By: Amy Dubin, Project Director, BusinessForward
Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things – Peter Drucker
When companies initiate complex, cross-functional projects, often they are doing so to support a pillar of their strategic plan with a goal of increasing revenue and profitability. Whether this is customer-facing, internal user-focused or replacing a back end obsolete system, it must be successful to avoid any negative impact to the business. But sometimes projects are destined for trouble from the start. Why?
Quite commonly, consultants are called in to “rescue” a project. There are any number of reasons it may not be going well. A key challenge customers often cite is that a project has a tight timeline and needs to get on track to contribute results to the business quickly. Doesn’t it seem like everything we do has the pressure of tight timelines? So what’s the difference in these situations? The reason I have heard most frequently over the course of 30 plus years leading cross functional, complex projects is that the project manager is not doing the job well.
To be fair, is this really about the person or about the selection process for the project team? Think about it. Did you position your team for success by having the right project leader at the helm? In many organizations, a project manager is selected from an operational function. This person typically possesses knowledge of the project content with first- hand experience, is a problem solver and has technical expertise. All are critical to a project. But to ensure success, a project leader is key. Someone with experience in projects of the same scope and magnitude. A command of the “soft skills” such as the ability to inspire and motivate the team is essential. Of course the ability to negotiate and communicate is critical if they are to share a vision of success across the entire organization and company.
A Pittsburgh Regional CIO Survey conducted by BusinessForward and The Pittsburgh Technology Council* that will be published next month asked “What is the biggest skill deficit on your team?” Over 40% of the respondents cited project management as a gap. Further, they said such resource gaps lead to fewer completed projects in a year at a higher cost. While this makes complete sense, it also supports the case for understanding the difference between a project manager and a project leader.
When a project manager is not empowered to make decisions or take ownership or even resolve conflict, keeping a complex project on course can seem impossible. The root cause, in my experience, is that they are not project leaders.
Why then do organizations not place as much focus on who is in the position to lead a critical initiative as is placed on other leadership positions within the company? Perhaps it is because the importance of project leadership is not understood.
There are 5 critical skills that a project leader must exhibit to complement a solid project manager and team.
Five Critical Skills of a Project Leader
- Vision and strategy for the project that ties into the overall strategy of the company.
- Experience leading mission critical, multi-stream, time-pressed projects relevant to the work at hand.
- Proactive problem solving skills. A project leader must be a strong decision maker able to balance quality and progress with timeline.
- The ability to build consensus and communicate clearly and to listen just as well.
- The ability to work up and down the organization (senior executives, project team, organizational resources) seamlessly and have the respect of all parties.
These skills work together to enable everyone to succeed.
The right project leader can prioritize, direct, challenge, support, delegate and encourage while maintaining focus on the overall goal. They will have a keen eye to the bottom line. Flexibility is a necessary quality too. Because, one thing to be sure of is that the situation will change over the course of the project. Project leaders face an environment that is constantly evolving and often turbulent and they must be able to handle these challenges with strength and conviction. A strong leader will have clear roles and responsibilities defined to ensure continuity when a key person is no longer supporting the project.
A first step in identifying a project leader should be to conduct a behavioral interview and seek examples of everything we’ve discussed here. You or someone in the organization can evaluate their tactical skills. But are they able to lead?
If the organization lacks the internal talent, now is the best time to call upon third party project leadership expertise. This way, you’ll be calling in for support long before you need a rescue effort. Aside from saving money, your team will be able to maintain the momentum and morale to finish the project successfully.
*Survey will be published this June 2016. Stay Tuned!
Need a Project Leader to help get your initiative started? Don’t wait until “rescue” mode. Contact us today and let us know where your project stands- firstname.lastname@example.org.