Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Project Managers as Leaders

The biggest failure that I can see – with the limited knowledge we have right now – in FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina was a failure in leadership.

Now that a new director has been appointed at FEMA, we’ll see if he has what it takes to succeed.

How do we know if someone’s a leader? And do project managers need to be leaders?

Someone’s a leader if the people around her/him are willing to do their jobs at 100%. Some of the characteristics of a leader are:

  • Able to communicate vision
  • Able to develop strategies to reach that vision
  • Able to develop tactics to support those strategies
  • Able to create passion about that vision

Think about leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Both of these men had vision. They were both passionate about their visions. And they were able to get other people passionate enough to take action toward achieving those visions.

As project managers, we need to have a vision for every project – no matter how large or how small. And we need to communicate that vision to everyone around us. That’s a 360 degree radius.

Project managers are great at developing strategies and tactics – those are the tools of our trade. But do we create passion in other people for each of our projects?

Write a comment here and tell me how you create passion for your projects. I love to hear what you’re doing.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


FEMA Leadership

Let’s look at the qualifications of the most recent three FEMA directors.

The current FEMA director is Mike Brown. Before joining FEMA as a lawyer, he was an estate lawyer and worked for 11 years managing and adjudicating horse shows. He became FEMA head when his boss, Allbaugh, left and recommended him to the president.

Joe M. Allbaugh served as the second President Bush's national campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2000. Prior to that Allbaugh was Governor Bush's chief of staff in Texas from 1995 to 2000. Allbaugh left FEMA in 2000 to run a Washington private consulting company to help companies make millions in Iraq.

Clinton's FEMA director was James Lee Witt. Prior to his appointment to FEMA, Witt served as the Director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services (OES) for four years. Prior to that he had a background in commercial and residential construction, and was, at age 34, the chief elected official of his county with judicial responsibilities for county and juvenile court. He was re-elected six times.

In 2003, he became the Chief Executive Officer of the International Code Council (ICC), a 50,000-member association dedicated to building safety. It develops the codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools.

My friend, James Huggins, has also asked me which one of the three people described above would I choose to head FEMA.

My answer, after several days of thought, is none of the above.

James Lee Witt was director of FEMA when Los Alamos, NM, was burning due to a poorly planned, and even more poorly executed, prescribed burn done by the Park Service.

Even with his experience in emergency services in Arkansas, he was criticized soundly by the people of Los Alamos.(Keep in mind that we have to discount that criticism just a bit because the pampered scientists who work for the Department of Energy are overpaid and over-served by that department.)

In every emergency situation, grim realities slap survivors every single day – for a very long time. I won’t talk about those realities now – maybe in the future.

In my opinion, the director of FEMA must have enough experience to deal with the experts who work for FEMA.And not one bit more. I refer you to my story in the previous post.

In addition, the FEMA director must be a person who can communicate – directly, honestly, and often – with all levels of government bureaucrats, media, politicians, and the general public.

I listened to a brief out-take of a teleconference held between the head of the hurricane center, the president, head of Homeland Security, and head of FEMA that was held days BEFORE the hurricane hit. The head of the hurricane center warned them about the at least 20’ surge that would hit New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.

And I heard the head of FEMA say exactly what all of us would want to hear - we’re ready, we have people on the ground already, we’ll do whatever it takes.

This brings home the lesson that actions are more powerful than words. He said all the right things – but didn’t do all the right things.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


FEMA Director

A friend of mine, James Huggins, asked this question about project managers being subject matter experts.

“While they don't need to be SMEs, how much DO they need to know about the context, culture, processes, technology, etc.?

As an example, can ANYONE be head of FEMA? Or does it need to be someone with a background in disaster recovery?”

What an excellent question! And one I’ve been considering in the context of FEMA leadership.

In my previous posting, I said that a project manager should be leading the FEMA efforts for disaster recovery. I believe that good project managers have all the skills and knowledge necessary to COORDINATE, COMMUNICATE, AND LEAD.

But is that enough? Should a project manager also know the detailed requirements of disaster recovery in order to lead FEMA?

I’ll share one of my earliest project management experiences to answer those questions.

As an engineering co-op student, working my way through college, I worked as a civilian for the US Navy. In our command, we tested aircraft weapons and weapon delivery systems. I was put in charge of testing the side loads for a weapon that was mounted under the wings of Navy aircraft.

I was very pleased to get this assignment. It showed that the engineers I worked with trusted my judgment. I was also very scared. I didn’t know anything about side load or testing it.

I started out my first project meeting by telling the very experienced, active duty personnel that I didn’t know anything about what we were going to do. I also told them that I needed their help – not only to have a successful project, but also to learn. I reminded them that I was a student, and part of my work was learning engineering.

The rest of the meeting went very well. Each SME stepped up to my request and contributed the information I asked for. By the end of that first meeting, we had a work breakdown structure (every task required), a schedule, and action assignments.

Throughout the rest of that project, each of the SMEs would come to me with information that I needed – both on a project level and on a technical level.

So the short answer to my friend’s question is: ANY GOOD PROJECT MANAGER COULD HEAD UP FEMA.

The caveat is: Assuming the SMEs work at FEMA and want to do the best possible job. And are willing to work with a project manager who admits what she/he doesn’t know.

My only example is Elizabeth Dole as head of the American Red Cross. What do you think?

To find out more about James Huggins, visit his websites at:



Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Steaming Mad

I’m a bit surprised by my reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the category 4 hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast of the US on August 29, 2005.

I am angry.

I’m angry that the evacuation plans did not include everyone. I’m angry that the infrastructure has not been updated and maintained. I’m angry that the most economically active country in the world could not help its own people to survive this disaster.

I was angry even before the hurricane hit land. The mandatory evacuation of towns and cities had been started too late. Highways became parking lots. And there was no sign of public transportation for people who don’t have access to private vehicles.

And where were the shelters for the folks who did evacuate? With over one million people heading inland, were they all supposed to go to family? That’s not even a possibility for a large percentage of folks.

After the hurricane hit land, it seemed that our federal government went into slow motion. How many civil, structural, and dam engineers had to tell them that the levees in New Orleans could not withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane? And who decided that since the levees were holding on Monday night, there wasn’t a real hurry to get people out of the damaged Superdome? (Who didn’t see that coming with winds of over 150 miles per hour??)

Today our leaders in Homeland Security and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) say that the pictures they saw on television weren’t confirmed by their people in the field.


Do we have people in leadership positions who don’t believe their own eyes? Or do they think that the US media has some ulterior motive in televising the desperation of the survivors – in New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama?

Even the president said that it was a terrible disaster after he flew over the Gulf Coast. Didn’t his hand-picked subordinates believe him?

So, to get this rant in perspective, what does all this have to do with project management?

It’s an excellent example of how project managers could have made all the difference between life and death.

  • A project manager has the skills to coordinate many different types of efforts.
  • A project manager has the skills to communicate effectively with everyone involved.
  • A project manager knows how to LEAD so that the team will follow – and make the right decisions about priorities.

But the fact that the leaders of the federal effort after the hurricane hit were not project managers – but had been put in that position – indicates that the top echelons of leadership in the US still do not appoint people for their skills. It’s still a political, back room, good ole’ boy system of political appointments.

After all the dead have been counted, maybe the US leadership – yes, the president – will think twice about appointments to positions that deal with life and death. And maybe we’ll finally get a project manager in charge of FEMA.