No Time to Lose

How Project Professionals Can Raise Their Leadership Game





By now, project, program and portfolio managers should have gotten the message: They need to be as well-versed in leadership skills as they are in technical skills. And not just classic leadership skills like communication, problem-solving and team building. Additionally, more and more project leaders are expected to have strong strategic and business management skills to keep initiatives on track, delivering value.

Mastering all these areas can seem like an insurmountable task. The first step to making progress on leadership goals is simple: Make it a priority, says Grant Moore, PMP, senior program manager, Dark Fibre Africa, Cape Town, South Africa. Day-to-day project demands could easily consume project managers’ entire focus at Mr. Moore's organization. To help his team of project managers, service delivery managers and coordinators carve out time for building leadership skills, he encourages them at six-month performance reviews to set development goals and identify the classes and workshops that can get them there.

“I make it clear: If you can give me a write-up on why you want to learn this and how this will benefit your role, we will try to make it happen,” Mr. Moore says. “I expect more from these project managers and the rest of my team every year, and they expect more from themselves.” Examples of professional development his project managers have recently pursued include communication courses and public speaking workshops.

After more than a decade of overseeing projects, Marc Burlereaux, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, business unit manager, ITSS, Geneva, Switzerland, pushed himself to pursue additional certifications that would deepen his leadership skill set. He earned his Program Management Professional (PgMP)® certification in 2008. “I wanted to focus more on delivering benefits aligned with strategic objectives and better understand how to ensure benefits realization,” he says.

“Being a strategic project leader means constantly researching things and staying current on industry news.”

—Grant Moore, PMP, Dark Fibre Africa, Cape Town, South Africa

Yet project leaders agree that formal courses and training are just one arrow in a practitioner's quiver. “Leadership development must also come from field training,” says Grace Willis, PMP, agile coach, Accenture Technology, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA.

To make that field training practical, Mr. Moore rotates which team member leads the program team's weekly meeting. That doesn't mean simply running through escalated issues, either—it's an opportunity to discuss industry changes and challenges. “They look at tech topics that are new in the market and lead a discussion about that, and look at learning topics and research that might be relevant to the industry we work in,” he says. “Especially in the telecom industry, which is changing on a weekly basis, being a strategic project leader means constantly researching things and staying current on industry news.”

That focus on the business landscape might seem like a departure from how past generations viewed project leadership, but Mr. Burlereaux sees it as an evolution. “Project managers today must have the skill set to understand the business benefits and the organizational strategy, but skills like communication, empathy and problem-solving are all still integral to project leadership,” he says. And strong project managers know how and when to turn to the right skills to get the job done. PM

Stop That!

Sometimes the biggest impediments to being a strategic leader are one's own bad habits. Grace Willis, PMP, agile coach, Accenture Technology, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, highlights four obstacles to great leadership.

1 Trying to shoulder it all: “There's a real risk in expecting the project manager to be the alpha and omega on a project,” she says. Sure, strategic project leaders have both an active hand in the risk register and a deep understanding of the business case. But there's still a real need for project sponsor support and subject matter experts.

2 Obsessing over authority: “A project manager who acts like an authoritarian figure is just as dangerous as being too passive,” she says. “Project leadership today involves the ability to empower others.” She points out that setting team members up for success and supporting their growth builds better project buy-in and ownership of deliverables. That will translate to a greater sense of accountability and participation than trying to reign with an iron fist.

3 Operating in a bubble: If no one beyond the team or department knows about the initiative at hand, project managers should second-guess how tied in to the organizational strategy this project really is, she says. Being a true leader means raising the red flag if an isolated project seems to be a strategic outlier.

4 Seeking support at the last minute: Project leaders should identify departmental dependencies and collaborate and communicate across the organization from the start—not only in a time of crisis. “If you come at the eleventh hour asking people to remove an obstacle or provide support, you could compromise the whole project,” she says.

What's the best leadership advice you've ever received?


“Know your weaknesses. Remember your team doesn't work for you—you work for them. Listen to your team and show them how to grow.”

—Brian Alvarez, PMP, IT implementation manager, PeopleScout, Chicago, Illinois, USA


“Always think of the broader picture—how your decisions impact customers, the ordinary person on the street and the country as a whole. If there's no ripple effect of benefits to them, then we're on a well-paved path leading to nowhere.”

—Leabetswe Bomvana, divisional director, strategic project management office, Liberty Group South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa



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