The evolution from a project manager into a project leader


Program Director, PMP


The scope of this paper focuses on the changing landscape of business initiatives and the resulting impact on the project management profession. In an environment of outsourcing, shared service organizations, matrixed resources, complex technologies, larger program focus, and structured processes, the skill sets of the project manager need to evolve into those of a project leader. This paper explores the background of these changes, the impacts and challenges they pose to the project manager, and makes some recommendations to project leaders for succeeding in a transformational environment.


The business landscape has been changing rapidly over the last two decades due to many factors, including global competition, more demanding shareholders, and innovations in technology. To stay competitive, companies have had to transform their business and operational agendas. They must focus on reducing the costs of delivering information technology (IT) services but at the same time become more productive and deliver more strategic and complex solutions.

These transformational agendas have resulted in a different makeup of projects, which poses new challenges to the project management professionals accountable for delivery. In order to adapt to the new project landscape, the skill sets of the project management professional must also evolve. Project managers must move from a style of managing plans and direct reports to a more consultative approach that requires facilitation, negotiation, and relationship management. This also requires more planning and diligence, a focus on building and fostering relationships, and increased communication.

This paper is divided into two sections that break down the challenges and then propose some strategies to enable project managers to be successful in the new landscape.

  • Section 1 will review the trends affecting IT projects and the business landscape, highlight the background and impacts to projects, and then identify the challenges they pose to the project manager.
  • Section 2 will describe the skill sets needed for project managers to succeed in the current environment and provide the techniques and approaches needed to be successful in the new world of projects as an IT project leader.

Changing Project Landscape

The changing business environment has yielded four major trends that are impacting the landscape of IT delivery:

  1. A focus on the cost reduction of IT delivery
  2. Increasing complexity of the technologies used in IT delivery
  3. The need for additional rigor in projects
  4. A changing project workforce

Trend 1: Reducing Cost

Technology is a significant part of a company's strategy and makes up a very large portion of its overall budget. As a result of the large expenditure, there is a lot of scrutiny from senior management and subsequent pressure to keep costs down or, at the very least, to increase these costs proportionally to revenue growth. This has led to two major approaches that companies are using to reduce the costs to deliver IT solutions: outsourcing, and shared service organizations.


In the pursuit of reducing project delivery costs, organizations are increasing their use of outsourcing for specific technology work. Organizations are outsourcing areas that are viewed as commodity roles, such as development and support work to off-shore companies. In many cases, these resources are billed out at rates that are 50% lower than local resources. These companies also propose higher quality solutions due to the increased rigor and consistency of delivery.

There are several implications here for project managers. The off-shore development companies are structured so they can record very detailed documentation and then develop the code based on these specifications, which requires a level of documentation not needed by prior projects. The project manager also needs to consider the intangible issues of cultural differences, time differences, and high turnover.

Shared Service Organizations

Companies are looking to gain economies of scale and increased productivity by creating shared service organizations to centralize roles that have common skills and attributes. The premise is that by working together and pooling the work, more work can be produced for the same number of resources.

There are several implications here for project managers. The first implication is competing priorities, because most shared service resources are assigned to several projects, which means that resources may not always be available when projects need them. Another implication is the additional number of processes that comes with centralized organizations, such as request forms and other standards.

Trend 2: Increased Complexity

Another major trend is the increasing complexity of technology used by businesses. With the evolution of multi-layered architectures and the Internet, the number of levels in technology has grown significantly. Also, companies recognize that technology is an enabler of strategy and produces a competitive advantage, which has resulted in larger programs with broad impacts and many stakeholders to manage. Today, it is not uncommon for a company to have many multi-million dollar and multi-year programs running concurrently. Lastly, business processes and organizations are becoming more complex and with that come more complex requirements for the technology to satisfy. This usually means a lot of integration into other organizations and systems that may use different technologies.

To manage this complexity and the risk associated with it, companies have created several strategies including taking an enterprise focus and using third-party vendors.

Enterprise Focus

In many large corporations, technological decisions were made in silos for long periods of time and this has resulted in an inventory of redundant systems, competing technologies, and costly maintenance (more expensive licenses, the need for specialized resources, etc). To improve negotiating positions with vendors and have less technologies to support, companies are moving to an enterprise view of their assets. This means selecting a standard for each type of technology and then putting governance in place to avoid creating similar problems in the future.

There are several impacts to using enterprise standards. Standards are usually declared to cover a broad range of requirements and therefore, by using declared technology standards, a project may need to incorporate a technology that doesn't best fit the need of the project. Also, an enterprise focus means that projects engaging in new technologies may need to understand broader requirements than just their particular scope to make the technology reusable.

Third-Party Vendors

Instead of building technology solutions locally, companies are moving to models in which they are purchasing technology systems from third-party vendors. Companies are also recognizing that they are not in the business of creating IT assets and want to leverage existing technologies from vendors that have already proven them.

Having a third-party vendor solution also takes some control away from the project manager. Although vendors usually have teams working on the projects, the projects can oftentimes become reliant on the release schedule of the vendor product, which may jeopardize the projects’ delivery commitments.

Trend 3: Additional Rigor

Because of the increasing complexity, size, and number of stakeholders on IT projects, additional rigor is needed and required by management. The rigor is focused on two primary places: demand management/governance and delivery processes/tools.

Demand Management/Governance

As information technology projects and programs become more strategic and grow in cost and duration, companies are recognizing that they need to treat these projects as investments. To manage these investments properly, two mechanisms are being used: project demand management and project governance. Demand management is focused on controlling the amount of money spent on IT and ensuring the proper priority of work. Governance is ensuring that it makes sense to work on the projects and that they have completed the work before moving onto the next phase.

These additional rigors result in more preparation by project managers, such as preparing for presentations, attending more meetings, and using additional deliverables and forms.

Delivery Process/Tools

To ensure consistency of delivery and predictability, there are many frameworks in existence for the delivery of IT solutions (CMMI, ITIL, etc); all these lay out a foundation for delivering and supporting IT solutions with standard deliverables and processes. There are also additional processes introduced by regulatory initiatives such as Sarbannes-Oxley.

Projects must plan for all of the delivery and other process activities in their project plan. Methodologies include standard deliverables, reviews, and phase gates that must be included in the project plan. There is also the challenge that not all standards will be applicable to a project and may not add the value for the time spent on them.

Trend 4: Changing Workforce

On top of an increasingly complex technology environment and additional process steps, the workforce used on IT projects is also changing. There are two significant trends in the project workforce: specialized resources and a mobile workforce.

Specialized Resources

The increasing complexity of technology and business solutions has resulted in resources becoming specialized into a particular skill (such as business analysis) or technology (such as a database platform). The result has been fewer people who view the “big picture” of a project.

As resources become more specialized, project managers must make sure they identify the appropriate resources required for the project and ensure that they are lined up in time for when they are needed. These resources are also higher in demand and harder to obtain.

Mobile Workforce

The workforce used on projects today is much more mobile than it has been in the past. This is mainly due to the high demand for skilled resources, allowing people to jump on better opportunities, and reduced company loyalty as a function of strategies such as outsourcing and vendor usage.

Regardless of the reasons for the mobile workforce, it is a reality that projects must consider. The chances of having a multi-year project retain the entire team for the entire duration of the project is very low; therefore, a project manager must recognize this risk for his or her project and plan accordingly.

Summary of Impacts

Because of the trends outlined above, there are many impacts to the work that project managers must consider and plan for. Figure 1 shows these trends and their impacts, which can be summarized into four areas:

  1. Additional steps
  2. New stakeholders to manage
  3. Having a broader focus
  4. Intangible impacts
Impact of Trends

Figure 1 – Impact of Trends

In order to effectively manage these new trends in projects and be successful, a project manager with a different set of skills and focus is required. The project manager of yesterday, whose main focus was on building a project plan, telling people what to do, and communicating status is now a thing of the past and will not succeed in this current challenging environment. This is the new world in which the project leader will thrive.

The New Project Management Skills

Project manager skills need to evolve in response to the changing makeup of projects and organizations as described in Section 1. Because the new project landscape requires more activities, has many interaction points, and has new stakeholders to manage with less direct influence, project managers need to have an updated set of critical skills and techniques in order to be successful. Today, it is not enough to just know how to create a project plan or manage a risk log. There are four major categories of new skills, which include having additional rigor, taking more of a consultative approach, a deeper focus on information management, and using leadership skills to better influence and motivate people

  1. Additional rigor
  2. Consultative approach
  3. Managing information
  4. Leadership

Additional Rigor

Project management has always been fundamentally about creating plans and executing them, while at the same time managing issues and risks as they arise. In the new environment, there are many more activities the project manager must be aware of, plan for, and manage; therefore, it is more critical now than ever before to be rigorous in all aspects of managing a project.

Diligent Project Planning

Proper project planning is more important now than ever before. The increased complexity of stakeholders, organizations, technologies, processes, and solutions requires that project managers spend the appropriate amount of time early on in a project. Because of the considerations made up front, planning has to be seen as an investment and not something to be rushed through. Some techniques include:

  • Plan to include the additional activities (governance, standards, ramp up time, etc)
  • Plan for small units of work, so monitoring can be done easily to gage progress and risk areas
  • Plan for rework
  • Define and document the project management approach so there is a clear understanding of how the project will be managed
  • Identify the critical path to understanding impacts to the schedule

Using Standards and Methodologies

The primary benefit of a methodology is to have consistency in delivering projects across an organization. Methodologies can be very helpful assets for project managers to plan and run their projects because they outline the required steps, usually provide templates, guidelines for use, and good examples from real projects that can be used as a starting point.

Using Resources Intelligently

The most important assets a project manager has are its team members. Because of the criticality in managing project resources, there are several techniques that can be used to ensure that resources are appropriately utilized, planned for, and managed and they are as follows:

  • Engage areas early on in the project to account for lead times and additional process steps
  • Involve resources in planning so they have buy in to the commitments
  • Ensure that the right skill sets are available for the project
  • Provide clarity of roles and accountability
  • Leverage experts as much as possible

Diligent Project Management

Spending the appropriate amount of time planning up front, using a standard methodology, and optimally utilizing resources are great ways to get the project started off well and that same level of diligence should continue throughout the project. Project managers need to stay rigorous and proactive during the entire lifecycle of the project. Oftentimes, team members get caught up in the issue of the day or their specific activities and it is the project manager who has to plan ahead and keep the team focused on the goals. This can include the following techniques:

  • Rigor around the plan and upcoming activities to stay on top of the work
  • Constant diligence on operational items such as change control, issue management, and risk management
  • Establish clear accountability for deliverables and results
  • Make and facilitate quick decisions
  • Use metrics to monitor and manage the project

Consultative Approach

The last section described several techniques for thoroughly managing the planning and execution of a project. These techniques are fundamentally needed to run the mechanics of a project such as the project plan, issue log, risk log, schedule, and resource plan; however, it is the softer skills that are needed to manage the “people” aspects of the project. Because projects are comprised of teams of people doing the work, having the ability to influence them to meet project goals is much harder and in many ways more important than managing the deliverables.

Relationship Focus

At the heart of the consultative approach is a focus on building and leveraging relationships, which includes relationships with the many different people involved with the project. There are several techniques to focusing on successful relationship management but they need to be considered as an investment in time and intentionally planned for and performed. A project manager must treat relationship management just as importantly as project planning or financial management.


Focusing on relationships is critical to building bonds between the project manager and the resources needed to complete the project. Just knowing people, however, is not enough to get them to do the activities necessary to completing the project. This is where the skill of influencing becomes crucial for the project manager to have and there are several skills that are essential for influencing:

  • Ability to persuade others using facts and appeal
  • Having presence
  • Successful facilitation
  • Effective negotiation
  • Listen and be seen as approachable

Self Management

Having a focus on relationships and being influential are essential to using a consultative approach to project management. Taking these skills to the next level of effectiveness also requires self awareness and self management. These techniques fall under a broader category called “emotional intelligence,” which includes the following areas:

  • Self awareness
  • Self regulation
  • Self motivation
  • Empathy.

Political Savvy

At the apex of the consultative approach is being politically savvy. Politically savvy people are those who understand their organizations, can identify who the key players are, and know what is needed to successfully navigate the company. They also develop coalitions and are observant to the behaviors and trends within the organization.

Managing Information

The need for effective communication and transparent information is pervasive across all aspects of the new project landscape. In order for project managers to be successful, there must be multiple levels of communication as well as constant visibility of relevant information. Project communication is not only about status reports and management presentations, but rather about getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

Communication Planning

Project communication needs to be recognized as an important aspect to the project that requires time spent up front in planning. Because of the increasing complexity of projects, a project manager has many moving parts and stakeholders that require information to help the project meet its commitments. Making an early investment in stakeholder analysis and communication planning will help the project manager gain a solid approach for managing the information between these moving parts.

Gathering Information (Visibility)

Visibility is the ability of the project manager to gather, understand, and be able to clearly articulate relevant and timely information. A project will have a hard time being successful if the project manager does not have timely information to manage the progress of the plan or is not aware of critical risks or issues. One effective technique for gaining information is management by walking around (MBWA), whereby the project manager walks around to the team members and has informal conversations with them on work-related topics.

Presenting and Sharing Information

Through listening, MBWA, and facilitation a project manager can gain information, but skill is also required to present that information to stakeholders in a way that achieves the desired outcomes. The way that information is organized and the story it tells are major contributors to how influential a message is.


Regardless of the organizational relationships of the project team, the project manager is the primary leader of the project. Project managers are held accountable by management to meet project commitments and looked up to by team members for direction. The project manager can increase his or her rigor on projects, use a consultative approach to influence others, and communicate effectively, but his or her success is directly dependent on his or her ability to lead the project team members to meeting their goals.

Motivating Team Members

In an environment in which the project manager does not have direct control over the resources and has many part-time team members and non-employees, the ability to motivate them becomes crucial for success. Also, today projects are often long in duration and people tend to lose motivation over the course of time. It is the project manager's responsibility to keep people engaged and focused throughout the course of the project, and some techniques to use include:

  • Inspiring the team
  • Recognizing excellence
  • Being honest and genuine

Empowering the Team

Once team members are motivated to be on the project and meet project commitments, the project manager should look for opportunities to empower the team. Empowerment is the concept whereby a project manager distributes authority of portions of the project to other team members. Giving up control may be difficult for some people, but it is an effective method used to increase productivity and demonstrate leadership.

Being a Champion for the Team

Once the team is motivated to work on the project and empowered to manage portions of it, the project manager needs to become a champion for the team. This means accepting and promoting the recommendations from the team and also supporting them during critical situations. It is not enough to empower the team to be responsible for the work if they do not feel they will be supported by management.

Handling Conflicts

There are always conflicts on projects that arise and need to get resolved. These conflicts result from people having different personalities, agendas, backgrounds, values, work styles, and convictions about how to accomplish work activities. Work conflicts, if not managed properly, can lead to low morale, decreased productivity, and even missed project goals and commitments.


The prior sections described the evolution of the project landscape and the subsequent skills required to be a successful project manager in the new world. Figure 2 shows this evolution in which a changing landscape has yielded new trends that have impacts on projects. As a result, project manager skills need to evolve from project management into project leadership.

Evolution into a Project Leader

Figure 2 – Evolution into a Project Leader

To thrive in the new project environment, the project manager must focus on several different techniques and dimensions (as described throughout Section 2). There is no “silver bullet” that a project manager needs to use to ensure that his or her project will meet all of its commitments. Rather, it is a combination of constant diligence (project management) and consultative skills (project leadership) and using them both effectively in the appropriate situation.

© 2010, Kerry R. Wills
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC



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