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The PMO Leader Conundrum

joe pusz leadership pmo Jan 05, 2021
What skills make a successful PMO Leader?

When we think about the PMO Leader we often focus only on the PMO and often ignore the Leadership.  The PMO is surely important as a function.  It has a significant place in the organization and when run well it should help to drive organizations forward.  How often though are they run well?  Are our PMO Leaders prepared to successfully lead a team and provide value to the organization?  Are they prepared to be Leaders?

Organizations have historically placed a project management experienced resource into the PMO Leader role.   This brings us to a conundrum.  Is it better to have a project management expert lead the PMO or to have an exceptional leader lead the PMO regardless his or her project management knowledge and experience?

Let’s explore other functional areas within the organization for some comparison.  One can assume there is benefit when the functional leader has domain knowledge but perhaps that is not the case.  In this article Leadership Coach Jacqueline Brodnitzki shares that functional knowledge can be a limiter on team growth, performance and delivery.  When a leadership change was necessary the organization opted to go with a highly-skilled leader rather than someone with strong functional knowledge.

It would be hard to imagine a CFO who does not have significant accounting or financial experience.  A Wall Street Journal article points to a shifting mindset for the CFO role, that accounting expertise is often no longer required.  The article includes, “companies increasingly want skilled general managers who possess strategic savvy and a firm grasp of operations in the CFO seat.”  Can we not say this for PMO Leaders as well?  With PMOs increasingly leading delivery of strategic initiatives is there not a benefit to have a PMO Leader who possess strategic savvy and a firm grasp of operations?

We should also consider the shifting dynamics of organizations today and the shifting patterns to cross-functional teams and leadership.  PMO’s continue to deliver on enterprise and functional portfolios with strategic projects cutting across functional lines.  The PMO Leader who is well versed in Organizational Acumen and Strategic Alignment is positioned well to influence and motivate fellow leaders.

Another factor to consider is the expectations that PMO leaders need to quickly make an impact.  As noted in an Info-Tech research piece, “Building a PMO culture takes time; however, achieving clear objectives during PMO development is key or you risk the possibility of a failed PMO where leaders lose sight of the value of project management practices can bring. – Terri Kenitzer”  Effective leaders are able to mobilize their team and move quickly to make an impact.  They are not bogged down by process or bureaucracy and focus on outcomes and results.

Emerging trends in our industry point to evolving PMOs with the advent of the Agile Management Office, EPMO, Strategy Realization Office and the Value Management Office.  PWC shares some perspective on these in this article.  These new structures are focused more on people, value, and strategy which are all a movement towards delivery and results and away from governance and process.

These PMO evolutions are a necessary reaction to the demands organizations have always had for our PMOs – deliver value to the organization.  Knowing how to effectively run a project does not equate to knowing how to manage a department and lead an organizational function.  The evolving PMO requires a strong leader who understands how to maneuver through the politics of the organization.  How to align delivery to strategy and how to motivate a team through shifting business dynamics.

Successfully leading these modern PMOs will require strong leadership.  Yes, project management knowledge is important and can be helpful.  However, more important are leadership skills and traits.  As an industry we must recognize that we need to better prepare our PMO leaders to be leaders.