Project Manager: What Makes a Good One?

Last week there was an all-hands meeting. Projects were showcased and team members listed. PMs names were missing in 2 cases (that I caught). I am writing this actually not to complain about the fact (my fellow co-workers, I am really not offended), but to draw the attention to another rather known fact: a PM, especially in the agency environment, is often viewed as some person who routes staff, probably nudges people sometimes, prepping some kind of estimates and…boom, that’s all! How often do you think of a PM role when you think about an agency — creative, digital, med comm, any? Creatives? -yes, that’s obvious. Account? -yes, that’s also pretty damn obvious. PM?-hmmmm..is that the one who took some notes the other day?

Much of this thinking comes from Madmen of the 60’s when they didn’t even have a PM there, it was enough for Don Draper to say he needed it yesterday :) But to be quite frank, the scale of the projects from the 60’s was much more modest. In any case, that is only one side of the coin. The other contributing factor to the thinking is that many PMs agree with that half-role and end up only routing things and taking random notes here and there, OR say things like “I am only responsible for the timeline and estimate, I am not looking at anything else”. Well … Anyone can route, really. 2 people out of 3 can take some notes, and do a timeline. I was arguing with many senior PMs about that, and keep telling this to more junior — you need to show your work and your expertise are valuable. Overall, that extra mile you take will make people look at your role under a different angle. Can people do the job without the PM? Absolutely! All are grown-ups with some level of self-organisation, who can talk to each other and figure out sooner or later what needs to be done and when. Like the body can compensate the affected areas, the team can take upon some of the PM-ing duties. But that’s really not why I am writing this.

I want to share my POV on what differentiates a good PM from an okay one. What is that extra mile?

  1. Make an effort to understand the market your client is in/brand purpose and story/product you are working on. You might argue that you are not a Strategy lead, or Copy, or Art, or whomever else, but PM is the glue for the team and the gatekeeper for the work to go out. PM is that team member who is detail oriented (from the millions of job descriptions where we see this word) and who sees the bigger picture. Depends on the company, but we are often close to many pieces within the same program, and should flag things that have a ripple effect or inconsistent, which is only possible if you understand what this client/brand/project are about.
  2. Have a voice in the room, have your own perspective, which is useful and efficient only if you do your homework from bullet #1. I am definitely not saying you should be the loudest person in the room and I am not saying that a PM should start wearing Copy, Art or Dev hats. Very often it’s beneficial to wear the Regular Human hat and bring this vision to the table when appropriate. Do you think the inherited links style is confusing and inconsistent, and you actually noticed that we started changing this out on other pieces? Say it. Don’t think you are not entitled to make comments like that because it’s not you AOE or AOR. Say it. People miss things, many resources are working across several brands and start confusing things, it is only welcome and appreciated if you can catch things earlier in the process. You are helping the team. On this note, don’t feel demotivated if your suggestions are turned down by the people who are actually leading Design or Dev, it’s a healthy conversation, and your perspective is one of many.
  3. Be a true partner in crime to your Account counterpart. One of my earlier roles was in Account management many lives ago, but I still have a PTSD from the times when I needed to tell the client that the deliverable was delayed and… didn’t have a PM to have my back. There are different Account managers, and let’s just assume I am not talking about the ones who take a PM’s e-mail and add “Greetings and thank you” to it. Overall, Account team are the people who are responsible for the deliverables in the eyes of your client (=person/entity that pays agency the money needed to pay your salary btw). The division of labor is as follows: AM works externally, PM — internally. You need to back up your AM when needed, flag things that might be delayed in advance (and not 5 mins before eod), be available if it’s a late deliverable as many things can go wrong. Account team work hard on many specific client deliverables that are not visible to the rest of the team. If you are able to occasionally do certain account things like marking up client comments, or sharing screen in one of the AM meetings because you know your Account lead has been sharing non-stop in the past 3hrs, or dividing and conquering on preparing the submission — if you are able to do this, do it. It’s all about partnership. There will be times when you will need your Account Lead to have your back, trust me.
  4. I can’t believe I am stating the obvious in this post, but it worries me that I see many PMs stopped taking meeting notes these days, so I’ll say it — take the damn notes. Not only it is expected of you, but you will make your and your team’s life easier by saving time on going back and forth the next day after the meeting. Often, people would understand the same thing differently and if not written down, 50% of agreements during the meeting will be forgotten in the next 10 mins after it ends. Take notes, send to the team with the action items and expectations, get on the same page with the whole team.
  5. Be cool and prioritize. We live in the world when everything is due yesterday. Sometimes it is and that’s when you need to activate the urgency mode and crunch those deliverables. With all the other cases — prioritize (that’s your job) and negotiate. Teams can not work with the sense of urgency all the time, if to keep this pattern, you’ll have “The boy who cried the wolf” situation, when the team will not get that urgency reservoir activated when it’s really needed.
  6. Last but not least and actually, goes in hand with the previous bullet — care about your team. When I was preparing to a PMP exam, there were about 5 management styles outlined. Every style has the right to be, but I strongly believe that empathy is the way to go. Clients are important, but we shouldn’t strive to please our clients by the means of burning out the team.

Hoping at least one aspiring PM out there will read this and join us in augmenting the way the profession is seen. Open for your counterarguments by the way — controversy served the cause of truth, they say!

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