Project managers who have changed the world

Confident project manager leading innovation at work

International Project Management Day (3 November 2022) recognises the amazing contributions of project managers around the globe. To honour this day, we celebrate some star project managers – historical to modern day – who have made their mark on the world and left behind an incredible legacy.

A project manager could be likened to the conductor of an orchestra: the person responsible for coordinating all the moving parts to create something of value. Project managers bring projects to fruition, working either on the front lines or behind the scenes to manage people, deadlines and budgets. Successful project managers need to excel at communication, organisation, negotiation, time management, problem-solving, conflict management, motivation, adaptability and leadership. Let’s check out some project managers who possessed these skills in abundance and changed the course of history – some of them long before the term ‘project manager’ was even coined.

Imhotep

Imagine having the vision, ingenuity and skills to build the first pyramids in Egypt, using only primitive tools and technology, at a time when such a feat would surely have been considered impossible. Not only did Imhotep accomplish this, but he did so as a commoner. Without access to the means with which to build, Imhotep needed to secure the support of the Pharaoh in order to even begin – a task that no doubt required masterful people skills! Considered by many as the world’s first architect and engineer, he designed and project managed the construction of the pyramid of Djoser between 2630 and 2611 BC – the first of its kind using stone and support columns.

Imhotep was the first architect, engineer and project manager for the Pyramid of Djoser

Maria Theresa of Austria

History didn’t exactly make it easy for women to step into leadership roles. Maria Theresa inherited her position through her bloodline, coming into power when her father, Emperor Charles VI died in 1740. Going on to reign for 40 years, she was the only woman to hold the position in her own right, and she certainly stepped up to the task. Inheriting the rule of a country that was poorly governed and penniless, she had not even been educated on matters of the state prior to her rule. Nevertheless, she chose her own advisors and eventually managed to turn around the economy, revitalise the military, and institute mandatory public education for both boys and girls in the country. She successfully held on to her rule throughout the course of two wars and while giving birth to 16 children. If anyone could offer invaluable advice to project managers on how to juggle multiple responsibilities while remaining a strong leader, it would be Maria Theresa!

Statue of Maria Theresa of Austria, who managed significant reforms whilst running a household while in power

Emily Roebling

Emily Roebling exemplifies another skilled female project manager who, while only given her position by a twist of fate, rose to the task and more than proved herself capable, helping to smash the glass ceiling for women in STEM roles. Roebling is best known for her contribution to the construction of the famed Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883. When her husband, the Chief Engineer of the project, became sick and bed-ridden, Roebling stepped in and worked with the engineering team to keep the project moving forward. Starting out as her husband’s liaison, she became so proficient at the day-to-day project management that she became the standing leader for the bridge’s construction. She oversaw the management of technical issues, materials, stress analysis, construction and calculations, all the while advocating for her husband to keep his original job title as Chief Engineer. While careful not to usurp her husband’s authority (a reflection of the times she lived in), Roebling was recognised for her instrumental role in project managing the build by being the first to cross the bridge upon its completion.

Emily Roebling an Engineer who took over as Project Manager for the Brooklyn Bridge New York

Steve Jobs

When it comes to modern day project managers, Steve Jobs was arguably one of the most prolific. In 1976 at the tender age of 21, he founded Apple Inc. to develop and sell computers from his garage. He went on to build Apple into a juggernaut – the forefront of the technology industry. At the time of his death in 2011, Jobs had an estimated net worth of $5.1 billion. How did he get there? While seen to be a somewhat aggressive manager, he nevertheless had a strong and clear vision, fearlessness and perseverance. He also believed in the power of a team and excelled at getting the best out of people. He reportedly said: “Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” At the time of his death, he is said to have left four years’ worth of new project plans for his team, to ensure the continuation of his legacy.

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