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Project Manage, Don’t People Manage

Running big projects without a project manager is risky business. Without a PM, newly developed software is often late and a new-construction building is disorganized and way over-budget. Project managers don’t code, don’t design and don’t build. But they help make projects successful with scheduling, risk mitigation, task management, status reporting and people management. Did I say people management? Well, sort of. Let me explain.

All too often, business people miscast project managers as people managers. You take ownership for the project. Why not take responsibility for the development of the folks that make up the team? Because it’s not good for your number one priority, the project. A good project manager invests time in her team, meeting with individuals, as well as the group, often enough to stay in touch with the collective vibe. But that PM has scores of responsibilities beyond the people working on the project; it’s not wise to heap people management on top of these other obligations. Doing so isn’t helpful to the project manager, team members or the success of the work. So how can you be a compassionate project leader without delving too deep into the career of each engineer, analyst and tester under your watch? It’s not a simple balance but it’s one that you’ll strike with enough attention and practice.

Don’t misunderstand me, a project manager should care about those that make up his team investing time to form, develop and applaud each individual. The best PMs want project success but grasp the reality that a mostly frictionless, fully performing team is key to making that happen. A smooth running crew takes time to develop. As your team forms, harness the positive energy and address the anxiety of the new group. At this stage, more than any other, people take queues from you so be positive and intentional around your team. Storming and norming are the teenage and twenties of our lives, respectively. Team members push boundaries, question project goals and allow conflicts between one another to distract from the work at hand. If you respectfully address people’s concerns and firmly guide the team, you’ll earn respect and help the squad normalize. Shaping a superstar project team doesn’t happen without purposeful, well-intentioned thought and action. And you, as the team leader, can only fashion a winning group with compassion and attentive care. But, so many times, a project manager takes on — or is given — too much functional authority holding back the PM and the team as well as the project itself.

How do you toe the line between growing a project team and becoming a people manager? First, understand your boundaries and then draw the line. Do you work for a projectized organization? The business is structured around projects, instead of functional departments, empowering project managers to make more decisions. If that’s the case, you may very well be a people manager, at least for the length of the project. Projectized structure hands the highest level of control over to a PM but means people development and career enrichment take on a new level of importance. Your challenge: balance achieving project goals with the demands of the people reporting to you. Functional organizations –much more common in many industries — require some interplay between project and functional managers. While project managers have less influence within functional organizations, it might result in a healthier project team.

Functional organizations rely on people managers to keep employees engaged and assess their contributions to the company. If Susan is thriving, her manager recognizes her with a bonus, a steak dinner or a trip to Hawaii. When Bob’s quality dips, his manager talks to him about it and helps him form a rebound plan. Susan and Bob are working on your project but you don’t have to dive into the deep end of their successes and struggles. Instead, you praise Susan in front of the team and you meet with Bob to address his mistakes and then rely on their functional managers to take care of the rest. Let her manager know about the slick energy optimization code she wrote or alert his manager about the defects he failed to identify. And then trust someone else — a people manager that’s truly invested in their long-term success — to do the right thing. Your responsibility is to the team, developing trusting relationships and encouraging honest-but-kind discussion. A good project manager keeps tasks on track and budgets in check while guiding the team. But even the best of them will struggle when days of work are lost because their attention must be focused on coaching up an individual.

Care about people. Always care about people. But respect professionals enough be a project manager and allow someone else to guide careers.