Business Problems

“I’m Not the Project Manager, Damn It!”

When you utter words that could potentially change the course of your career, you remember everything about the moment. That’s the way it was for me. I had just raised my voice to a representative of the client. While what I said was true, it was worse than TBU (True, But Useless). For clarity, I only said, “I’m not the Project Manager!” But maybe it was the inflection that gave it such impact.

Getting to that moment was a long time coming, and the journey was instructive if not a bit uncomfortable. I remember I was standing over a set of blueprints at (ironically) the last supper position of a beautiful mahogany conference table. All around the walls behind me were dazzling displays of the client’s marketing material and product solutions. To my immediate left was a colleague from the firm I worked with. To her left was our client point of contact and the person that had selected us (me) and our firm. Across from me, and the object of my outburst, was a company engineer, a particularly uncooperative and combative one. Immediately afterwards the room went silent as a tomb–a fitting metaphor because I was convinced I was dead.

How did we get to that spot? How does any project manager get to this place? The answer to those questions is the moral of the story and also a spoiler.

As you might have inferred, my team was hired by a very well-known player in the manufacture of high-tech products. The manager of this global company’s facilities had the foresight and budget to outsource the project management of the design, engineering, and tenant improvements (construction) for their new corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities. My team was the successful proposer.

As I mentioned, my client was very savvy and experienced. He could have managed this effort himself, and therein lies the rub. Unlike the majority of clients that outsource project management for the improvement of real property (architectural, engineering and construction admin), this client could do the work themselves. The problem arose because he actually tried. My job is to take issues, organization, problems, expert vendor administration, contracts and the general management of the project off my client’s plate. However, my client wouldn’t let go. And this wasn’t his fault. This was a multimillion dollar undertaking and he hadn’t gotten to know me yet, much less trust me. So for the first couple months of the project we played beat-the-buzzer.

What that means is, I found him often racing me to answer a technical or project-team-related question. This would be comical if it wasn’t such an obstacle to communication and team direction. And frankly, he was the client. He was paying the bills. So regardless of whether we arrived at the same point at the same time or I answered it before he did or he answered it before I did, it was like a project leadership echo chamber. As I mentioned, he was paying the bills and he who pays the bills gets the most attention. It was in this environment that the seeds of my viseral, unfiltered comment were planted.

You see, up until the outburst in the conference room, it had become increasingly clear to everyone on the project team that they were accountable only to my client, but not to me.

Thus, while I was hired as the project manager, I wasn’t allowed to manage the project. And that’s what gave way to the inappropriate, but accurate, comment. The tension brewing below the surface was that I was taking the brunt of project problems but didn’t have the empowerment to fix them. I had the responsibility but not the authority. And that’s the point of the story.

As a general proposition, but particularly for project managers, you need to identify and steer clear of the no man’s land where you’re manning the helpdesk or complaint department but you’re not in charge of solving problems. Lucky for me, the story had a happy ending.

The drama in the conference room illustrated for my client the lack of empowerment paradox. As I said, he was a great guy and continues to be a good friend to this day. He immediately stepped in and clarified roles and responsibilities, something that should’ve been done on day one. But I was so filled with gratitude for not being unemployed that it didn’t matter. He set the record straight. The statement I can recall hearing him say at the start or end of most meetings was, “Tom has my full support and what he says goes.” This issue never came up again, and my effectiveness as a team leader was never greater. And I have my friend and past client to thank.

I hope you see yourself in the story and know how much I respect and thank you for your wisdom in that moment.

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