What Got You Here is Wrong for Performing Here!

Wrong for Performing Here: This article is for those who are “moving up” in their project-oriented  organization, and for those who wish to. Not that everyone must do so. In fact, some of the most-competent, highest-performing contributors are those who are so good at what they do—and receive the recognition needed to sustain it. So good, that they have no desire to do anything different. For the rest of us, however, there can be both excitement and danger in “moving on up”. We explore some of those factors here.

Wrong for Performing Here: From Team Member to PM

Team Members who are high-performers sometimes have the opportunity to “move up” to Project Team Lead or Project Manager. The expectation is that your high performance will “rub off” on others. Sometimes that works, sometimes not, depending in part on your interpersonal skills. Or, or as the IPMA ICB (Individual Competence Baseline) terms them, your Behavioral Attributes.

The challenge for this high-performer: it is easier to do the toughest jobs yourself than to coach others through them. Not only that: high-performers can become addicted to the adrenalin rush of significant accomplishment. They may feel starved by the delayed trickle of appreciation they receive as a Project Manager. Why? Now, your organization just expects that level of accomplishment from you.

The actions that brought you notice and acclaim as an individual contributor? They are the wrong things for you to focus upon as a Project Manager. Instead of brilliantly achieving, you must now carefully delegate, coach and nurture. Not at all the same set of competences, are they?

Wrong for Performing Here: From Small, to Medium, to Large PM

Often, the progression as a Project Manager is to move from Small Projects, to Medium, and then to Large ones. And yet, the most-important competences that you demonstrate in Small Projects are the least important in Medium projects. Then in Large projects, they significantly change again.

We’ve known for years about the Fourple factor: That the skills, competences and performances in a thousand-hour project will work well for a twice-as-large project. They will work with some adaptation on a three-times-the-size project. And are exactly wrong for a project that is four times the size. The Fourple factor is one reason why the wonderful Small project manager underperforms on a Medium project, And usually totally fails on a Large one.

There are many different dimensions of this Small-Medium-Large (and larger) project phenomenon, including:

  • Coordinating while mostly doing, to leading half-time teams, to directing full-time, multiple teams.
  • Managing downward, to managing across to managing upward, to managing outward.
  • A continuum of approaches from mostly Tactical to mostly Strategic.

It is shocking the number of people who do not grasp the difference between competences needed at different project sizes. Let’s highlight one competence you should master in this project-size progression. It will help and accelerate all your following progressions. First, learn how to manage your Manager. Second, learn how to manage your Manager’s Manager. Managing two levels up and down is a consistent competence in high-performing, Project Managers and Managers alike.

Wrong for Performing Here: From PM to Manager

You would think that the progression from Project Manager to Manager would be easy. After all, the high-performing Project Manager has learned how to manage downward, across, upwards, and out. And in fact for some, it is relatively easy. The big change here, even in the most projectized of organizations, comes from two areas:

  • Increased pressure from above.
  • Increased demand from below.

Simple, right? Well, not really. Let’s say you move up from a key, well-respected PM who has learned how to get what you need for your projects to succeed. Now, as a Manager, you are a competitor for your organization’s scarce resources. In addition, you now spend a significant amount of your working hours (all 20 of them per day) marketing your organization. You are doing so internally and externally, while defending it from the latest arbitrary 15% budget cut. And without cutting any actual programs.

Meetings with other Managers become part of the ritual. Now you must learn how to turn them into your strategic advantage to supply your teams with resources. Or, you find ways to avoid the least-effective peer Managers. This cuts you off from typical high-level negotiations of needed trade-outs: “OK, I’ll give you my greatest Business Analyst for a month if you’ll loan me your Procurement Officer”.

New Manager Failures

Some new Managers try the same actions that made them a great PM, such as single-minded focus on one set of clear objectives. This is exactly the wrong approach when you are juggling a dozen projects at once. Others risk becoming a blockage in the vital information flow up and down the organization. Or worse, become a stovepipe, without any real elaboration of information coming down, or appropriate filtering of information sent up.

The worst of it is, you were probably a great Project Manager. But you have only two years (or so) in most organizations to learn how to be an effective Middle Manager. In this role, you must add value to everything you touch. If not, you will become someone who hates their job, and is in no position to change it. Of course, we learned about the Peter Principle years ago, but still see it in every organization.

Wrong for Performing Here: From Manager to Executive

You would think the next level would be easier, right? Manager to Executive is just a small additional bump upwards… Well, in some small organizations it can be. But we have seen organizations where there are 12 levels between first-level team member and the Chief Executive. There are multiple reasons for all those levels in-between. In some organizations, the upward-mobile Manager goes through “Rotation”. This rotation could involve postings in other disciplines of the organization, or other parts of the World–or both. It could involve experience in both Staff and Line Managerial functions.

The greatest benefit of these rotations and upward migrations is to move you, to different viewpoints. For example, from an Engineering Manager’s perspective (narrow and deep) to an Executive perspective (wide and shallow). All while not losing any of your original strengths and competences. Of course, this is a generalization, but you can see the differences. And, the market sector of your organization affects the extent of changed perspective that you need, as does your personal style.

We are talking about changing, over a period of time, the way you think; perhaps moving from a details orientation to a “big picture” one. Or, moving from a useful focus on the numbers to balancing that with a focus on the people. The good news is that thinking style is malleable, while the sociologists say behavioral style is not. That is one reason why you might think that manager you used to work for is still a jerk.

There is one problem with this level of transition (for those who accept this mission impossible): The upward movement becomes slower, limited by the movement of those above you. Except, of course, in times of major reorganization, economic trauma, or fortunate occurrences.


One example of this upward movement involves a Finance Manager in a major Utility company that we worked with in the 1980s. He was a relatively young Manager, who was incredibly effective and insightful. When I asked him about his upward-ambitions, he said his target was to be CEO.

I asked, what he was going to do about the perfectly-adequate and supportive Manager who was his boss. He replied, “I’m gonna push him up ahead of me all the way.” And he did. It’s a shame that we have seen some other Managers who have more interest in keeping their people down. I learned a lot from that Finance Manager, about how to demonstrate your “value add” to your Manager and beyond.

Wrong for Performing Here: The Two-year Lag

By now, you have probably experienced a bit of agreement, and some disagreement with this article. This is probably for good reasons, But to add more discord: your most useful take-away could be to understand the Two-year Lag. In some organizations, you might unofficially fill a role for up to years before you are promoted. Only then are you given the recognition and authority of the position you’ve been filling. Here is a scenario about Jo, that illustrates the Two-year Lag, and its potential benefits.

Jo worked as a Team Lead for two years, effectively performing most of the work of the Project Manager. The person in that role just seemed to be spending most of his time in meetings. Finally, Jo was promoted to Project Manager. In that role, she learned to appreciate the need to spend some of her time in meetings, in addition to working with the team. And, she decided to “bring along” some of her team members who demonstrated an interest in taking on more responsibilities.

She grasped that those who wished to progress in their organizations must do two things to realize that wish:

  • Don’t just keep doing the things that got you the promotion. Instead, also master the things you need when you get your next promotion.
  • Bring along the talent and responsibility breadth of your team members so it is easier for you to move up again. And at the same time, continue to improve the performance of your group.
Career Consequences

I have seen too many cases where a great PM was repeatedly passed over in promotions. Why? Because of Manager or Executive fear that there was no one good enough in the group to replace him or her. Then, of course, the Project Manager left to become a Manager at another company.

This Two-year Lag phenomenon is an exception to the rule expressed in title of this posting. Of course, understanding the exception helps to prove any rule. And another exception comes to mind: Interpersonal skills—leadership, persuasiveness, communication, flexibility, appreciation of differences—are essential. But that is another article.

Wrong for Performing Here: Why You Care

As explained in the beginning of this article, many people are happy with their current role, and the rewards you receive from it. Others are ambitious, a path that is exciting and terrifying. Back in “the good old days”, attentive Managers would take all their talent “under their wings” and help them grow and develop. The rationale was that the primary job of a Manager was to grow their people. Over the last 40 years, that has changed for the majority of Managers. However, we do still find a few stellar examples of the old tradition here and there.

You care about this topic because today, you are the one in charge of your career, your growth, your challenges, and your rewards. Now, more than ever before, you need to demonstrate that: Most of What Got You Here is Only the Beginning of Your Performance here.