Article - Can Project Manager Become Chief Operating Officer

The Chief Operating Officer (COO)’s responsibility is to manage the business operations of an organization. Managing business operation is to run the operations effectively (doing the right things), efficiently (doing things right), increase productivity, deliver quality products and services, and speed to market its offerings to the respective market segments. The bottom line is to maximize profit by popularizing the brand of its offerings with quality and delivering according to the demands of its customers faster than its competitors.

The project managers’ role is to get work breakdowns from respective expert stakeholders (getting the right things) and execute them within time & budget and of quality (doing things right).

The Chief Operating Officer’s role and The Project Manager’s role are similar but there are key differences;

  1. The Chief Operating Officer is accountable for business, which is continuous, and the Project Manager is accountable for a snapshot of a business (project), which has a start time and finish time.
  2. The Chief Operating Officer delivers the business objectives of an organization and the Project Manager delivers the business benefits of a project, which is part of the objectives.
  3. The Chief Operating Officer must have good business and process knowledge. The Project Manager can deliver better with business knowledge and process knowledge.
  4. The Chief Operating Officer operates from the big picture view. The Project Manager operates from a project view. The Chief Operating Officer role spans all functions in an organization. The Project Manager’s role is to fulfill the needs of the stakeholders of a project. The stakeholders can represent a number of functions.
  5. Both roles need managerial expertise but the Chief Operating Officer role exceeds leadership. The key measures of operations are cutting costs, increasing revenue, adding value to customers, and retaining customers and employees. The key measures of operations are controlling projects within budget & time, managing scope, and delivering with quality,

The business benefit of a project is generally specified by the management team. A Project Manager should really understand the business benefit and should know how to measure the benefit. The benefits should also be measured progressively and presented so that everyone understands the seriousness of gaining the business benefit and their contribution towards it. The business benefit should not be taken lightly. That should be the main deliverable besides the technical deliverable of triple constraints (within time & budget, and of quality).

Once a Project Manager learns to focus on business benefit as the main measure to determine the success of a project the Project Manager climbs the first step toward the Chief Operating Officer. The Project Manager then moves forward to learn multiple business benefits when managing a program constituting multi-projects for achieving an objective of an organization. Program management is the second step. When the Project Manager moves forward to manage a portfolio of programs covering all objectives of an organization the enterprise business benefits are measured. Portfolio management is the third step. With these experiences, the Project Manager is now ready for taking the technical accountability of a Chief Operating Officer.

Taking interest in a business will propel a Project Manager to get involved in the business and learn hands-on or by attending courses. Intensive observation of processes in relation to the business benefit will give a different perspective for process improvement.

The focus on business benefits will slowly lead a Project Manager to get interested in the big picture of the business. The drive to get things done in projects, one way or other, instead of denying, blaming, and finding excuses but to coach and guide will add another step towards leadership. The experience gained by moving from Project Management, to Program Management, and to Portfolio Management will add to the journey to becoming the Chief Operating Officer.

Project Managers are good candidates for the Chief Operating Officer, provided they internalize the advice, processes, procedures, and guidelines specified in PMBOK. They should also commit to learning the domain business knowledge of the organization, processes to enable them, finance management, capabilities & collaboration required to execute, and sharpen the soft skills, including leadership.

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