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Project Management Insights: Project Management or Else

Christine Brack on November 4, 2019 - in Articles, Column

A contact of mine was considering an administrative assistant position with an engineering firm this summer and wanted my opinion on the job description. She isn’t an engineer but has served in several marketing and support roles throughout her career. The list of responsibilities was typical: some marketing coordination, time at the reception desk, assisting HR, and other assorted generalist duties. The firm was expanding to the city where she lived, and she was looking for a new opportunity.

Everything appeared ideal, and the firm had a solid reputation. She asked my advice because the position was also charged with “make project managers submit timesheets, update budgets and complete other project-related details.” She went into the interview with more questions for them than they had for her; she exited with even more questions. Ultimately, she didn’t accept their offer. It wouldn’t have been a good match—just a cycle of frustration. Here’s why:

Vague and unworkable: The role was administrative and (per the hiring manager) had no line authority or access to organizational mechanisms to “make” PMs do their jobs. The candidate had to bring creative influence as a skill. As a last resort, the candidate could appeal to a Principal for help, but the point of making this hire was to delegate this exercise to the assistant. In other words, there would be no support or guidance from leadership and likely no respect or adherence from the PMs. Even if one is paid a fairly decent salary for glorified babysitting, no one wants to do it for the long haul. This responsibility was tacked onto the role because others in the firm became tired of nagging. The new employee wouldn’t be successful at this effort either.

Culturally jumbled: A command-and-control environment and “making” one do his or her job isn’t a desirable cultural nuance. More troubling is the firm is launching a new office with this mindset, so it appears to be corporately endorsed. There will always be aspects of our jobs we don’t enjoy doing, but from an organizational perspective, if the PM isn’t doing his or her job, then what are they doing? Moreover, what are the Principals doing? The company’s approach illustrates a poor project management culture and lax habits. It also indicates executives have lost some control. Engineering and design firms do projects for a living and should be centered around executing them successfully with people equipped and ready to do their job. It shouldn’t be forced, negotiated or hoped for.

Financially questionable: At a corporate level, hiring someone to “make” others do their job is a waste of money. Managing a budget is a primary element of the PM’s role. If the PM doesn’t do it, doesn’t know how to do it or doesn’t want to do it, it throws the financial success of that project into jeopardy. Multiplied many times, across several PMs, throughout a firm with one or more offices, this practice weakens the firm’s overall profitability. The economy is strong today, and this particular firm is growing, but fiscal decisions like these eventually haunt the bottom line.

With project delivery as a centralized function, no one is coerced to join the culture. Anyone performing outside the firm’s requirements and methodologies will feel like they don’t fit in. Leadership serves as “Role Model No. 1” and doesn’t shrug difficult conversations or accountability to the administrative level. Project managers will be client-focused when they’re project- and firm-focused. A project-delivery culture ensures that.

Christine Brack

About Christine Brack

Christine Brack, PMP, is a Principal at ChrismarGroup, a training and consultancy firm; email: cbrack@chrismargroup.com.

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