There is not a child alive who dreams of being a project manager. Maybe a firefighter, a rock star or an astronaut, but not a project manager? Nope. There’s something inherently dull about the words “project” and “manager”, the notions they generate make the flames of even the brightest imagination flicker and fade. And it follows that in the professional world saying you are a project manager won’t get you much respect either. To many being a PM means you fit this unfortunate stereotype: you were not good enough in your field to be an engineer or a programmer, and through politics and self-inflation, you find ways to take credit for the hard work done by others. It stings, but that’s the stereotype (ask at your next happy hour with non PM friends).
Many PMs unintentionally reinforce this view by trying to get everyone to pay attention to the work they do produce: the meta work of spreadsheets, specifications, presentations and status reports, failing to realize that to most in any organization, these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the building. This mismatch of value sends the PM and his/her team into a downward spiral: the PM asking for more and more respect in ways guaranteed to push people further away.
The core problem is perspective. Our culture does not think of movie directors, executive chefs, astronauts, brain surgeons, or rock stars as project managers, despite the fact that much of what these cool, high profile occupations do is manage projects. Everything is a project. The difference is these individuals would never describe themselves primarily as project managers. They’d describe themselves as directors, architects or rock stars first, and as a projects manager or team leaders second. They are committed first to the output, not the process. And the perspective many PMs have is the opposite: they are committed first to the process, and their status in the process, not the output.
The result is that most of the world thinks of project management as BORING. Not sure how it happened, but instead of thinking of the great moments in PM history, say the NASA space race, The D-Day invasion of Normandy, The construction of the pyramids, the Empire State building, or any of a thousand great things made possible only by someone’s effective management of the project, people think of pocket protectors, overdesigned charts, epic status reports, and people who spend too much time in rooms filled exclusively with other project managers. If you are not going out of your way to separate yourself from the stereotype, odds are good that when you say “I’m a project manager” the person you are talking to puts you into a Dilbert cartoon in their mind, and you are the punchline.
People with job titles like “Program Manager”, “Product Manager”, “Information Architect” or “Quality Assurance manager” have similar problems. These titles all makes it hard to relate to what it really is that the person gets paid to make happen: a sure sign of title inflation, confusion via over-specialization, or abstraction from the real work. I suspect all of these folks have similar problems with getting respect from people when they introduce themselves with their literal job title (process), instead of what it is they help make (output).
The news isn’t all bad. This lack of respect creates a huge opportunity for people with open minds: their expectations of you are low. If you take the time to find out what it is that the people on the project need from you, or value from you, and make that as large a part of your job as possible, you’ll get more respect than you expect. And you may find that people start referring to you as a different kind of PM – one who has changed their opinion of what PMs can do for a team – and you’ll earn not only their respect, but their trust and best work too.