In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Mike O'Brochta: Helping Senior Executives to Help You


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan (Spring)  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2019.01.21

Introduction to the Interviewee:

Mike O'Brochta, PMP and ACP,  is an experienced consultant, line manager, author, speaker, and trainer. He has Master's degree in project management, Bachelor's in electrical engineering. As an independent consultant, he has helped organizations raise their level of project management performance. He is also author of "How To Get Executives To Act For Project Success."


Q1: Managing up is an increasingly popular topic. Would you please tell us what’s “managing up” by definition?

Mike O'Brochta: In my world of project management, managing up is all about getting executives to act for project success.

Here’s an example. George is a project manager who is trying to apply some recently acquired knowledge: a document. At first, he was enthusiastic about how such a document could help him establish and maintain his authority, an aspect of his job with which he was consistently having trouble. However, he lamented that he could never use such a document because the part of the organization he worked in had not adopted and would not adopt such a technique. George would benefit from managing up and getting executives to not only allow the use of the document, but actively support their use.

Q2: Why is it so important to manage up? I believe there must be some research or survey data to support this. 
Mike O'Brochta: According to the 2017 PMI Pulse of the Profession Report, “Actively engaged executives continue to be the top driver of whether projects met their original goals and business intent.” Increasing numbers of project managers are trying to deal with this reality. 

Part of this challenging reality is due to the fact that the definition of project success has expanded so much so that project managers cannot achieve it without executive help.

In the 1960’s, the early days of modern project management, success was likely to be measured entirely in technical terms. Either the deliverable product worked or it did not. During the 1970’s, that narrow definition was expanded to encompass completion on time, within cost, and at an acceptable level of quality. This has become known as the triple constraint and has been widely used as the basis for much of the project management industry. During the 1980’s, further expansion took place to include criteria relating to customer acceptance. And during the 1990’s, still more criteria were added, having to do with the main workflow of the organization, the corporate culture, and the strategic business objectives.

Q3: As you’ve said, managing up is challenging. What are the barriers in managing up?
Mike O'Brochta: The executive’s viewpoint differs from that of the project manager. Whereas project managers tend to view project management quite personally, often with little or no distinction between their performance and the performance of the project, executives tend to view project management as a means to an end, as a good way of motivating people toward achievement of specific objectives, as a source of future executives, and as a means to achieve strategic objectives. Furthermore, project management knowledge differs. Although project management may be second nature for project managers, that is unlikely to be the case for executives. The impact of this knowledge gap between executives and project managers can be exacerbated by the common “hands off” style of some executives. The “I empower project managers to do anything they want as long as they meet milestones” type of approach may obfuscate important opportunities for the executive to take actions for project success.

Even the most progressive executives who are interested in supporting project managers by acting for project success often find that it is easier said than done. The demands of their executive responsibilities, the constraints they encounter (both real and imagined), and their limited understanding of the discipline of project management hinder even the most enthusiastic among them.

Executives do not have a clear sense of the actions they can take for project success (see my list of these actions below), since they probably have not been trained as project managers. And, even when they do understand the needed actions, they find themselves confronted with the reality that they work in the same imperfect organization we work in. The organizational readiness level to act on any particular item for project success may be low, the overall maturity of the organization may be low, organizational politics may get in the way, and the executive may not have sufficient authority to take the needed action.

Q4: What are your tips on how to get support from executives? How can project managers avoid executive inaction or even counteraction?
Mike O'Brochta: The goal is for executives to act for project success. For project managers, getting to that goal involves taking steps to help their executive overcome the barriers to taking those actions. This involves taking the initiative and challenging the status quo. “Challenging the status quo” entails building upon and reinforcing a strong mutual partnership between project managers and executives. When it is successful, this becomes a “let me help you to help me” type of situation where you take the steps to help the executive overcome the barriers, who, in turn, then takes actions for project success.

One of the first steps a project manager can take is to gain competence in speaking truth to power and influencing without authority. Then, when they are more comfortable with their ability, they can help executives understand the value of successful projects, not only to the organizational bottom line, but to their careers as well. Research has shown that the number one reason for executive failure is not delivering on commitments; project management can go a long way toward helping executives avoid this career blunder. Project managers can also communicate using business context, rather than having a narrower conversation about project goals. When they communicate the value of their project in terms that are important to the business, they are more likely to be supported.

Q5: Soft skills have also been a hot topic recently. Will soft skills play an essential role in managing up?
Mike O'Brochta: The entire set of steps that I have described for a project manager to get executives to act for project success is about soft skills.

Having the ability to speak truth to power is an important skill. When effectively practiced, the project manager’s level of influence, relative to lack of authority, will increase. That influence will further increase if the project manager effectively communicates the value of successful projects; findings in a recent PMI Pulse of the Profession Report showed that organizations using proven project management practices wasted about 13 times less money than the low performers. Additionally, it is not just the organization that benefits; executives benefit, too. Successful projects are critically important to the executive who understands that the number one reason for executive failure is not lack of vision or strategy. According to a cover story in Fortune Magazine, “It’s bad execution. As simple as that: not getting things done, being indecisive, not delivering on commitments.” 

To ramp project manager influence levels up even further, behave like an Alpha. A survey of over 5,000 project managers, stakeholders, and executives has provided an extraordinary insight into what the top two percent of project managers, the Alphas, know and do that everyone else does not. The Alphas believed strongly that they had enough authority, even though they had the same amount as others. They also spent twice as much time planning and were twice as effective with communication as the others. Furthermore, their communications were in the business context that resonated with executives.

Finally, project managers can understand and use power. Power refers to the ability of the project manager to influence others to act for the benefit of his or her project; it is a resource that enables compliance or commitment from others. Project managers have an excellent opportunity to build levels of expert power (centered around what the project manager knows about his or her project), and levels of referent power (affiliations the project manager has with other groups and individuals). Keys to building these two types of power are ethics and trust. In The Leadership Challenge, which continues to be a bestseller after six editions and 20 years in print and which is considered the gold standard for research-based leadership, the text informs us that leadership requires trust. As former Chair of the PMI Ethics Member Advisory Group, I can confirm that one of the most effective ways to build trust is to abide by the four values in the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: responsibility, respect, honesty and fairness. Transgressions in any one of these four values can cause immediate and long-lasting undercutting of trust. Leveraging sponsors and champions and forming a project management council will grow the project manager’s power even further.

Project managers can blend their experience and judgment, reflect upon the unique circumstances of their project and organization, solicit from their fellow project managers, and make their own tailored actions list. By using that list, combined with some willpower, project managers will be well on their way to helping their executive overcome barriers and act for project success.

Q6: In your book, you mentioned that project managers should be empowered to extend their influence beyond the immediate project boundaries into the organization. So for project managers, what are the secrets of practicing influencing power?
Mike O'Brochta: Once a project manager has something important to say to an executive, and once they have put that into business context, then their job is to do what it takes to get listened to. That goal is easier to achieve when they, instead of speaking with one voice, speak with many voices. It is easier to extend influence when a project manager says, “We recommend,” rather than “I recommend.” When a project manager gathers a number of like-minded others and approaches an executive, they are more likely to be listened to and extend their influence.

Q7: In VUCA era, change is inevitable. What should project managers do with change in managing up?
Mike O'Brochta: Be aware of the change readiness level of their executives and their organization. If, for example, the project manager wants the executive to take an action for project success that involves a significant change to the corporate financial accounting system, and if the corporation is still struggling with the aftermath of the last major change they made to that system, then the change readiness level would be low; the project manager should recognize this and postpone asking for that particular change.

Q8: With the progress of globalization, culture must be an influencing factor in managing up, right?
Mike O'Brochta: For sure. As the former Chair of the Ethics Member Advisory Group for PMI, I have benefited from global research data that reflects the different values worldwide. For example, one of the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct values, which all 500 thousand members worldwide have made a commitment to comply with, is to avoid conflicts of interest. Yet, what one culture perceives as a conflict of interest, is not similarly perceived by another culture.

Managing up, in an organization that abides by a code of ethics that precludes conflicts of interest, obligates the employee to take action when they perceive a violation. They must manage up.

Q9: From the perspective of executives, what should they do to embrace managing up?
Mike O'Brochta: The number one step executives can take to support managing up is to ask “What can I do to help?” This approach embodies servant leadership, where executives understand that their role includes actively supporting their employees.

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