I Want to Be a Chief of Staff: Do I Need a PMP?

March 1, 2019

I want to be a chief of staff: do I need a PMP?

One of the most common questions I get from aspiring chiefs of staff is whether you need a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

The short answer is that while the certification is not a requirement (I don’t have a PMP cert and served 2.5 years as a CoS to an 800-employee company with $5B under management), some of the content and knowledge is a requirement, however you acquire it.

At the senior executive level, being able to articulate the difference between a project and a program and how they’re different from a scope, scale, executive champion, budget approval, and execution point of view is important. A program manager looks at a portfolio of projects and only dives into project-level details if something’s off, for example. The vision, budget, and resourcing for a cross-functional program is more likely a senior leadership team or board-level decision than a simple project within a department or team. That means more people to buy in and a different level of trading in influence or political currencies to get people’s commitments for approvals or for the work itself. This is the level where most of the executive leadership team (the staff in chief of staff) operate.

Yet, you will likely be called upon to drive projects from beginning to end as well, and as I said above you should know where to deep dive if a program is off, so from a project management point of view, you should be thinking about:

  • Go/no-go decisions: is a project worth doing, given other priorities on your/your executive’s/your leadership team’s plate right now? How do you know? How do you communicate that?
  • Setting goals.
  • (Perhaps most importantly) thinking through all the actual tasks that will need to happen to complete the work, the order those tasks need to happen, and what the dependencies are between tasks so that you can plan resources, communicate, set expectations, get those high-level approvals mentioned above based on real or close-to-real assumptions, and adjust on the fly as reality unfolds.
  • Knowing when to use an Agile approach versus a waterfall or other approach. In a world where Agile is all the rage, someone needs to recognize that it’s not the end-all, be-all solution to getting stuff done and can actually lead to negative outcomes if applied in situations not well suited for it. Every approach has advantages and drawbacks depending on the situation and what is required for success.
  • Identifying and planning resources; managing them as the project unfolds; making tradeoffs in time/cost/quality (and other drivers/constraints important to your organization).
  • Getting stuff done – this comes from experience more than certs. See Scott Berkun’s famous “Art of Project Management: How to Get Stuff Done” for some now-old-but-still-terrific examples.


Echoing the point above above about knowing what approach to use in what situation, even if you achieve a formal certification, you are wise to hold your expertise loosely and know when to use it. Some executives and chiefs of staff I interviewed for my book argued that focusing on formal processes too much can hinder the organization’s ability to be flexible and change direction when change dictates it. One executive said, “I asked one of my department heads for action to be taken on an issue we were having. The formal project management folks in that department said they’d come back to their leader and me in a couple weeks—it would take them that long to interview stakeholders, identify key milestones and time lines, figure out the resourcing, identify risks, and develop a risk mitigation plan. My chief of staff sketched out a plan by the next morning that was good enough. If I had been asking for a major cultural shift, the former might have worked, but we were bleeding money in this problem area, and two weeks would’ve cost us more than it was worth.” When I was in the U.S. Marines, we called this the 70% rule, which David Freedman explained well in his book “Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines.”  The idea is that it’s better to make a 70% good decision or solution, quickly, than be killed waiting for the 100% good one.

Without a pretty good grasp of project and program management, you likely won’t succeed in a chief of staff role. Ultimately, how you attain that good grasp is up to you.

If you’re having challenges shifting between tactical-level project work and strategic-level program work, I can help. Email or call today to ask how.

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