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The New Face of Project Leadership | LiquidPlanner

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The New Face of Project Leadership

project leadership

Leadership has changed over the years.

Fifteen years ago, being a good project leader wasn’t necessarily the same as being a good project leader today. There are, of course, certain aspects and fundamental character traits that have gone unchanged. For example, we value honesty and integrity in a leader as much today as we ever have; and we also continue to value people who inspire and unite the team, as well as a leader who can easily build bridges between team, client, and stakeholders.

Nevertheless, the face of project leadership is changing – or maturing – as we are having to adjust to the ways in which we now work and do business. Some of the changes that we have to adjust to are that teams are now made up of people from different cultures and time zones – some of whom have never even met. In addition, people expect to work with greater autonomy and to be fully involved in discussions that relate to project objectives and client needs.

Other recent shifts in leadership relate to the speed of technological changes as well as the rapid pace at which our clients’ businesses evolve and have to respond to demands in the marketplace. As a result, project leaders and their teams are challenged to quickly innovate and deliver solutions that are rich in functionality and that provide long-lasting benefits. They are also required to be increasingly flexible when accommodating change requests during the project, and to be able to personally juggle the need to respond to emails and queries in a timely manner while working effectively and doing deep work.

And this is where the trouble begins!

That’s because many project professionals are stuck in the past, and struggle to make the very adjustments that are required of them in a modern business world.

From my work as a project management consultant and coach, here are the top 3 leaderships needs (and challenges) in today’s business world.

1. Optimizing time and doing focused work

Today’s world is full of endless interruptions that require project leaders, on one hand, to respond to urgent requests and, on the other, to protect their time and be able to work single-mindedly on their most important tasks. Unfortunately, most project managers I come across struggle to focus on proactive activities and to carve out blocks of time where they do deep work.

Instead, they are drawn to the urgent and secretly love being the hero who resolves issues and puts out fires. The unfortunate result is a host of reactive project managers who are finding it hard to free up time for the most important parts of the project: building the team, understanding the client’s business, having that difficult conversation or looking to mitigate the things that could go wrong on the project.

To be productive – and not just active – project managers must learn to protect and optimize their time.

2. Understanding the client’s business

It has always been important for project managers to understand the context in which their clients operate; but these days, it has become even more critical due to the increased competition, fast-moving world, and our consumer-beware culture. Companies are heavily reliant on innovative products and services to stay in business, as they will be penalized by consumers if they don’t keep up.

Many people argue that project managers don’t need to be subject matter experts to deliver a good project. Although that may be true, it’s also true that they will never become leaders. Project managers without subject matter expertize can do a good job delivering what the client asks for, but they will never be able to partner with the client, challenge their views, help them make business-critical decisions or appreciate the importance of adjusting scope in order to produce outstanding value to the business.

For all of this richness to happen, project managers must get into the heads of their clients, understand what success looks like and what the real business drivers are. When they do, they will see themselves as one with the client – not separate from.  And they will be more flexible and accepting of changes to the scope where there is a good business reason.

3. Being truly collaborative and inclusive

The delegates who attend my project management and leadership workshops always agree that it’s important to be collaborative in their approach. But when I ask them how they kick off and plan their projects, most of them use an old fashioned approach of singlehandedly creating a long detailed Gantt chart in Microsoft Project. That’s simply not collaborative enough for a modern-day project leader.

The better approach is to get everyone together in a workshop or a project kick-off meeting – in person or virtually – to define deliverables, scope, objectives and ground rules, and to jointly create a plan, starting with the high-level milestones and drilling into the detail.

If the team is virtual it becomes even more important to establish a set of collaborative working practices, as it’s much harder to bond with someone who is located miles away.  Today’s project leaders know that if they want to get the same results from a remote team, they have to put in some extra effort. That’s why an effective leader explicitly sets time aside to build the team, to discuss how each person fits in and what they expect of each other. So in a way, remote teams are forcing project managers to become even better leaders.

Project leaders need to continually evolve and adapt to the changing circumstances of their environments, clients, and teams. In particular, the modern-day leader needs to engage and involve teams who work remotely, to understand their client’s ultimate business needs, and to free up time to work single-mindedly on their most important tasks. While not all project managers and team leaders are there yet, the opportunity is there for whoever wants it!

Part of being an effective leader is knowing how to face and solve common project management challenges. To get some tips of the trade, download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.

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 and follow her on Twitter: @SusanneMadsen.


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