June 13th, 2013

If you can’t do this, you can’t be a project manager

Not one of my finer moments. Once upon a time, not so long ago, I had a rather unfortunate conversation with a junior project manager-in-waiting. Two months prior, my Project Sponsor had delegated an action item to this junior PM (let’s call him Junior). Given that I knew that he was interested in pursuing the career path of project management, to the point where he was preparing to write his PMP exam, I figured I could count on him to finish it off.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

That action item went undone for 2 months until it came back and bit me in the ass. And when it did, I had a…ahem…conversation with Junior. I’m afraid that it was far from one of my finer moments.

I was tired, overworked, profoundly annoyed (profoundly) and, as a result, not very patient. And when he kept repeating over and over “It’s not my fault” (and I mean over and over and over), I lost it. I said things that someone who has put “passionate about mentoring” on her CV and in her LinkedIn profile should not have said. And I am pretty sure that I broke rule 1, which is absolutely unforgivable.

I am not proud of that conversation. I missed a golden opportunity to teach a junior project manager the error of his ways and put him on the path of project management righteousness. Don’t get me wrong: I still feel and will always feel that Junior did not display the qualities that will make him a good Project Manager. Sadly, because of how I handled that conversation, the only thing that Junior might have retained from our unfortunate discussion is that I am…well…the Psycho Project Manager instead of the Passionate Project Manager. I often look back on that conversation and wished I had said something else.

So this is my Do Over. This is the conversation I should have had with Junior.

A little background please. So here’s a little more information on how Junior irked my ire. I was responsible for delivering a certain deliverable, let’s call it Widget, that ended up being way more complicated than we originally intended (*sigh*). Basically, the choice of technology combined with the business process resulted in a widget that was not very user-friendly. In fact, it was so un-user-friendly that, quickly after we deployed Widget for general use, we discovered that the users had use a “trick” which, if not followed, meant that Widget couldn’t be used and I would have to do change some code in order to fix it. (Gee, that makes me sound like I actually know how to code, doesn’t it?) After the third call to fix code, I recommended to the Project Sponsor, and he agreed, that his group publish The Trick on our company intranet in a place where it would be easily found. As a person with “lean” and “business process optimization” in her profile, I am fully aware of how far-from-ideal this solution was, but it was the best way to resolve an unfortunate situation. There were other issues at stake and, without losing sight of the bigger picture, we agreed that this would be the best way to move forward. And, to make it super-duper easy for them, I wrote the draft of The Trick complete with plenty of pretty pictures. The Project Sponsor delegated the action of publishing The Trick to Junior, who enthusiastically agreed, and even commented that I had “done his job for him”. Which I had. On this we all agreed.

Two months later, I received a call from another user who had not followed The Trick.

I checked. The Trick was not published.

Junior had failed me.

Do Over. So here it is, my Do Over. Here’s the conversation that I wish I’d had with Junior on that unfortunate day.

Me: “Junior, I got a call from Janet. She opened Widget wrong. I looked for The Trick: it wasn’t there.

Junior: “Uh. I asked Communication to publish it two months ago.”

Me: “I see. How did you ask Communication?”

Junior: “I forwarded your email and told them to make the grammar changes, translate it, and publish it.”

My feet

Project managers stand up in front of a group of people. Unless they’re on vacation.

Me (thinking): “Forwarded? Gee, make an effort, why don’t you?”

Me (taking a deep breath before speaking): “I see. To whom did you send the email? Who in Communication?”

Junior: “I sent it to Margaret. In my email I asked her to publish it as soon as possible.”

Me: “And did Margaret write you back with a committed publish date?”

Junior: “Uh. No.”

Me: “Did you call Margaret and ask her when it was scheduled for publication?”

Junior: “Uh. No.”

Me: “So let me get this straight: it was your responsibility to see that The Trick was published. And all you did was forward my email. Is that right?”

Junior: “It’s not my fault.”

Me: “I beg your pardon?” (No f-bomb this time, but I’d use my “pissed-off Mom” voice.)

Junior: “It’s not my fault. Margaret didn’t do her job.”

Me: “Did you do yours?”

Junior: “But…but…it’s not my fault. Margaret…”

Me (thinking): “Namaste. Namaste. @!!&!!@@!! Na-ma-ste!”

Me (out loud): “How many times did you call Margaret after your email?”

Junior: “Uhhh…”

Me: “Let me guess. You sent her an email and didn’t call her. Not once.”

Junior: “Yeah but it’s not…”

Me: “Please don’t say it’s not your fault.” (See? I’d say “Please”. I like me in this Do Over. Cool As Ice.)

Me (still Cool As Ice): “Do you know how many times I call Margaret to get her do take care of my stuff? It takes a minimum of three calls. Three. That’s because Margaret is busy. She gives me date. A couple of days before, I follow-up. Then she tells me that some VP needs this, that or the other and my stuff will have to wait another week. A few days later I call her again. We have the same conversation. Around the third try, she gets tired of me calling her and then she does my stuff.”

Junior: “It’s not…” (Then he’d stop. Because, in this Do Over, he’d remember that I said Please. And so he would not keep saying the same thing over and over that will make me lose it.)

Me: “Are you still studying for the PMP exam?”

Junior: “Yes, why?”

Me: “So, you are still interested in being a Project Manager?” (I’d resist saying “when you grow up” at the end of that sentence because I am Cool As Ice.)

Junior: “Yes.”

Me: “What is it that you think project managers do?”

Junior: “Initiating. Planning. Executing. Controlling. Closing.”

Me: “That’s how we do what we do. But what do we do?”

Junior: “Uhhh….”

Me: “Let me explain to you what a Project Manager does.”

And then I’d say this.

This is what we do. A project manager is a master in the art of Done. If there is an obstacle in the path to Done, we remove it. Or we talk to the person or the people who can remove the obstacle. And bug the hell out of them until they remove it. Then we repeat for the next obstacle. And then again. Over and over. Relentlessly. Until we reach Done. And then, and only then, do we stop.

And, being masters in the art of Done, we stand up in front of a group of people and we say “You can count on me. I will do this.” And we mean it.

Sure, we tell them what we need (a qualified team would be nice), we learn to say “No” (No, you can’t have more anything unless you give me more time, more people, more money), and we know the right time to ask for help (We failed this test three times, we’re stuck, we need The Expert to help us.)

We make plans and schedules and lists. Lots of lists. We organize and prioritize those lists. We protect those lists from those that keep trying to add items to those lists when we’re not looking. We make sure our teams know what is on these lists. And we protect our teams from those people who keep trying to add to or rearrange those lists when we’re not looking. And we’re always looking.

We let people know how far from Done we are. We never “don’t know”.

When our project fails, we stand up in front of those same people, with our team behind us, and we say “It’s my fault.” And then we fix it.

When our project succeeds, we stand up in front of those same people with our team in front of us and we say “They did this.”

We live between a Rock (getting to Done) and a Hard Place (telling those same people who want Done, usually VPs or CXOs, that they can’t have any more, sir.)

We have balls of steel. We have no egos. And we’re as Cool As Ice. (Okay, maybe not that last one. At least not all of the time.)

But, Young Grasshopper, this is the most important thing we do.

We stand up in front of a group of people and we say “I will do this”. And we do it.

Which means that we never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, utter the words “It’s not my fault.”

Because it’s always our fault. That’s what being accountable means.

And if you can’t do this, if you can’t stand up in front of a group of people and say “I will do this”, and mean it, you cannot be a Project Manager. No amount of studying for any exam will help you to become a Project Manager if you cannot do this.

This is what we do.

Yeah. I really wish I’d said that.

One more thing. My blog post was supposed to end there. But there is an obvious contradiction in my story which stares me in the face every time I read it. You can see it too, can’t you?

The contradiction is this: If Junior failed because he relied on Margaret without following up, did I not fail because I relied on Junior without following up? Just as much as this was Junior’s fault, was it not also mine? Was I not accountable? Am I not a Project Manager? Do I not stand up in front of a group of people and say “I can do this”?

Was this my fault?

The answer to all of these questions is: yes. And in writing this story, I realize that the true reason I reacted the way I did with Junior, the true reason that I broke rule 1, was that I knew that I had made a mistake. I trusted a boy to do a man’s job. Yes, I was disappointed as all hell and, yes, every once in a while I’d like people to act like adults instead of children at work. But I know better. I am older, wiser and more experienced than Junior. I am Master Po. And it was the realization that I had failed that was the true reason for my bad behaviour.

It was my fault. Because I am accountable.

And you know what? I really wish I had said that too.

7 comments to If you can’t do this, you can’t be a Project Manager

  • Such a great story. Love this. I was a project manager and I wish someone would have had this talk with me. The cool as ice approach would have sold me on committing to being a better project manager.

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Lawrence: Thanks for your feedback. The main reason I wrote the post is to remind ourselves how damn hard this job is…

  • Raphael

    Thanks for that. Being a master in the art of Done sounds heroic.

  • Awesome! You might have missed the golden opportunity to teach him (Junior) but as a result you have taught many many others. Ther for I commend you for sharing this inpirational story

  • Jimmie

    Great post, shared it with my class. Thanks.

  • Kathleen

    Came across your article while googling “what makes a good project manager” in preparation for creating a development plan for a budding PM. I felt like I was reading about myself. The number of times this person has said “but you told me to do it” points to the lack of emotional intelligence on her part and probably mine at this point too, as a result of my frustrated reaction and “f” bombish thoughts over the last year. Good read and yes, at the end of the day we own the fault in missing golden teaching opportunities but it’s never too late to learn.

  • TN

    Your section about what project managers do bothered me a bit. You said if there is an obstacle in the path of done you bother the hell out of people who can remove it. Isn’t that micromanaging? I’m sorry, I have a project manager and other than being a secretary I have no clue what he is there for. If I really had a problem, I don’t know what he’d be able to do to help me. The other day our project was stalled on an IT issue and he got me to talk to them. I’m sorry, but isn’t that his job? I’m just a developer. And he put an intern student as a resource on our project but realistically there is a lot of learning and lack of experience that this student shouldn’t be considered 100% but yet my PM is talking about him like he is. I’m sorry, maybe I’m just venting because my PM falls short for me, but I really don’t know what a Pm is meant to do in good or bad times. Perhaps you can shed light onto it for me. Thanks. I did like the overall message in your article despite these complaints.

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