Powerless Rangers

Some job titles are dangerously misleading and need to be questioned before accepting an offer. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger warns that ‘project manager’ with no authority isn’t a ‘manager’ — it's an disposable scapegoat.

I was lost in a book last night, not really paying attention to the comings and goings in the house, when I realized that my wife was trying to start a conversation. I apologized, embarrassed that I’d completely missed everything that she’d just said to me, and asked her to start over.

‘I said,’ she said with just a hint of annoyance, ‘my friend Anne just got offered a new position.’

‘That’s excellent news,’ I said, trying to be encouraging. ‘What’s the role?’

‘It’s an IT Project Manager job,’ she said. ‘It’s a good offer, but she’s not going to take it.’

I blinked, confused. ‘Any idea why?’

My wife fumbled for the right corporate buzzwords since she’s a teacher, not an office drone. It took her a few attempts to explain the issue since she was relating a second-hand interpretation of what had probably been a synopsis to begin with. After a little back-and-forth, I interpreted her story as follows:

Ms. Anne, a talented and successful young woman, had recently completed a series of interviews with a new company for what had been advertised as a Project Manager’s gig. The job would involve overseeing internal IT endeavours in a white-collar environment. So far, so good.

Compensation package was on par … for Dallas … for a generic PM. Discussions got interesting when the hiring manager admitted to Anne that their company was underperforming and needed serious reform. This PM role would be expected to lead either departmental or company-wide cultural re-engineering efforts through her role as a PM. Put another way, in addition to managing projects (itself, a dreary and time-consuming endeavour), she’d also be expected to rehabilitate a failing department where existing management had failed to make a dent.

Every culture has a favoured phrase for this environment. In the US, we tend to like the phrase ‘dumpster fire.’

Anne isn’t a fool. She recognized a death march when she saw one. She’d informed the hiring manager that the expanded scope – effectively, two jobs in one – warranted a much higher salary and greater institutional authority if she was to have any chance of success. The hiring manager wouldn’t budge on either, so Anne thanked them for their time and declined to consider their last-and-final offer.

I like Anne. If that’s how the encounter actually played out, then I’m 100% behind her. She made the right call. Anyone taking that job on was doomed from the start.

I’ve encountered this situation several times. In one of my favourite examples, I was put forward via an old military contact for what was supposed to be a basic network equipment implementation PM gig. I breezed through the screening and got to speak with the head of the company’s consulting division. As we chatted, it became clear that the organisation’s vision for a PM was … let’s say ‘out of synch’ … with industry expectations.

First, the department viewed their Project Managers as observers and timekeepers, not as actual managers. They expected their PMs to monitor a project’s delivery and cost schedules separate from the actual implementation staff. Under their company’s model, the PM would phone up the client and the ‘field team’ every day to confirm that all of the required milestones were being met. That’s not ‘wrong’ in any sense; it’s just misguided. It’s a clerk’s role. A secretary who turns status report fragments from the field into consolidated status reports for upper management.

Better known as a ‘paper-pusher.’ It’s not a dishonourable job by any means, and it requires talent to do well. That said, describing activity is not the same as influencing activity. Those are different roles.

I asked the head of consulting what resources I’d have as a PM when (not if) a member of the field team failed to perform. What levers did I have to force a bad worker back onto the straight-and-narrow? What I only to document the poor performance and then ignore it? The head brushed off my concerns and said that in the ridiculously unrealistic chance of a team failing to meet their schedule, I as the PM was expected to phone of the field team’s supervisor (who wasn’t on-site) and let them deal with it.

‘Ah.’ I said. ‘So, I’d be more of a dashboard warning light than a “manager” then?’

“No, no!’ the head insisted. ‘You’ll be responsible for the team delivering their projects on-time and under-budget!’

I laughed – loudly and rudely. I couldn’t suppress it. I thanked the head for his candour and ended the ‘interview’ with an empty pleasantry. The fellow had tipped his hand with an honest answer and we both knew at that moment that I’d never take the job.

I’ve argued this point a hundred times: a ‘project manager’ who has no authority to influence project staff isn’t a Project Manager; they’re just a Project Administrator. An observer and clerk. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that arrangement; lots of notional PMs aren’t part of a project’s team’s chain of command. Their only job is to write the plans, track compliance with the plans, and generate reams of reports about the status of the plans. They’re not actually responsible for anything other than the accuracy and font selection in their paperwork.

‘Garamond Bold for the win, baby! WOOOOOOOO!’

The problem comes in the name. Calling someone a ‘manager’ implies operational authority. I’ve always hated how business-types love to tack the title ‘manager’ onto non-management position. It’s as misleading as calling a recruiter a ‘Talent Director.’ That it, it’s using a reserved term that has specific meaning regarding formal authority to make a powerless individual contributor seem more important than they really are.

I submit that a project leader has direct authority over a project’s staff and therefore has both the ability and the responsibility to make the project happen. This leader can be a PM, or it can be a formal manager, or a breveted supervisory consultant. It doesn’t matter. What counts is that the project leader has been delegated the necessary power to hold subordinates accountable throughout the operation. They can fix what’s broken.

I learned in my professional consulting days that there’s an inviolable rule concerning this practice: ‘There shall be no responsibility without commensurate authority.’ We held fast to this commandment as if it had been inscribed on Moses’s misplaced third tablet. I teach this principle to my employees, to my children, and to the Boy Scouts that I meet for merit badge work. It’s a crucial survival rule: never allow yourself to be made responsible for things that you have no control over.

The way I explain this to Scouts – especially the younger kids who have never held a job before – is to invoke pop culture. I ask my students to think about their favourite action-adventure movie or TV show, preferably one that involves normal kids who get selected to become heroes. In shows that try to act like the real world, a normal kid isn’t going to survive taking on a giant, rubbery, city-smashing monster or killer robot. They need their special hero superpowers to have a fighting chance to succeed. Now, imagine that they’ve been “selected” to be heroes, but haven’t been given any equipment to protect themselves. They’ll die if they try to fight the show’s ‘baddies’ but they’re personally responsible for all of the damage inflicted by the rampaging monster. I ask if that’s a position that they’d be willing to put in. They always say ‘no.’

'Seriously, mother? You expect me to agree to take complete responsibility for the success of our next family holiday? The holiday that you planned and financed in isolation? While having zero influence on the logistics or operational oversight? How daft do you think I am?'

Kids get it; it isn’t a difficult situation to understand. That’s why I’m always surprised when a recruiter, head-hunter, or hiring manager tries to pitch such an arrangement. I’'s an automatic non-starter. If someone tells you that your job depends on other people doing their jobs even though you have no control over (or meaningful influence with) the people you’re dependent on, it’s a non-starter. No matter how nice everyone is, no matter what guarantees you’re promised by upper management, your function on the team is to be the scapegoat when things inevitably go pear-shaped. There is zero chance that you’ll escape the assignment unscathed. Walk away and don’t look back.

Anne did exactly the right thing. She was polite, professional, and proper throughout the interview. Once she discovered that the real purpose of the position was to be a scapegoat for the purported boss, however, she removed herself from consideration. Sure, it would have been a decent pay rise, however a pay rise is worthless once the job is yanked out from under you. Far better to take an honest job where your performance determines your success than a corporate kamikaze mission for someone else’s benefit.


Title Allusions: Dean Israelite, Power Rangers (2017 film); too many seasons to count of the kids’ TV show.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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