Project managers may play many roles and wear multiple hats but there is no greater responsibility than acting as a coach for their project teams.  This responsibility is not simply about handing out tasks and trying to hold everyone accountable for what they’ve committed to.  It is not even about involving the various members of the team in the planning stages and a division of responsibilities, even though these are important.

For the project manager, being a coach extends to the ability to instruct the team, direct them, provide feedback to improve performance, encourage them to perform to their maximum, and to work together to get the project done.  Much like a coach in athletics, the project manager must understand that when the project hits tough times he/she can not simply step in and start performing, the project manager must be able to lead from the sidelines when it comes to delivering the project.

It is this requirement of the project manager that often causes many organizations to demand that the PM come with a strong background in the industry of the company or the type of project that they’ve initiated.  Whether it is construction companies, IT outfits, banks, hospitals, or telecoms, just to name a few, we continuously see a push by hiring managers and HR  professionals asking for that industry knowledge.

In some cases this perspective may not be fair as it underplays the importants of project management knowhow and skills, however, it is not an easy leap of faith for some individuals.  So much like a basketball club would likely prefer to hire an ex-basketball player to be the coach over an ex-baseball player, we see the same phenomena in the world of project management.

However having been on the front lines of project management and having observed projects and professionals around the world, I believe that the emphasis on industry experience often goes too far and frankly is contrary to best practices captured in the PMBOK Guide.

Yes, the project manager needs to be like a coach, however, his/her subject matter expertise is first and foremost the area of project management.  As such, it is not a fair comparison to say that industry is like a given athletic field in this situation.  In this case in fact, the sport is project management.  The project manager has to be able to lead the team from a project perspective and as such, industry knowledge and project scope have to play a secondary role to that.

Some may ask, “wouldn’t it help to have a project manager with industry expertise?” The answer is absolutely, however, experience has taught me that a potential candidate for a given position should not simply be discounted because they are not strong on the industry.  I would rather take a strong project manager who is not familiar with an industry over a professional who is strong in an industry but is clueless about project management.

Going back to the coach comparison, the reason I brought this up is the issue of support more than anything else.  How can the project manager offer the right type of support to the team members?  This is an area that has to combine the science and art of project management.  On the science side of things, the PM has to develop a high degree of comfort in the subject matter of the project and as such, if he/she does not personally have deep industry knowledge he/she should ramp up the knowledge and have team leaders such as technical experts to help them.  When it comes to the art side of project management, the PM needs to quickly learn where that fine line is between encouragement (constructive criticism) and demoralization (negative feedback) of the team.

It would be great if that line between encouragement and demoralization was visible or even something that project managers can get training on.  The blunt reality is that this is what separates the great project managers from the not so good ones.  Great project managers build a certain amount of intuition when it comes to their teams.  They know when to push and when to hold back.  When to direct and when to let people act on their own initiative.

As with any great coach ultimately the project manager is judged not only by the results that they produce for their respective organization but also by the difference they’ve made in their team members’ lives.