Creating the perception of leadership

I once had a foreman who was about 30 years old with 10 years' experience and wanted to become a project manager so bad he could taste it. He read every single word of every single issue of CONTRACTOR. He read everything in our public library's entire business section and would buy every new book on general business and project management that would come out. He'd pester me to death with questions

I once had a foreman who was about 30 years old with 10 years' experience and wanted to become a project manager so bad he could taste it. He read every single word of every single issue of CONTRACTOR. He read everything in our public library's entire business section and would buy every new book on general business and project management that would come out.

He'd pester me to death with questions so unceasingly that, as much as I wanted and tried to help him, I had to limit my off-hours tutoring of him to one two-hour session per week or else he'd camp out in my job trailer all day. He kept nagging our mutual bosses about being promoted to project manager, despite the fact that he was making them way too much money running field crews to do anything but keep him there. His constant whining about not being promoted eventually got him fired.

Yet, within 30 days of his being fired, damned if he wasn't working for one of our competitors as a project manager. His very first job was a 500,000-sq.-ft. strip shopping center not a mile from our main office. From what I heard through the grapevine, he did very well on his virgin job and stayed with the company for years after that until he moved out of state.

How'd he do that? How did a wrench jockey running wrench horses, someone with no college degree, no contractor 's license, no family or other connections to the company that eventually hired him as a project manager become a PM? I ran across him at a trade show a couple years later and he took me to lunch. We talked about a lot of things including his apparent transformation, if not reincarnation, from a job plumber to a job manager.

Turns out that his stroke of luck was just that, with luck being de˚ned as preparation meeting opportunity. The company was big enough to be able to afford one project manager but not big enough to have a formal project management department. The bosses had just fired the previous PM the week before because they caught him stealing. And they had three critical jobs mid-stream, including the shopping center that he was hired to finish, so they needed him.

But more than anything else, he told me, two things contributed to his hiring:

1. He was able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk when they asked him to take the shopping center job file home and then write a brief report about how he intended to manage it, and

2. His bosses perceived him to be a leader because, after they put him on a one-week tryout under close office supervision, he was able to show real crew productivity gains.

He also sweetly went behind their backs to renegotiate better deals on some already approved material purchase orders, which at first upset them, but hey, they immediately perceived him to be a leader, which he was, of course. This perception of him as project leader and not just manager overcame all his other surface shortcomings.

He had put in all those untold hours doing his "homework " by educating himself by reading trade books and magazines and seeking mentors like myself who could teach him the things necessary to be able to properly manage a project, but which aren't found in books or magazines. He was an honest, honorable, decent, conscientious and hard-working young man with a ˚re in his belly to advance within our industry. He didn't have any problems at or outside work that reduced his focus or energy level. He was just himself and had the guts to be willing to take constant rejection in his job search (I found out later that he had been applying for PM positions all over kingdom-come while working for us, for open positions that were out of our area so his job search wouldn't get back to our bosses). If he had not been doing all those things, then he wouldn't have been the leader that he was eventually hired to be.

You can manage things, but in order to be a successful project manager, you must lead people. If people don't perceive you as their leader, or at least have potential to be one, they won't treat you as such and won't follow you. If they won't follow you, you can't be a true project manager as opposed to an asset manager.

You lead not by not making mistakes, not by being perfect or trying to be, not by fear or intimidation or kissing up to those over you. You lead people by focusing on what the goal for the common good of all is and then doing your job by taking care of the business at hand. When you actually lead, when you are actually a leader as opposed to merely being a straw boss, they will follow you anywhere.