Becoming a Leading Manager

My most recent post, We Cannot Choose Between Management And Leadership, has struck a chord. That’s the good news. The bad news is I have not defined enough terms. Okay, I’ll attempt that now. And, thank you, gentle readers, for hanging in there with me, waiting for my crazy travel schedule this spring.

I see these managers in the organization:

  1. Project managers, people who articulate the vision of the project. They may not be the people who actually set the vision of the project, but they carry the vision forward. When I have been a project manager, I have been the one to articulate the vision. I have often tried to do that with the project team. (I suggest this in Manage It! Your Guide to Modern Pragmatic Project Management.) If you can’t create the vision with the team, write the vision as a strawman and present it to the team as a draft and ask for help revising it, so that the vision becomes theirs.
  2. Program managers, people who articulate the vision of a program, a collection of projects with a common business purpose or goal. (I’m writing the Agile Program Management book now and will be writing this book in seriousness this summer.) Program managers are the face and voice of the program. They carry the vision of the program to the program team and the entire organization. They often write the vision alone for a large program. They may draft the vision for the core program team to review and accept.
  3. We often have first-line, middle, and, and senior functional managers. Some people call those first-line managers “resource” managers. Bah! They are not resource managers. If anything, they are supposed to be the people who are career-development managers. In non-agile organizations, the people who work on projects for a project manager in a dotted-line, are supposed to report to a career-development manager in a straight line for coaching, feedback and career development. And, that’s where the trouble starts. (This is why I am writing a series of Management Myths about managers, on Techwell. Start here with the myth of 100% utilization.)

If the functional managers are not setting the strategy, then the project and program managers are. Or, the people working on the projects are. How are they setting the strategy? First, by determining which projects and programs to work on first, second, and third. But, you say, how do they do that?

If the managers do not decide the ranking of the projects in the project portfolio, the people will. Each and every one of them. On their own. It may not be a concerted effort, but that’s okay. They will do so. And, if a project or program manager takes over, and says, “Hey, everyone on my project/program, here’s what we are going to do,” then that project or program manager is acting as a leader for the project portfolio.

Now, there are many more areas where management needs to lead. For example, by deciding which features are first, second, and third. That is a product owner/product manager decision. But, the project portfolio is the instantiation of the organization’s strategic plan. To me, management needs to start there. That’s not the only place management needs to make the big decisions, but it’s a key place.

For me, managing the project portfolio should be the role of #3 managers in my list. Not the project or program managers, but the functional managers. Do I provide guidance on how to manage the project portfolio for project managers? Of course, because I’m not an idiot and neither are you. Plenty of managers in category #3 do not know how (because they have not read Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects or don’t have the partnership with project or program managers to know how to do so) to manage the project portfolio. So they abdicate their management responsibilities and ask people to multitask, or they move people as if those people were fungible chess pieces. It’s tragic and sad. And a waste of brainpower.

On the other hand, that’s where leadership comes in. Anyone in the organization can pop up and say, “Wait a minute. Multitasking is wrong. It wastes time. Here’s some data.” And then go on to influence management. Leadership can arise from anywhere in the organization. I didn’t make that clear in my earlier post. Sorry. But management without leadership is missing a key piece of management.

Can we have leadership all over the organization? Yes! Should we? Yes! We are adults in the organization. Somehow, we all get ourselves to work, pretty much clean, dressed, and fed, ready to work for the day. We have families whom we raise, clothe, and no one–except maybe our parents–tell us how to do that. We can ignore them. Our parents have the right to tell us what to do and we have the right to ignore them. We are family :-)

In our personal lives, we somehow manage to live. That’s leadership. That’s initiative and responsibility. Why would our organizations expect us to turn off our brains when we come to work? If anything, our organizations should encourage more of it.

Somehow, the larger the organization, the more some organizations want us to behave as if we are four-year-olds. We have to be told what to do and when to do it. I lasted less than 16 months in a very large organization early in my career. I lasted less than a year in a parental organization later in my career. It’s a cultural thing. I have my own parents, thank you. I don’t need an organization acting in loco parentis. I often see managers adopt this stance when they are unwilling to share the corporate vision or strategy because they don’t have one.

So, if you want to be a leading manager, you need to know what the corporate strategy or vision is. That’s why I included a chapter about your mission in Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects. You use your mission to know what to do and what not to do. You use the mission to provide feedback and meta-feedback, coaching and meta-coaching. You use the mission to encourage leadership all over the organization.

People on projects will have great ideas. Some of those great ideas will arise from the project work and will be folded into the projects. Some of those great ideas people will pursue on their own time and you will thank people for doing the work. And, some of those great ideas will be folded into the project portfolio for later evaluation. As a leading manager, you will make the tough decisions about the ideas.

You will also make the tough decisions about the people. You will encounter people who “unjell” a team. You will see architects who not only can’t architect, they can’t design, code, or test. Or, they are like the code czar I wrote about years ago. When you find an unjeller, you must remove that person from your team. I always suggest you move that person to your competitor. Sometimes, that works out to both advantage, not their disadvantage!

These people decisions are part of creating that great environment I discussed in We Cannot Choose Between Management And Leadership. As a leading manager, you might also have to fight for the end of the foolish ranking system. You might have to create communities of practice, something middle managers often do. You might lead the hiring efforts. You might have to fight for training, the money for conferences, and more. That’s all leading management.

So, leadership arises from everywhere in the organization. But leading management? Managers who lead discover they make difficult decisions. The decide when to take on their management. They explain where the value is, not just the cost. They have to monitor their staff, not for micromanagement purposes, but to see if they need to provide feedback or meta-feedback, coaching or meta-coaching, or see if it’s time to intervene. Being a manager is tricky. Sometimes, the less you do with the people, the better your management is.

But creating the environment? That’s where leading managers shine. Creating an environment by eliminating the need for multitasking is key. Managing the project portfolio is a huge piece of being a leading manager. Making sure everyone has the tools they need for their jobs is another key piece. Does everyone have the training they need to do their work–dare I say the word, to be empowered? That’s a key piece of leading management.

If you are a manager and you don’t feel conflict often, you are not doing your job. Or, your organization is not growing. Or you work in nirvana, and I would love to interview you.

I hope this helps and I’m sure I have missed something. Please keep those comments coming!

Reference: Becoming a Leading Manager from our JCG partner Johanna Rothman at the Managing Product Development blog.

Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at
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