project manager excellence alpha project manager

Drive Project Manager’s Excellence

Mastering Project Management

To stand out from the crowd project managers have to outperform and position themselves for excellence.  They also need to know how their performance counts.  They can’t do it alone though!  This is where the alpha project manager comes into play.  Defining an alpha project manager isn’t easy.  The supporting organization has to commit itself to drive improvements that can create an atmosphere where alpha project managers can excel.  In his book, Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not, Andy Crowe embarked on a study that succinctly communicates what organizations and project managers need to do.  Mr. Crowe’s book crafts the solution down to six attributes. How did he come up with these?  A study was created to define what set “alphas” apart from their peers.  Projects that were managed with excellence “demonstrated consistent results, effectively managed teams, and delivered value to customers.”  In effect, the alpha project manager definition means just that!

One small point Mr. Crowe points out that I echo here:  learning how to manage a project (in one organization) is much different than learning about project management.  There are many learning opportunities for the processes and tools project professionals use.  Few of those are applicable in their entirety at most organizations.  A project manager may be faced with many different processes or methodologies, and their ability to apply themselves using their experience is the standard.  How do we push to the next level?  Read on and maybe the following information can lead you and your project managers to excel.  While the book goes into details regarding specific work ethics of the high performing project managers, it clearly defines what the low hanging fruit is when it comes to making significant improvements.

How to find the alphas:  The study group

The Alpha study did not use degrees and certifications related to project management.  Feedback from the direct supervisor as well as the project manager and at least three resources with 500 hours on the project team were used.  The sample studied 860 project managers over nine months.  Managers (contractor and permanent) had to have worked at least three years for the same organization.  Finally, the study had to have a participating customer.

Out of those project managers, 18 were selected as the Alphas based on responses of the stakeholders.  That means that customers got to score their project managers!  But you may be surprised at the one attribute where all project managers self-scored similarly but the customer did not.

Here, we’re dividing those attributes into two categories: Organization and Project Manager.  Many project managers can develop their skill set over time, but if the organization they support hasn’t committed any efforts towards building the right atmosphere, there can’t be any excellence.

Organizational requirements for alpha project managers need these:


The organizational environment must be one where the project management discipline is appreciated, valued, and developed.  In other words, project managers can’t be a handful of temporary contracts initiated to handle the overflow each year.  Contract to permanent position is a good strategy, but it only works if all project managers understand the career path.  They should appreciate those characteristics that set them apart from the rest and how they should benchmark with the team.

Tip to improve:  Heighten awareness of the project management discipline in your organization by regularly communicating its value.

Commitment to improvement

Great project managers often discuss what could have been done better versus their significant achievements.  You find projects managers that have committed to improvement because they are never satisfied with the status quo.  They often offer suggestions to improve their delivery but also that of the organizational one.  Here is the key: your culture must be committed to having the structure in place to support how to act on that commitment and demonstrate its effectiveness.

Tip to improve:  Have an excellence channel where project resources are encouraged to submit ideas that will be reviewed periodically by an identified team.


Ever have a stakeholder complete a project close-phase survey and receive negative feedback from a project manager who appeared to have performed well?  The relationship between the project manager and customer or stakeholder has to be in alignment and criteria for success must be in kind.  All of the alpha project managers communicated through setting expectations, monitoring, and status updates.  If an alpha joined your company, would they have the necessary tools in place for those communication mechanisms or would they be out on their own?  Are many project managers on their own when it comes to communication with the customer?  If you hesitated, that structure probably isn’t there and many of your project managers make their own rules when it comes to supporting the business.

Tip to improve:  Have tools, templates, and a standard project communication plan ready for use!


The ability to share ideas and communicate best practices in a project delivery atmosphere is integral to success.  We touch on mentoring in a previous post, and it’s critical that new project team members understand not only the new employee training but how the onboarding process works.  Seasoned project team members should know that mentoring is a performance objective and how it is measured. You probably have a fairly substantial annual performance review process but is it aligned with mentorship?

Tip to improve:  Start a program called MentorUp! It encourages new project resources to demonstrate new technology use, bring a fresh set of eyes to project challenges, and begin to develop those critical relationships with seasoned team members.


Leadership skills in the project management discipline take standard project delivery and set it up for excellence.  Trust in a project leader is not easily won.  Do your project managers have the trust of their teams?  How do they build confidence?  An example of professional development training to support this trait is a trust seminar based on Stephen Covey’s Speed to Trust.  You could lose impact over time if there are no opportunities for an annual review of many professional development courses.  In a world filled with social feeds of high profile leaders, we often lose sight of the day-to-day leaders that are working diligently to lead by example.  They celebrate with their teams and have an emotional maturity that is respected.

Management does not mean leadership.  Managing a project utilizes specific tactics to achieve and deliver something of value.  If you tossed all those tactics out of the window, how will your project management resources act?  What happens during chaotic moments in projects?

Tip to improve:  If your organization has no trust workshops, consider grabbing a couple of copies of the book for team member checkout.


“Until my product is in the customer’s hands, communication is my deliverable.”

Mr. Crowe found that of all the attributes, communication was the most striking difference in scores from the top 2% and the rest.  When asked, the non-alpha project managers scored themselves at 82% for communication, but the responses from their team, supervisor, and the customer didn’t add up.  Upon examining the alpha’s scores, they also ranked themselves near 82%.  In fact, 94% of the project managers ranked themselves better in communication than their stakeholders!  Humility is part of a high emotional intellect but severe humility may lead to burnout.  Consequently, many communication tactics are tool specific and although effective means, the volume of social electronic messages shouldn’t place as much value as stakeholder feedback.

Tactics the alpha project managers used

Four common traits surfaced from the alphas after being interviewed.

The project managers

  1. discussed communication expectations with the customer early on in the project,
  2. created a set communication schedule,
  3. demonstrate clear and concise messages,
  4. and have an open dialog with customers and stakeholders. (Crowe)

Your team may have a few communication challenged project managers, but they don’t have to remain so.  Many corporations have learning development opportunities that cater to communication improvement.  In your team, it is essential to demonstrate excellent communication–if a project manager is rated low but each year in employee feedback survey’s your team as a whole is also rated similarily what did you expect?

Tip to improve:  Cultivate excellent communication throughout the project management leadership so that resources understand its impact.


What Mr. Crowe found in a study over 800+ project managers came down to the top 2% who consistently delivered.  They were concise communicators, leaders, and were committed to improvement.  The other factors mean that as an organization, you need to set the framework to allow for project management excellence. Try cultivating these traits in your team or organization.  Finally, make it your priority to discuss these capabilities and attributes with your team while building on the most critical pillars:  people.

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