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Ep 21: Do You Have A Project Manager Or An Overpaid Errand Boy? – Coach’s Corner with Paul Atherton

2 examples of what great project management looks like
3 Questions to ask a P.M. that allow you to determine their level of control over a project
5 Systems you can implement with your team that will allow you to hit or beat project deadlines
The 3 personality traits to look for that make a great project manager
Common mistakes contractors make when they hire and onboard project managers
How to leverage a great project management system to set yourself apart from your competition

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Read a Summary of Episode 21

The terms project management and project manager have become watered down, especially in the contracting space. In most cases project managers are, at best, fire fighters.

Unlike government, big tech, and oil industries that have very defined explanations of what a project manager does, in the contracting realm the term project manager is thrown about a little too easily and has therefore become a grey area. It’s like the wild west out there.

During his lengthy career as an engineer and project manager working on large construction projects across the world, Paul Atherton, our guest on this episode and BTA’s very own Business Coach, has seen it all and made it his mission to address the definition gap.

A cornerstone of Paul’s coaching philosophy at BTA is the implementation of World Class Project Management Systems. To date he has successfully worked with more than 100 contracting companies on implementing those systems.

Paul offers some fascinating insights. But let’s start at the beginning.

What Does Excellent Project Management Look Like?

Early on in Paul’s career he worked on a massive cogeneration plant construction project. A seasoned engineer/project manager led the project and despite having 100s of people working under him, was always chill. Intrigued, Paul asked a colleague how he kept his cool. He responded: “The reason is he planned everything to a T; he knows how to manage projects and people.”

This chap had built and sustained relationships with all the people on the job and ensured they worked together smoothly. He also refused to accept the status quo or make excuses.

"Trades business and general contracting exist in a space that's quite fragmented, and the majority of businesses you're in competition with are lacking in how they execute, plan, and manage projects. As a business owner, if you take the time to get good in this area, you will see accelerated gains as most of the people you are competing against won't be doing this.”

Signs That Project Management Is An Issue In Your Company

First, look at your net profit. If it’s negative 2-4%, then there’s a lot of ground you can make up, and it’s usually in the area of project management; second, consider your gross profit relative to your goal; and third, consider how long the project took relative to the planned schedule. If these are off, there’s your red flag.

If Paul asks a project manager to break down what (s)he’s doing and the response is, “we are slammed,” he knows something is up. If he then asks where the budget is and the response is that it’s handled by the owner or accounting, this sets off alarm bells. A project manager can’t be a leader without having a handle on all these elements.


How A World Class Project Management System Can Help

When Dave Stevens, owner of LIDA Homes Inc., joined BTA 18 months ago, he had great processes in place, but he asked Paul: “What does ‘perfect’ look like?” He wasn’t willing to settle for the status quo. Working closely with Paul, Dave spent nearly a year refining his project management processes by undertaking a 5 Step Program:

Step 1: Dave implemented solid employment agreements, from labour to project manager level.

Step 2: He injected a performance-based point system in the company.

Step 3: He developed resource training manuals for all roles.

Step 4: He designed a communication plan to determine what ‘good communication’ looks like.

Step 5: He introduced goal setting and review meetings.



As a contractor, it’s easy to get lost in what the Fundamentals of what Project Management actually are because a Google definition doesn’t apply, so to simplify, Paul breaks down the 4 project management fundamentals that will improve net profit

  1. Have a good project plan in place

    This includes developing a good estimate so there aren’t any surprises along the way, and developing a good material management plan that takes into account all factors.

  2. Manage the budget

    A good project manager needs to know how each line item is performing, what the forecast is for gross profit, the fixed price jobs and what are the over/under billings etc.

  3. Manage the schedule

    Companies doing extremely well are the ones that can hammer through projects faster. Cutting the project time by two months saves overhead and allows you to hit double digit net profit %.

  4. Have a good communication plan in place

    99% of issues onsite are due to communication breakdowns. A communication plan needs to list the stakeholders and outline the meetings that are happening externally and internally, among other things.



  1. They come across as capable and competent. You don’t want someone who crumbles under pressure.

  2. They are good problem solvers. You can train staff to become great problem solvers by asking them three questions: What is the issue? What are 3 ways to solve the issue? What path would you take to solve this problem?

  3. They are tenacious (don’t mistake this for perfectionism – contracting has no time to be perfect), and get through projects quickly.


In the end, to get those A-Class Project Managers you need to be sure you have great recruitment strategies in place and don’t take a fancy resume at face value.

Paul concludes, “Trades business and general contracting exist in a space that’s quite fragmented, and the majority of businesses you’re in competition with are lacking in how they execute, plan, and manage projects. As a business owner, if you take the time to get good in this area, you will see accelerated gains as most of the people you are competing against won’t be doing this.”

Benji Carlson

Benji Carlson

As the son of two proven entrepreneurs, Benji’s spirit for self-starting business runs deep. Since he was a young teen, Benji has been starting and running profitable small businesses; most recently culminating in a highly successful 4-year career as a franchisee with College Pro Painters. Benji’s enormous heart and passion for people is what drove him to produce over $1,000,000 in revenue while taking the highest quality care of his employees and customers. He was consistently acknowledged for having the most productive staff in the company, while leading more junior franchisees to fulfill their potential. Benji’s uncanny ability to find the right people and put them in the right place make him a natural fit for Breakthrough Academy’s Assessment Team.

Upon finishing up his career with College Pro, Benji set out on the ultimate victory lap: a nine-month transcontinental motorcycle trip from Canada to Peru.

Benji lives in beautiful Kelowna BC. During the summer you’ll usually find him on two wheels: either bombing down a trail on his mountain bike or cruising the pavement on his motorcycle. When the snow falls, he escapes to the mountains for steep and deep powder.

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