Will this project manager make a good people manager?

Sam’s team just delivered a complex project on-time, on-budget, and with impeccable quality. His company is eying him for promotion, because they want him to “rub off” on other project managers, whose results aren’t as stellar. Maybe he can teach them a trick or two? In theory, a good project manager can become a good people manager. Both roles require the ability to get great work done through others. In practice, however, you’ve probably met project managers who transitioned to people management roles and did not thrive. These managers and their direct reports end up stressed and frustrated. Why? Before promoting folks like Sam, consider these five questions:

Is Sam a person who prefers project tasks over people interactions?

Ask, on a scale of 1 to 10, “What are your favorite aspects of project management?” Pick some task-related items for Sam to rate (such as creating a work breakdown structure and managing the project budget, etc.) and pick some people-related items (such as meeting with team members to get input, coaching a new hire on how to use the project management software, reviewing and giving feedback on project team members’ deliverables, and so forth). If Sam’s responses suggest a strong preference for tasks over people, he may be unhappy as a people manager.

Is Sam a flexible communicator?

Sam’s a little snippy when people interrupt him. He prefers to conduct all communication by email, so he can control the timing and minimize interruptions to his own workflow. He seems irritated with phone calls and when people stop by his office. For the most part, his team ignores this idiosyncrasy. They figure “it’s part of the package,” and they overlook Sam’s rather detached interpersonal style, because he is giving them enough of what they need. Ben Snyder, CEO of Systemation, views Sam’s email-only preference as a red flag. “While Sam’s communication approach may appear to be working from a results standpoint,” explains Snyder, “it does not foster relationships over the long term.” Employees have differing communication preferences, and the ideal communication method for a particular situation depends on the subject matter and its sensitivity. For example, performance corrections call for a face-to-face meeting. “Good managers adjust their communication to fit the circumstances and their employees’ communication preferences. They enjoy meeting with people in-person, sharing a vision, and building momentum for that vision via their communication and enthusiasm. They make time for asking questions and listening to employees’ ideas and recommendations,” says Snyder.

Does Sam become oppressive as deadlines approach?

If someone makes a mistake, is Sam gracious or prone to shaming team members for their errors? If people raise concerns or objections, does he listen and ask questions, or does he say, “I don’t care. Make it happen.” Is he regularly asking his team to pull a rabbit out of a hat, expecting them to deliver the impossible?

Has Sam proven himself over several projects, not just one big success?

“A single project is insufficient for determining how well a project manager works with other people,” according to Snyder. Does the PM deliver success by burning out team members, pressing them into overtime for weeks on end, and yelling at mistakes? If the PM is achieving goals at others’ expense, it’s time for a performance conversation, not a promotion into management.

Do people outside Sam’s team want to work with him on a future project?

Snyder suggests asking a few people: “How would you like to work with Sam on your next assignment?” If you hear hesitation or hedging, you want to do some detective work before deciding Sam’s promotion. “People do things for those they like. Period,” says Snyder.


If you like the answers to the questions above, your candidate will likely succeed as a people manager. If you can’t determine the answers to these questions, wait until you have more data before deciding to give a project manager more people management responsibility. What other tips do you have for employers who are weighing whether or not to promote a project manager into people management?