Nervous Nellie Project Managers
By Lonnie Pacelli
Several years back a colleague of mine (I’ll call the colleague “Nellie”) was managing a very high-visibility project. This project was high on the radar of key executives all the way up to the CEO of the company and any major mis-steps would send fireworks up the chain faster than lightning. This was one of those “thrill-seeker” projects; definitely high risk but also of high reward if the project was successful. Nellie was up to the challenge and willingly accepted the assignment.
The project started off just fine. Everyone seemed to understand what they needed to do and tasks were getting done on time and to expected quality. Nellie was feeling pretty good about things and saw calm sailing ahead. Then the always-present-but-rarely-expected Murphy showed up (for those not familiar Murphy’s Law is “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”).
Several sizable issues cropped up on the project. The issues were of such magnitude that if they didn’t get resolved immediately the project ran a significant risk of failure. As these issues reared their ugly head, Nellie grew more and more anxious and was visibly panic-stricken. Nellie’s communications became more and more erratic and levels of detail were horribly matched to the audiences Nellie was including. Nellie justified the actions as a way of ensuring that “everyone affected knew everything that was going on”; unfortunately many of the execs and stakeholders started ignoring Nellie’s communications because they were either not applicable to their business or at too low a level of detail to understand. Long story short the project ended up completing but not without a lot of support and guidance from other managers and with Nellie being stripped of decision making authority and relegated to a largely administrative role. Ugly.
I’m not going to mince words here. Project managers are expected to be in control and not lose their cool when things start going south. Any time I see a project manager say “I’m nervous” in a public forum I take them aside and tell them in no uncertain terms that, as the project leader, they need to be the one who is rock solid and steady at the stick when the bombs are going off. Think about a situation where you’re a passenger in a commercial airliner and you’re about to go through turbulence. The pilot gets on the public address system in a very calm and controlled voice and lets you know that the ride is going to be a bit bumpy and to get in your seats with your seat belts fastened. Even though you know the turbulence is coming, the pilot has let you know that he or she is in control and will get you through the turbulence. Now imagine the same scenario but the pilot gets on the public address system and yells “HHHEEEEEELLLLLLLPPPPPPP!” Are you going to have confidence in the pilot’s ability to navigate the turbulence? Most likely not. It’s no different with a PM managing a project. If the PM is wigging out then the project team members are going to be much less inclined to follow the PM and project executives are going to have much less confidence in the PM’s ability to navigate the project turbulence.
The key lesson is as follows: Your team, stakeholders, and execs are depending on you as the PM to keep a clear head and navigate the project through stormy weather without letting them see you sweat. Fail to do so and you’ll be labeled as a “Nervous Nellie” who will have a shortened and limited career as a PM.
Lonnie Pacelli is an internationally recognized project management and leadership author and consultant with over 20 years experience at Microsoft, Accenture and his own company, Leading on the Edge International. Read more about Lonnie, subscribe to his newsletter, see his books and articles, and get lots of free self-study seminars, webcasts and resources.