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The Mad Hatter: How Many Hats Do Project Managers Have to Wear?

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The Mad Hatter: How Many Hats Do Project Managers Have to Wear?

person wearing a lot of hats

If you’re a project manager – and if you are reading this you probably are… or deal with them often on a team – then you know that you often need to be a jack of all trades in order to get things done for your projects. The project manager must wear a number of “hats” in order to successfully lead the project team, customer and stakeholders and to bring home a successful project. From my experiences, this is my key list of 5 hats project managers wear… as you read be considering what other hats you might add to the list…

The resource manager hat. 

One key responsibility (ie. hat) for the project manager on any given project is that of resource manager. I don’t mean actually managing the individual resources on a daily basis as if they reported to the PM forever. I’ve usually worked in professional services organizations where the project team resources are part of a matrix environment and tech leads, developers, business analysts, integration specialists and quality analysts and everyone else who might be needed are assigned to the project as and when needed but still belong to their daily manager and department. They are assigned to – essentially “loaned out” – several projects at a time to attempt to reach 100%+ utilization continually… but project team work is their main purpose.

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The financial guru hat. 

The project manager is managing – for the most part – someone else’s money. Sure, you’re accountable to your senior management…probably even the CFO of your company… for the profitability of the project. But the funding comes from the customer and a project budget that goes crazy could cause a project to get canceled in mid-stream. That could end up being a complete waste of the customer’s dollars… but at any rate it will not end in high client satisfaction or a retained customer. Manage the budget closely. Get new actual charges against the project every week from accounting, revise the project budget forecast and analyze what the budget health looks like every week. 

A 10% budget overrun can be corrected fairly easily. A 50% or 60% overrun can not… and may not ever be corrected. If you’re managing the budget closely every week, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever go past about 10% over and you can quickly plan with your team – and possibly even your project customer – on what corrective action you may need to take. Your customer wants you to succeed. They are there to help. Trust me.

The humble servant hat. 

The project manager is in place to lead the team, to lead the customer, to lead all stakeholders, to make decisions, and to take all blame. Seriously… if you’re in it for the accolades, you’re in the wrong profession. The target is always on the PM’s head. But accolades usually go to the entire team and the good PM isn’t really looking for the accolades anyway. If I’m making coffee at home like I do every morning it’s a good pot if my wife considers it – in her words – “unremarkable.” Basically, it’s as planned since one pot should be about the same as the last or the next one. If it’s remarkable, then something likely happened like it’s too weak or whatever. The best thing that can happen for the PM is to lead an “unremarkable” project – thus, the humble servant hat.

The strong leader hat. 

One of the most important characteristics that a project manager must exude is confidence.  A weak PM will lose control of the team, the customer, the scope, and ultimately their job.  A customer will sense the weakness and either use that to take over control of the project or possibly request that the project manager be replaced.  Skilled technical resources will never look up to their project manager as a competent leader if they sense they are weak, wishy-washy in their team management decision-making, or simply lack the knowledge to ‘pull it off.’

A great Project Manager must be ready to take charge and not afraid to make tough or unpopular decisions – or on the spot decisions sometimes without as much information as they would like to have.  They also must be ready to fight for their project, their customer, and/or their team members.  That could be escalating issues – including resource availability issues – to executive management in order to ensure the success of their project.

The on-the-spot reporter hat. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the number one job of the project manager is effective and efficient communication. Without that key skill, then the project is likely going to have some breakdowns or possibly even utter failure due to project team members and customer players and other key stakeholders not being on the same page throughout the project. And the onus for that will always fall to the project manager.

First and foremost, the project manager must be a great communicator.  They must be an effective and efficient communicator who can keep the project team, customer and management on the same page throughout the life of the engagement.  I feel that this is Job One for the project manager – all communication (at least KEY communication) on the project needs to originate or go through the project manager.  The best comment I ever got from one of my team members was one of my business analysts telling me that they received more emails and updates from me than any other project manager they were working with and always felt like they were well informed and up to date.  That should be the goal of the project manager.

Summary / call for input

In my opinion, these are the key “hats” project managers wear on each project to help ensure project success. Essentially, these are the key characteristics of a very good project manager – one who will lead teams well and realize more project successes than the next PM. 

Readers – what’s on your list?

Does this list match up well with your idea of the hats the successful project manager must wear? What other hats would you add to the list to ensure complete project coverage? Please share your thoughts and experiences and let’s discuss.

Brad EgelandBrad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. He has been named the “#1 Provider of Project Management Content in the World” with over 7,000 published articles, ebooks, white papers and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV.

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