One of the most important aspects of an organization’s value proposition to its employees is the ability to demonstrate career progression. Moving up the corporate organizational chart provides a sense of accomplishment and allows for key individuals to assume more responsibility. They can move from assistant project manager to project manager to senior project manager … or is it project executive? Well, that depends. And there is the rub. Many organizations use this nomenclature but also fail to accurately define what a senior project manager or project executive (throw in project director for some added confusion) does. Additionally, it creates confusion across the industry. Consider a new hire who was designated with one of these titles. A business hired them only to discover, they a) cannot manage people, b) cannot manage larger projects, and/or c) cannot manage a business unit. There are certainly bad actors in the market who oversell themselves, but sometimes the problem is in the expectation. Are you expecting a senior project manager to drive organizational strategy or simply lead your bigger jobs? What about their expectations?
What is a senior project manager and what is a project executive? Many firms use these titles simply as a designation for tenure. A project manager who has been with the firm for 10-plus years is awarded the title of senior. This is sort of like giving someone an honorary degree from an esteemed college or university — all the benefits and accoutrements with none of the hard work. In all seriousness, this makes sense for a smaller organization that may not have multiple layers, which would only serve to muddy the organizational waters. Additionally, it is a safe assumption that a senior project manager is one who leads larger projects or projects that have deeper complexity.
On the other hand, a project executive would be someone who either manages a business unit or, more importantly, multiple project managers. While this might seem like mere semantics, there is a completely different set of skills, best practices and mindsets when managing projects versus managing people.
Up to this point, it is likely that most would agree with the definitions. The challenges begin to manifest when a senior project manager is assigned to manage that complex project while also managing a group of individual managers. The same conundrum occurs when a project executive is managing projects and people simultaneously. To be clear, a senior project manager might also be appointed to a megaproject on which there are various managers assigned to phases. This would be the equivalent of an offensive coordinator leading various player groups (i.e., quarterbacks, receivers, etc.). Complications arise because of how problems are triaged and reconciled.
For instance, consider the situation of the senior project manager having issues on his or her project at the exact same time the subordinate project managers are having issues. Which gets the most attention? While this may seem far-fetched, there is also the bigger question of how much time is dedicated to the care, nurturing and development of junior associates. Let’s be candid: running a project is a full-time job. More importantly, so is leading a group of people. There are certainly individuals who have done this well, so this is not to disparage strong senior project managers who have excelled in this role. However, the probability of leveraging this structure successfully is extremely low over a long period of time.
Titles provide a service. They make people feel important, and they should also provide clarity about reporting and lines of communication. However, the most important aspect to consider is the actual delineation of responsibilities coupled with the expectation of what each individual will be accountable for. In the end — short of a complete overhaul of the organizational structure — it might be necessary to consider the reconfiguration in Figure 1.
Organizational structures are certainly not a one-size-fits-all discussion. Strategy should ultimately define the structure, and the responsibilities will fall in lockstep. However, if leadership is expecting certain outcomes — team growth, business unit growth — the error may not lie solely on the individual but rather on the perception that is carried with their title. Put another way, is the organization letting titles run the business rather than focusing on the “muscle” that lies in the role’s definition? In the end, a project manager by any other name simply is running projects.