Air of authority


by Maya Payne Smart

Project managers know the deal: Keep projects on track by any means necessary. The trouble is, most project managers have to do so without any direct authority over budgets, schedules and team members.

That can turn project managers into mere scorekeepers. Rather than focusing on leading a project from initiation to brilliant conclusion, some project managers wind up documenting all the ways projects veer off course, from tardy deliverables to products that don't meet specifications.

It's no way to run a project—or a team. And given that the org chart isn't likely to miraculously upgrade project managers anytime soon, they must find ways to lead without official authority.

Salesmanship, negotiation and, yes, even a dash of good, old-fashioned charisma should take their rightful place beside budgeting, scheduling and resource management in the professional toolkit.

Project managers often depend too heavily on technical competence when they attempt to influence stakeholders and motivate their teams, says Joe Reed, PhD, president of organizational consultancy J.R. Training Inc., Lansdale, Pennsylvania, USA.

To team members, that attitude translates to: “Do what I say because I know what I'm talking about.” Not surprisingly, most of the time such an approach doesn't go over well in a business world rife with competing priorities, personal agendas and egos.


TIP True leaders know it takes more than statistics to dazzle the executive suite.

Project managers are often naïve about leadership and influence, believing that all they have to do is present the data, and resources and cooperation will be all theirs, says Joe Reed, PhD, J.R. Training Inc., Lansdale, Pennsylvania, USA.

But leadership doesn't always work out quite so neatly. “The problem is, we're in a human system,” he says. “Everyone has his or her own interests and values and sees things differently.”

If you want respect, you're going to have to earn it, says Peter Taylor, PMP, director of the European project management office for Siemens PLM Software in Birmingham, England.

“Project managers have to show the right level of authority at the beginning,” he says. “They need to have a presence in how they dress and behave in those first meetings to have the team look up and say, ‘This person seems to know what he or she is doing. Let's give him or her the opportunity to lead us.’”

Project managers have to strike the right balance, though.

“It's a real skill of understanding the fine line between being a leader as well as having a good, open relationship with the team,” Mr. Taylor adds. “If not, inevitably there will be a time when the team will ignore or not respect a decision you've made.”


Even the most powerful leaders know they won't get very far without true insight into what's driving team member behavior. For those without a proper claim to authority, the task is even more important.

“Project managers must have the perception to motivate their teams and to add value for the project and business results,” says Carlos Augusto V. de Freitas, CAPM, oil and gas IT project manager at consulting giant Accenture, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is also the vice president of professional development for the PMI Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Chapter.


Right up there with team members who pay you no heed are the stakeholders who don't always see you as an authority figure.

All too often, strong stakeholders mandate a solution without providing sufficient context for the problem, says Richard Larson, PMP, principal of project management training firm Watermark Learning, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

On the other hand, some stakeholders, too distracted or fearful to chart a course of action, leave project managers to fend for themselves.

“Weak or busy stakeholders tend to abdicate decisions I to project teams, who can then later be blamed for making the ‘wrong’ decisions,” he says. “Plus, scope creep I often results when stakeholders abdicate their responsibilities, leading to cost overruns and/or delivering products that don't meet business needs.”

Either scenario is a recipe for project failure. Both pay short shrift to requirements gathering and, as a result, boost the likelihood of going over budget, falling behind schedule or creating deliverables that fail to meet expectations, Mr. Larson says.

Project managers should think like consultants and dig for the why behind projects. From there, they're in a better position to take a leadership role and make recommendations for accomplishing or redefining project objectives.


With that information, project managers can then forge coalitions and know the best methods to fuel project success, advises Thomas Juli, PhD, PMP, founder of Thomas Juli Empowerment Partners, a project management and leadership consulting firm in Edingen-Neckarhausen, Germany.

“The key thing is not looking for excuses but for solutions,” he says. “You are working with a team you have not picked. So what? Usually, there's a common denominator. You are working with them for a short period of time. It's not like you're marrying them, but you have to know who they are and what drives and motivates them.”

Before the launch of one particularly difficult telecom project, Dr. Juli spent two weeks meeting one-on-one with team members and key stakeholders.

“I showed a sincere interest in what was on their minds, not mine,” he explains. “The main question I asked was how I can help them in their endeavor. There was no mention of how they can contribute to my project. I wanted to help them first.”

Of course, it never hurts to bring in some star power. Dr. Juli presented his synthesis of the individual conversations and then had the CIO present the official project mission. In that way, he allied himself with team members while simultaneously demonstrating that he had a direct line to an authority figure within the company.


Project managers must have the perception to motivate their teams and to add value for the project and business results.

—Carlos Augusto V. de Freitas, CAPM, Accenture, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil



Being seen as a leader often comes down to perception—project managers have to convince team members you're on their side. And one of the best ways to do that is by addressing the question on every team member's mind: What's in it for me?

In some cases, the answer is a reward or recognition, says Samer Saadeldine el Barakeh, PMP, a project reporting and key performance indicators service manager at Saudi Oger Ltd., an infrastructure project development company in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Watch out for the power vacuum.

“If centralized support divisions provide resources and services to all projects, then team members aren't wholly accountable to any one project manager,” says Samer Saadeldine el Barakeh, PMP, Saudi Oger Ltd., Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Acknowledging team members directly and praising their accomplishments to their functional managers can provide much-appreciated motivation and even encourage other team members to work harder to garner praise of their own. Group appreciation, such as milestone celebrations and trophy presentations, also promote a sense of belonging and enthusiasm among a project team.

Whether they report to you or not, team members aren't going to view you as a leader unless you make an effort.

“Most of the time, project managers assume they are going to get cooperation from people who they don't have direct authority over. And when it doesn't happen, they view it as an obstacle or time-waster for them,” Dr. Reed says. “They have to look at their job as involving an ongoing influencing process, a time obligation, something you have to become proficient at. They have to continually put in the time, attention and energy that's required to make it work.” PM




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