At first place, Project Leadership doesn’t mean being a strategic visionary sitting at the very top of your organization. It’s about leading the project team to achieve their objectives and producing a successful result.
Many things influence project management today. When we look at projects today compared to fifteen or twenty years ago, we notice a big change. In the old traditional setting, the boss might not even ask for any input, but today team involvement is critical. In a team setting, people are encouraged to give ideas and make decisions. This change governs how projects today are run. Gone is the traditional way of running projects where the boss made the decisions, figured the timeframes, and set all objectives.
Today, we need more and more team members who will take the necessary leadership and move the project forward. This becomes a struggle with expectations and culture. This becomes even more difficult with organisations that have strong governmental, military, or influential bureaucratic drivers which can complicate the projects.
It is a fact project management is here to stay. This means more decision making power must move down to the front line level. When this is carried over to the project team, this means you must create decision makers, not order takers. Employees must be taught to make decisions. The need for these skills will not change in the future. The expectations today are that employees can and will make these important decisions.
Yes, some traditional supervisors will struggle giving away their power. They mistakenly think they have lost control and are giving their jobs to another. However, in today’s organisational culture, this way of thinking is being replaced by a progressive, proactive project management style – Project Power.
The Proactive Project Leadership
“Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This quote is especially true in running successful projects. You must have strong leadership, or things fall through the crack. Every individual must be committed to do what they say they will do.
The origination of the phrase, “The best defense is a good offense,” seems to be apocryphal, although it was originally attributed to the classic military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. In later years, Mao Zedong was quoted as saying, “The only real defense is active defense.” Both are of similar meaning and imply that a proactive approach often achieves the best results. As a boy in the schoolyard, the adage simply meant that if you can run up more points offensively, you have accomplished the same thing as a focus on defense (And, scoring points is always more fun than blocking and tackling anyway, right?). The same is true for leading projects.
Project leaders need to take a more proactive role in defining project success. I say this because many organizations don’t know what they really need in terms of a successfully completed project. In fact, I believe this is one of the reasons so many project-based groups struggle with governance and scope issues. If the organization can’t identify what they expect from a potential initiative, how can the project team be expected to hit the ambiguous target.
The need for proactive project leaders will only continue to increase, while those project professionals content to manage process alone will find their roles diminish. I say diminish because the foundational elements of strong project management are not going away any time soon, but the need for real project leadership is so apparent that organizations are looking for proactive people, willing to take a leadership role in how projects are chosen, how they are executed and how success is measured.
So, how does someone differentiate themself from the crowd? Here are a few suggestions:
- Speak Up: Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. As an experienced project leader, your opinion has a lot of potential value. Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge and experience if it will help drive successful outcomes. Don’t confuse this with a mandate to become a nay-say-er—that, is never productive.
- Don’t simply identify the problems, offer solutions: Over the years I’ve worked with many people who were able to identify what the problems were. “Ty, this is working…or Ty, that procedure is broken.” They were some of the most annoying colleagues I’ve ever had to work with. Identifying problems isn’t a problem, unless that’s all you do. “Ty, I’ve been thinking about ‘this’ particular issue, and suggest that ‘this’ could be a viable solution,” takes you from the role of whiner to the role of problem-solver, which is where organizations look for leaders.
- Don’t be afraid to mentor: Over the years I’ve worked with many senior members of the team who were willing to take me under their wing and mentor me. Most of them weren’t my boss and didn’t formally identify themselves as “mentors,” they just offered me critical bits of information at crucial times in my career. Don’t be afraid to be that person to younger and less experienced members of the team.
- Create an Atmosphere of Trust: Successful project teams feel trust and support throughout the project. Trust cannot be demanded as some mistakenly think. Trust is earned. You must earn trust, and walk the talk consistently. Treat people in a respectful manner. People who are treated badly will unlikely be supportive and cooperative. Avoid and discourage lies and backbiting. These kill trust and cause people to reject leadership. People can handle mistakes or even failure, but they cannot handle lies and disrespect.
- Build the Right Team: Some project teams experience turf battles. Individuals argue and are uncooperative; they simply do not like each other. Communication and common courtesy can break down causing the project to suffer. Most people are able to overcome their personal dislikes and still work together. However, the team leader is responsible for addressing any unsolved problems that jeopardise the success of the project. By carefully selecting the team members in the beginning, some of these problems can be avoided.
- Spell Everything Out for Your Team Upfront: Leaders sometimes try to do the soft sell for their teams. They approach the team with the attitude that the project will not take long and will not need hard work. After the team is committed to the project, the bomb is dropped as to exactly what it will require from them. The leader’s credibility is destroyed, and in the future, red flags will go up when another project is proposed. It always works better to tell people the truth. By explaining the depth of the project and how much time you anticipate it will take for completion will build your credibility. Create the right foundation by explaining the process for handling problems, change orders, and assignments. By giving the team the information up front, you set a tone of respect and courtesy.
- Keep the End Goal Clearly in Mind: Leaders can become sidetracked and forget the need for monitoring the project dates. People may lose focus during a project and allow deadlines to drift. If the missed deadline is early on in the project, it can have a major ripple effect. Once a project starts running late, one missed deadline may lead to other missed dates. If not corrected, this ripple may continue until the end of the project. This creates much pressure for those working on the project down the road because they will inherit the project already behind schedule.
In the context of our discussion, I am convinced that a proactive approach to project leadership will do nothing but increase your value to the team, to the organization, and elevate your role. Of course, there are organizations that won’t respond to this type of proactive project leadership. If that’s the case, it might be time to “offensively” look for one that does.