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Project Profitability: Transitioning project managers to firm leaders

Project Profitability: Transitioning project managers to firm leaders

By Howard Birnberg

 A fundamental element of an engineering or architectural firm is its project management system. This system enables firms to complete projects successfully and hence solve their client’s problems. Project managers must lead this effort. Effective project managers have the communications skills, financial insights, people skills, and other capabilities that allow them to successfully manage profitable projects. These same skills also equip them to be future firm leaders. What do current leaders need to do to help to make this transition happen?

Define the project manager

This process begins by an understanding of the characteristics of strong/effective project managers (and future firm leaders). Some of these characteristics include:

Develop strong organizational skills to deal effectively with the many issues and activities confronting project managers on a daily basis. This is particularly challenging for professionals such as civil engineers, who handle a high volume of relatively small projects.

Be a generalist to manage the varied activities on projects such as budgeting, financial analysis, scheduling, human resource issues, marketing, client relations, etc. This also includes the many different types of services required on projects, ranging from programming and scope definition to commissioning.

Have insight to recognize the real issues confronting the project team, the client’s primary concerns, understand who the real decision makers are, what the project constraints are, etc.

Develop the ability to monitor the project scope, schedule and budget. Information is only of value and use if the project manager understands what it is telling her or him, understands how to take corrective action, and makes appropriate decisions.

Strong communication’s skills are essential, particularly writing and public speaking ability. Effective project managers and firm leaders must also be good listeners.

Gain experience in managing projects and project teams. Working for firms with well-developed project management systems is a great training ground for future firm managers. Firms with good mentoring programs can accelerate this process.

Additionally, the responsibilities of strong project managers must be well defined. The tools to support them must be in place. These include some of the following:

  • job cost reporting systems;
  • financial reports;
  • project management tools;
  • scope management tools;
  • clear billing systems;
  • risk management systems;
  • quality management systems;
  • scheduling tools;
  • information management systems; and
  • dozens of others.

Project managers must be brought into the firm’s marketing process. While current firm leaders will direct the marketing effort, project managers must be regular participants. In particular, if decisions are to be made regarding a potential project’s scope of services, its schedule, and budget, the project manager must have a major role.

For project managers (and firm leaders) to be effective, they must have a reasonable equivalence of authority and responsibility. A manager cannot be held accountable for meeting a budget, staying within a schedule, or meeting a project program if he or she has had little role in establishing these items. They must have some control over the resources required to meet these targets, and firm leaders must try to minimize “knee-jerk” changes to project teams.

A useful tool for helping to define the role of your project managers and project management system is a written project management manual. This is among the most important training and management tools for project managers as it documents how project management is to be undertaken in your firm. Typically, the manual is used as a reference document by experienced project managers and as an orientation tool for new staff members at the middle and senior levels of your firm. Often, designers provide copies of all or part of their manual to clients in an effort to inform them of the firm’s procedures and methods of operation. This can clarify critical issues in the early stage of a project.

(Note: The Association for Project Managers has a “Prototypical Project Management Manual” available free. This 35-page manual may be obtained by emailing the author at hbirnberg@gmail.com. Provide a return email address; the manual cannot be sent via snail mail.)

Equip project managers for leadership

To provide project managers with the required skills to be future firm leaders, a regular training program is essential (also consider paying for courses at local universities). Most firm managers are oblivious to the how’s and why’s of an ongoing training program. Continuing education of staff and management requires a commitment, a plan, and a budget. Unfortunately, most firms leave this process up to each individual, clearly subjecting the firm’s future to chance.

Farsighted firm managers offer opportunities for staff and management to learn or improve their skills. Methods vary, ranging from in-house seminars, to paid tuition at local colleges. Training improves skills, serves as a morale booster, and as a benefit while protecting a firm’s future. Employee turnover is often the rationalization for not providing formal training: “Why train someone else’s staff at our expense?” is the philosophy.

Cross training

Design and construction organizations must provide cross training for all staff members. There are three primary benefits to cross training:

  1. Staff develops the necessary skills in the event of turnover, vacations, illness, etc. It is vital to maintain continuity of service to clients. Cross-trained staff can more easily maintain your standards.
  2. Expanding workloads will require additional trained staff and project managers to service new and existing projects and facilities.
  3. Cross training allows everyone to better perform his or her job. Understanding why information must be in a particular form, how work is to be completed, team members’ information requirements, etc. all help to improve everyone’s performance.

Mentoring programs

Mentoring programs exist in many forms; however, they can be broadly classified into two major groupings — formal and informal mentoring programs.

A formal mentoring program requires a significant commitment of resources. Extensive record keeping is required, training budgets must be expanded, administrative systems for the program need to be developed, and lost billable time must be anticipated and monitored.

There are typically four steps to the development of a formal mentoring program.

Description — Each job/position in the organization must have a written position description. Career paths must be laid out for each job grouping such as “project managers.” The criteria for advancing into a particular job/position must be described. The criteria for performing a particular job/position must also be outlined. This step requires the organization to develop a process for mentoring. The firm must evaluate each position, staff advancement practices, training needs, etc. It also provides benchmarks to measure performance and goal setting. For staff, this step provides a “road map” for advancement and improvement. Obviously, the achievement of goals must bring the appropriate reward such as a promotion, salary increase, etc.

Skill assessment — Each less-experienced individual participating in the mentoring process must first be assessed as to their current skill level and performance. This provides a benchmark for them and for the firm to measure their growth. Mentors must also be assessed for their capabilities in meeting the requirements of their role.

Mentoring — The actual mentoring process is time-consuming and continues over a long period of time. Implementation may require less-experienced staff to seek an advanced degree, take college courses, attend professional development seminars, read books, or undertake many other activities. The mentor must monitor and encourage this effort. Eventually, a mentor’s role may end and a new individual may take over as mentor.

Performance assessment — The success or failure of the mentoring effort must be regularly assessed. This process must be on an individual basis and for the program as a whole. The mentoring program must be continually appraised and adjusted to reflect the needs, capabilities, and growth of your staff.

An Informal mentoring programs is the most common type of mentoring program and is widely practiced in the construction industry. Informal programs occur in two types:

Kismet — In this type of informal program, mentoring is left to fate as younger and older staff develop friendships. In some cases, a more-experienced individual is committed to the development of junior staff and seeks to help them advance. Generally, the firm plays little or no role in this mentoring process.

Active encouragement — In some firms, the informal mentoring process is developed by encouraging more-experienced staff to mentor junior members of the team. Activities may be planned to foster this effort, budgets may provide funds for mentoring and training programs, and a general atmosphere of concern for the development of younger staff may pervade the organization.


Transitioning project managers to firm leaders is a long-term process requiring the careful selection, training, and mentoring of your top candidates. Not all will succeed at making this transition and firms must regularly groom individuals as future firm leaders. Without this continual infusion of “new blood,” your firm may stagnate or fail.

Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers (https://www.apminfo.com). He may be reached at 312-664-2300 or hbirnberg@gmail.com.