Project Managers as Senior Executives – 2 Volume Research

Can project managers actually become senior executives? If not, what can be done to allow them to climb the ladder? What are the odds? How can a project manager better design his or her career development to take advantage of these opportunities? These questions and more are answered in Project Managers as Senior Executives, the new newest addition to PMI’s ever-growing published library of research-based studies.

Based on face-to-face interviews with more than 40 senior executives and project managers from six countries, an extensive literature search, and online questionnaires, the authors, who are top project leaders in the project management community, provides empirical evidence and addresses three fundamental hypotheses and a series of nine research questions. Project Managers as Senior Executives maps out a model for advancement for program and project managers and contributes new thinking on the emerging leadership of project managers as senior executives.

Project Managers as Senior Executives is available for purchase, or download at no cost to PMI Members.

Volume One HERE

Volume Two HERE

Project Management Experience Alone is Not Enough

Research Shows that Project Managers Do Become Senior Executives

By Jean-Pierre Debourse, PhD, MSc, and Russell D. Archibald, PhD (Hon), MSc, PMP

For decades many published experts in project management have said that there are strong similarities between being a successful project manager and being a CEO.

They believe that experience as a project manager is excellent preparation for moving into senior executive positions.

In 2007 PMI decided to investigate this situation and selected the ESC-Lille Graduate School of Management in France to conduct a jointly sponsored project called “Project Managers as Senior Executives.”

How the Research was Conducted

First we explored the literature  about:

–    Senior executives,

–    Program and project managers’ managerial, behavioral and emotional characteristics,

–    Human resources management.

Then we conducted face-to-face interviews with 25 senior executives and 20 project managers from six countries including:

  1. the United States,
  2. Canada,
  3. Brazil,
  4. France,
  5. United Kingdom and
  6. Ukraine.

These interviews consisted of two parts: First, an open exchange in which we described the purpose of our research and of the interview with voluntary responses from the CEO or project manager, and then 15 written questions were verbally posed. These covered such topics as their:

  • key positions in their career that led their to appointment as CEO,
  • the most important aspects of their education, training, and experience,
  • individual persons or networks that were most important to them,
  • their significant experiences directly with project management,
  • factors affecting success and failure of projects
  • similarities and differences between the roles and skills of CEOs versus project managers.

The face-to-face interviews were required because very few, if any, CEOs or other senior executives will complete a written survey. At best they will hand them off to an assistant to complete. These interviews were the only way that we could obtain this important information from the CEO perspective.

Finally, we tested and then launched a 77-question online survey in English and French. We received 445 English and112 French usable responses.

The survey consisted of eight sections covering:

  • Information about the person responding,
  • Responder’s career path to date with data about as many as 10 of their most recent positions,
  • Their education and certification,
  • Categories of projects in which they have direct experience and number of projects being managed at the present time,
  • Opinions on the skills needed as project managers versus CEOs,
  • Opinions on the roles of project managers versus those of CEOs,
  • Importance of project management and existence of related formal career paths within their organizations,
  • Opinions on the importance of project management experience in achieving senior manager positions,

The survey was designed to gather factual information and opinions from project management practitioners in a variety of governmental, industrial, and business organizations with experience in a wide variety of project categories and from many countries.

We conducted numerous analyses of the interview and survey results and then developed our general conclusions and proposals for further actions. Our final report (Volume One) is available for download to PMI members; click here for Volume Two.

Conclusions of the Research

The research found that 12 to 15 percent of project and program managers who responded to our survey reached the upper hierarchical level.

In project-driven companies, such as contractors and consultants, project managers are favored in their progression toward the senior executive position. In project-dependent companies (those producing goods and services), their progression is more difficult.

From our face-to-face-interviews we learned that, in project-driven companies, being a project manager is an essential experience to become a CEO. The CEO of a project-driven company said “If I had to choose my successor, the only condition would be to have proven himself in the field as a project manager and chief operating officer.”

“Managing projects requires rigor, a compulsory method. But this is not enough. It takes personality, charisma, an ability to evolve. We must focus on people who have aggressiveness and willingness to succeed,” one CEO said. But although project manager experience is important and even essential in some situations, it is not enough, as indicated by many CEO comments. Among the project manager’s inadequacies are mentioned:

  • “…lack of systems view and diverse management practices…”
  • “…lack of cross-functional expertise…”
  • “…lack of cross-functional responsibility and [financial] result orientation…”

The project managers interviewed expressed their own reservations, saying, for example “The most attractive promotions in the group are the functionals’ ones…The functionals are more supported and it is a non-democratic centralism.”

Chapter 12 of the report presents 40 pages of CEO and project manager quotations on specific subjects with a coherent analysis of these opinions.

Our survey results are analyzed and presented in many ways, including:

  • A general model for advancement of program and project managers, showing the respondents’ preferred paths to advancement.
  • Ways that project and program managers progress to higher positions.
  • Characteristics of project professionals within their organizations.
  • Career paths in project management and respondents’ feelings about advancement.
  • Specific skills and roles for which project managers need to build their competence.

Proposals for Further Action

Proposals are presented to individuals, organizations and PMI and other similar professional organizations to accelerate the progression of project and program managers to senior executive positions.

Project management practitioners will gain substantial insight into ways to enhance their capabilities to become senior executives by studying this report and capitalizing on the knowledge that it presents.