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How to Transition From Project Manager to Project Leader | LiquidPlanner

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How to Transition From Project Manager to Project Leader

project manager

Many project managers—and especially those with a technical background—have a predominantly rational and analytical way of thinking. They are good at analyzing facts, calculating duration, coordinating activities and making logical decisions. They are task-oriented and their strength is in executing someone else’s vision—rather than defining it.

Being logical and task-oriented is important, but issues arise when this is the only style in your toolbox. Building high-performing teams and ensuring that the project delivers what the customer needs requires creativity, risk-taking, vision and the ability to connect with people on a very personal level. In other words, it requires that you become a project leader rather than just a project manager. Let us look at five things you can do to begin the transformation.

1. Stretch and motivate the team.

The ability to motivate team members to deliver their best work is integral to project leadership. The team is the project’s biggest asset and how well you use it depends on your ability to tap into each person’s strengths and desires.

Action item: Begin to exercise your leadership muscle by asking team members what they like the most and the least about their jobs. Then set challenging and motivating goals for individuals based around what they love to do, rather than what they loathe. Provide team members with the support they need to achieve their goals, but provide sufficient autonomy.

project manager to leader
2. Identify new and better ways of working.

A key differentiator between project leaders and managers is the ability to continuously push the limits and look for ways in which the team can improve and innovate. Not only are project leaders good at challenging the status quo, but they are also excellent at involving the team in the process.

Action item: Regularly take a step back and assess—in collaboration with your team–how you can add more value and work smarter. To get your team to step in and take on the challenge, ask lots of “what if” questions, such as: “What if we could do this faster and cheaper than anyone else?” or “What if we could be the best team in the entire industry?” Listen to their ideas and commit to implementing the best ones.

project manager tips
3. Understand the project’s strategic context.

As a project leader, you need to partner with your client and take joint responsibility for delivering the project’s ultimate goals and objectives. It’s not enough to leave the business case and strategic decision-making to your client or sponsor. Your job isn’t to be a subcontractor, but to be an equal partner.

Action item: To understand the project’s strategic context, work with your client to fully comprehend the project’s long-term objectives and benefits. Ask questions that clarify the business case and the ways in which the project will ultimately add value to your client’s business. Your eyes shouldn’t just be on delivering the project’s tangible outputs but on the benefits that these outputs will provide.

4. Set time aside for the important work.

In order to become an effective project leader, you have to be excellent at prioritizing projects and optimizing your time. The trick is to consistently put the important matters above the urgent tasks and to reduce multitasking and overcome procrastination.

Action item: Set aside 90 minutes of undiluted, focused time each morning to tackle your most important tasks. During this time, switch off your email and tell people not to interrupt you. For many people, morning time is when either your brain works best, or you’re least likely to be interrupted. So make the most of it, and tackle the strategic tasks that you identified the day before.

5. Overcome resistance to change.

In order to serve your clients and ensure that their strategic objectives are achieved, you will have to address any resistance to change that may appear—be it from users, stakeholders or team members. The key to doing so is to remove fear, doubt, and uncertainty from people’s minds.

Action item: Spend one-on-one time with the project’s main players and help them to see what’s in it for them. Ask how they feel the changes will affect them, and then seek to provide as much clarity as possible about the future. Resistance to change is an emotional response, which you cannot address through logic alone. Instead, listen deeply and understand each person’s psychology.

The move from project manager to project leader takes time but is well worth the effort—especially if you want to address the successes and failures of your projects; better utilize the human potential on your team, and learn to increase productivity and foster teamwork in the workplace.

The move from project manager to project leader is important if you want to address common project challenges, and better utilize the human potential in the process. Other likely benefits are that you’ll increase productivity and foster greater teamwork in the workplace.


If you’d like to dive in and learn more about the seven keys to transform from project manager to project leader, read Susanne Madsen’s new book “The Power of Project Leadership.”


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