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How Leadership Affects Projects (And How You Can Lead Yours)

How leadership affects projects and how you can lead projects

Sarah Coleman is co-author of *, a book in its third edition exploring how leadership and project management intertwine. The last edition came out 16 years ago – yes, people were talking about project leadership even then!

I caught up with Sarah to find out more about what effect a leader can have on a project.

Sarah, how does a leader impact the project?

There is a huge variety of ways in which the leader impacts the project. I think that for me the top three ways are:

  1. Setting the culture, expected behaviours and environment for the project.
  2. Managing upwards to the sponsor, governance committee and client, as well as looking at the performance of the project team.
  3. Building the profile and support for the project by establishing strong relationships, understanding influence and power bases within the organisation, and highlighting how the project supports the organisation’s own strategic direction.

Project Leadership bookGreat list! How is that reflected in your book?

Within the book we focus on three main areas which make the difference:

  1. Vision and the Big Picture: being commercially savvy and looking at the strategic picture for your organisation, the client and their organisation.
  2. Building Key Relationships: developing organisational intelligence and networking in your own organisation and that of the client.
  3. Communication and Engagement: using these skills to market and promote the profile of the project and its credibility in order to build awareness, support and commitment for the project.

On the subject of lists with three things in, what are your three top tips for project managers wanting to take a more leadership role on their projects?

First, understand what “leadership” means for your organisation: what are the behaviours and capabilities prized by your organisation? And very much in line with this, how does the project leadership role differ from other functional leadership roles?

Second, find a coach/mentor/sponsor/role model to help you identify and start to demonstrate good leadership capabilities and behaviours.

Third, get out of your comfort zone and volunteer for the roles/experiences/secondments which will expose you to different ways of doing things and provide different insights. These will help increase your self-awareness, identify your leadership strengths, understand how you impact others and develop your capabilities from a different perspective.

Sarah Coleman

Thanks! More generally, what do you think business leaders should be doing differently with regards to project leadership?

Many of us as project managers have found that we do struggle with the concept and practice of leadership. The majority of us have often come up through the ranks as technical specialists by learning, using and becoming expert in project technical skills. We are now being asked to move into project leader roles with little or no preparation of running a cross-organisational team and with little understanding of leadership and the spectrum of capabilities needed to do it justice.

Technical knowledge can never be neglected, but it is the people skills that hold the key to successfully leading projects in the context of the wider organisation.

Further, the value of personnel within projects is no longer simply a function of the sum of their experience or knowledge; it is also in how well they work with a team, often across different geographies with people they may never meet, and with diverse stakeholders; also, how they problem-solve and share their know-how to the benefit of the project team and the organisation. What this all means is that effective leadership ability is now as much an important part of the project manager’s toolkit as any of their technical abilities.

The project community needs support to develop these new skills and competencies around leadership.

As such, I believe that business leaders should be looking at how they can best use P3M within their organisations given their ambitions and strategy for their organisation. And in looking to the future, business leaders also need to identify and develop project leadership talent within their project communities; not just at the top levels, but across all levels of the community.

We all talk about leadership but I think we should be doing more than that. What do you think?

Yes. We feel very strongly that the project community needs support to develop these new skills and competencies around leadership. We all know that when budgets are under pressure, training and development budgets are seen as discretionary and “nice to have” so are among the first to be cut.

Most organisations leave the individual to identify ways they can develop outside the typical formal training, so we talk in the book about how the individual can plan and deliver their own development in project leadership in many different ways; how the organisation can develop project leadership capability and capacity.

Finally, business leaders need to recognise what a good development programme for project leadership looks like for their organisation. We offer a view on how an ideal project leadership development programme might look for an organisation in the book.

Thanks, Sarah!

About my interviewee: Sarah Coleman leads and supports the shaping, design and implementation of business critical projects in the UK and internationally, in order to help organisations deliver better outcomes and value. Over 25 years’ practical experience of leading and supporting substantial strategic projects, programmes and change has reinforced that people, culture and behaviour are as relevant as the focus on technical skills.

*This article contains affiliate links at no cost to you.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

Comments

  1. Shirley says

    2 February, 2016 at 7:13 am

    Author and management expert, Ken Blanchard, said it best: “the key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority”. Project Managers typically don’t have formal authority and must rely on relationships and influence to get the job done. Amazing project managers are already leaders. Following Sarah’s strategies will just help them become amazing project leaders.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      2 February, 2016 at 7:49 am

      Thanks, Shirley. Believe it or not, I have never read Ken Blanchard’s work. I’ve heard it quoted, I’ve seen extracts, but I’ve never read a book by him. That’s something I should get round to doing.

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