6 Ways to Be a Project Leader


A great project manager is a difference-maker.

I owe much of the success of my various ventures (one a turn-around, the other an intrapreneurial initiative inside one of the world’s great firms), to a few remarkable professionals who rescued us from ourselves and helped us seize success from the jaws of near certain defeat. These individuals taught us how to perform, guided us through the sticky spots and ultimately kept us from beating ourselves. In other words, they led.

In a world of work now dependent upon projects for everything from new product and service development, to process improvement initiatives, to infrastructure development and implementation, and even strategy execution, cultivating project management competence is no longer optional in our organizations.

As the stakes for project success loom larger, the role of the project manager is less about managing the mechanics of the initiative and more about leading others and forming and framing the environment necessary for learning, high performance and success. The role is in transition and the new world of high stakes project management requires the project manager to not only hone her command of the tools, processes and frameworks of the trade, but to develop extreme competence at the awkward and always challenging discipline of leading.

Today’s successful project leader is both technically and organizationally adept, able to engage effectively across boundaries, connecting talent with key challenges in pursuit of something new and important. The project leader is the consummate “integrator” leader operating in that organizational gray area where accountability is huge, authority earned not given,  and the focus is less on leveraging the traditional tools of the trade and more on helping others succeed.

Project leadership is difficult work, and while most project managers are adept at leveraging the tools and processes of the trade, there’s no single body of knowledge to learn and pass a test on when it comes to leading successfully. It’s the ultimate school where learning by doing is the only way forward.

And while there’s no magical formula or one authoritative source for learning to lead — after all, it takes time, experience and ample mistakes to develop competence in this discipline — there are a number of steps project managers can take to accelerate the on-the-job learning experience. Here are a few to help you get started on the road to project leadership.

6 Ideas to Strengthen as a Project Leaderproject leadership

1. Mind the Gap

Take time to explore the gap between navigating and leveraging the tools of the trade and leading others. It’s leadership in a classic sense, with the goal to bring to life a group of individuals that coalesce as a team and pursue high performance. Easy words, tough tasks, but worth the investment in time and attention.

I encourage aspiring project leaders to strengthen their perspective on the work of leading others by studying a number of different perspectives on the topic. From the world of project management, Jim Highsmith’s content on “Agile Leaders,” in his book, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products, is spot-on in my opinion. Highsmith starts with the premise that “most projects are over-managed and under-led,” and offers great guidance on what your real role as a leader is in the project environment.

Run a search on “leadership” at your favorite online bookseller and prepare to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices. A few leadership authors I appreciate include, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations), the work of Patrick Lencioni (The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable) and Simon Sinek (Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Times Pull Together and Others Don’t).

Don’t limit yourself to the traditional leadership books. Histories and biographies are excellent tools to develop context for leading under difficult conditions. One great choice, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin offers an excellent insight into Lincoln’s challenges to leverage his cabinet during a time of profound risk and uncertainty in our country’s history.

2. Reframe Your Challenge: It’s Not the Project, It’s the Team

The issue you face isn’t project execution, it’s team development. If you take care of the team and ensure that you form and frame the right environment, the team will take care of the initiative.

Team development is one of the more challenging tasks in life and business, and the pursuit of high performance raises the level of the challenge. Add in the temporary and unique nature of our projects and mix with a team comprised of individuals in a matrix environment, and you’re in rarefied air when it comes to team building challenges. A few of the follow-on suggestions will help you with this journey.

3. Let the Team Define Your Role

Perform a pre-post mortem on your role as leader. Ask your team: “At the end of this project when we are successful, what will you say that I did?” Listen carefully and you will hear many of the raw ingredients of high performance teams. From alignment on the purpose of the project to treating team members with respect to ensuring fair and even accountability to setting expectations high to not micro-managing, this question will prompt a torrent of important answers. Take notes. These define the raw content of your job description as project leader.

The best project leaders I’ve worked around have taken this input and framed their own Leader’s Charter to describe their role. Share your charter with your team and importantly, encourage them to hold you accountable to it with ample and timely feedback.

4. Teach Your Team How to Talk

In my many observations of teams struggling to perform, one of the common performance killers is an inability to navigate the swirl of emotions, biases, opinions and agendas that invade all of our group discussions. Spend time focusing on strengthening your facilitation skills. A popular, effective and easy-to-learn technique for focusing your group discussions on the right issues at the right time is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method. This approach emphasizes parallel thinking and helps you focus the gray matter and energy of the group on one topic area at a time. The book is inexpensive, available immediately at most on-line booksellers. It’s a short, interesting read and the techniques are easily applied and practiced in the workplace.

5. Teach Your Teams How to Decide

Teams succeed or fail based on how they navigate moments of truth in the form of key, often irreversible decisions. And while strengthening your team’s ability to talk as outlined above is important, supporting the development of effective decision-making processes is mission critical. Given the complexity of group decision-making, including our tendency to draw on our own unique prior experiences and to unknowingly impose our biases on a decision-choice, helping a group develop effective decision-making processes is no small task. You need a process.

One project leader, Jerry, used a simple multi-step process to help his teams gain control over key decision choices and improve the odds of getting them right. He understood that framing the same issue as a positive or negative will invite different decisions and approaches and he leveraged this natural human bias by requiring his teams to frame decision choices as positive, negative and neutral. He then facilitated the development of unique approaches for each frame. The process forced the team to clarify the issue and select a proper frame, and imposed the discipline of thinking through in detail thedecision-choices and possible implications. Jerry was adamant that this process exposed logical flaws and group and individual biases around key decision-choices.

Additionally, Jerry required the use of an objective outsider to review and challenge assumptions andstrive to uncover biases. This critical step served as further insurance against the all-too-common presence of groupthink and other nefarious group decision-making traps.

6. Everyone Communicates, Leaders Connect

As suggested in the sidebar example with Liz, the people on your team are neither resources nor automatons. Great leaders at all levels strive to connect with team members on something a bit more personal than status meetings and reports. They take the time to engage and where appropriate, they strive to learn about the aspirations and even personal interests of their team members. While there’s always a line on the personal stuff, it’s fine to ask about pictures visible on a desk or to follow-on with questions to a comment on an upcoming family event or milestone.

Too many project managers view the personal connection as superfluous and out of scope of the work, yet people do their best work with individuals who respect them and who trust them. Paying attention to others is one of the most powerful means at your disposal for showing that you respect them. Some will thrive on occasional appropriate banter about life beyond work and others will keep it all business. Tailor your approach and show very genuinely that you care. Everyone will notice.

It’s always a buyers market for professionals with leadership skills, however, the blending of project management expertise with people leadership skills is a powerful combination for both organizational and personal success. The work of the today’s strategic project manager is much about leading while ensuring the heavy lifting of project execution.

It’s my firm belief that the best integrator leaders, the best project leaders, are a valuable talent pool of future senior business leaders. Take the time to both study and apply the tools of leadership as well as the tools of project management. While the list above is far from complete, it’s a start on some of the important tasks of learning to lead others. Cultivate this ability and your firm will thank you and you will open new paths for career development and growth. And remember, leading others is a privilege, not a task. Treat it as such.

Leadership rests on many things. Confidence is one of the bedrocks of good leadership, and confidence is built on trusting the tools you have for the job are the best you get use. If you’re looking for a robust software suite that offers collaborative, online features, then check out ProjectManager.com for a free 30-day trial.

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