• Mel Butcher

The Best Project Manager

professional woman in a suit with glasses propped on top of her head

Among the many consulting and other organizations, you will find project managers. PM roles are orchestrated many different ways. On one end of the spectrum, I've seen a model of project manager where the title holder is little more than a glorified paper pusher. They're handling invoicing in the background, but not actually tethered to day-to-day project progress, nor to its success in execution. They manage numbers on spreadsheets and little more.

Swing the pendulum the other way and you'll find the organizations that rely on so-called project managers to handle everything from selling and client relationship development, to technical execution while leading a team to carryout the complex needs of the project... oh and invoicing too. In this case, project manager seems like the wrong title for someone carrying so much burden.

I'm not a fan of the extreme models. The first does a disservice to the creativity and talent of many professionals. The second demands too many varied skill sets from one individual, potentially setting them up for failure. Research seems to show that none of us are actually good at multitasking across complex tasks, so why do we continue to expect to find unicorns to do all these things while working under substantial pressure?

Like many things in life, I think there is a happy medium. If we defined the primary responsibility of a project manager as successfully executing a project on time and on budget, we can begin to pull apart the pieces that can be delegated to other specialized team members to free the project manager to focus on their main directive.

So, it's this latter scenario that I'm working from - what I think of as a true project manager, not the imaginary ideal of a sell all, do all professional.

I work in engineering consulting. There's a myth perpetuated by engineers that to be successful in the space of managing technical projects, the person must be a technical expert who grew up in that same space.

I don't buy it.

When I imagine the best project manager I've worked with/for, these are the things that stand out to me:

  • The PM is organized. They create organized materials and keep them updated such that it helps all team members involved with the project (primarily internal, but also external) understand where we are, where we need to get to and when, and which tasks are most/least urgent for each member on the team.

  • The PM is engaged with the client and communicates well with them, but this is not their primary focus. A client manager handles most of the interactions, while the PM is able to provide updates and put out small fires when necessary.

  • The PM drives productivity. They are positive and uplifting to team members. Their energy brings energy to the team, cultivating a desire to perform well, essentially, for the project manager.

  • The PM is able to engage the technical staff, such as in the previous bullet, and although they're not doing all the technical work, they are able to support the technical staff who are, such as by shielding them from unnecessary administrative time-wasters.

Does that sound like an amazing PM to you?

She is.

And she's not an engineer.

In fact, I think her degree was in Literature.

I ended up working with this person because she took a job out of school with a software company called Epic. This company has built a bit of a reputation for hiring non-traditional, that is to say non-technical, graduates and putting them through rigorous training. On the other end of their reportedly grueling few years of bringing up these savvy professionals, they create PMs that are organized, who can thrive in fast-paced, highly demanding roles.

In the case of my colleague, she emerged from Epic as the most wonderful PM I've ever gotten to work with and I'm so grateful she ended up in the environmental consulting world so I could get that experience.

There are fantastic PMs out there who also happen to be engineers. But being an engineer is not necessarily what makes them good at project management.

This matters because when a company wants to grow, sometimes it's worth thinking outside of an accepted paradigm to find the talent needed to make that growth a reality. And in the world of engineering consulting, I think project management is a perfect example of where we should enthusiastically embrace other professionals' talent.


A small post script to this. Good PMs are invaluable and have many skills that I do not. I've seen PMs that are over-worked and under-appreciated for the value they deliver. If you're in that position, please consider poking around for an organization that values your unique talents. And if you're a woman in that position and you need help better articulating your awesomeness, consider joining us inside A Career that Soars! to get the support you need.

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