Project managers shouldn’t usually have direct reports

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This happens a lot in white-collar work, and it usually doesn’t end well. Here’s the general bouncing ball:

  • What matters to the dudes at the top of a company is shit getting done; they want to know stuff is getting done so they can focus on the financials and what they care about.
  • As a result, a lot of those types of dudes come to love/revere project managers — because they work in spreadsheets and they check stuff out. They aren’t revenue-facing necessarily so they’ll never get a ton of perks or the ability to expense big dinners, but the top brass respects them.
  • Because top dogs often don’t care about people down the chain, when a managerial opening is there — some more scratch — and they don’t really care who gets it honestly, so long as the guys at their level are like-minded, they give it to a project manager.
  • Now you’ve got a project manager as a team manager.
  • KABOOM.

I’ve seen this probably 20 times or more in 15 years of working.

Maybe more than that.

It backfires for a host of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • People who are good at managing tasks and projects and timelines are not necessarily also good at managing actual human beings with needs
  • You have this issue where an executive thinks of a certain project manager as an “A-Player,” because he/she (the project manager) keeps the right stuff off the exec’s plate. But in reality they are a box-checker. They’re a C-Player being minted as an A-Player. What do you think happens when someone like that gets six or seven direct reports?
  • Project managers usually have to stay with some degree of managing projects and timelines even when they get promoted (“We are so understaffed!”), which means they’re really focused on managing tasks, but are supposed to be focused on managing people
  • This creates “absentee managers,” which are the silent killers of companies.

Now look, I also understand that you need to promote who is seen as doing a good job. And, to be honest, you need to promote who the existing power core thinks is doing a good job. Those guys matter. They get to make decisions.

There are many perils to promoting the high performer — especially the sales high performer — but the sheer reality is, if some guy at the top is ready to mint someone in the low-middle, well, they’re getting minted. That’s how white-collar work actually works. It’s like-minded pens and if you press the right buttons for X-amount of years, you rise up in those pens. Pretty simple equation and formula. Does not work for everyone, but does anything in life really work for everyone?

Also remember that a lot of project managers are tasked with managing tons of different digital tools and collaboration platforms, and at some point that gets tiring as hell too. And since their overlords want to see that stuff running smoothly, doing that takes time away from managing people.

So much about how we structure white-collar, enterprise work is designed to give off this idea that people matter much less than process, product, projects, etc. People are the fourth or distant fifth “P” in the equation. That’s kind of sad, right? And how we advance project managers to people-facing roles is indicative of that.

Who should we be promoting, then?

I would argue:

  • Look for people who already have respect around the business. They should be in more formal managerial roles.
  • People with self-awareness. (Admittedly this is hard to screen for.)
  • People with curiosity.
  • People who aren’t assholes, ideally.
  • Those that have shown a good affinity for time management.
  • Those who seem to like being around/dealing with others.
  • People who “get” the brand and know the different ways you generate revenue.
  • Those with some degree of empathy.

Again, admittedly many of these things are hard to measure, although most people could ID them via the naked eye when presented with two choices for a promotion. I’d love to say “promote more off potential,” but then what becomes the point of consistent high performance? (There wouldn’t be much point to people.)

My broader point is this: job role is often very unclear, and shitty job role + unclear, absentee manager is a horrible emotional place for someone 25 to 55 to land in. And yet, it happens every minute at most organizations.

We can do this better. And maybe start by letting PMs have more money for, well, just managing tasks and making trains run. Don’t give ’em people if people ain’t their thing.

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