The parallels between the roles and responsibilities of the Project Manager and the Chief Executive Officer

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM) considers project management as “the most complex management task of all”. While many would argue that the role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of an organisation would more fittingly deserve that honor, there are nonetheless some striking parallels between the respective roles and responsibilities of the CEO and the Project Manager (PM). In this article the author will compare and contrast the roles and responsibilities of the PM to that of the CEO.
Brunette woman holding cup smiles to the right.

Defining the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Executive Officer

Throughout this discussion, let’s first consider the role of the CEO. What role must the CEO play in the organisation and what specific responsibilities does the CEO have. Thereafter, we’ll look at that same role, or responsibility from the perspective of the PM.


The CEO holds one of, if not the most important and influential roles in an organisation. Likewise, the PM enjoys a similar role of importance and influence to the project. The CEO is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the organisation. When it comes to the success or failure of the project, that burden lies squarely on the PM.


The CEO, holding the top position in an organisation, is responsible for devising and implementing operational plans, while the PM is responsible for devising and implementing the project plan.

Stakeholder Management

The CEO oversees all of the organisation's various functions and does so by while considering the needs of different constituencies, or stakeholders. Likewise, the PM must carefully identify and balance stakeholder needs within the context of the project.

Organisational oversight

The CEO is the person responsible for the functioning of the entire organisation. The PM holds similar responsibilities overseeing all aspects of the project. The CEO cannot realistically delegate all of their strategic responsibilities to anyone else, despite the fact that both the board of directors and other corporate officers play a major role in this process. Likewise, the PM cannot delegate project oversight as ultimately it is the PM who is accountable for and must ensure project objectives are being met by all team members. 

Organisational change

The CEO has the responsibility for organisation building through the organisational change process. An alternate definition of any project is change. Therefore, in most all cases a project will, by definition, involve a certain degree of organisational change. The PM must understand the project’s change impact and will need to navigate the project through the organisational change process if the project is to be successful.


The CEO has the responsibility of creating a unifying, big-picture perspective, or vision for the organisation. The PM has this same responsibility. The PM must always be considering the impact of every decision made in the bigger picture – particularly how any scope or schedule change, or resource availability will impact the chances of success for the project.

Perspective has another dimension – the macro/micro viewpoint. This is especially important when troubleshooting problems. The CEO has to maintain a macro-perspective, that is understanding how the organisation functions and is impacted by the external environment. For instance, how changes in the general economy might impact the organisation. The PM must have a macro-perspective as well, understanding that their one project is likely one of many projects that the organisation is pursuing and funding.

The CEO must also have a micro-perspective, understanding how the organisation is pieced together to deliver value and where to look, in the firm’s value chain, when something isn’t going as planned. From the perspective of the PM, the project’s value chain is the Deliverables Breakdown Structure, which maps to the Work Breakdown Structure and must likewise look downstream to troubleshoot problems.

Knowledge base

The CEO must have strong a general business knowledge and skills in a wide variety of areas, as well as skills customised, or specific to the particular nature and operation of their organisation. Likewise, the PM should have a broad-based knowledge, consisting of general business knowledge, knowledge of project management tools and techniques, leadership skills and subject matter knowledge. For the latter consider this example, if leading an IT project, the PM would benefit from some kind of background in IT.

Realistically, it is not possible for CEOs or PMs to have all the knowledge they need for every situation. Therefore, both CEOs and PMs must rely on continuous self-learning to keep up with the pace of change in the world at large and how it impacts their organisation (or project).

Risk Management

The CEO of any organisation is also its chief risk manager. The CEO must balance the tradeoff between risk and reward with every business decision made. In addition, risk management has taken on new dimensions over the past few decades as corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become center stage.

PMs have a similar, but much narrower focus of managing between risks and rewards specific to their project. Perhaps the PM’s best frame of reference for identifying and mitigating project risks comes from the late Donald Rumsfeld, who infamously remarked about the need to identify and consider the known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns in decision making. PMs also need to consider corporate social responsibilities in the wider context of stakeholder management. Many projects can and do have social impact, especially public sector projects and projects undertaken by non-profit organisations.

Project Management: an important skillset for all current and future leaders

If you’re a mover and shaker, bent on rising up the corporate ladder, you might be wondering does project management prepare one for the chief executive officer role? Well, it depends, and there are two career potential paths worthy of discussion here.

Since virtually all major organisational undertakings typically unfold as a project, a highly visible, strategically important, successful project can certainly bode well for the PM’s corporate climb. In the first scenario. many successful new product launches have been early proving grounds for future CEOs. Examples of rising stars whose careers have been built off of a successful project include those with a PM oriented role in building a new aircraft frame, a new automobile platform or formulating a new laundry detergent.

In the second scenario, if you’re in a project-centric business, such as engineering, IT or consulting, where running projects is a way of life, without a doubt, a successful PM can rise to the top.

No matter what your “day job” is – in almost any type of organisation – project management skills represent an important skillset to have. Why so? Because so much of the work done today, at the professional level, can be considered project-oriented work. People who are being groomed for bigger things are often asked to lead projects. So even if your next successful project assignment doesn’t earn you that coveted seat in the C-Suite, it may at least help you earn a promotion in your present position.


This article has illustrated the striking similarities in the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Executive Officer and the Project Manager. So, what separates these two roles? In terms of skills needed to do the job, not so much. However, as to frame of reference, the CEO has the entire organisation to contend with, while the PM has a much narrower focus – a single project that is being pursued by the organisation. Project work is an everyday occurrence in virtually every organisation today. In summary, leaders and aspiring leaders – at all levels – can benefit from a solid project management skillset.
About the author: Robert W. Starinsky is a seasoned business professional with a diverse business background. Bob is a twice-published author and is a former business educator. Bob is currently  a management consultant and principal of Tradewinds Group, a consultancy serving businesses and non-profits throughout suburban Chicago and Southeastern Wisconsin.
Bob holds an Associate’s degree in Marketing and Merchandising, a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Behavior and Personnel, an MBA degree in Finance and a Master’s degree in Accounting. Bob is a Certified Computing Professional (CCP) and an Accredited Small Business Consultant (ASBC) and member of the Association of Small Business Consultants.

Key words: Project management, Roles, Knowledge, Analysis

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