The Dog and the Tail

There is an old expression: something about the tail wagging the dog, the gist being the person who should be in control is in fact controlled by those he should be controlling. Apologies for the tautology but you get my drift.

The traditional project had a PM at the top of the pyramid and the next level would be site manager, project planner and contract administrator. the next level foremen, supervisers etc. Everyone new their role. The PM reported to the Building/ Construction/ Operations manager and they in turn reported to the Rgional/General Manager. Life was simple, comunication flowed up and down the organisation and everyone new their career path, what they were responsible for, and who they were responsible to.

Times have changed. In a world where the most junior cadet can email the client’s managing director and the first thing the PM knows about it is when the sh*t hits the fan, control of communication has become like knitting fog. OK we have Acconex (but don’t get me started) and other project controls, now that term did not exist a few years ago in Australia. Have you ever heard such American nonesonse “Project Controls Manager”. There is only one person in control – the PM, not some glorified QS.

Anyway I digress.

Back to the tail and the dog. Because the construction industry, in particular within the resources sector, is booming, we have had to hire people who if times were tough we simply would not entertain them. People who were supervising the construction of timber framed housing are now erecting structural steel, not on a domestic sub-division but inside a complex, dangerous production facility. Putting it simply – different rules, procedures, practices and trades. So these inexperienced “newbies” start to rely on advice not from the people they report to as that would show their shortcomings, but they ask the workforce. Before long the guys on the tools are asking for scale rules, contacting suppliers, organising deliveries and bacically running the job themselves. The canny PM spots this early and sorts it out, but if there is a long workforce it can go un-noticed until either someone gets hurt or the jungle grapevine tips him off.

Do you blame the person that hired these people? Normally you would say yes, but when you cannot get anyone who wants to be a supervisor and earn $50K pa less than those he supervisors, you eventually hire someone, anyone.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Trajan's Column - Roman Soldiers Building a Fo...

All the successful project managers I have known have had a common thread. They have certain traits that distinguish them from other PMs or other members of the project team.

I decided to hit the keyboard on the subject as I have been talking with perspective employers about the next project. Invariably the question they all ask is what are your strengths? (easy peasy) but you know what is next – what are your weaknesses?

Now I have hire many staff over the years from Project Directors on $2billion projects to site clerks, and I have asked the same questions. The hard part is divorcing the kind of person you want as the employer and deciding on the right person for the project. I have hired people who could be the most difficult, recalcitrant and plain bloody minded but they were right for the job. I have also hired people that I thought at interview were marvelous people, and they were, but you would not put them in charge of a free bar.

Now when I am asked about my strengths I admit that I trot out the normal stuff. I will use one word for each: team, relationships, example, foresight, leadership, tenacious, focussed, driven, professional, experience etc etc. I usually add a few others that satisfied clients have used about some completed projects: the shark, hit-the-ground-running, and my favorite which I was described as by a very influential Arab developer – Mr Wolf

So how to respond to the “Weakness” question. You need to be honest. I have had people become more humble than Uriah Heap and advise them to try social work not project management. I have had some who have no weaknesses (next candidate please). The secret is be prepared for the question as it always gets asked.

But returning to the common thread and PM’s traits there is one weakness that does surface in many of us. That is we take over a team member’s critical tasks sometimes if that person is struggling. Yes as good leaders we know that people make mistakes and we council, train, “mother hen” them. We don’t let them go under. But the response during the interview is usually on the lines:

“some people may see it as a weakness but when a team member is struggling with a critical task I go out of my way to help them achieve the goal they are striving for”

My response is as Mr Wolf “I solve problems”