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If Project Managers Had Life Tenure...

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I recently heard an interview with Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, regarding the rulings he has handed down over the years. The reporter wondered if Mr. Scalia ever worried about public backlash or the opinions of his fellow justices.

Mr. Scalia simply replied that he didn't worry about that. He has life tenure, given to him by the U.S. government. He believes that tenure allows him to do and say what he thinks is right and not worry about how it will affect his career or colleagues.

This answer had a profound effect on me.  I often wonder if I am "doing the right thing" when I make decisions at work. I try, but I would not be honest if I did not admit that the career survival instinct hasn't kicked in once in a while. Perhaps sometimes I compromise on issues that I know are not good for my projects or my team. But I'll give the client the answer they want to hear, or perhaps tone down the weekly status report to avoid stirring the pot when there are real issues to discuss.

I've now started applying what I will refer to as the "life tenure" rule to all of my decisions and activities. I try to look at a decision or situation through the lens of "If I did not have to worry about politics or personalities or self-promotion, would I still make this move?" I have to say, thankfully, that I appear to achieve that about 90 percent of the time. But clearly I think that can improve.

I know it is naive to think that someone could or should perform their job as if they could not get fired.  Or to think that if we all had that freedom, that we would always make the right decision. But it is an interesting concept to ponder, and a fascinating test to apply.

Think about it: How would your professional life change if you had life tenure as a project manager?

 

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10 Comments


Geoff,

What you indicate in your article rings true with me, saying what is 'politically correct' is normally in the back of your mind, although as time has gone by, I have learned to be more open about 'what I believe'. Maybe as you mature in the profession, a 'tenure' mentality begins to be more at play than when you first start your career.

Being in a startup organization, an IT Shared Services entity, has afforded me access the Executive Level Management on a regular basis, something that is not the norm in much larger organizations/corporations. Developing a relationship with my Executives and learning from them has also allowed me to express my beliefs in terms of project strategies and priorities.

This alone has increased my confidence in that most people want to hear what I have to say, regardless of whether or not they agree. I have learned that by being willing to express your convictions, beliefs, and passion about a given topic, will earn people's respect. The key part of all of this is, the experience and the lessons learned from those experiences. At the end of the day, and as the saying goes 'it is not what you say but how you say it'.

Thanks for your insights.

Luis Berrios - PMP
ThyssenKrupp IT Services North America
Alpharetta, GA

Interesting article and thought provoking.
Idea of a life tenured PM would surely bring a bit more freedom of thought, correspondance and would reflect in our actions as well, still in a controlled state as end of day we need the project objectives to meet and ensure the stakeholders are happy.

Hi Geoff,
very interesting thought, challenging indeed! Despite my qualification and professional experience which would lead me to think I would not have to be looking for new opportunitgies for long I am quite familiar with the thought of "should I or should I rather not" ... disagree or push certain measures or just be a little bit less compromizing on serious issues (quality, time, cost, resources, communication, motivation, culture, ...).
On the one hand I have built a reputation as someone who dares saying no also towards Cx level customers which many colleagues and clients came to value and they listened to the alternative suggestions which usually follow, on the other hand frequently changing superiors (usually directors or higher line managers) do not always take the effort of looking at the people and their professional past and standing but just want to get on (ideally being perceived as right in all they say) which brings a project manager quickly to the brink of having to leave the company, which is for several reasons not desired and usually irreversable.
But where to draw the line? PMI and IPMA certified pro's sign the code of ethics during the certification procedure, many people try to apply common sense whereever possible telling them to act and decide in favor the common good rather than following a single individual, but this truly can be a serious carreer killer if applied in the wrong situation ("how to get fired fast").
If you live this 90% I dare say this is very close to ideal and should be taken as an example throughout the project world and further ...
Life tenure could be helpful to an extent for large (internal) projects, although it probably needs a strong character not to mistake life tenure for "false security". I'd prefer still more PM and leadership knowledge in management circles, focus on and understanding for things not countable in hard currency.
Every decision and every move should be carefully weighted and - unfortunately for the outcome - a quick thought on how it will affect the remaining professional years in the worst case certainly is a part of the personal risk analysis, no matter how much it affects the decision in the end.
It is like living on the edge between civil courage and striving for the common good or in other words this approach strongly favors the rationally as well as socially thinking individual and - despite the risks involved - so do I.

Why do we, project managers, always think that we deserve the advantages of all the other professions - and not of their disadvantages.

All the other professions have problems, they have stress, they have multiple stakeholders to report to - they have rebellious team members - they get fired from their jobs - they get scapegoated (and many time it is the project manager who's scapegoats them) - they don't have a work-life balance (the only people who have a healthy work life balance are retired). Yet project managers seem to be the only ones constantly nagging.

And now they want a life tenure?

Why is that?

Notwithstanding the negative effective it could have of not being accountable I feel as a PM you must put aside politics when making decisions.

In fact, I have found that in many cases making a politically poor choice to do the right thing pays off in the end. Usually the right people take notice.

So whether or not you have life tenure as a PM you should make decisions as if you did.

I wouldn’t opt for waterfall methodology, instead I would micro manage my life’s professional events creating sprints making career more manageable and progressive.

Using waterfall techniques would land me end of my lifespan where probably to take lessons from projects lifecycle would be useless and I will be six feet under.

Agile and SCRUM, is my choice if I had my life tenure as a project manager.

Hi Geoff,
Very interesting article. I'm glad you added the last paragraph though as otherwise I think the article could be titled "how to get fired fast!" I guess the unfortunate reality is that we don't enjoy the privilege of life tenure and therefore must take decisions based on survival all the time; if we were to throw off the shackles of the survival instinct, we may make better decisions but in the long run, presumably we'd lose our jobs. I guess if we really believe in our abilities we could behave like this, confident that if our employer leaves us go for making the best decisions we can, there will always be another employer willing to give us a shot.
As I say, a fascinating article.

I think making decisions about your career and life require you to apply the life tenure concept. Ultimately, you have to answer for your life's decisions. However, in program and project management, we have to rely on risks, constraints, stakeholder influence, and all the things that allow there to be a project or program to manage. Our decisions have to be weighed by all of this and be our support. Then we have to be able to stand behind the outcome, same as in life.

If I were to have life tenure in my role I feel I would have to worry less about diplomacy. Hopefully allowing me to manage a project more effectively, or at least allow me to see my mistakes more clearly and learn from them.

I think right off the bat, that the idea of a tenured PM would be an oxymoron since the whole idea of delivering a project is to be completely mindful of the backlash you would receive from stakeholders and customers for not meeting your timelines and budget commitments. Being exempt from this would defeat the purpose of delivering a project on time and under budget and would undermine the very essence of project management!

But one area where I think having a tenure like environment in place that would be beneficial, would be when your planning a project. Let me explain a bit: one area where I think most PMs including myself have the most issue is not getting adequate time to plan the scope and cost for a project. You are typically rushed to get your estimates in and if you do your due diligence to come up with a sound budget, your stakeholders often times backlash against you and your team for estimating too high.

In an ideal world of course, if you could have all the time you need to plan in detail without stakeholders and customers breathing down your neck, imagine how much better your project outcomes would be! In fact I can't, because I've almost never been in such an ideal condition!

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