Five Keys for a Project Manager’s Leadership Makeover

hen I think of the project manager of a software or application development project, a vivid picture of a symphony conductor springs to mind. The conductor does not play any instrument, but is responsible for assembling the orchestra, its preparation, conducting rehearsals, and making interpretative decisions. These decisions are communicated verbally during rehearsals and via different movements, gestures, and facial expressions during the final performance. A good conductor sets the mood of the piece and leads. The final performance is a symbiotic dance between the conductor, the musicians, and the performer, and therein lays the artistry of an enthralling performance.

The symphony conductor and his baton become symbols of leadership where they orchestrate the performance of the team to achieve a goal. The team respects their leader and follows his cues, secure in the fact that he is with them and knows where he is leading them. This creates a relationship of a leader and his followers.

Followers create the space for a leader; a leader attracts the kind of followers she seeks. The connecting factor between the two groups, that makes the larger group confer the mantle of leadership on a person, is based on a shared vision and trust equity invested in this single person that she can influence and direct them to achieve their objectives and goals. The influencing factors for the formation of this relationship are based on the leaders’ value system (ethics, beliefs, character), knowledge, personal proficiencies/skills, and ability to serve and create relational equity with this group.

A project manager is responsible for orchestrating the delivery of a project within the triple constraints of scope, budget, and resources. He is accountable for the success of the project, without having direct authority over these constraints. She has to:

  • Influence, control, and manage stakeholder and team expectations
  • Manage scope, schedule, resources, and budget
  • Track milestones and issues
  • Identify and mitigate risk
  • Provide objective, fact-based project status and communication
  • Use good project processes and methodology
  • Work with a widely dispersed global matrix team, across multiple time zones
  • Maintain team morale, providing necessary motivation and stimulation to maintain project momentum towards achieving deliverables
  • Resolve any arising conflicts

The responsibilities of a project manager require him to maintain an above average personal emotional quotient. Being able to foresee and forecast in advance, to help build contingencies or rework base-lined plans, brings a dimension of expertise to this role; in terms of being able to not only connect the dots, but also the thoughts, juxtaposed with a strong sense of organization and personal efficiency. Being content rich in the knowledge domain in which this project is set upon, adds that touch of mink and immense value to the team that this individual serves.

The complex requirements of this role provide a fertile ground for the transformation of a project manager into a great leader. At this point, you are aware of the core project management functions and seek the following five key areas for the ‘leadership makeover.’

  1. Creating a strong personal brand to produce results
  2. Becoming a visionary planner
  3. Knowing your team
  4. Making informed and fact based decisions
  5. Communicating effectively

Creating a Strong Personal Brand to Produce Results
Leaders understand the power of the personal brand and use it to market their value proposition. They understand ‘Perception is Reality’ and effectively manage perception.

To create that brand, it is important to know thy self: your beliefs, ethics, values, and your tolerance thresholds. Your response to stimulus from your environment and the bar you hold to determine your standard for excellence, shapes your character. Your education, including job trainings and personal proficiency, determine your skill level. The relationships you form in your life’s journey and your investment levels in them, help create a cross pollination of perspectives in your overall persona. The sum total of all of the above blended with your personal and professional experiences and ‘inner smarts’ make for a unique individual that is entirely you.

Leaders know who they are, where they want to go (vision), and how they want to go about it (plan). Their brand attracts the kinds of followers who feel a kinship with them.

A project manager creates a perception of leadership by using his personal brand:

  • Build trust equity with the team:
    • Treat others as she would treat herself and lead by example.
    • Spend the project budget as if it were his own. Be fiscally responsible.
    • Promote open and responsible communication.
    • Act in the interests of the project and team. Be a coach and mentor as needed.
  • Consistently achieve goals:
    • Success in the project world implies meeting the goals of the projects and satisfying the needs of the customers/stakeholders in the expected timeframe.
    • A project manager’s caliber is determined by his personal bar for excellence. How high is this bar and how does the team perform and react is determined by their perception of their leader.
  • Befriend time and use passages of time:
    • Sow thought, reap timely actions, and harvest results.
    • Detach from the milieu, for introspection and reflection to conduct reality checks and use the conclusions for the advancement of the project and team towards the project goals.
  • Build strong relationships:
    • Remember, people do business with whom they like. Having the connection with people you work with makes it easier for them to work with you and vice versa.
    • For fruitful and flourishing relationships, an investment of your time and value proposition works wonders.
  • Constantly learn and add on to existing knowledge:
    • Learning fires the mind and uses its vast potential to unlock strains of thought to enrich our lives.
    • Learning comes from various quarters: books, training, observations, mentoring, feedback, and even failure.
    • A smart leader utilizes learnings to create and promote a knowledge share by creating a pool of talent, that can be tapped to yield faster results.

Your personal brand brings that unique flavor to a situation. Making it strong and building upon it with years of experience and constantly re-visiting it, to shape it to meet the needs of the moment, is what strong leaders do.

Becoming a Visionary Planner
Leadership commands a clear vision and high-level plan of action to execute the vision. It is the leader who is accountable for the vision, and the high level plan, and the team who is responsible for the detailed execution of the plan.

Leadership is exhibited when a project manager:

  • Evangelizes the vision – the project scope, objectives, and the benefits to its stakeholders (including customers) and the plan to achieve this.
  • Stewards the project and plants ownership in the hands of team individuals to translate thought into action. An anagram play on the word ‘own’ yields ‘won.’
  • Empowers the team and supports them to maintain this individual ownership of their contribution to the project by removing obstacles from their path and setting them up for success.

Becoming a visionary planner enables the project manager to lead by assuming the role of the evangelist and a steward who steers his team to morph the vision into a tangible reality, per plan.

Knowing Your Team
A leader needs to know his pack, their sentiments, their strengths, their capabilities and potential, their alignment index vis-à-vis the objectives of the group, and work at constantly ensuring that this alignment is maintained.

Before a new idea is to manifest, it is a good leader who pre-empts the actual execution of the initiative, by distilling the impacted audience into natural allies, critical thinkers, high performers, skeptics, rabble rousers, fence-sitters, et al. It is also a mature leader who distills thoughts from these audiences and creates an environment for the evolution of hybrid thought, to propel a faster realization of common goals.

For a project manager, having a stakeholder list is part of the job, knowing your stakeholders and managing them successfully to achieve desired goals is a key learning here.

You show leadership when you take the base need of a stakeholder list to another dimension by:

  • Showing initiative in being a strategic networker to understand their area of expertise, their opinions, and stances on areas of mutual interest.
  • Understanding who has the power to make decisions in event of conflict and ambiguities, as many times a project manager does not have direct management responsibility over a team.
  • Recognizing that your team is your reservoir of strength and tailoring your behavior towards them to draw them out; to know and understand their point of view.

By really knowing your team, you can tap into a knowledge base that enables you to connect people and thoughts, seed new ideas more effectively, and reduce ramp-up time from buy-in to execution.

Making Informed and Fact-Based Decisions
A good leader seeks counsel from experts in the group before making an informed decision. Does that diminish the worth of a leader? Not at all! Bringing the group together and asking their opinion creates a sense of ownership of the problem, enhances group value, such that stakeholders feel their thoughts and ideas matter and they have contributed towards the solution of a problem.

Project managers show leadership when they:

  • Exhibit behavior patterns to drive to consensus building
  • Facilitate the team mind share to drive to a decision that has stakeholder buy-in due to their collective involvement

Making informed and fact-based decisions strip the emotion from the action and secure buy-in without wastage of time, due to pre-emptive group discussion.

Communicating Effectively
Communicating effectively can connect the hearts and minds of the team and turn a project manager into a leader. An effective leader understands the power of the word and invests her time in learning the art of communication to reach into the hearts of the masses and evoke positive response to her vision and direction. Here are some examples of good communication:

  • Constant communication that re-affirms goals and thought rationale triggers the collective team conscious and produces desired actions.
  • Great leaders understand the power of effective listening and use gaps of silences in communication to elicit responses from or catalyze conversations with their teams.
  • The power of good timing lends a further effectiveness to communication and is used by leaders to create a powerful agent for change.

A seasoned project manager uses the communication plan to effectively disperse and solicit communication, to and from the project team. Leadership rears its head when a project manager:

  • Walks through the office floor to casually initiate conversation in an informal manner to get a pulse on how the team is really doing.
  • Subconsciously registers individual body language and nuances in conversations and uses effective communication techniques by asking open ended questions that prompt detail responses from the individual.
  • Establishes personal credibility by displaying true interest and concern in the content of the conversation and appropriately addressing conflict situations.
  • Effectively uses composure in a volatile conversation and sticks to facts rather than reacting to emotion.
  • Displaying empathy rather than sympathy for situations where an individual is rationalizing failure to deliver and guiding the individual back to the path of delivery, again, by asking questions to elicit appropriate responses.

Lead your team like a good conductor, and you’ll see marked improvements in overall quality, production, and morale.

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