In May of 2011 The Project Management Podcast launched its Project Leadership Series at www.pm-podcast.com. The series started with interviews with Thomas Juli, author of Leadership Principles for Project Success, and Rick Valerga, author of The Cure for the Common Project: Five Core Themes that Transform Project Managers into Leaders. More interviews and discussions on project leadership are planned throughout the year. To kick us off let’s begin with an explanation about what project leadership is and how project managers can start out on the path of becoming true project leaders.
Defining project leadership
“There are so many definitions of leadership out there,” said Thomas. “Leadership has to do with the right attitude and understanding the core principles of building an overall vision, knowing about the power of collaboration, knowing how to promote performance in the team he or she is leading, and then still having the maturity to reflect on their own activities and creating a culture of learning. And last but not least, a leader ensures results because this is the bottom line.”
Rick agrees. “I define leadership as the ability to influence others to deliver results,” he said. “Project leadership exists at the nexus of project management and general leadership.”
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.
Getting to success
“If you run a project, you have to be knowledgeable and experienced in project management,” said Thomas. “Project management is basically structuring chaos and without the structure, you cannot really be creative. That means without project management, there cannot be project success.”
However, Thomas doesn’t believe that project management skills are the only thing necessary to deliver a successful project.“Leadership gives the project a direction, the right direction,” he said. “If you talk about sufficient conditions of project success, we’re talking about leadership.”
Without someone providing this overall direction, the project team members run the risk of going off in several directions, or nowhere at all. It’s difficult to achieve results in that situation. Thomas believes that to get to success projects need both management and leadership. Fortunately, one person can fill both functions.
“Integrity is the absolute foundation for project leadership,” said Rick. “Integrity means never letting your project live a lie. So if your project plan is a house of cards, or your schedule will be indisputably delayed, or if you discover that your product will fall flat in the market, you need to have the courage to bring these issues to light.”
Rick said that managing expectations is key to building integrity. “When we’re doing this, we’re making responsible commitments even under duress,” he explained. “That’s integrity.” He also explained that integrity comes from solving the projects’ toughest problems without destroying our team members or their families, and providing frequent up-to-date, consistent messages that are agreed across all the project stakeholders.
Teams are at the heart of projects, and project leaders can’t lead if they don’t have people to lead. “Let’s face it, projects are at their best when people are at their best,” said Rick. “I’m not just talking about taking care of the troops and then getting out of the way which many project managers do. Projects are at their best when all the people are at their best including the sponsor, customers, suppliers, adjacent functional organizations.”
Thomas agrees. “As a leader, it is your responsibility to create an environment that promotes performance on both the individual and the team level,” he said. “First of all, you want to be a role model. You have walk the talk. Demonstrate authentic leadership.” By that, he means making sure that your words and actions align. Don’t set rules for the team and then break them yourself.
“You really want to empower your team,” Thomas added. “That means you have to give the team the information it needs and you have to share the power so that the team can actually get the opportunity to excel and have an active hand in project success.”
When the team feels empowered, there is no need to micromanage them. Thomas believes that it is important to want them to feel empowered, and not just pay lip service to the term. You have to be able to trust the team members. “You have to let it happen,” he said. “You have to give the team the opportunity to show how it can perform. That’s very important.”
If becoming a project leader sounds difficult, Rick had some simple advice about how to get started. “One way to start is by simply listening,” he said. “We have a vast amount of knowledge available to us through our stakeholders. We need to make sure that we are regularly tapping into it.”
Another easy step towards becoming a leader is to celebrate performance. “You want to look for behaviors that reflect the purpose and values, skill development and team work and reward, reward, reward those behaviors,” said Thomas. “Don’t wait until the very end of the project to celebrate the same results. Celebrate performance.”
The great thing about leadership is that we’ll instinctively know what it feels like to be doing it right. The people around us will let us know that we’re doing a good job. “In the end,” Rick said, “our projects are judged by people, the customers, the sponsor, the team members. Most of these people are not imbued with project management theory. They only judge whether the project lived up to its billing as interpreted by them. It’s a subjective process and above all, these people hate to be surprised. So the best way to address this is by making expectation management a daily mantra.” That’s good advice for any leader.
Listen to the complete interviews on project leadership with Rick Valerga and Thomas Juli on The Project Management Podcast for free at www.pm-podcast.com.