Project leadership

the next step in project management on the way to becoming a Master Project Manager™

Introduction

It is always easiest to stick with the status quo and manage projects as they have been managed before---utilizing old techniques that everyone is expected to use. However this may not be beneficial to the long-term growth of the organization. It is much more challenging to step out into a new arena and change the way people think about teams and projects. For the project manager, this could mean taking accountability as the responsible party and moving forward as if the project were its own reward. The advantage to using a new paradigm is that organizations can change overnight if there is enough passion about the momentum of moving forward.

In the past, project management was seen not as a proactive approach but as a restrictive one, because of the antiquated management techniques that were being used. However, if we create highly effective teams and develop proactive projects, not only will our industry change, our value to an organization will change: we will go from being an added expense to being a competitive necessity.

When we discuss project management and project leadership, the first question is, are we talking about the same thing? The answer is, no, we are not. The term management came into its own during the industrial revolution. This was a period during which the entire population underwent a fundamental change in the way that they thought. The work environment moved from consisting of a small group of people (usually a family) working in a subsistent process to that of a large group of people whose work was overseen by an organization. This organization needed to develop tools and techniques to get the work done as quickly, economically, and efficiently as possible, and the response to this need was the creation of the management techniques that we still use today. These techniques revolve around measuring productivity and motivating individuals to produce more in a shorter period of time. However, the motivation techniques used today are very different than those originally used during the industrial revolution, and there are far more standards and requirements to be adhered to than in the past.

In order to gain perspective, it is important to realize that during the same period that these management techniques were being developed, bloodletting and leeches were thought of as an effective means of curing most diseases. If we were to extend this analogy today, then the following statements might be found in leading hospitals:

  • Our leeches are only from the finest organic farms!
  • Our state-of-the-art blood-letting rooms are designed for your comfort as well as your health
  • Our blood-letting process has been rated number one by JD Powers & Associates
  • Our drive-through diagnostic shop has revolutionized self-care

Once the scientific community discovered that microorganisms were creating infection, the entire medical community changed its view on how to treat people. This paper argues that we have become complacent by continuing to manage people as we would have during the industrial revolution. Today’s workplace is more diverse and varied, requiring us to rethink how we manage the projects so important for the continued success of any organization.

As organizations become leaner, project managers are asked to manage their projects in a more dynamic way. A project manager must be passionate and involved enough to inspire an entire team to get behind the endeavor and work to its final, successful conclusion. While working through this process, he or she must manage internal and external stakeholders, finances, quality customer service, and the risk and implications thereof. In many ways, a large project can be like a small business. It can redefine markets and change the course of business on a regular basis. This entrepreneurial role requires the project manager to move out of dealing with the standard forms and documents and into a larger world of running the equivalent of a small company. Within the larger organizational structures, this is nothing new. Several project managers run projects the size of Fortune 500 companies. The difference is that these project managers do not use management techniques but rely more on leadership. This is because the projects are so large that they cannot deal with all of the workers on an individual basis and require a leadership role to control and execute a project of this size.

Organizational psychologists believe that most people have the ability to develop relationships and nurture friendships with about 100 to 150 people as long as their proximity allows general interaction. Regretfully, on large projects, this number is exceeded many times and in multiple time zones. In these cases, a project manager needs to step out of a direct management role by providing leadership, vision, and understanding throughout the team to get the project done.

One of the reasons that the term management is still used is because “leadership” is difficult to define and evaluate. Developing leadership takes time and energy and is very difficult to quantify, especially over the short run. Management techniques are designed to be easy to quantify and direct, and are therefore easy to manage. If an individual truly wishes to be a project leader, it is a long road requiring a tremendous amount of learning by practice and is a process that is very difficult to document.

The Qualities of Leadership

The most rudimentary distinction between leadership and management is that a manager is given a series of tasks that he or she must get done by working with other people. On the other hand, a leader has a vision and must achieve that vision by working through other people and bringing them on board with that process. When bringing these individuals on board, the leader recognizes that each individual will either have an interest or lack of interest in supporting this vision; and part of this leader’s requirement is to move all of those individuals from the uninterested to the more interested or active processes.

Leadership Continuum

Exhibit 1—Leadership Continuum

Leadership is a quality that is hard to measure. There are hundreds of books claiming to be able to describe exactly what leadership is and tell you how to embody leadership qualities. I don’t believe that the essence of real leadership can be captured in a book. However, if pressed to define leadership, I would say that a leader is: An individual who inspires, cajoles, encourages, threatens, cheerleads, and serves a group of people to get a specific task or series of tasks done. The difference is that in the end the group would feel that they “did it themselves” rather than that they were led.

This is a very different leadership style than what is practiced in most organizations, but it is exceedingly useful in guiding project teams to achieve their ultimate effectiveness. It takes the emphasis off the project leader and shifts it to the project team. When a project manager is able to serve his or her team, then he or she will lead that team much better. This takes most leadership ideas and turns them around. This is a leader who is down in the trenches as well as out in front; in with his or her team working through the problems; inspiring them as they go and pushing the credit down to them instead of expecting to get all the kudos.

Whether you agree with this type of leadership or not, we can all agree that in the project management process we need to provide leadership that will help team members move on a continuum from a “destructive” stage (in the worst case) to an “engaged” stage (best case) in which they are proactively working towards the agreed-upon goal (Exhibit 1).

By helping members of the team move forward in this way the leadership continuum allows us to talk about leadership as a positive process. Our job as leaders is to move our team from the passive or “destructive” end of the continuum to the “integrated and engaged” end, and then to keeping them in these positive stages throughout the rest of the project. Although intellectually this sounds like a relatively straightforward process, it is not as easy as it sounds. It requires not only strong leadership throughout the project team but also a strong project manager who understands how leadership is developed.

Although this paper argues that the emphasis needs to be shifted from the individual project leader to the team, it is important to recognize that the project leader must fulfill several prerequisites before he or she is able to provide good leadership and focus on the team. Although there are certainly many other prerequisites, the following are vital as a starting point:

  • Vision
  • Mission
  • Values
  • Trust
  • Passion
  • Teamwork
  • Expectations

Vision

Without vision, the end is never in sight.

Without a clear understanding of where to go, a project leader is like a ship without a compass. It will wander around, pushed by the tide and the prevailing winds without any purpose or ability to land at the appropriate place. As a project leader, it is important not only to be able to see the end place but to understand why this project is important---tying back to the corporate strategies and being able to describe this vision to the entire team. Making sure that the project is on time and moving in the right direction becomes one of the things that the project leader does almost unconsciously to inspire the team. If the project leader is unsure of the vision or it is unclear, the project team will recognize that and may react poorly.

Vision is the recognition of the endpoint of the project. Many professional sports teams as well as Olympic athletes use visualization to make sure that they achieve their utmost goals. Not only do they practice it on a regular basis but they envision the final outcome. They envision themselves swimming faster and better than they ever had, or standing on the Olympic podium. There is a powerful psychological impact that can be created by continually envisioning the end as you wish it to happen. A good leader understands this and continues to create the vision, clarifying it as it goes on, but always making sure that it stays within the goal as defined in the beginning.

Mission

Mission is the framework onto which leaders build the team.

There is a distinct difference between vision and mission. Vision is the intellectual understanding of the endpoint and includes the “where” and the “what” of what needs to be done. The mission is the tactical process that has been agreed upon by the group. This process will include all of the standard project management processes; all of the knowledge areas of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)---Third edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2004); along with all of the team dynamic requirements. A good project leader understands that these need to be agreed upon ahead of time and checked back on throughout the project, giving stability to the organization.

Creating an agreed-upon standard process and then following the standard process throughout the entire project gives the team a great deal of stability and allows them to feel comfortable during a possibly uncomfortable process. It also reassures them that even though things may be changing, there are certain tried and true areas that remain the same. Remind them to latch on to those areas and move ahead with whatever difficult project they have to deal with.

Values

Values serve as the map that leaders follow.

Values are seldom talked about in books on the topic of leadership, mainly because values can be difficult to identify. They may also include issues that corporations do not feel comfortable talking about, such as religion and politics. Nevertheless, having certain deeply held personal values is a key characteristic of a true sustainable leader.

If a project leader’s values revolve around getting ahead at all costs and using the team to increase his or her own power or influence, he or she may succeed for a short period. However, in the long run, the team will become aware that the leader has an agenda that is different from their own and will either consciously or unconsciously stop supporting this leader. By the same token, leaders who are trying to be as helpful as possible and do not want to ruffle feathers by taking a stand can be as destructive as those who have a hidden agenda. Those leaders who are not willing to take the hard stand will have a tendency to say different things to different people to make sure that everyone is happy. This, too, can only work for a short time, before that leader’s duplicity becomes obvious. Once that trust has been destroyed, project leadership is nearly impossible.

A good set of values focused correctly can be one of the project leader’s most powerful tools. This is not necessarily something that can be defined and taught; it has to be an internal understanding within the individual himself or herself. However, this does not mean that one has to be born with this internal understanding; realizing that sooner or later the team will recognize the values of their leader can be a powerful incentive for change within that leader---especially in those individuals who truly want to lead.

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Trust

Trust is the key to true teamwork.

Once a project manager understands what the final goal is, has developed a mission to achieve that goal, and has aligned himself or herself well with his or her values, he or she must build and then retain the trust of the team. Without building that trust, team members will not be able to move from the “passive” or “destructive” phases to the “integrated” phase. This trust cannot simply be given, it must be earned and developed over time. It doesn’t take long for most team members to decide whether or how much they trust the leader. This is why it’s vital to set up the values of project manager, express them to the team, and then continually call upon the trust development process, so that in the end, the team recognizes that the project leader “says what he means and then does what he says.”

Trust is a relatively simple concept to deal with, but it can be lost so quickly that a project leader must guard against its loss at every stage of the project. Once the project team has lost trust, it is doubly hard to get it back, and substantial amounts of time, effort, and resources will be lost through in-fighting and power issues because of this breach of trust.

Passion

Without passion, all the rest is lost.

No true leader can succeed without passion. Many people can manage teams and get things done, but without a true passion for whatever activity you are in, leadership seldom happens. An individual can have good values, a spectacular dream, and a plan for getting it done, but without the passion to carry it through, it may sit on the shelf as an unrealized idea. Passion is the fuel that moves a leader forward. Many individuals who meet leaders for the first time are astounded at the energy and determination that these individuals have for their specific cause. Passion is the fuel and removes the barriers from the project.

Most project leaders recognize that creating passion about an ordinary project can be difficult. To accomplish this, most project leaders do not focus on the project itself, but become passionate about the process as well as about the individuals doing the work. The project leader shows that he or she is interested not only in the individual team members and their abilities but in how to help them do their jobs better as well as in how they can all work better together as a team. Once this kind of passion gets ignited, work becomes more fun and teams have a tendency to build into higher-performing organizations than expected.

Passion can be contagious. Many leaders use their passion to inspire large groups of people, but it can also be used to inspire small groups of people to achieve extraordinary results.

Teamwork

“Teamwork” is a misused term.

Teamwork is one of the most overused words in the business vocabulary. As industries are becoming more competitive and the Internet as well as electronic media are creating a “flat world” for all organizations, it becomes harder and harder to find strategic differentiators between them. Although many organizations will promote ideas about developing better teamwork, in reality, superior teamwork is a strategic advantage for an organization. However, most organizations do not invest the time and effort needed to develop this teamwork.

In the majority of corporate America, the word team is so overused it becomes almost meaningless. There is a pervasive fallacy that teamwork can be created simply by putting individuals in the same room and expecting them to work together. This is “old management” style of thinking, the same management approach that suggests that the only motivating factor an employer ultimately needs to use is a paycheck. This archaic thinking holds organizations back from being truly leadership driven. There any number of different reasons that individuals work for a particular corporation. A salary just ensures that they show up. How a good leader motivates each individual should be dependent upon that individual. Because motivation is an individual endeavor, developing teams cannot be cooker-cutter across the entire organization but rather must be individualized.

The second fallacy of teamwork is the assumption that individuals can work as a team from the very beginning. This is not true. In most situations, teamwork is something that has to be developed over time. It cannot be assigned or instituted by organizational structure. Certainly, organizational structure can encourage or discourage teamwork, but true teamwork requires time, effort, and in most large corporations, the time necessary to develop true interdisciplinary teamwork is not given.

A true team should understand not only their own jobs, but is committed to and has a sense of accountability for the entire organization. The team members should support each other, working together proactively to achieve the expected goals. Most team members can work together but do not have the commitment or trust necessary to truly work as a team. The goal should be to create a collaborative process that brings about results.

For the project leader, it is vital to understand the difference between what is simply a group of people working together and a truly unified team. Most project managers have not experienced true teamwork. Once they have gained that experience, they are able to recognized and encourage that teamwork relatively quickly the next time. A project leader recognizes that each individual person has his or her own motivating factors. Each one of those factors gives some potential advantage to the project. Utilizing those individuals in a team dynamic can make even the most difficult project seem relatively straightforward and quite enjoyable. A team can get a tremendous amount of work done if the project leader understands how to develop and build teams and then point them in the direction that they need to go.

Organizations may respond to the notion of teamwork with “You don’t seem to understand how it works. In this company, we don’t have those kinds of people” or “We all work in teams here,” only to find out later that they move teams around every 4 months. This kind of movement breaks up the dynamic of a team and does not allow teamwork to be developed over a period of time. You are just moving through the stages of team development without actually gaining any of the advantages.

Expectations

A tool to create greatness

Finally, a Project Leader must understand that what expectations he or she has will be achieved in the long run. One of the most interesting phenomena in team dynamics was dubbed the Pygmalion Effect and was identified by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. The theory states that whatever the expectation of the leader of the group is, the team members will more than likely achieve that expectation. So as a Project Leader, whether you expect your team to work in a secure manner or you expect your team not to get the job done, chances are that they will! Understanding the Pygmalion Effect can be a powerful tool to inspire your team just by expecting them to work as strong team. However, if a Project Leader makes a positive public statement about their team but then makes a negative (but true) statement to someone else, the stronger of the two beliefs has a tendency to win out in the end.

Conclusion

In conclusion, project managers need to start looking at themselves as leaders of high-performing teams and expecting team members to become high-performing individuals. However, this expectation alone is not enough to create superior teamwork. Outstanding performance cannot be mandated. This still requires an organization to recognize that teamwork takes time to develop and must be supported among individuals who are given time to work through communication, knowledge, and trust. Once this has been achieved, a high-performing team can be one of the more powerful ways of strategically outmaneuvering in an increasingly competitive environment. Once a project leader has developed a high-performing team, he must continue to keep that trust and utilize that team appropriately, developing a vision to help the team understand where it should be going, to reinforce the mission, and to inspire them with a passion to get the project done.

References

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)---Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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.

© 2008, R. Camper Bull
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA

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