Project management for executives

10. July 2019

Why are project management skills so important for executives these days?
An interview with Sabine Reithofer

Why are project management skills so important for executives these days?

In their daily lives, executives are continuously faced with complex, new, interdisciplinary, and timely challenging tasks. All these characteristics require a form of working which enables the executive to outline a big picture for the entire team. They also call for a form of working which demands disengagement from departmental thinking and hierarchical power structures and which delivers innovative output on schedule. Project management skills can make this form of working happen.

Which skills are these in particular?

Project managers need two types of skills: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills comprise a toolbox filled with scope, time, cost, and resource planning tools. Project managers use them as needed depending on the size and complexity of the project. Hard skills also encompass knowledge of significant project management processes.

Soft skills include a sense for people, situations, coherences, and timing. It is up to the project manager to form an interdisciplinary, co-operating team by the end of the starting process to meet challenges together as a team. Soft skills also cover the ability to inform and involve a diversity of stakeholders.

Do executives really have to be project management experts?

An executive does not have to be a project management expert. However, an executive should understand what a project manager needs to work fast and focused. Executives often unknowingly hamper a project’s success in two ways: 1) In their role as project sponsor, they urge the project manager to quickly start executing the project and not to take much time for planning. This is a major mistake, which has dire consequences on the project duration. 2) In their role as project sponsor, they do not approve of the necessary project team members and instead prioritise line tasks. Combined with a fixed deadline, this lack of approval unnecessarily hampers the project manager’s work.

Which difference does it make to hold an executive position in the line versus in a project?

Each project should be assigned to an individual, temporary project organisation with designated roles for the project sponsor, project manager, project team members (each member represents a field of expertise) and supporting project members. Together they form a sort of task force that deals with particularly risky and tricky tasks. Most commonly, an executive in a line position is an expert in his/her field whereas a project manager coordinates experts from various fields. This requires a project manager to use situational leadership styles to engage on eye-level, to foster team-building processes and to enhance controlling intervals in order to anticipate changes and to quickly react to them.

Do executives need a project management certification?

I recommend having at least a basic certification. It is important to establish a solid knowledge base of project management methods and processes. This makes understanding objectives and procedures easier and giving project assignments more adequate. A basic certification enables executives to understand project management terminologies and to discuss project management topics with others. Which project management standard is applied depends on the company and on other criteria, which can be gathered and analysed in a nonbinding meeting.


A project manager is always an executive. But an executive should not automatically be nominated for project manager. Someone with full-time managerial responsibilities in the line should probably refrain from taking on an additional executive position, for which there will most probably be close to no time. As line executive, it is more efficient to support project management trainings for one’s team members and to take the role of project sponsor when it comes to tackling new and complex tasks.