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You Say Potato: Project Manager vs Construction Manager

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From budgeting, to payroll, to actual responsibilities, the Project Manager and Construction Manager are not to be confused with each other. They may seem interchangeable, but they are anything but. The answer to the riddle lies in the titles themselves. The Project Manager, as the title suggests, has responsibilities that are all-encompassing. This person has eyes on the whole of the Project, of which the construction itself is, believe it or not, just one component, or phase.

What is the PM’s job in a nutshell? 

The PM’s job is to see that the project comes in on time and on budget. Every aspect of the construction cycle falls under the purview of the Project Manager.

While the Project Manager doesn’t actually get “hands-on” any of the duties of the various project players he oversees, he knows enough to be able to dive in and perform the tasks at hand, if need be. His role is to know enough about everyone’s tasks, technically and otherwise, to be able to expertly integrate of all the project’s moving parts. From the initial exploratory meetings, through the design, construction, punchlist, and final closeout of the project, the Project Manager oversees the project landscape, onsite and off.

PM as the Owner’s Rep

Perhaps most importantly, the PM advocates for, and makes regular reports to, the project owner. As long as the project is active and ongoing, the Project Manager (PM) is typically the single point of contact between the owner and the project. When the owner wants a coherent and informed summary report on the status of the project, the Project Manager delivers it.

If you confuse the roles of these two very important managers—Project and Construction—you risk throwing a job substantially off course.  

The owner is thus at the apex of the PM’s own reporting structure. Besides keeping the owner completely informed as to the state of the project, the PM is also the liaison who keeps the  designers, engineers, and contractors in touch with each other, and collectively attendant to the owner’s needs and wants. The PM represents the owner’s interests foremost, and sees to it those interests and needs are being met by the project teams and vendors. It could be said that the PM is the owner’s proxy; the owner’s official voice and representative through all phases of the project.

In fact, the Project Manager will often not only hire the Construction Manager and the GC (when these two roles are separate), but also manage these positions, as well. The PM is thus the bridge from the owner to the project, and the on-the-ground manager of key construction personnel. The PM role requires that someone have a foot in both worlds––the administrative and the technical. The PM has the organizational and reporting skills to keep all the project elements in sync and the owner informed. The PM also has the construction knowledge to advise and make decisions that impact the project’s schedule. Planning, supervising, consulting, and when necessary, fixing—the PM is everywhere, and has an eye on, and sometimes even a hand in, all aspects of the project stream. Importantly, when the PM visits the site to check the project’s progress, it is as if the Owner himself is coming to the lot.

Construction Manager’s Focus is on…Constructing

The Construction Manager (CM) is focused primarily on overseeing the actual building of the project.

The management of the subcontractors and the onsite supervision of the actual construction work fall squarely into the Construction Manager’s scope. Often, the contract structure will also make the Construction Manager contractually liable for the work the subcontractors do. While the construction of the building itself would seem to occupy the natural center of the project, the construction is actually just one of many linear phases of a construction project. Take one step up in elevation and all of these phases are overseen by, and are ultimately the responsibility of, the Project Manager. The subordinate construction phase is the responsibility of the CM.

It can be helpful to think of the Project Manager as having expert responsibility over the project’s business and resource Management, and to think of the Construction Manager as having expert responsibility over the hands-on trades, including plumbing, electrical, carpentry––all that goes into building.

Hiring for something as complex as a construction project is already daunting. If you confuse the roles of these two very important managers—Project and Construction—you risk throwing a job substantially off course. Be sure you’re aware of how ALL the titles and roles in a construction project interact, overlap, and complement each other; particularly those that sound suspiciously interchangeable. When you say potato and I say potato, we don’t have the option of calling the whole thing off, no matter what the song says.

Find more useful construction management resources in this list by Construction Placements.

While increasing internal adoption of a new productivity tracking system may seem like a daunting task at first, mapping out a comprehensive implementation strategy can significantly increase platform usage and help both the project manager and construction manager to maximize the benefits of the technology. As the potential productivity gains are realized and collaboration processes between the PM and CM are established, it will be substantially easier to solve waste and inefficiencies that lead to better insight on real-time information about overall project health. 

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If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks, webinars, and case studies you may enjoy:

Top 6 Rework Offenders Killing Your Margins

The Survival Guide for Project Managers

Clark Construction Management Study


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3 thoughts on “You Say Potato: Project Manager vs Construction Manager

  1. This is a great article, professionally written, that easily explains how things on a site are supposed to be, and how they can also get confused. I have had my residential rehabilitation business up and running for almost 2 years now, and have performed 3 flips so far. This article reassured my decision to pursue a PM course at my local college, while I am also running the company. I see that I need to be more aligned with the Project Manager role since I am also the owner.
    Even though we are small right now, I still wrap my hands around the saws and even the broom, however we are pushing more towards having several sites working at the same time.

    Thank you for all of this great information, and I will download the other articles and read then as well.

    1. Hi Jeremiah,

      Very happy to hear we could offer you some inspiration. Never hurts to keep learning. Thank you for sharing and best wishes with your schooling!

  2. Jeremiah, thanks so much for taking a minute to comment on this piece. It sounds like you are an Owner with his hands on the wheel, which is great to hear. When you take that course, you may find they are telling you what you already know through experience, and having your instincts formalized in the classroom may be just the ticket. In any case your company is clearly on the move! Thanks for your hard work in the construction community, and for commenting on this article.

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