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What Project Managers really need to know about leadership

Martin Webster
Martin Webster

This is a guest post by Martin Webster from leadershipthoughts.com.

Search for project management training on Google and you’ll find lots of courses on the topic. Many refer to APMP, MSP, PRINCE2 or even agile project management.

What most have in common is an emphasis on project management accreditation, project planning, risk management, reporting progress, controlling change, managing and escalating issues and suchlike. Now these things are important. They are the requisite skills of the competent project manager.

But they don’t guarantee success!

Project leadership

When I think of the successful project managers I’ve hired, it’s not their qualifications that come to mind. No, it is their ability, attitude and behaviour. Each project manager has distinctive leadership qualities. For instance:

  • motivation,
  • enthusiasm,
  • tenacity,
  • integrity,
  • leadership,
  • communication,
  • action, and so on

Here’s why.

Managing projects is tough

Managing projects is tough. And, some things will inevitably go awry … as tensions rise outcomes are questioned and people start behaving unpredictably. Some will pass blame while others put up barriers … no one can be relied on to keep their integrity.

And, the project manager has to hold things together and navigate through the conflict and always focus on a solution. A good project schedule or risk management plan may certainly help, but it is project leadership that brings the team back on track.

Let me explain …

The Balcony and the Dance Floor

The project manager needs to keep in balance the overall project objectives — the complexity of every task and risk — with the organisational context. In other words, the project manager spends time between the balcony and dance floor.

The dance floor metaphor, introduced by Ronald Heifetz in the 1990s, alerts us to get underneath the specific activities of managing projects and to look for patterns and causes affecting project performance.

When facing a particular challenge, the project manager needs to understand why there is a problem before finding a solution. This is the difference between the detailed knowledge of project tasks and risks and an awareness of the project environment and how it changes over time.

For example, think about the team manager holding back performance information. What do you do? If you’re prone to losing your temper or making demands that can’t be met, is it such a surprise that people withhold information for fear of repercussions? Or, when people cut corners to get the job done, what do you do?  If you squabble or pass blame, you are part of the problem when it is your job is to find a solution.

So, step on to the balcony.

Learn to understand what is going on. Projects look different from the balcony. There are ways of dealing with poor results, but not on the dance floor, chastising the communication of poor results.

When the schedule inevitably slips, give direction and support, while understanding what is going on. Project leaders create the right conditions to solve such problems. And, only then draw on their project management skills to plan for the consequence of poor results and delay.

About the Author: Martin Webster is managing solution architect for a large UK public sector organisation and has more than 20 years’ experience in project delivery and business change. He works with senior people to solve complex business problems. Martin also writes regularly about project management, leadership teams and business change.

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