The 7 Cardinal Sins of Managing Project Managers

Written by Charles Nelson - December 11, 2019

The idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, or “Cardinal” Sins, has been around since the 4th Century AD. They were then (and perhaps still are): wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. They originated from the works of Greek monk, Evagrius Ponticus. The Catholic Church used the concept of the deadly sins to help people restrain their ‘evil’ desires before misdeeds could occur. It’s not clear why they were called “Cardinal” sins, except that Cardinals, in particular, should refrain from succumbing to any of them. Tough order!

The idea has been adapted widely ever since. As we do here: The Seven Cardinal sins of the Project Director (or design firm Principal) are:

  • Refusing to “let go” (fear of irrelevancy)
  • Delegating responsibility without authority
  • Not knowing when to get out of the way
  • Failing to coach & mentor (don’t pass the torch)
  • Over-riding the PM’s authority
  • Poaching team expertise
  • “Do as I say, not as I do”

Let’s take these in order:

1. Refusing to “let go” (fear of irrelevancy)

We at PSMJ Resources encounter this problem with amazing frequency, especially when we are called in to assist ownership transfer from a 1st generation firm to the 2nd generation. In a recent interview with the next generation of owners in a merger & acquisition project, the leader of the next generation said: “Fred’s greatest fear is that someone else might bring in more work than him.” We see this “turf protection” or “relevancy” syndrome all the time.

Founders with this fear are unable to move to a true coaching & mentoring role, and therefore almost always commit the 4th sin as well.

2. Delegating responsibility without authority

Firms routinely delegate responsibility without delegating corresponding authority – and in the process hobble their project managers. Frankly, we have got it “cart before the horse”. It really ought to be the other way around: We should delegate authority (the ability to make decisions binding the firm), but should RETAIN responsibility for the consequences of that delegation ourselves.

Of course, to be able to do that means we TRAIN our PMs very well. We test their skills, we coach and mentor them adequately, and we back them up even when they get it wrong. It’s the only way they will ever become the firm leaders of the future.

3. Not knowing when to get out of the way

More than a few Project Directors, instead of preparing a PM to get on with the job, continue to “second-guess” the PM’s decisions, every step of the way – and in the process, devaluing their contributions, their relevance, and their morale.

There is a critical difference between telling someone what the parameters of the outcome must be, and telling them exactly how to achieve those parameters. If you think they don’t know what to do – then either you haven’t properly prepared them to do it – or you assigned roles to people beyond their capability. In either case: your responsibility, not theirs.

4. Failing to coach & mentor (don’t pass the torch)

Only the wisest founders and firm principals “get” the fact that their most important and primary role is to work themselves out of a job: to prepare the next generation to take over. Far too many are intent on hanging onto clients, and hanging on to control.

What they don’t understand is that the next generation really will keep them around if they have useful skills that the next generation needs. At the very apex of these useful skills is the deep knowledge they possess, and their willingness to pass this knowledge on to the next generations.

Neglect this duty, and you’ll be tossed out as soon as the next generation can organise it.

5. Over-riding the PM’s authority

Some principals and project directors, especially founders, combine the above four sins in a devastating way: They extend authority, and then pull it back when it suits them: effectively demoting their “direct reports”.

If you want your best people to leave the firm, and take your projects, your clients, and other good staff with them, there is no better or faster way to make it happen.

6. Poaching team expertise

We see this syndrome most often in multi-disciplinary engineering firms: Discipline leaders (e.g. Head, Civil Engineering) put their favourite clients above firm-wide inter-disciplinary clients, and routinely pull off key project personnel to work on projects the Discipline head sees as more important than the moment. The effect: It ultimately destroys the PM’s ability to deliver the project on time, and introduces big inefficiencies through re-training of replacement staff.

Solution: Project Directors for major projects MUST have greater authority than Discipline Heads when it comes to staff allocation – a solution that the Discipline Heads typically resent, and undermine.

7. “Do as I say, not as I do”

Perhaps this one goes without saying, yet we see it all the time. People follow leaders. They don’t go where the leader tells them to go if the leader is out on the golf course or on her yacht, or goes home at 5:00 o’clock, while expecting the staff to work back.

LEAD FROM THE FRONT. They won’t “walk in your shoes” unless the mud on them is still moist.

Ed. Note: The 4th sin, pride, was thought to be the “most deadly” of them all. A future post will elaborate.

Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA, AECPM

February 4, 2019