Project Management Institute

Leadership competencies required to build high performance project teams and deliver projects succesfully

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Karachi School for Business & Leadership (KSBL), National Stadium Road, Dawood Housing Society

Khalid A. Khan

Indus Institute of Management, 259 B, Upper Mall, Lahore, Pakistan Karachi, Pakistan

Abstract

There are many factors that contribute toward project success, including leadership competencies of a project manager and high-performance teams. This paper analyzes leadership competencies or traits that are required to build, manage, and lead high-performance project teams in a high-power distance culture, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, India, and Pakistan. Project managers and leaders must have certain leadership competencies that are in sync with national culture in order to execute and deliver a project successfully in the public as well as the private sector. We will present the leadership traits that are contingent upon national culture as identified by the Global Organization Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) study. We will also provide recommendations on what leadership traits are required for project managers to build high performance teams and to execute mega projects (such as energy, infrastructure, IT and telecom, construction, change management, and state-owned enterprise turn-around projects) successfully in a high-power distance culture.

National Culture and Leadership

Proper knowledge and understanding of national culture can be an important factor when executing mega projects and selecting project managers. Many researchers have argued that there is a direct impact of national culture on leadership styles (House et al., 2004). They have argued that specific cultural traditions, values, ideologies, and norms are bound to differentiate as much or even more than structural factors between societies (Lammers & Hickson, 1979, p. 10). Every culture and society has its own values, beliefs, traditions, and norms, so it is important for a project manager or project leader to have a good understanding of the national culture. It can help a project manager understand project team members’ values, beliefs, motives, and interpretations, which can further help in building high-performance project teams. A renowned Dutch social scientist, Geert Hofstede, has also pointed out that some cultures are more bureaucratic and hierarchical than others. Some are more individualistic than others; some believe in collectivism, while others believe in individualism. Therefore, it is essential for a successful project manager to have a good understanding of the national culture of the country where he or she is executing a project. It was observed on global projects executed by Deloitte Consulting (USA) that project managers that were culturally savvy performed better on global projects than those project managers who were not culturally adept. Those project managers were also able to build high-performance teams and deliver projects successfully. The projects included enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation, energy and utility companies’ business process reengineering, and turn-around of state-owned enterprises such as the United States Postal Service. The common theme in all of these projects was that the project managers, with certain leadership traits and national culture awareness, were able to perform better than their peers. This leads us to the definition of national culture.

There are many definitions of national culture, but researchers have not agreed upon a single definition. Geert Hofstede (1984, p. 21) has conducted significant research on national cultural across various countries, and he defines culture as:

The collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one group or society from those of another. Culture includes systems of values and values are among the building blocks of culture. Culture is to a human collectivity what personality is to an individual. It could be defined as the interactive aggregate of common characteristics that influence a human group's response to its environment.

The GLOBE study (House, et al. 2004, p. 15) has defined culture as:

Shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives that are transmitted across generations.

These definitions of national culture show that a project manager must understand the shared motives, values, beliefs, and interpretations that project team members hold because it could have an impact on how team members plan and execute various project activities. If a project manager and his or her team members’ understanding are not in sync, it could lead to misalignment between project objectives and execution of activities or tasks. If project team members have a different understanding and interpretation of project objectives and activities than the project manager, it could lead to chaos and mismanagement of the entire project. Thus, it is important for a project manager to have a good understanding of the national culture of the country where he or she is executing the project, and it is also important for a project manager to be synchronized with his or her team members. For example, there are quite a few international donor agencies and private companies that have been coming to the developing world to execute mega projects in the energy (especially power generation), construction, IT and telecom, and privatization of state-owned enterprises. However, all of them have been facing challenges in terms of execution and successful delivery of projects. One of the reasons that they are facing challenges in successfully executing and delivering projects is misalignment between project objectives and project managers’ knowledge of the national culture. In addition, project managers or leaders of these organizations lack the requisite leadership traits to build high-performance teams.

Senior management of all these international organizations, as well as local companies, need to understand that selecting a culturally savvy project manager with certain leadership traits can be a crucial factor for the success of mega projects. The project manager must also have certain leadership traits to build and manage a high-performance team in a high-power distance culture. Not fully understanding the national culture, values, beliefs, and norms can lead to project failure. That's why quite a number of international donor agencies and multinational companies have not been able to successful deliver projects in the developing world. Bringing Western workforce and best practices are not enough to plan, execute, and successfully deliver projects in a high-power distance culture such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan, and India. It also requires a good knowledge and understanding of the national culture, values, beliefs, and norms.

It can be learned from Hofstede's definition of culture that a project manager can be influenced by cultural dimensions because he or she does not work in isolation. Hofstede and his colleagues (Hofstede, 1980; Hofstede & Bond, 1988) have stated that power distance is as an important determinant of leadership styles. Power distance has been defined by Hofstede and Bond as:

The extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality that is defined from below, not from above; it suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by its followers as much as by its leaders. Power and inequality are of course very fundamental aspects of any society, and any individual with some international experience is aware that all societies are basically unequal, but some are more unequal than others. (Hofstede & Bond, 1988, p. 10)

Hofstede and Bond (1988) further state that countries with a high-power distance culture, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan, prefer an autocratic leadership style and a strong directive approach by supervisors. Since power distance is a key determinant of leadership style, it indicates that the project managers working in a high-power distance culture can be impacted by the national culture. It also indicates that project managers’ leadership competencies can have a relationship with national culture, especially when they are working in a high-power distance culture (Sheikh, 2012, p. 36). Thus, a project manager needs to understand the values and beliefs that the project team members hold so he or she can build and manage a high-performance team that could lead to project success.

We have compared the power distance indices (PDI) of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan, India, the United States, and the UK as determined by Hofstede (2014). The comparison is shown in Exhibit 1. It is interesting to note that Saudi Arabia's PDI is the highest when compared against the UAE, Pakistan, India, the United States, and the UK. The reason we also compare it with the United States and the UK is to understand the difference in leadership styles of project managers working in a high-power distance culture versus low-power distance culture. The leadership style of project managers working in high-power distance cultures is different from those working in low-power distance cultures. That's why project managers who are used to working in a low-power distance culture may not be successful in a high-power distance culture, or vice versa.

Power distance index comparison

Source: http://geert-hofstede.com

Exhibit 1: Power distance index comparison

The power distance index values in Exhibit 1 indicate that project managers working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE must understand that inequalities in these cultures are readily accepted. It also shows that the power is distributed unequally between leaders and subordinates. Thus, project managers are expected to have more power than the team members. Similarly, the project manager must understand that his or her superior is expected to exercise more power than him or her. High-power distance culture also means that hierarchies exist in that culture, and people accept those hierarchies. When there are hierarchies there also are bureaucracies, which means it could take a long time for decision-making and execution of project activities. Thus, a project manager must accept the hierarchies, bureaucracies, and a multi-step decision-making process in high-power distance cultures. That's why many project managers have experienced that executing projects in high-power distance cultures could encounter longer lead times for decisions to avoid unnecessary delays that can lead to project failures. It also indicates that an organization must recruit project managers that have the EQ and interpersonal skills and training to work in a high-power distance culture. This means the project managers must have the skills to cope with a bureaucratic structure and must have the patience to deal with team members by using a greater level of direction.

Bringing a manager from North America or Europe does not guarantee that the project will be executed successfully in a high-power distance culture. For example, a project manager trained in the West and with no experience of working in a high-power distance culture will probably not be able to execute and deliver projects successfully. Part of the reason is that he or she may not be able to understand the national culture and team dynamics. Thus, if an organization in a high-power distance culture decides to recruit project managers and team members from one of the Western countries such as the United States or the UK, it must ensure that the project manager and team members have gone through proper training on national culture.

Building high-performance project teams in a high-power distance culture is also a challenge, as people in this type of culture have different values, beliefs, and interpretations of work and projects than those working in Western countries such as the United States and the UK. The project manager or leader must first understand the national culture, define project objectives according to the cultural norms, and adopt a leadership style that is in sync with the national culture.

Some of the earlier studies have indicated a relationship between national culture and leadership competencies or styles. Javidan and Carl (2004) have stated the relationship between national culture and leadership is an important and debatable subject. This indicates a relationship between national culture and leadership. Other researchers have argued for direct impact of culture on leadership styles, arguing that specific cultural traditions and norms are bound to differentiate leadership styles (Smith & Peterson, 1988). This indicates that both national culture and leadership style of a project manager can have an impact on project success.

It is pertinent here to understand the definition of leadership before getting into the details of the relationship between national culture and leadership. Even though quite a bit of research has been conducted on leadership, researchers have not come to a consensus on the definition of leadership. During the first GLOBE research conference, held at the University of Calgary in Canada in 1994, 54 researchers from 38 countries agreed to the following GLOBE definition of leadership:

It is the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization of which they are members. (House et al., 2004. p. 56)

Bennis and Nanus (1985, p. 62) make an important distinction between management and leadership:

To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have responsibility for, and to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in direction, course, action, and opinion. This distinction is crucial. Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right things.

Kotter (1990, p. 45) also identified the difference between leadership and management:

Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.

According to the International Project Management Association's (IPMA) Competence Baseline, “Leadership involves providing direction and motivating others in their role or task to fulfill the project's objectives. It is a vital competence for project managers.” (IPMA, 2007, p. 86)

Thus, leadership can be important on projects, because project managers have to deal with multiple aspects on projects such as employee turnover, stress, performance, employee morale, economic conditions, environmental changes, organization change, and others (Sheikh, 2012, p. 44).

In today's volatile and increasingly difficult business and project environment, both strong leadership and strong management should be used to balance each other (Sheikh, 2012, p. 45). Kotter (1990) emphasizes the role senior executives in an organization need to play in order to develop leaders. Leaders can be found by identifying and recruiting people who possess leadership qualities and have that potential early in their careers, and then working on nurturing and developing their skills over a period of time (Sheikh, 2012, p.45). However, as more people with leadership potential are needed, organizations also need more people to create the culture that creates that leadership. “Institutionalizing a leadership-centered culture is the ultimate act of leadership” (Kotter, 1990). The same can be true for projects in which leadership skills and competencies can be essential, and project managers need to exhibit leadership qualities in order to build high-performance project teams and deliver projects successfully (Sheikh, 2012, p. 45). Thus, project managers must have key leadership traits and understanding of national culture in order to successfully manage and lead projects around the globe.

GLOBE Study and Culturally Contingent Leadership Competencies

The GLOBE research study (House et al., 2004) has been one of the largest studies in recent times to link national culture and global leadership attributes. The study was a 10-year program based on quantitative data analysis of about 17,000 responses from managers working at 951 organizations, which were functioning in 62 societies throughout the world (Sheikh, 2012, p. 25). This study is significant because it focuses on global culture dimensions and leadership competencies or styles that are contingent upon national culture. Both national culture dimensions and leadership attributes can be related to project success, as discussed later in this paper.

The GLOBE study has shown that status and influence of leaders vary considerably as a result of the cultural forces in which the leaders function (Sheikh, 2012, p. 51). It indicates that the status and influence of project managers may also vary across cultures and countries. House et al. (2004) have stated that leadership is contingent upon national culture. They further stated that the importance of leadership varies across cultures. As part of the GLOBE study, researchers derived seven leadership factors that were culturally contingent. Meaning, these leadership factors were dependent upon the national culture. They were called culturally endorsed implicit leadership theory (CLT) factors and included:

1. Status conscious: This dimension reflects a consciousness of one's own and others’ social position; holds an elitist belief that some individuals deserve more privileges than others.

2. Bureaucratic: This dimension emphasizes following established norms, rules, policies, and procedures; habitually follows regular routines.

3. Autonomous: This dimension describes tendencies to act independently without relying on others. It may also include self-governing behavior and preference to work and act separately from others.

4. Face-saving: This leadership dimension reflects the tendency to ensure followers are not embarrassed or shamed; maintains good relationships by refraining from making negative comments and instead uses metaphors and examples.

5. Humane: This dimension emphasizes empathy for others by giving time, money, resources, and assistance when needed; shows concern for followers’ personal and group welfare.

6. Self-sacrificial/risk taking: This dimension indicates an ability to convince followers to invest their efforts in activities that do not have a high probability of success, to forgo their self-interest, and make personal sacrifices for the goal or vision.

7. Internally competitive: This dimension reflects the tendency to encourage competition within the group and may include concealing information in a secretive manner. (House et al., 2004)

The relationship between the CLT factors and project success has also been explored so that organizations and project managers can understand what leadership competencies or styles are crucial to execute and deliver projects successfully in a high-power distance culture. Before shedding some light on this relationship, project success factors and criteria need to be understood, which leads us to the next section.

Project Success

There are two key elements of project success: 1. project success factors and 2. project success criteria. It is important to understand the difference between these two elements. Project success factors refer to those components or independent variables of a project that can be changed in such a way so as to increase the chances of success (Jugdev & Müller, 2005; Morris & Hough, 1987; Wateridge, 1998; Turner, 1999). Project success factors may refer more precisely to events, conditions, and circumstances that have an impact on the project results (Ika, 2009). Some of the key success factors identified by Pinto and Slevin (1988) and Khan (2012) are mentioned in Exhibit 2 and Exhibit 3, respectively. Success factors identified by Pinto and Slevin are more relevant to the private sector. On the other hand, Khan (2012) identified the success factors (Exhibit 3) specifically for the public sector projects in Pakistan, which is a high-power distance culture relative to the United States, the UK, and other Western countries. The factors identified by Khan (2012) are applicable across various sectors and projects including energy, environment, privatization, turn-around of state-owned enterprises, infrastructure (roads, bridges, canals, etc.), IT and telecom, and others. For example, if a power generation project is being executed in Pakistan, the eight success factors identified by Khan (2012) can be deployed to increase the chances of project success. Thus, the Pakistan government and private companies executing public sector projects can deploy these success factors (Exhibit 3) in order to execute and deliver projects successfully.

Project success factors (Pinto & Slevin, 1988)

Exhibit 2: Project success factors (Pinto & Slevin, 1988)

Project success factors for public sector in Pakistan (Khan, 2012)

Exhibit 3: Project success factors for public sector in Pakistan (Khan, 2012)

Project success criteria refer to those components or dependent variables by which the successful outcome of a project can be judged (Jugdev & Müller, 2005; Morris & Hough, 1987; Wateridge, 1998; Turner, 1999; Sheikh 2012, p. 66). Success criteria may refer to a set of principles or standards that are used to evaluate or establish project success (Ika, 2009; Sheikh, 2012, p. 66). For example, the success criteria can be applied to power generation, construction of a dam, privatization of state-owned enterprises, an infrastructure, or an IT and telecom project to determine whether the project was successful or not. Müller and Turner (2007) identified project success criteria (Exhibit 4) that can be used to evaluate project performance in a high-power distance culture. The Pakistan government and private companies executing projects in Pakistan can leverage Müller and Turner's success criteria to determine project success.

Project success criteria (Müller & Turner, 2007)

Exhibit 4: Project success criteria (Müller & Turner, 2007)

Relationship Between National Culture, Leadership, and Project Success

House et al. (2004, p. 53) have stated that there is empirical evidence that shows leader attributes, status, behavior, and influence vary largely because of culturally unique forces in the country or regions in which the leaders function (House, Wright, & Aditya, 1997; Sheikh, 2012, p. 49). This indicates that project managers’ leadership attributes status; behavior and influence can also vary because of the national culture of the country that they are working in (Sheikh, 2012, p. 50). The GLOBE study also showed a relationship between national culture and leadership competencies or CLT factors. Thus, there is a relationship between national culture and leadership.

In their study, Müller & Turner (2007) showed a relationship between leadership and project success. A research study conducted by Sheikh (2012) showed that there was a relationship between CLT factors and project success in a high-power distance culture such as Pakistan. He further identified that there was a positive correlation between bureaucratic and face-saving leadership factors and project success in a high-power distance culture.

The above-mentioned research studies indicate that there is a relationship between national culture, leadership, and project success. It also shows that project managers that exercise bureaucratic and face-saving leadership style can be successful in executing and delivering projects in a high-power distance culture.

Conclusions

Even though a bureaucratic style of management is often criticized, it can work quite well, especially in high-power distance cultures such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan, and India. A survey of 180 project managers in Pakistan conducted by Sheikh (2012) indicated that bureaucratic and face-saving leadership styles could lead to project success. In high-power distance cultures, hierarchies and power inequalities are accepted as a norm by the society, and project managers and leaders are expected to follow these norms. Thus, project managers with bureaucratic style of management can be successful in executing and delivering mega projects (such as energy, infrastructure, IT and telecom, construction, change management, and state-owned enterprise turn-around projects) in high-power distance cultures. Another leadership style that is crucial in executing and delivering the project successfully in these cultures is face-saving. Project managers and leaders in these cultures must exercise a face-saving leadership style of management. In light of the various research studies conducted around the world and discussion in this paper, the following conclusions can be reached:

  • There is a relationship between national culture, leadership, and project success.
  • There are seven global leadership competencies or traits that are contingent upon national culture: 1. status conscious; 2. bureaucratic; 3. autonomous; 4. face-saving; 5. humane; 6. self-sacrificial/risk taking; and 7. internally competitive.
  • Project managers and leaders that exercise bureaucratic and face-saving leadership styles can execute and deliver projects successfully in high-power distance cultures such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan, and India.
  • Project managers executing projects in high-power distance cultures across various sectors such as energy, construction, infrastructure, IT and telecom, and state-owned enterprises need to exercise a bureaucratic and face-saving leadership style of management in order to execute and deliver mega projects successfully, especially in the public sector.
  • Project management professionals must educate themselves on national cultural barriers and learn how to overcome them in order to be successful global project managers.
  • Importing project managers and leaders from low-power distance cultures into a high-power distance culture may not lead to project success. Therefore, both public and private sector organizations must deploy project managers and leaders that are properly trained on national culture and possess requisite leadership competencies or traits in order to execute and deliver projects successfully.
  • Project managers and leaders must prepare themselves to deal with the challenges of inequalities and other cultural norms of the country or society in order to build a high-performance team and deliver projects successfully.
  • Effective project leadership coupled with a good understanding of national culture can help project managers build high-performing teams, which can lead to project success.
  • Knowledge and training on national culture and leadership can help you become an effective and successful global leader and project manager.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Dr. Rizwan Amin Sheikh and Dr. Khalid Ahmad Khan
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE

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