| Needing money for college,
I was able to get an Air Force ROTC scholarship and used
it to get my undergraduate degree in chemistry. The Air
Force also allowed me to go on to graduate school and
delay my entry to active duty. I earned my masters and
was well on the way to my doctorate when I was finally
called up to serve. I was elated when I got a laboratory
assignment to work on new warheads for air-to-surface
My euphoria was short-lived. Immediately
after I arrived, the Air Force decided to contract out
most of their warhead research. I was reassigned as
an R&D project manager with responsibility for part
of this research. As a consolation, I was sent off to
a three-week Air Force training program on R&D project
management, but I still felt inadequate for the task.
I wasn't sure why at the time, but looking back I think
the training concentrated too much on the "programmatics"
of cost, schedule, and performance, and not enough on
how to really manage a project.
Still wanting to learn, I decided to switch to a more
practical strategy. There were lots of project managers
in my new organization, many who had been at it for
years. I decided to pick a few and pay closer attention
to what they were doing.
The first and most obvious candidate was my officemate
Ed. He had worked in the lab for years and was way above
the rest of us technically. At first glance he appeared
shy, but he was quite personable when you got to know
him. What stood out about Ed was his work ethic; he
was so interested in his work that he had set up a small
laboratory at home in his garage. Tinkering on his own,
he had actually developed a new formula for incendiary
material. He passed this on to his contractor, and it
later became the basis for a successful fielded system.
I was puzzled that Ed hadn't been promoted to a higher
level in the organization.
The puzzle didn't last long however. As I watched
more carefully, I discovered that Ed was weak as a communicator.
He was a poor writer and had an outright phobia for
giving briefings. Once when he was scheduled to give
a project briefing to upper management, he called in
sick, and his branch chief had to give the briefing
for him on short notice.
I decided to switch my attention to Jim, who was the
real star performer in our division. He was young, energetic,
and articulate. He never seemed to miss an opportunity
to talk about his project. This was important since
our laboratory projects were always short of funding,
and the more visible your project was the more likely
it was to be funded.
My decision to watch Jim was reinforced when he was
moved from the laboratory up to our product division
to manage a new major weapons program. Jim's enthusiasm
was contagious. He was a natural magnet who drew people
and funding to his project. Still, he wasn't perfect.
Sometimes he got carried away with his enthusiasm, and
it affected his judgment. I watched one high-level briefing
where his "can do" attitude led him to make several
technical projections, which he later was unable to
deliver. He was forgiven but this flaw eventually caught
up to him, and he was transferred to a dead-end position
in our test organization.
Finding the ideal project manager was proving more
difficult than I anticipated. I bumped around the laboratory
and future plans division for a few years and then made
a career change to training. I joined the faculty of
the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC), the center
of project management training in the Department of
Defense (DoD). Our main mission was teaching future
DoD project managers, but the faculty was also encouraged
to do research and writing.
I decided to channel my interest in the ideal project
manager into a research project. While my "people watching"
strategy hadn't exactly borne fruit during my early
project management career, I concluded that the approach
was still sound. Surprisingly, this method of "success
modeling" was widely endorsed by esteemed publications
from The Handbook of Leadership to the best seller
Think and Grow Rich. There were also high-priced
consulting firms using it to create competency models
and professional development programs for a variety
of career fields, which did not yet include project
management. So I obtained some funding and started a
research project myself.
There was no better place to study project manager characteristics
than DSMC, the "Mecca" for DoD project managers. We had
former project managers as faculty, future project managers
as students, and current project managers as guest speakers.
This latter category interested me the most. I took a
lot of survey and interview data from practicing project
managers, but the best data came from having these project
managers recount critical incidents that had occurred
on their projects. This is very similar to the "learning
through stories" approach used by NASA.
data came from having managers recount critical
incidents that occurred on their projects.
course at DSMC was the 20-week program management course
and we prided ourselves on bringing top-level project
managers in as guest speakers. I checked the list of
guest speakers for the current course and noticed that
we had scheduled two high-ranking Air Force project
managers one week apart. Each was a brigadier general
managing the largest project in his product division.
I would make it a point to watch both speakers and look
for the similarities.
The first project manager had a reputation as a tough,
hard-nosed manager and he lived up to that reputation
in person. He was a "pusher." He pushed hard on himself,
his people, his contractors and on anyone who got in
his way. He was very confident and articulate. As he
talked to our students, I had a momentary flashback
to the movie Patton. Here was the project management
equivalent to George C. Scott as General Patton making
his famous speech to the troops. The analogy was almost
A week later the second guest speaker came in, also
a brigadier general but from a different Air Force product
division. He was much more "low key" than his counterpart.
While he spoke softly, he still commanded our attention.
What was most remarkable about this project manager
was his constant reference and deference to his people.
He attributed his success in project management to pulling
together an excellent team and giving them lots of leeway
and support to do their jobs. I again flashed back to
the Patton movie, and here was the equivalent
of Karl Malden as General Omar Bradley. Again, the analogy
was almost perfect.
Both project managers had come and gone as guest speakers,
and I took stock of what I learned. I had expected to
find some clearly evident characteristics common to both.
But this was not to be. In fact, I had a hard time identifying
any similarities between the two of them at all. The appearance
of two completely opposite, yet successful, project management
styles left me in a state of "cognitive dissonance."
playing the role of project manager. They were being
Not wanting to give up completely, I reflected for
a moment. If the two project managers had no clear similarities
on the surface, what about less obvious similarities?
I thought about this for a moment. Clearly, both were
successful. They were one-star generals managing two
of the largest programs in the Air Force. They achieved
program outcomes and delivered systems to the warfighter.
They got RESULTS. (Both continued to advance in their
careers and later retired as three-star generals.)
While their styles were quite different, both project
managers were true to themselves. What you saw was what
you got. They weren't playing the role of project manager.
They were being themselves. They had personal CREDIBILITY.
As it turned out, wading through lists of competencies
from my formal research project provided no more significant
insight than I got from watching these two experienced
project managers. Every project manager I interviewed
or surveyed in my research was different, but they were
able to get results with a style based on their personal
So what about the differences? That I have come to
realize is the nature of project management and life
in general. Projects are different, project managers
are different, project teams are different, and the
environment for each project is different and constantly
changing. This leads to my final conclusion that there
is no ideal project manager -- nor should there be.
I think that is what attracted me to project management
in the first place and what will keep me engaged in
a lifetime of research and reflection in this field.
- Technical expertise and experience aren't the only
ingredients necessary to succeed in project management.
- You can learn a lot by carefully watching and listening
to experienced project managers, but you may need
to reflect on it to find the real meaning.
- Personal credibility and achieving results are key
to project management success, but there are many
paths to get there.
Search by lesson to find more on:
Owen Gadeken is a Professor of Engineering Management
at the Defense Acquisition University where he has
taught the Department of Defense Program and project
managers for over twenty years. He is a retired
Colonel from the Air Force Reserve and a Senior
Reservist at the Air Force Office of Scientific
Research. In addition to serving on the ASK
Review Board, Dr. Gadeken has published both his
stories and practices in various issues of ASK