Project Management career path in my organization. My organization views Project Management as something I need to get the job done. The need of Project Management is viewed just like any manager needs emotional intelligence - and there’s no career path for emotional intelligence either.
It seems to me that the more mature your organization is regarding Project Management, the more likely it is that you don’t need to change your career path.

Do PMs and CEOs share the same leadership profile?

This is what makes it impossible for most PMs to become CEOs - their leadership profile is completely different. You can check all the details about this on “Developing leadership skills”. But in a nutshell, it goes like this: when compared to the military, a PM needs the same kind of leadership competencies that a Sergeant does and a CEO needs the same kind of leadership competencies that a General does. There are some people with a leadership profile that covers both the PM/Sergeant and the CEO/General cases but that is not common.
What is very curious is that, in the military, I don’t think there’s a single Sergeant that would like to be a General. But in businesses, there’s a significant number of PMs that have the ambition of being a CEO someday. Do you feel the same? Do you have some sort of plausible explanation for this? Is it just a matter of the money involved?

PMs are doers, CEOs are visionaries

You can divide the leadership competencies in several different sets of skills and according to the leadership theory there are different skills at stake. But if you pick any leadership theory, you’ll always find skills similar to “objective oriented” and “visionary”. PMs need to be “objective oriented” and they may (or may not) also be “visionaries”. On the contrary, CEOs need to be “visionaries” and they may (or may not) also be “objective oriented”. This makes the basic difference between PMs and CEOs: PMs are doers and CEOs are visionaries.
If you by any change are a "visionary doer PM", you may be a successful CEO someday. Otherwise, I really doubt that.

So in conclusion

Some PMs have what it takes to be a successful CEO, but most of us simply don’t - and this is just the way it goes, it's not good or bad it's just the way it is. In particular, the leadership profiles required in both professions are quite different and only someone with a leadership profile that accommodates both can be successful in both professions.
So before considering a professional move like this, at least check your leadership profile.

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