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The Pros and Cons of the Hero Project Manager

hero-pmImagine a project that isn’t going too well due to unexpected complexities.

It’s behind schedule, team morale is declining and the client is complaining about lack of progress.

Communication between the project manager and client is getting increasingly tense and the level of trust is deteriorating. After a while it gets to a point where the relationship breaks down.

The client asks for a new project manager to take over – and the supplier agrees that this course of action is the best way forward.

All project managers fear being sidelined or removed from a project. When it happens it seriously dents their confidence, and in some cases they never fully recover.

For the incoming PM however it’s quite a different story, as they’re often seen as the hero. Their job is to save the project and they will be given a fair bit of authority to make changes and to do whatever is necessary to turn the project around. But even if the situation calls for it, there are pros and cons of asking a new project manager to take over a failing project.

It’s the easy option

The first observation is that replacing the PM is an easy option for senior management because they don’t have to get involved in picking the project apart and getting it back on track. They don’t even have to look at any deeper routed issues, for instance with respect to the way projects are kicked off and executed within the organization. They simply roll in an experienced project manager with a good track record who they know will get the job done. It takes a burden of their shoulders and makes them feel safe. The same is true for the client.

Involving a new project manager is the easy option because a scapegoat has been found and blame has firmly been put on the departing project manager. Not only does this action help senior management and the client at a practical level because they avoid a difficult situation. It also helps them at an emotional level because they don’t have to deal with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. And very importantly, they don’t have to look themselves in the mirror and take responsibility for their share of the issue. The only discomfort they have to deal with is asking the original PM to leave.

hero-project-managerPeople welcome the opportunity to be the hero

Another element that supports the hero mentality is that many project managers welcome the opportunity to take over a failing project and shine. If a project is going really badly, there is very little risk – and lots of opportunity – for the new project manager. If the project continues to go badly, the new PM is unlikely to be blamed, but if he is successful in turning the project around he will be hailed a hero. That’s not a bad position to be in as it would be a real boost to the ego and also provide the PM with a reputation of being a problem solver and a safe pair of hands.

The new project manager is likely to be given quite a bit of authority and his ideas about how to turn the project around will be listened to. It’s a powerful situation to be in, which many people are attracted to. In addition, there is big likelihood that project performance will increase under the new PM because he has the backing of the management team, the vested interest of the client and the increased authority levels.

But as much as the client and management team would love a senior PM to come in and save the day, they may not be able to find someone with sufficient gravitas to do the job. Replacing a failing project manager with someone who doesn’t have any extra experience would introduce further risk and not generate the senior backing that’s required.

A new PM needs to have something new and extra to offer, which makes it more likely that he’s looked up to and perceived as a hero in the making. If such a senior PM can’t be found the organization might be better off keeping the existing PM in place and simply provide the support that’s required.

The pacesetting mentality

The good thing about having a new and experienced project manager take over, is that they are likely to ask lots of questions of the team regarding the current state of affairs and to get to the root of the problems.

They will be critical of existing ways of working that aren’t serving the client and they will expect the very best from the team. But although their knowledge, bluntness and determination is required, it’s also likely to be their biggest weakness. Before long, the PM will become unpopular with the team, not because they intend to turn the project around, but because of the way in which they are doing it.

The hero PM is likely to be directive and demanding rather than collaborative and inclusive. In other words, he or she is likely to be a pacesetter.

A pacesetter is someone who knows how to do the job and someone who expects the team to copy their example. Pacesetters are not afraid of getting their hands dirty. On the contrary, they work to a great level of detail and instruct the team in how to carry out their tasks. Because the pacesetter is an experienced professional, their instructions are hard to dispute. As a result, they manage to raise the standard of the team, which is exactly what senior management and the client was hoping for.

Raising the standard – and the pace of the team – is desirable if the team is underperforming, but the problem is that over time the team will get more and more disillusioned because they feel that their efforts and ideas are not appreciated. The hero – and pacesetting PM – is taking the credit, and in his eagerness to make decisions and move the project forward, he alienates the team who finds his approach arrogant, inflexible and exhausting.

The best of both worlds

If organizations are to gain maximum benefit from a new experienced PM taking over a failing project, it’s imperative that it’s done in the right way.

Management has to fight their instincts to class the new PM as a hero, as that will only inflate the ego and alienate the team. Instead the PM should be perceived as a fresh pair of eyes that can help reframe the situation and rebuild trust in the team. It’s important that the new PM consults and collaborates with the existing team rather than dictating and controlling how things should be done.

Being a pacesetter is not a bad thing per se, especially not if the existing team lacks direction and is underperforming. It does however become a problematic management style if it’s used consistently and over a long period of time.

As soon as a team has the skills and knowledge to perform a job, the PM should scale back on the directive style and instead begin to empower, coach and encourage people to step up and contribute. They should enable the team to shine and take the credit for turning around the project rather than taking all the credit themselves. That’s the recipe for a true win/win situation.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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