Fourteen project leadership skills to boost your career

Introduction

Leadership is an ever-changing and ever-expanding topic in the field of management generally, and project management specifically. There are many theories of leadership. In fact, Kendra Cherry (Cherry, 2013) has identified 8 major leadership theories, including: “Great Man” theories; Trait theories; Contingency theories; Situational theories; Behavioral theories; Participative theories; Management theories; and, Relationship theories. Under each of these broad categories reside many “named” theories such as, for example, Transactional Leadership and Transformational Leadership.

Many of these theories are “home-grown” and have been developed by one or two individuals. Others are research based, and some border on the new-age, pseudo-scientific ramblings of their creators. Today, with the increasing popularity of agile development/project management, for example, servant leadership, replete with self-organizing teams, seems to be having a renaissance. People are always searching for the best way to lead, and that holds true for those whose job it is to develop project managers.

Surveys conducted by the author and his colleagues clearly show that organizations have invested, and continue to invest, in the hard skills training of project managers much more so than they do in leadership and business skills. In fact, The Global State of the PMO Survey for 2012 shows that only 40% of the respondents noted their company was providing “soft skills” training compared with approximately 75% reporting training in methodologies and tools (ESI, 2012). And yet there is a significant need to also invest in developing their project managers as the leaders. But based on our discussions with executives, organizations have been reluctant to do so. Part of their reluctance has to do with budget constraints, but we have discovered that much of the issue has to do with organizations wanting more highly customized leadership training for their project managers. Seems like there is plenty of leadership training available, but it is generic, aimed toward supervisors, general managers, or executives, and not oriented to the unique roles that project managers play in the organization.

We were intrigued by this dilemma-needing better leadership skills, but not investing in them- faced by our clients and wanting to better understand what those competencies were that make for a successful project manager and how to go about developing a training program that would be customized to their challenges. Over the course of approximately two years we discussed this need with many of our strategic clients, ultimately identifying the 14 competencies these organizations agreed would be important for a project manager to have to succeed and be ready to take on greater executive roles within the company. This paper will describe our research approach and the 14 leadership competencies identified.

Abstract

This paper discusses the 14 leadership skills (categorized into three main areas) that the author and his colleagues identified through extensive discussions over a two-year period with key executives in Global Fortune 500 companies. Based on these 14 skills, we have categorized them in a hierarchy of development showing which skills need to be developed first as the building blocks of other skills. This is a pragmatic, real-world approach to understanding which skills will boost a project manager's career in any industry sector or geographic region.

Research Approach

Our approach is significantly less formal than a research methodology typically employed by academicians, researchers, or PhD candidates preparing a dissertation. Nonetheless, the approach has substantial value in that it required direct face-to-face interaction with key executives from more than 30 Global Fortune 500 organizations representing all 10 industry sectors of the S&P 500. In addition to group discussion we used the Crawford Slip technique, combined with affinity diagramming, to help identify leadership competencies.

For approximately several years, during the course of our client conversations, in our reading of well-known and respected trade and industry literature (e.g., PM Network®, Project Manager Today, Information Week, CIO, CLO, Training and Development, etc.), and in attending presentations at various conferences, that the need for greater leadership skills in a project manager was of paramount importance. Organizations lamented the fact that their project managers were technically competent but lacked, and in some cases, severely lacked, the necessary leadership skills to be successful. This gap was the principal cause of poor stakeholder relationships, low team morale, and overall poor project performance.

Every year, we bring together our top 20 or so key strategic clients to discuss their professional development needs so that we can continue to provide critical training services to assist them in their journey toward improvement. We call this our Client Leadership Council or CLC. We decided to place leadership on the agenda in October 2010 to better understand the competencies and programs they needed to further develop their project managers in this area. Our participants are executive-level professionals who are responsible for enterprise-wide project management improvement in all its multiple facets. Surely, we thought, they would have the best handle on what leadership competencies were needed.

We collected their responses, analyzed them, and compared them with multiple competency models. Some of the models we compare them with included:

  • IPMA Competency Baseline
  • U.S. Government models for project and program managers
  • PMP® and PgMP® Role Delineation Studies
  • Australian National Competency Standards
  • PMI’s Competency Model for Project Managers
  • And quite a few others

We also conducted further conversations with our clients where they provided further elaboration and clarification regarding the competencies they had identified.

The Fourteen Competencies

Based on this interaction and subsequent research and analysis, it was clear that the following 14 competencies stood out among all the others identified. These are (in no particular order of importance):

1. Influence

2. Stakeholder management

3. Negotiations

4. Communications

5. Issue management/Conflict resolution

6. Motivate others

7. Inspire team

8. Facilitation

9. Problem solving

10. Active listening

11. Empathy

12. Trust building

13. Coaching for change

14. Critical thinking

The Fourteen Competencies Grouped into Three Broad Categories

Our next step was to determine how each of these related to one another. For example, were there overlaps? How did they complement each other? Were some competencies required to be mastered before others could be?

Leveraging the research that has been conducted by many organizations such as Forrester, Gartner, and other organizations on why projects succeed and why projects fail (outside of the execution of “technical” skills by the project manager), the initial project leadership competencies defined above were categorized and prioritized in order of dependency.

Through additional research, there appears to be certain leadership competencies that must be mastered before mastery of other leadership competencies can occur. For example, active listening is a required skill in order for one to be able to successfully facilitate a workshop, manage issues, resolve conflict, or inspire the team. Not only did we discover these hierarchical dependent relationships, through affinity diagramming, we were also able to categorize all the competencies into three broad areas.

Following is the revised list of leadership skills, categorized into the three broad areas, which our clients have told us are required to successfully execute projects. We have also added a few more descriptions under each one. Words or terms in bold are the original 14 leadership competencies.

  1. Interactive Leadership

    a. Active listening

    b. Communications

    i. Messaging

    1. Delivery mechanisms
    2. Types of communication

    ii. Crucial conversations

    1. Confidence
    2. Courage

    c. Facilitation

    d. Problem solving

    i. Asking the right questions

    ii. Critical thinking

    e. Coaching for change

  2. Stakeholder Management

    a. Influence

    b. Issue management/Conflict resolution

    c. Negotiations

  3. High Performing Team Development

    a. Empathy

    b. Trust building

    c. Inspire team

    d. Motivate others

The above list focuses on all roles in project execution and is applicable to all definitions of team levels (core project team, extended project team, and functional team).

In a subsequent CLC meeting we presented the above to our key strategic clients. While many of the companies represented were the same as in the first meeting, approximately one third of the group came from different companies. This caused new and additional conversations relative to the competencies. In the end, the above list was endorsed by the clients in attendance. One point should be made clear, however: Although there was consensus among the group, it is important to note that this list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. In fact, many companies described certain specific competencies that are important in their environment that are not on the list, and that competencies included on the list might not have the same level of importance in their organization as the collective opined. Nonetheless, they agreed that, generally speaking, these competencies were required to be a successful project manager.

Accordingly, this list is a good starting point for professional development, because more than 30 organizations, representing all industry sectors, agree that these are important for a project manager to have. The next issue to address was how best to construct a program of study in order to help project managers learn and practice the competency.

Our clients specifically told us from the outset that leadership training and development for project managers is, indeed, quite different than general leadership. And, the reason they are not investing in general leadership training is that it is not targeted to project managers. So, what is the best way to target such training to project managers? We believe there are two ways to go about this.

The first is to include in the training examples, exercises, role plays, and case studies that speak to the project environment in which the project manager finds him or herself. This makes the material more relevant to the attendee. All organizations agree that this is the first step in effective training. However, we took a step further in our high-level design by recommending that each competency be presented in terms of a nominal project life cycle. After all, that's the world that project managers live in and applying a particular competency might manifest itself differently, depending on the phase of the life cycle a project manager finds him or herself in.

Let's use Stakeholder Management as an example. Exhibit 1 below depicts a four-phase nominal life cycle and how the application of stakeholder management differs, depending upon which phase you're in:

Project Stakeholder Management and the Project Life Cycle

Exhibit 1 – Project Stakeholder Management and the Project Life Cycle

We can see from the above that the project manager not only has different functions to perform, those functions will cause different interactions with each stakeholder as a result.

Our next step is to take each of the three broad areas of competencies and flesh out the details as to how each one manifests itself differently across the life cycle. By having specific case studies, and presenting competency application according to the life cycle, companies will begin to see how leadership training can be accomplished for project managers, specific to their roles in the organization.

Obstacles to Success

How leadership training and development is organized and addressed in an organization can present certain obstacles with regard to project manager leadership development. We have observed that the persons responsible for leadership training in large organizations are separate and apart from those persons responsible for project management training. Project management is seen as “technical” training, and in some cases, it is specifically related to the IT organization.

Additionally, leadership training in organizations is highly segmented, and very territorial. For example, in many organizations there are three categories of leadership training:

  1. Supervisory training
  2. Management training
  3. Executive leadership development

Each of these areas is headed by one person whose sole job is the group of professionals within that particular category of leadership, and they all report to one global head (e.g., VP of HR, Corporate University, etc.). Each category of leadership training typically has its own competency model developed over time that is sacrosanct and religiously adhered to. In fact, we have observed that in some organizations, any course with the word “leadership” in it must be vetted and approved by one or more of these professionals in HR. They will review the program to see whether it is in alignment with their leadership model(s) before approving its release. In many cases, the program does not pass muster for a whole host of reasons.

More than one project executive has told us that in order to provide leadership training for project managers it would have to be combined or “hidden” with other topics so that “HR” would not know such training was being undertaken and therefore would not be able to prohibit it. We see this as a “trap” in the sense that project managers need leadership skills, so they need development in the area; yet, this type of training is not available because it does not conform completely to the established models or approaches.

This leadership “trap” holds back organizations in their quest to professionalize their project management ranks. Project management office (PMO) heads and others in the project management area do not highly value general leadership programs; yet, they cannot offer their own because they don't “own” the leadership area in their organization. Suffice it to say, PMO heads, and others responsible for the leadership development of their project managers must seek common ground with those in the organization who own leadership training so that the right type of training can be provided to their project managers.

References

Cherry, K. (2013). 8 Major leadership theories. Retrieved on from http://psychology.about.com/od/leadership/p/leadtheories.htm.

ESI (2012). The global state of the PMO 2012. On the road to the next generation. White paper. Arlington, VA: ESI.

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.

©2013 J. LeRoy Ward
Originally published as part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Istanbul, Turkey

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