Project vs. People Management

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Managing projects and managing/supervising require many of the same skills and abilities; however, the jobs are dissimilar in their authority and technical expertise. Both present interesting and challenging career paths for those who have leadership, communication, and organizational skills. 

Skills Required for Effective Management

Both disciplines require strong leadership skills. Project managers and supervisors lead teams to achieve common goals and, to be a leader, people have to follow. Work does not get done when team members don't fill their roles, and everyone gets frustrated, and while individuals may face disciplinary action, leaders are the ones whose jobs are most in jeopardy when targets are missed.

A common adage about project managers is they spend 90% of their time communicating. Checking on the status of a task that a member is committed to completing, writing status reports, and holding meetings are just a few of the responsibilities managers have. Supervisors also set expectations with their staff, gather information, and report on the team’s work

Organizational skills are important for project managers and supervisors. Project managers tend to be planners by nature who thrive on establishing a plan and executing it. They even have plans within plans like a communication plan within a project’s work breakdown structure. Supervisors need to keep track of what their staff members are doing. Supervisors ensure everyone is working on the right things at the right time. They corral the work of individual contributors to help their efforts be most useful to their employing business, nonprofit or government agency.

Using Appropriate Leverage to Complete Tasks

Authority - Project managers do not hold management authority over their project team members whereas supervisors can hire, fire, discipline and compel their staff to follow orders. Without the threat of personnel action in their back pockets, This dynamic requires project leaders to have excellent management skills. Granted, supervisors should rarely threaten personnel action, but they have the ability, and many times, that is enough of a threat.

While project managers cannot fire their project team members for poor performance, they have ways of holding team members accountable. On the front end of a project, a project manager works with supervisors to gain commitment from them on how much time and effort will be expected of their staff who will participate in the project. When project managers and supervisors are on the same page in this respect, it is easier for project managers to outline how a project team member is not contributing appropriately.

A project manager’s first instinct is not to go to a team member’s supervisor when a problem occurs. Project managers set up mechanisms for team members to hold one another accountable. Regular status meetings where team members commit to executing tasks within specified timeframes help the team members hold one another accountable. A project manager does not want to be the only one calling out people on missed deadlines and poor deliverable quality.

When all else fails, a project manager gets help from a project sponsor. This person has the organizational clout to do things neither a project manager nor an ordinary supervisor can do. A project sponsor can go above a supervisor to have a project team member removed or coached to better performance.

Expertise - Something that makes project managers approach their work differently than supervisors is that a project manager is not necessarily an expert in a project’s subject matter while supervisors are experts in staff business. A project manager is an expert in project management processes who brings together differently qualified experts to achieve a project’s goals.

The project team solves a project’s problems and issues. The project manager provides structure for the team to do so. A supervisor is more participatory in devising business solutions because he or she often has a similar degree of expertise on the matter as his or her staff.