There is not a child who dreams of being a project manager. Maybe a firefighter, a rock star or an astronaut, but a manager of projects? There’s something inherently dull about the words “project” and “manager.” They’re not terms that come to mind when people dream about future careers. 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 ambitious enough to start a company, 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 sometimes well earned stereotype.
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 respected professions 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 results.
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 construction of the pyramids, the Empire State building, the production of every great movie, or any of a thousand great things made possible only by someone’s effective management of the project, people think of overdesigned presentations, epic status reports, and people who spend too much time creating meetings. 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 (better results).
The news isn’t all bad. This lack of respect creates a huge opportunity for people with open minds. First, their expectations of you are low. Second, most projects are a mess in one or more ways. If you can provide clarity and sanity it will be noticed and you will earn more trust and authority. If put your focus on your teammates, asking how you can help reduce their frustrations and making that happen, they’ll return the favor. 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 a good PM can do.
See Making Things Happen, my bestselling book on how to be a great project manager.