Home » Leadership » Project Manager Who Is Really In Charge Of Your Project?

In the Information Technology field I’m often working with some very bright people who have very high capabilities. When we would go to customer sites, I would tell the lead person “you are in charge.” Yes, in the era of instant communication, I could be in charge all the time and be within seconds of being contacted. However, I never felt that presented the best face towards our customers (or the people we send out) and it worked against developing people to be future leaders.

Project Manager Who Is In Charge Of Your Project?For my project managers, when we were delivering and installing a product for example, I reminded them that they were in charge. We might also have engineering, test, and quality folks and even senior managers on site, but I told them that any final decision needed to be made should be made by them. I didn’t care if what they decided was just the team consensus, they needed to keep control of the decision making process and then finalize it by saying “OK, this is what we’ll do.” I never wanted to hear “but, it is what others said we should do — I’m not responsible!”

See for comparison, self directed teams, there is a balancing act to be done here.

I also told them that because they were in charge, I would support their decisions. Now, it had to be a reasonable decision and on occasion I might end up saying “sorry, we won’t be able to do that after all.” If I ended up having to do that too often, then they might find themselves back being an individual contributor and not leading a project or team. They needed to know, cold, our overall strategy for success and how we were going to go about it. If they could work within the strategy, even creatively, then things should work out fine.

See also: Your Project Needs Business Rules Not Meetings

This approach has worked well for me. Establishing this is not a one-time discussion with my team or project managers. Instead it is something I often talk about in meetings and other communications. You are the project manager, you pull together the efforts and capabilities of many very capable people, and your job is to ensure it comes out with the desired results.

I’ve seen quality managers, business managers, senior managers, marketing, and other just strong personalities “take over” a project from the project manager. I’ve never seen where this has happened that a project, going poorly, suddenly became successful or even ever became successful while that person was “in charge”. I have seen perfectly good projects go off the rails because someone “took charge” who simply didn’t have the ability, beyond a dominating personality, to manage a complex project.

Compare with: If Quality Assurance Is Managing The Project Then We Are In Big Trouble

In one interesting case, I worked with a new engineering manager and a new Project Management Office (PMO) Director who took over a project from their subordinate project managers (note, while senior, they were both new to their positions and had not done a project of this type before). I recall the PMO Director stepping up in front of the room, under her breath saying “I can do this!” and taking over a meeting set up by engineering (not by her PMs). It all went downhill from there.

The new engineering manager eventually shut down any communications from the engineering teams to project management and would just report they were “on track.” They weren’t. Not even close. The PMO Director then essentially abdicated responsibility and took the position “it’s their project now.” I recall thinking “isn’t it great that this worldwide corporation would give essentially two rookies the company’s biggest and most critical project to learn how to manage a mega-project?” The project was months late. The software developed in the project, which was the baseline for future projects, took years to finally stabilize and stop being a quality liability (i.e., “worst part of the product”). Neither manager retained their positions once the project was complete.

See related: A Successful Manager But Never A Successful Project?

The project managers (PMO and engineering) who would have normally run this project went on to finally help the company achieve on time and good quality mega projects (i.e., they knew how to do their job). It took years, however, to undo the damage done by this one mismanaged mega project.

As project managers we need to take charge of our projects. Allowing “strong personalities” or other persons (even our boss) to effectively take charge of the project is a recipe for failure. As the project manager’s senior manager we should prepare the PM, then give them their head to lead their project and then actively support them, including actively intervening when others try to effectively “take charge” of their project.

Do your project managers truly lead their projects?

Thank you for sharing!

8 thoughts on “Project Manager Who Is Really In Charge Of Your Project?

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:


    The ordinary span of control is 8 employees per manager, which means that about 12.5% of the work force are in management.

    From various social and psychological studies, only about 1 person out of maybe 12 are qualified to be managers.

    The match suggests that a lot of managers will not be very good.

    This is confirmed by the fact that voluntary attrition is highest for the best employees, and the number ! reason for quitting is “I don’t like to work for a bad manager.”

    Capers Jones

  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    If the PM is already a company “insider” they should already be familiar with various personalities heading into a project team, but if the PM is a outside consultant/contractor it would behoove the project sponsor or IS/IT Director to alert the PM of any idiosyncracies of potential problem personalities so the PM may apply needed corrective measures when necessary. PM’s should also remember that some project sponsors may have hidden agendas for specific projects if there’s a internal turf war going on.
    Posted by Robert W.

  3. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Roberto Guandique • Bruce, I also agree with Robert, but we are talking about different subjects.

    Reality is that most Project Managers are sometimes just “leaders” of some of the Team’s members that are working directly & full time in the Project. Depending on the company/organization, some PM are just providing “to do’s” to some members of their Teams. This is especially true if they are in a Matrix Organization or some of the Team’s members are not full time dedicated to their projects. Few times I have seen Project Managers “choose” the members of their Teams. Most of the times resource availability is not up to the PM but to other resource constraints within the Organization they work for or that they are consulting for..,

    Directly relating to your post, I think that a PM needs to come across as an individual/Leader, but not SO independent that you are not a team player or one who cannot be directed. You also need to avoid looking like a total follower instead of a leader. Balancing this behavior is what makes you be recognized as a leader.

    A constant challenge for most of us. Thanks for your reply Bruce.

    zakir siddiqui • I also agree,most of project actual controller of project behind the picture and full time project manager face result of own decision.

  4. Bruce Benson says:

    More comments from other sites (LinkedIn):

    Ben Loveday • I think the issue is in defining the project, and the organisational, contractual and communication heirarchies within projects. To say a PM “leads” the project is not necessarily true. Ultimately the project owners lead the project, and delegate to a PM to lead particular aspects of it. If “others” are trying to intervene and take the defined roles of the PM, then its clear that there may be some communication issues or issues with the delegation to the PM, which need to be resolved.
    I’m also not sure what you mean by “strong personalities”: is it meant to mean someone who wants to overstep their authority and do someone else’s job because they do not trust them? If this is the case I would call this a weak personality because this is really someone who fails to give respect and trust, someone who is possibly masking an issue with aggressive, and unnecessary action. A strong personality in my view is someone who gives respect and trust as a default, and maintains control over their egoistic urges so as to maintain team unity. Strength is in the project results, not in self gratification.

    Bob Vandenberg • There is usually a difference of some kind between the written roles and responsibilities of any position in a project and how things really work…and that is because projects involve human beings. We humans are great at saying one thing and then doing another, most time in the self mistaken view that both are aligned, but in objective reality…..are not so. The interpersonal dymanics of personalities are also an intangible which plays into the equation that also has an impact of this question being asked. Unfortunately, there aren’t any “cookie cutter” solutions to this issue.

    Bruce Benson • Ben, Bob,

    Agreed. I’ve seen PMs that lead their project (like a line manager leads their organization) and I’ve seen PMs who assist in running a project. In either case the person has a boss who also “owns” the effort and is responsible for how well it goes (who in turn has a boss, etc.). One of the first things I do when working with a PM is to assess their situation. Are they in charge (or suppose to be) or are they in support of the project?

    With that said, the successful projects I’ve been involved with all had strong leaders, an individual (or a couple of individuals) that were clearly in charge. In some cases the strong leader was the boss who kept order so that his/her managers (project or otherwise) could operate without too much external interference.

    The strong personalities in the article dealt with individuals whose primary ability was to cause people to take action by the force of their personality. While my examples happen to have been bosses, I’ve seen QA, testing, business managers and process improvement managers effectively take over projects. Often an effective “fix” was to have an equally strong personality (or a boss) “neutralize the influence” (e.g., “no, I don’t think that is the only solution, let’s you and I talk outside the meeting”) so as to give control of the project back to the assigned manager.

    Good feedback, thanks.

    Robert de Kruyff • Participatory or inclusive team leadership is key to successful project management. This allows the optimum use of skills and capabilities of team members. The team must, directly or indirectly, include the supervisor/boss/director of the project manager. The last, the project manager, has to be an accomplished team leader with excellent communicational skills. This kind of leadership approach creates a high level of motivation and internal and external credibility and trustworthiness which makes a project successful with everybody part of the accomplishment.

    Nishith Chatterjee • There can’t be two captain of a ship. Similarly Project Manager leads the project team and controls the project. PM is the leader and boss of the project. Owner should not interfere in day to day execution or execution strategy. If owner feels that things are not moving in right direction then he should change PM

    Roberto Guandique • Hi Bruce…. as you know, there is a big gap between what is said in the books and by some senior leaders, and what is actually experienced in the execution of Projects. I agree with Bob V., there are so many conditions, situations, behaviors and people to really state that Project Managers lead their projects.

    I know that Project Managers lead or at least they should -the management of the projects, but not the projects themselves. A funny concept but what I have seen is that to lead effectively you need lots of additional knowledge than some project managers know about their projects. This is the reason why sometimes somebody else takes the lead in the management of the Projects. Doubt in their “leadership’s “capabilities caused by the ignorance of their Project’s relevant business knowledge is what stop some PM s from acquiring/getting the support from those in authority seats.

    I say it all the time, is not technical knowledge that will lead to success. All you need to know is what basic strategies do and don’t work. You can outsource the rest “externally.”

    To “take charge” of your project is not the same as to “lead “the project .

    Bruce Benson • Roberto,

    I lean towards the notion from Robert, that the PMs job is to manage how to apply the team expertise (including bosses). This allows the PM not to be the expert at everything. I always found that half the challenge in putting together a project was picking my team, and getting the folks I felt I needed (because they could do things I couldn’t).

    That said, I’ve seen many situations where the PM was really a “pair of hands” to do management tasks for another manager who effectively leads the project. This is not necessarily a bad setup when the PM is less experienced. When this happens by design, I don’t see a problem.

    Again,with that said, I go along with Nishith’s sentiment that successful projects generally, if not always, need a good singular leader. Any project that didn’t have a clear leader, and often I’ve seen this show up as a PM being driven by multiple people — yet the PM retaining the “responsibility” for results (at least for the bad results) , rarely had a successful conclusion. This was almost always an indicator that a project was not going well and was then confirmed by the project … ending poorly.

    Good subject and tricky sometimes to find the right balance.

  5. Linn says:

    I agree…Totally.

    The other suggestion is to keep your track record documented and up to date and gently wave it around when they try to circumvent you. It also doesn’t hurt if you can come up with a cost list of where their bright idea will lead them and have a small personal chat asking them if they will increase your budget to cover the itemized overage by each new risk they they introduce.

    Dollar signs often succeed where simple common sense fails.

  6. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from LinkedIn discussions:

    Matt Lintz • Stakeholders, the PMO, and others often try until problems emerge that require accountability. Then, they are all to happy to call the PM for details!

    Bruce Benson • Matt,
    All too true in my experience also. As soon as things get tough, they all look at the PM who had been effectively sidelined (or essentially an administrative assistant) to see what the PM is doing about the problem!

    A great quote from “The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons goes: “The most dangerous kind of overconfidence in our abilities comes not when we are already skilled at a task but when we are still unskilled.”

    People will jump in and “manage” or otherwise strongly direct actions, until these actions fail, and then they’ll pass it back to the PM to “fix your problems!”

    Sometimes the trick is to help this happen as fast as possible. Follow the guidance and as it fails, diplomatically and quietly take back the lead since the project is now a hot potato that no one wants. I write more about this, somewhat tongue-in-cheek at: http://pmtoolsthatwork.com/successful-projects-are-boring/ .

    Excellent point.


  7. Linn says:

    Project Managing against Sr Management expressed desires is how to be in the next layoff in one easy lesson, unless you are very good at playing politics.

    1. Bruce Benson says:


      That is often the risk when trying to do a good job in an organization that is struggling.

      In the case where the account team delivered the product to the customer even after senior management said to delay it for a week I got a call from “the” senior manager. She asked me how come they delivered it when “we” told them not to. I replied that it was like being in the military. If one didn’t follow orders and then failed, you were court martialed for insubordination. If one didn’t follow orders but succeeded, one was rewarded for taking the initiative. In this case the customer was delighted and spent considerable time talking up how we had finally, for the first time in their memory, ever delivered a product on time (i.e., not 3-4 months late which was typical). I have known some managers who would have gone ballistic in this situation. In this case this senior manager just dismissed the “mistake” and happily accepted the accolades that were sent her way.

      I’ve said that running an organization that is “slightly out of my control” was often just the right amount of control (see: http://pmtoolsthatwork.com/out-of-control-can-be-good/ ).

      More on the theme of “pushing the envelope” to improve the business and succeeding:

      Good comment and the key concern for most folks.

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