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Alpha Project Managers: What you’ll Learn and Whether to Buy it

Alpha Project Managers

‘Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not’ is a far better book than I had expected.

So in this article, I’m going to share some of the most important things I learned from it. And I’ll tell you whether you should buy it, depending on where you are in your Project Management career.

What is ‘Alpha Project Managers’?

Alpha Project Managers

Alpha Project Managers

Alpha Project Managers‘ (US|UK) is a book that details research findings from the author’s survey of 860 project managers, and their supervisors. These 860 project managers were already highly prequalified from a larger list of 3,000. Each had extensive project management experience, with three years in their current role, and experience of a large project over the preceding year. There were other criteria too, including number of team members and, crucially, bosses who were willing to participate in the survey too.

The final cohort of 860 project managers allowed the author to survey 4,398 stakeholders too. These were bosses, team members, and project customers. All the surveys were done confidentially.

Ten of the survey questions asked these stakeholders to rate the project manager’s performance on ten dimensions.

The book documents follow-up surveys and discussions with the top 18 project managers. It sets out to discern what they do differently, to get into the top 2%. These are the Alpha Project Managers, or ‘Alphas’.

Who is the Author of Alpha Project Managers?

Andy Crowe PMP, author of Alpha Project Managers

Andy Crowe PMP, author of Alpha Project Managers

Alpha Project Managers is the work of Andy Crowe.

Andy is the founder and CEO of Velociteach, which provides project management training and PMI exam preparation resources.

Many readers will know him as the author of ‘PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try‘ (US|UK). This is one of the PMP Exam-prep books we recommend, at OnlinePMCourses.

He has a whole range of other books and learning resources under his belt too. These include: ‘The PMI-ACP Exam: How To Pass On Your First Try‘ (US|UK) and a wide range of supporting tools.

And Andy is well-qualified to lead a major supplier of PMP and CAPM training. He was part of the team that developed the 3rd Edition of the PMI’s PMBOK. Now that they are into their second year, I’m looking forward to adding the Velociteach podcast, Manage This, to our roundup of the best project management podcasts.

Who Should Read Alpha Project Managers?

Quite simply, anyone who aspire to be an Alpha, or approach the top tier of our profession, will learn a lot fro this book.

While I had expected a flimsy analysis of a flaky sample size, with fatuous survey questions, this book is not that. I have no idea how Andy’s methodology would stand up to academic scrutiny. But to me, three things seem clear:

  • Sample sizes are substantial
  • Gaps between the Alphas and their peers are often highly significant
  • The insights Andy draws from these gaps and the discussions he has with the Alphas are thought-provoking and worthwhile

Of course, a lot of what he concludes comes as no surprise. What experienced project manager would expect anything other than the conclusion that understanding stakeholders’ needs is a valuable differentiator between okay and excellent project managers?

But there is far ore to this book that familiar top tips. Not only are there some surprising insights, but the big impact comes from the cumulative effect of all the practices that the Alph Project managers engage in, mindfully.

This may not be the book to read at the start of your career. Although it certainly cannot help. But a couple of projects in… Start reading it and re-read it regularly.

If you do, I predict you will take something new out time and time again. Each increment can improve your project management practice. And if you take on enough of the advice, who knows… Maybe in some future survey, you peers will see you as an Alpha Project Manager.

What are some of the Key Findings in Alpha Project Managers?

There is so much I’ve highlighted in my 2006 hardback edition, that I don’t know where to start.

More important, it’s hard to know what to include and what to leave out. It’s tempting to tabulate and summarize all the advice for you. But that would be to do a mighty disservice to Andy. He’s done the work, and it’s only fair to ask you to buy his book (US|UK), if you want to learn all you can from it.

So I shall be selective. I’ll pick out what interested me most.

Who are the Alphas?

No two Alphas come from the same industry. But we can allocate them into industry sectors. Different observers may make one or two different choices about sector allocations. Here are mine:

Alpha Project Managers by Industry Sector

Alpha Project Managers by Industry Sector

We can also document their demographics. These summaries take data Andy documents fully in the book. I have used their ages to make some assumptions (that may be wrong) about how long the Alphas have been working as project managers. So I have grouped them by career stage, using the Nine Steps model in our special report: The Nine Steps of a Project Management Career.

Alpha Project Managers - Demographics

Alpha Project Managers – Demographics

Meet the Alphas

Andy’s third chapter is titled: ‘Meet the Alphas’. Each of the 18 gets a brief pen portrait, and Andy gives an extended quote from each that summarizes their attitudes and approach to project management. Many of these deliver value before we even get to the data.

Alpha’s who Think like I do

I was struck by how many echo messages I’ve been giving students for 20 years. Five pick up on things I believe are absolutely fundamental.

Both Sarah and Calvin, in different ways, highlight the importance of following a process. Calvin, the second oldest, says:

My whole life changed when I finally understood there was a process for doing this job.’

Cheryl, from the Automotive industry, repeats one of my mantras:

For me, accurately defining the scope is the most difficult part.’

And regular readers of our articles will recognize that Brandon, an engineer, strikes a deep chord with me, when he observes:

…I’ve learned that projects get done through process and people, …
As an engineer, it would be easy for me to elevate the process over the people, but it really has to be the other way around if you are going to make a career in project management.’

In a recent podcast I did with Elise Stevens, I talked about the importance of cultivating personal resilience. So I was chuffed to read from Melinda:

It took me a long time… to learn to take care of myself.
…I make sure I am in good mental and physical health each day,…’

Alphas with New Thinking for me

But we learn most from people who think differently from us. So I was particularly pleased to re-assess some of my own project management priorities, after reading from the initial thoughts of Lori, Jeff, and Jim.

Lori is one of the two youngest Alphas. But her thinking is no less subtle for it.

I view my projects more like living organisms than linear processes.
It’s my job to keep the organism healthy.’

That is a fabulous metaphor, that triggers all sorts of thoughts about our priorities as project leaders.

Jim works in Software Development and talks about a particularly tough year. His insight was familiar, but one I’ve paid far too little attention to in the past:

The one thing that I have done that has helped me more than anything else is to have a mentor.’

Do take a look at our guest article by Elizabeth Harrin: ‘How to Get Yourself a Project Management Mentor’.

And lastly, Jeff works as a Civil Engineering program manager in the construction industry. Disputes are rife in this sector. A large part of his role getting between his team and his customer. He seems to do a lot of mediation (my word) and arbitration (Jim’s):

I believe that on larger projects, half of my job is arbitration’

The Findings: What Raises Alpha Project Managers to the Top 2 percent?

A glance at the book’s contents on your favorite online bookseller will reveal the themes Andy draws out.

  • Attitude and Belief
  • Focus and Prioritization
  • Communication
  • Approach
  • Relationship and Conflict
  • Alignment
  • Issue Management
  • Leadership

Here are some conclusions that Andy draws, which caught my eye. This is just a tiny sample, so do read the book and see what impresses you. And do tell us in the comments below, which ideas resonate with you.

The Alphas:

    1. Enjoy their work more than the rest of the sample.
      The whole chapter on attitude is full of nuggets. And the great thing is, you don’t need to learn anything or work any harder, to match the Alphas on this dimension.
    1. Handle their email better, in all sorts of ways.
      It was a big surprise to me how important this section is. But think about it. Most PMs get swamped by their email and it stifles too much of their focus on more important matters.
    1. Open two way channels for feedback.
      I was far from surprised that communication shows one of the biggest gaps in performance, between the Alphas and the rest. For me, project management is all about communication. But the insight that the Alphas are good at initiating communication about how they communicate was profound.
    1. Spend more time planning.
      Here’s another conclusion that backed up my own advice. But interestingly, non-Alphas rated planning as equally important, compared to Alphas. So, the difference, as always, is in what we do, not what we think!
    1. Avoid conflict escalation.
      Alphas don’t score too well on handling conflict – but still markedly better than their peers. But what they do well is head it off and tackle it early. Prevention is better than cure, and rapid intervention will mean you are dealing with less virulent conflict.

      Dealing with Conflict in Projects

      If you want to improve your handling of conflict, check out our course:
      Dealing with Conflict in Projects.

Dealing with Conflict in Projects

Conclusions about Alpha Project Managers

Andy spends a happy last chapter drawing his own conclusions about ‘What the Alphas Know’. So I shan’t presume to place my own. As an author, I know there is a point beyond which a reviewer can over-stay her or his welcome, when sharing an author’s content.

So my conclusion is this…

Alpha Project Managers is an exceptionally valuable book.

If you are a project manager who cares about your craft, profession, or job, buy it.
And, more important: read it.
And re-read it often.

You will gain insights on first reading, and spot incremental ideas with every re-reading. Each time you review it, you’ll pick up thoughts that resonate because of the challenges you are facing at that time.

I judge books like this by the number of sticky notes or marginal notes I write into my copy. Alpha Project managers has many, many notes in the margins, and a whole page of tiny notes on the inside cover.

Alpha Project Managers is a very good book, and we owe Andy our thanks for researching it so thoroughly.

What do you think of it?

And what are the insights you’d like to share?

Please do use the comments section below to join the conversation. I shall respond to every comment.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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