So you want to be a project manager?


    The president of a full-service A/E firm made a presentation to the engineers in a branch office. In mid-presentation, a slide showed the job description of a project engineer, but no job title. The president asked, “How many of you want to do this?” Everyone raised a hand.

    The next slide showed the job description of a project manager (PM), also with no job title. The president asked, “How many of you want to do this?” One hand went up, very slowly, and its owner whispered, “I think I want to do that.”

    The president said, “That’s one of the biggest problems in our industry. You all want to be titled and paid as project managers, but nobody really wants to do project management.”

    I’ve worked with engineers for more than 30 years, and have found that a great many PMs really want to keep designing. Many admit to choosing engineering as a career, believing that they could bury themselves in the details and not have to interact with others. College taught them to want the title “project manager,” but their instructors never told them that, when they became PMs, design would no longer be their job.

    So what happens when an engineer wants the title, but not the responsibilities? When the PM insists on being just the senior designer, barely finding time for budget and schedule management, never finding time to take care of the client? Or when a firm lets its PMs persist in this behavior?

    What happens is a project that gets completed on time, at budget, meeting all of the technical criteria of the scope of work and all the obligations of the contract, for a client who will go to some other firm for their next project. Why? Because the PM insisted on designing and didn’t do basic client care – didn’t treat the client like a member of the project team, didn’t demonstrate the client’s value to the firm by “putting his ‘butt-print’ in the client’s guest chair,” didn’t learn the client’s preferred communication means or schedule, didn’t make personal contact for anything beyond the technical scope, didn’t spend the time to let the client be heard, and didn’t provide value-added assistance if the time couldn’t be invoiced.

    “Project managers must be good with people … other traits can be trained/taught. It is difficult to find great project managers because they must have technical knowledge but also be a great communicator.”
    – Lindsay Young, CPSM, marketing and customer relations manager, DEN Management Co. Inc.

    A few years ago, I was marketing director for a full-service A/E firm with 250-plus professional, technical, and support staff in multiple cities. Most of the firm’s PMs, particularly our engineering PMs, still acted as if the PM was just the team’s most senior designer. Nothing we said or did seemed to change this belief.

    The firm sent most of its PMs to project management training, which included sections on client care and marketing. Many PMs returned to the office, removed these chapters from their workbooks, sent them to the marketing department as if to teach us our jobs, and continued to hold fast to the above-mentioned belief.

    We thought, “Maybe the PMs will understand the real nature and importance of the PM role and client care if they hear it directly from some of our biggest clients.” So we brought the entire staff – from all our offices – to the headquarters, put them in a hotel ballroom with a panel of major clients from each of the firm’s five market sectors, and began the discussion.

    At one point, the firm’s largest commercial real estate development client said, in these exact words, “If you are designing my project, you are not managing it.” What an idea!

    A week later, we sent a company-wide e-mail asking people to identify the major message(s) they took from this session. We received about 75 responses, and not one of them mentioned this idea. The senior management team was perplexed. We couldn’t understand how so many PM brains with different technical roles and educational backgrounds seemed able to totally block this one concept.

    On one assignment – a roadway design proposal for a new engineering client – I found that the proposed PM wanted to put his name in a number of boxes on the organization chart. I said to him: “If we put you in all those technical roles, when will you have time to manage the project?” He gave me a blank stare!

    I showed him organization charts from other proposals of his firm and said, “Look at a typical project organization chart. The top box is the client. The next is the PM. Other boxes show a project principal, various engineers, QA/QC reviewers, construction managers, and environmental folks. Notice that the PM’s name doesn’t appear anywhere else on the chart. That’s because the PM should be busy actually managing the project!” Another blank stare – apparently, having the PM actually manage was a foreign concept.

    Look at the components of a good project management training session. Topics include managing the client, leading the project, scheduling the project, budgeting the project, and managing the risk. Do you see the word “design” anywhere? Yet PMs still insist on being the designer, not worrying about whether or not anyone actually takes care of the client, as long as they don’t have to do it.

    Today, when clients make A/E selections, the quality of the project experience is at least as important to them as the quality of the technical work. It is the PM’s job to manage that project experience.

    “The role of a PM is to balance client needs, project demands, and public interests. … A successful PM uses available resources to ensure that the client, project, and public are all satisfied. The ease with which anyone can access project documents makes ‘public interest’ an important part of the … equation, particularly when blogging and social media make everyone a potential journalist.”
    – Jeffrey M. Taub, CPSM, director, marketing and business development, Eng-Wong, Taub & Associates

    “The most important role of a PM is managing people. You have to manage client’s desires and expectations … contractors and consultants, … time and money, both yours and the client’s, … and provide a high level of service as you walk your client through the process.”
    – Daniel Ortiz, LEED AP, project manager, RdlR Architects Inc.

    Clients ask themselves, “Of the firms I short-listed, all of which are technically qualified to execute a successful project, which one will provide the most enjoyable working experience?” So here’s the real deal for PMs – some things to remember as you manage these client relationships:

    • Relationships are built and measured by touches – real contacts. E-mail is convenient for sharing data, but it’s not a real touch, and you need multiple touches for the relationship to blossom.
    • Personal visits are best; body language, pictures on the wall, and magazines on the coffee table give clues for developing the relationship. I once knew a PM who thought he could turn a state DOT into a strategic client without ever speaking to them in person or on the phone. In two years, the firm was never short-listed by the DOT.
    • Learn about the client’s industry and business. To what trends must they respond? How does their business operate? Who makes the decisions? What are their “hot buttons” – quality, schedule, crisis management, budget, others? The answers will help you anticipate their needs and challenges – and to have alternative solutions ready in advance of the need.
    • Find out the client’s preferred method(s) of communication. You may discover that she expects a monthly visit, or that she prefers a phone call.
    • Show a client you value him by returning phone calls quickly. If you promise to call at a specific time, do so, even if you must report that you’re still searching for the information. Clients would rather have you check in to report status than have you miss a promised call.
    • Hard technical skills tell you what your client needs to do to get a project moving, but “softer” skills – such as listening – help you understand what your client really wants to accomplish.
    • Nothing shows your client’s importance to your firm’s success like investing the time to listen and understand his wants and needs. When we approach clients as an “expert,” we often talk more than we listen. Because a PM’s ability to listen can greatly improve the work experience, listening skills can become an important differentiator in the selection process. So treating the client like someone whose thoughts have value can go a long way in the positioning or selection process.
    • In most instances, you can’t contact a client with no purpose; all contacts must provide content that has value to the client. Giving something the client values is good client care; taking up time while giving her something with no real value is just annoying.
    • Make sure your client stays a vital and committed project team member. Inform him of things – in person, on the phone, and via e-mail – as you do every other team member.
    • Keep your promises – the only promise that has any value to your client is the one you keep. As a municipal client recently told a group of engineers, “Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it!”

    Most client contacts come through the PM; clients like to speak to the PM. Therefore, PMs must learn to listen to their clients and make it apparent that the client’s desires, knowledge, and opinions have value. Further, according to one marketing manager at a major international A/E firm, “In addition to managing the project staff, schedule, and budget, the PM is responsible for maintaining open communications with the client (contact initiated by the PM, rather than responding to the client as the specified point of contact); as well as providing leadership and guidance to the project team and responding to any human relations [issues].”

    “It is vital for [PMs] to build strong relationships with project area residents and stakeholder organizations. By becoming involved in the community aspects of their projects, PMs can strengthen the reputation of their firms and increase cooperation from residents.”
    – Hope Wilson, CPSM, principal, Wilson Business Growth Consultants

    After all, without your client, you have no project. In the end, your clients are like anyone else whose relationship you value – family, friends, mentors, et cetera. They need your active personal attention for the relationship to grow and get stronger. If you don’t take proper care of your client, some other firm or consultant will. Despite all desires to the contrary, providing this active personal attention is probably the most important task a great PM performs.

    Bernie Siben, CPSM, is principal consultant with The Siben Consult LLC (, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. He can be contacted at