Being an effective leader is hard work.
That’s why almost all of the project managers I coach come to me because they want to up their leadership game. While the leadership discussions vary hugely from person to person, there are some common themes and challenges that, once addressed, can significantly help these project managers step up.
The most common leadership challenges relate to the people side of project management, rather than traditional themes such as planning and estimation, which skilled project managers already master. What PMs in leadership roles are looking to master includes:
- How to communicate with more impact
- How to gain better buy-in from senior stakeholders
- How to improve motivation among team members
- How to set a good example as a project leader and role model.
Let’s look at some specific skills that will take your leadership role to the next level.
Communicate with clarity, impact, and honesty
Many of the tips that can help you step up and become a better leader relate to getting better at naming the real project issues and recommending a clear way forward. To get results you have to be honest about the true state of the project and say things the way they are. If you aren’t honest, it becomes impossible for others to help move the project forward and trust your leadership. To communicate with clarity, impact, and honesty you must:
- Always highlight the real project risks and issues in status reports and steering committee meetings no matter how unpleasant it may be. The real risks and issues are those that keep you awake at night.
- Clarify what you are doing to address each risk and what support you need from managers and stakeholders. No one is interested in problems, so highlight the way forward and what needs to be done to resolve it.
- Facilitate decision making. This means: Provide decision makers with a root cause analysis of issues; what the options are for moving forward; what the impact of each option is on the project’s success criteria, and which option you would recommend. It’s not necessarily your role to decide on the way forward. Your role is to provide as much clarity as possible around options and impact so that the steering board can make a call.
Have the difficult conversations
The ability to name the real issues and communicate with honesty isn’t just related to the risks and issues of a project. It’s also highly relevant when you face a difficult situation with a stakeholder or a team member. If you want to up your leadership game, you have to be able to have a difficult conversation instead of avoiding it out of fear that conflict might break out.
What might such a difficult situation look like? Well, imagine that a senior stakeholder isn’t meeting the deadlines you’ve agreed on, or consistently disregards the needs of the project. This may not be an easy situation for you to approach. Holding people accountable could be the most difficult aspect of leading a project. When you master it well you will be in the league with the best. Here are some tips for you:
- The first step is to recognize that a frank conversation is required. If your stakeholder is not providing you with the decisions or information you need, you shouldn’t ignore the situation, even if the person is more senior than you. Talking about them to others also does not help. The only recipe is talking with
- Consider the power levels between you and the stakeholder from a psychological standpoint. Do you see yourself as “less worthy” because you’re less senior than this stakeholder and therefore feel that you don’t have the right to hold them accountable? As a project leader, this is your job; and you can do it in a sensitive and respectable manner, too. Make sure that you consider yourself as an equal from a psychological standpoint.
- Have a meeting with the stakeholder, formally or informally depending on their preference, and put your concerns on the table. Don’t cast blame, as that could cause the person to be defensive. Simply say that you’re concerned and that his or her input to the project is highly valued and necessary to move forward.
- Ask about your stakeholder’s current circumstances. Be careful not to jump to conclusions about why the stakeholder is not delivering on their promises. Show empathy by enquiring about what their facing in their work demands. Ask questions and listen. Maybe there’s a way for you to help the stakeholder give you what you need.
- And now the crucial part: Ask for advice! It’s a very disarming and non-threatening move to ask someone for advice, and it helps transfer responsibility to the other person. Simply ask your stakeholder how she proposes moving forward or what she would advise you to do if she were in your shoes.
Following the above steps will help you to address a delicate situation in a sensitive but effective manner.
It isn’t just your stakeholders who you need to hold accountable, but also team members who aren’t keeping their commitments. Upping your leadership game isn’t about pushing people to deliver through. It’s about gaining people’s commitment by involving them in the work and decisions that affect them, and by making sure that there’s something in it for them. One of the ways in which you can do that is by delegating elegantly. When you delegate elegantly, not only do you free yourself up to focus on other important matters, you also help develop the person you’re delegating to in a way that they find motivating. Here’s how to delegate elegantly:
- First, you need to create a stretch goal for the person you are delegating to by giving them an assignment, which provides a growth opportunity for them. You may for instance find it tedious to keep track of the project’s budget, but to a more junior member of the team it might be an exciting task, which improves their skill level.
- Secondly, you need to agree with them what a good outcome looks like. In other words: How will you know that the task you are delegating is done well upon completion? This is really about agreeing to an acceptance criteria for the task up front. Don’t specify “how” the task needs to be done; instead, focus on the “what” that is expected. Let the team member figure out the “how” as some level of autonomy is a big motivating
- Thirdly, you need to agree with the team member on how and how often you will check in with each other. For example, are you going to meet every couple of days or have a phone call on a Friday? This step is crucial. Let the team member know that you don’t want to micro-manage them but that you need to stay in the loop and be available for questions. Set it up so you mutually agree how to keep each other updated so that nobody will be negatively surprised.
I hope you can see that when you follow the above steps and delegate elegantly it becomes much easier to hold people accountable, motivate them, and work in partnership because you’ve taken the time to put in place clear agreements up front.
Upping your leadership game is less about tools and techniques, and more about your interpersonal skills. It’s how to handle delicate situations and your ability to name the real issues that can seriously propel you forward.
While you build your leadership skills, developing some good habits can help engage your team and deliver top-notch products. You can learn more by downloading our eBook, 5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.
Susanne Madsen is a Project Management Leadership Coach, and author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook (2012) and The Power of Project Leadership (2015). She is a PRINCE2 and MSP Practitioner and a qualified Corporate and Executive Coach. Susanne is a member of the Association of Project Management (APM) and has over 17 years’ experience in leading large change programs for the financial sector. You can visit Susanne’s website at http://www.susannemadsen.com and follow her on Twitter: @SusanneMadsen