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Project Management

Becoming a Leader

Some project managers struggle to shift their mindset from a “management” point of view to a “leadership” point of view. Project managers can lead more effectively if they understand the major differences between managing and leading. Managers tend to be very effective at tasks like planning and budgeting, organizing and staffing, and problem-solving and controlling.

In fact, these are all important project management skills. However, leading a team also requires an additional set of skills: establishing direction, aligning people, motivating groups, and inspiring team members. We have explored how managing stakeholders (or, aligning people) can be very difficult and how influencing people (or, motivating others) can present challenges. To do these things well, a project manager must embrace the role of leader.

In an Agile world, a team leader is more of a facilitator than a controller. In fact, Agile teams are mostly self-directed, and project managers may have very limited power over their team members. Still, Agile project managers have a distinct role in projects, ensuring team members stay focused on their goals and preventing stakeholders from overly interfering.

Consider the key differences between a project team member and a project team leader:

Project Team MemberProject Leader
Seeks the best solutionSeeks practical solutions
Works mostly with “things”Works mostly with people
Needs deep, specialized expertiseNeeds broad, general knowledge
Is evaluated on the basis of personal workIs evaluated on the work of others
Focuses on individual goalsFocuses on team and overall goals

Ways to Exhibit Leadership

To successfully lead project team members and stakeholders, project managers should consider different ways of approaching their work. For example:

Enlist others to participate in a shared vision

It’s not enough for a leader to have a vision; they must promote it among the other members of the team.

Foster collaboration

By fostering collaboration among group members, project management team leaders can enable the team to act. Collaboration promotes interdependence, a characteristic of high-performing teams.

Plan small wins

When leaders plan small wins, teams feel buoyed by the success and become inspired to work further toward the shared vision.

Recognize contributions and celebrate accomplishments

People like to feel that their efforts have a positive effect. By celebrating accomplishments, teams grow stronger and think in terms of “we,” rather than “me.”

Common Leadership Problems

I think there’s a couple. Across industries especially, I see project managers refusing to take on their role as a project leader, thinking of themselves as a project manager and kicking off a project team meeting in the following kind of way, “Alright everyone I guess we’ve been asked to work on this project and I think these are the objectives.” So, I mean, I’m acting out the way I’ve seen people do things, and it’s a shame because even if the project is Release 3.7.5 of insurance upgrade for an IT firm, there is a reason to be excited about the objectives, or there needs to be reason to get excited because you’re trying to make a change, that’s what projects are about. Take on the role of a change leader, you’re a project manager, you’re a change leader, take on that role, absorb the role of project leader. So that’s one leadership problem is just the non-accepting of the role as a leader. I think the other one is the propensity to be too much of a technical expert. I see this especially in IT. Project managers who have been a technical manager, or technical contributor, and won’t let go of their technical work. The analogy I like to use is that of an orchestra. The orchestra leader is probably someone who is an accomplished musician, perhaps came from the woodwind section or is a world-renowned pianist, but now is conducting the orchestra. That person needs to conduct the orchestra, know how the instruments play together and not focus on the technicalities of any individual instrument. So I would say one of the other leadership problems I’ve seen is the not letting go of the technical expertise, and the technical focus that they’ve had throughout their career. Many project managers take on the role after ten, fifteen, twenty years as a scientist, or engineer, or chemist, and they don’t let go. That’s a problem. You need to buy into the role, you’re a project leader.

Can You Give Some Real-world Examples of Teams That You’ve Seen Struggle Because of Poor Leadership? What Could They Have Done Differently?

So this is a question, about common leadership problems within a team and what happens when a team doesn’t have particularly good leadership; what are some of the examples of poor leadership that I’ve seen? And it really boils down to one or two things. First and foremost is: how are goals set? How are priorities set? Is everyone clear of what the priorities and goals are? I think that is one of the number one challenges of a good leader these days.

Targets are shifting so quickly, customer needs are shifting so quickly. It’s very hard to keep task on what is the real priority here that we’re trying to achieve? And that confusion trickles down to teams and can really be interpreted, whether right, wrong or indifferent, can be interpreted as poor leadership. So, being very, very clear with teams on what the priorities are, what the goals are, what the team needs to do in order to be successful to meet those goals. Those are really the leadership skills I see that are most important right now.

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