January 17, 2018


Project management advice, tips, tools and recommended resources for existing and aspiring project managers.

Big Question: When Are You A Project Manager?

By Michael O’Brochta

When are you a project manager? A simple question; yet it’s being asked and answered by an increasingly large number of people. Indeed, project management was ranked in 2009 by U.S. News and World Report as the third-most valued skill by employers, behind only leadership/negotiation skills and business analysis.

More than 600,000 people from 184 countries are members and/or credential holders in the world’s largest project management professional association, the Project Management Institute. It is a question being asked increasingly by individuals striving to adopt the practices in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and the International Project Management Association (IPMA) certification.

So, how do you know when you are a project manager?

Why It Matters

The questions about being a project manager speak to core qualities associated with project management and project managers. These core qualities are far more significant than certification, or title, or position, or job classification. Indeed, it’s these core qualities that distinguish the great project managers from the remainder of the pack.

A survey of over 5,000 project managers and stakeholders conducted by Andy Crow and documented in his book ‘Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not’ has provided an extraordinary insight into what the top project managers know and do that everyone else does not.

Alpha Project Managers

Alpha project managersThis study focused on identifying the best project managers (referred to as “Alpha project managers”) and then on determining what they did that made them the best. Opinions about these project managers were obtained from their team members, their customers, and their management. The results were quite pronounced. Although both the Alphas and Non-Alphas had similar beliefs, both believed in the value of planning and communication; the Alphas actually dedicated double the amount of time to do planning and double the time for communication. Alphas also acted as if they had authority, even when it was not officially bestowed on them.

Other characteristics have been identified for “real” project managers as well. Jeff Pinto in his research-based book titled: ‘Successful Project Managers: Leading Your Team to Success’ distinguishes between incidental project managers who hope to return to their technical fields and career project managers who which to remain in project management as a career. He reports that the career project manager will more likely have, or seek, a formal project management education, and have, or seek, experience in management and organizational skills. Attitude seems to be a distinguishing characteristic as well. Both Crow and Pinto found that career project managers actually enjoy their work more than their counterparts and that they make decisions to increase their opportunities to advance as project managers. They think and act as goal oriented, not only for the project tasks, but for their careers as well.

Discipline and Willpower

project manager characteristicsKnowing what to do is not the same as doing it. All project managers know about the value of planning, yet according to the Alpha study, only 2% do enough of it. Why? I think the answer has something to do with discipline and willpower.

It is interesting to note that recently published research by Kelly McGonigal in her book titled: ‘The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It’ supports the view that discipline and willpower can be learned and strengthened, much the same way a muscle can. This is great news for project managers who believe, as I do, that “project management is about applying common sense with uncommon discipline.”

For more about the essence of being a project manager, please read a fully referenced 6-page paper at: 


About the author:

when are you a project managerMichael O’Brochta, ACP, PMP has managed hundreds of projects during the past thirty years. Also an experienced line manager, author, lecturer, trainer and consultant and he holds a master’s degree in project management. As Zozer Inc. President, he is helping organizations raise their level of project management performance.  As senior project manager at the Central Intelligence Agency, he led the project management and systems engineering training and certification program to mature practices agency-wide. Recently he led the development of standards and courses for the new U.S. Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers. He also serves at the PMI corporate level on the Ethics Member Advisory Group where he led the development of an ethical decision-making framework.

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