Project Manager or Contract Manager?

It’s hard enough making sure you know whether you are a project manager, project administrator, project coordinator, project facilitator, or project expeditor. But what exactly is the difference between a project manager and a contract manager? I’ve met plenty of people who tell me they are project managers or work for consultancies providing project management services but in my opinion they are not project managers they are in fact contract managers and their organisations are providing contract management services.

So what is the difference and does it matter?

The easiest way to explain what a project manager is, is simply to replace the work ‘Project’ with ‘General’ – so a project manager is in fact the ‘general manager’ for a project. We all know what general managers do. They look after financing, communications, staff, marketing, risks, strategy and every other aspect of a business. This is what someone with the title of project manager is supposed to be as well – the complete manager of a project. Anything less and you are not a project manager, choose one of the other titles.

I often think of an analogy using cars to describe the difference – contract managers are Land Rover Defenders – solid, dependable and suited to particular environments while project managers are more like a Range Rover – all the extras.

So then what is a contract manager? Well a contract manager steps in to develop, negotiate and execute a contract for project services. It can be a very large and complex contract but it only requires knowledge of the terms of the contract and making sure they are followed. Typically contract mangers aren’t great people managers, they aren’t exceptional leaders, and they aren’t exceptional communicators – all the things that a project manager must be. Contract managers tend to be technical experts who have assumed a management role. Their focus is on the delivery of products or services.

So does it matter which one to use? That depends on the nature of the project. If it has a contractually defined scope of work and doesn’t require great leadership, excellent communication skills and exceptional leadership then a contract manager is perfectly suited. Otherwise a project manager is the better choice.