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How to Turn Good Project Management into Great Project Leadership

In today’s complex business environment, projects are the way in which work gets done – and the only way in which organisations are able to move the business forward.

For an organisation to achieve its goals, projects chosen for their strategic importance need to be executed successfully, and the key way to ensure this is with project workers who understand the strategic importance of their role and their projects.

The rise in project-based work means that project skills are in high demand. Many organisations are investing in people, processes and structure to create teams focused on strategy execution, often by establishing project management offices (PMOs).

However, as we discussed in last week’s blog the strategic skills PMO leaders must possess, project leaders must be able to make strategic decisions and take responsibility for strategic actions.

As a senior project manager or head of a PMO, it is important to assess teams for any skill gaps that may be inhibiting or preventing project success. For example, there is a relational skills gap if any of the following are occurring:

  • Project managers are struggling to engage with stakeholders
  • Teams are struggling against risks they should have planned for or avoided
  • Efforts are focused on getting a project delivered on-time and on-budget, to the extent that the end result is detached from the organisation’s strategic goals

The reality is soft skills are often the hardest skill gaps to diagnose – and to address. Given that communication also fall under the soft skills umbrella, it can be hard for a team to articulate what their challenges are.

All of this forms a self-perpetuating cycle of good project teams failing to make the leap to great project teams.

Even though organisations are executing more projects to get more work done, they are also managing bigger and increasingly transformational projects due to the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. Read more on how to navigate ambiguity here.

This shift in project scale requires a shift in project leadership—and explains why there is a greater demand than ever for technically adept project managers who can master the relational skills to inspire teams and push projects across the finish line.

Project leaders are ultimately the ones who can turn good project management into great project leadership – providing they possess the skills required to drive that kind of transformation.

(To meet this transformational need, we have partnered with Duke Corporate Education to launch the Adaptive Strategic Execution Programme, which focuses on developing leaders of project-based work as they navigate the VUCA environment.)

The following four key skills are those needed if teams are to improve their performance:

  1. The ability to break down silos

Although projects are often cross-functional, silos can prevent work from being done quickly and efficiently.

Generally speaking, silos are not just departmental. People can become siloed based on their age and gender, geographical location and other factors.

Project leaders must be able to get past these issues to engage and inspire cross-functional, geographically-dispersed teams and help individuals understand the context of their work in the bigger picture.

  1. Strong communication skills

Project leaders have to be able to communicate effectively with lots of different people, some of whom may be peers, some of whom may be superiors and some of whom may be subordinates.

The best project leaders engage in multi-channel outreach. This keeps a constant cadence of communication with stakeholders and team members and allows them to tailor the tone and style of the communication to the relevant audience.

Establishing solid communication as part of project leadership will also help team leaders gain the trust of the project teams they are managing.

  1. The ability to manage both up and down

Project managers are tasked with keeping project team members accountable, even if they are not direct reports. This means knowing how to motivate them, keeping track of their progress and ultimately, holding them responsible for doing what they are supposed to do.

  1. Conflict management

Managing projects is about more than scoping requirements and managing risks. The hardest part of the job is managing the people who are doing the work and who can help mitigate—or in the worst cases, escalate—risk.

Project leaders are managing a variety of personalities and must be able to not only empower individual voices to speak up when challenges arise, but also be able to diffuse unavoidable personality conflicts and remind the team of the shared goal.

Managing a PMO and being responsible for all of the projects that contribute to an organisation’s success is not an easy job. It’s certainly not made easier when the moving parts and dynamic personalities at play test the limits of a team’s relational skills.

The first step in moving a team from good to great is realising that there are barriers inhibiting project success. Instilling relational skills may feel like an adjustment but it is one that will create the culture needed to predictably and repeatedly execute successful initiatives. For more on this read How to Build an Organisation Focused on Predictably and Repeatedly.

Much like technical skills, the best approach to developing relational skills is to invest in targeted training. This training not only benefits the organisation, but it signals to talent that there is an investment in their future by offering them the skills they need to advance in their careers.

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About Rebecca Leitch

Rebecca Leitch
Rebecca Leitch is a marketeer at TwentyEighty Strategy Execution - focused on bringing new project management content for the PM community.

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