What Differentiates a Great Project Manager?

Good Project Managers identify project milestones and articulate the steps required to accomplish each one.  They ensure that everything is documented, and plan scheduled tasks to move the project through each phase.  They will facilitate meetings, track actions, and send summaries.

The differentiator between a “good” Project Manager, and a “GREAT” Project Manager, however, is embracing the concept that “The Buck Stops Here.” 

“The Buck Stops Here” was a phrase popularized by US President Harry S. Truman, and Merriam-Webster says that it is “used to say that one accepts a responsibility and will not try to give it to someone else.” 

Great Project Managers are all about that.

Here is an example from an owner’s rep Project Manager on a large construction project. 

Installation on a large gas and liquid supply system for a new production facility was at risk of becoming delayed.  The tanks were to be leased but the piping was built and owned by the client.  Part of the lease deal was that the supplier would provide design services for the filling station and pipelines to the tanks themselves.  However, the tank supplier was busy, and could not get their design team’s focus on this particular project. The entire design creation and approval, not to mention starting the actual work itself, was quickly moving into critical path.

What is a Project Manager to do?

There are two choices: 

  1. Good: Continue to discuss the line item in weekly meetings, email the supplier about their action items, and hope that they would get it done
  2. Great: Act

This Project Manager, remembering that “The Buck Stops Here,” chose the latter.

  • First, the PM documented the history of requests and responses (or lack thereof) with the supplier 
  • Next, the PM discussed those with the Project Director (the boss) and obtained his support to act 
  • Third, the PM went into action 

PMs are not design engineers – and are not expected to be! However, in a project such as this, the owner had a design engineer on the team.  There also were several employees on the owner side who were the ultimate users of the building available for consult. The PM even managed to get the supplier’s representative out to site for a meeting.  Together, the PM, owner’s rep design engineer, supplier’s rep, and owner’s user team walked the site.  The PM took notes and pictures of the site while the design engineer sketched what the users wanted, providing input as to what was feasible from an engineering standpoint.  The supplier’s representative basically just tagged along, happy for someone else to get the design work completed.  

The meeting took less than an hour and at the end, the group all agreed to the sketched design.  Again, the PM documented everything and sent copies out to the team for reference. The PM was then able to move forward by sending the design to the General Contractor and Subcontractors to complete the construction work. 

This type of situation, where something is delayed because no one wants to take ownership, happens frequently in projects.

Someone must take responsibility and accountability to be the point person and facilitate the right team to take action to get the work done. 

That person rarely gets any glory – after all, she did not design the great layout, make the actual product, test it or approve the results.  Yet, without the diligent Project Manager striving for the ultimate “Done,” that buck has a funny way of not stopping.