I have been privileged, thanks to my activities within the professional association PMI® during 15+ years and my professional activities since 30 years, to meet many project managers in France and abroad.
I have been so often asked « why are some project managers considered as administrators of projects while others were real leaders? » that I decided to study this topic. I read numerous articles, notably from PMI® and also from Prince2® and Agile, I discussed with project managers and experimented managers. I gave presentations and facilitated workshops on this subject in many professional PMI forums in France and Europe. Every time, more than the presentation itself, it was the debate with novice and experienced project managers that was the most interesting part and allowed me to further enrich my ideas.
I tried to synthesize those attitudes, qualities and characteristics which I could identify in the most brilliant of the project managers I know. I summed them up in 7 main attributes which make exceptional leaders in Project Management.
I am commenting on these attributes in this rather long post on the subject:
- Know how to communicate a clear vision
- Maintain a balance
- Learn to trust your instinct
- Enthusiasm, to inspire your team members
- Show respect
- Dare to persevere even in the adversity
- Know when to change and quickly adapt
Ablog post is less adapted to interactive discussions than live forums and I nevertheless encourage you to react and share with me your own experience.
1. Know how to communicate a clear vision
- Have a clear vision
- Deeply understand the objectives
- Synthesize them
- Adapt the vision to each person
- Keep it simple and very concise
How could we communicate clearly if we do not have a very clear vision of the project? It is critical to grasp and integrate all the objectives of the project: financial, professional, technical, human, process, strategic, tactical … An exercise that is both complex and necessary. As long as we do not understand in the details the objectives of the project, we cannot synthesize and explain them in a simple and understandable way.
Furthermore, the communication of the vision must be adapted to each interlocutor:
- The technical team,
- The future users of the project’s deliverables,
- The sponsors and Other stakeholders,
All may have different and nevertheless very justifiable expectations from the project. It is necessary to deliver this communication in an extremely precise, simple and concise way not to lose his interlocutors in a vague hubbub.
It is easier to say that to do… Nevertheless I have seen it executed with virtuosity on several projects and witnessed complete failure on others.
One of these successes was a project of deployment of a financial and logistic system. The synthetic vision was that this project was going to allow the whole company to share a unique truth on its accounts across the world, at every hierarchical level, and for each of the divisions and product lines.
The communication per type of interlocutor integrated this core message and added to it messages tailored to the interlocutors:
- For the technicians, the fact that we were migrating towards a leading software package in the industry (Oracle eBusiness suite not to mention it),
- For the finance guys, a centralized consolidated database together with the adoption the best processes in every finance organization of our company across the world,
- For the decision-makers, dashboards containing indisputable figures, access to the data via queries and a reporting environment,
- For the end-users, training courses, a homogeneous, ergonomic and functional user interface, with detailed processes on-line.
The second example is in fact a counter-example.
Our objective was to implement an automated dispatching system of field interventions on electronic equipments to our support technicians. The message was clear: the solution, through routes optimization, will increase customer satisfaction and productivity. The message retained by the ground was only the increase of productivity. This one was quickly translated into increase of workload, risk of job cuts, and less autonomy for the interested party, the technicians, in the choice of which incidents to handle next. And, it is precisely these technicians who could make the project a success or a failure. Thus, we had a poor communication of the vision towards the technicians. Furthermore, the people in charge of customer accounts who would easily have understood and known how to explain benefits to their customers were forgotten from the communications. After a very successful initial period of tests in real situation arose the inevitable first problems. The account managers supported the complaints of the technicians. This resulted in a pure and simple decision to kill the project.
The project manager needs to acquire or grow this capacity to know how to communicate a clear vision and, also, not to miss anybody in the communication, in order to increase his leadership
2. Maintain a balance
- Objectives and motivation of the team
- Listening and discipline of execution
- Sponsors desires and ground realities
- Risk-taking and security
- Attention to details and global view
- Perseverance and flexibility
The project manager is subjected to permanent and sometimes divergent pressure from his customers, team members and sponsors. It is difficult to him(her) to find the happy balance between the necessary realization of the objectives of the project and the motivation of his(her) team. Listening to the members of the team is important and necessary and has to be accompanied by a firm discipline in the execution of tasks and achievement of the milestones of the project. It is thus necessary to discuss, to listen to and to explain (again and again) while maintaining the pressure to obtain the expected results. Passing milestones, production of intermediate / partial deliverables, sharing of positive feedback from the steering committee are as many opportunities to be leveraged to motivate the team by celebrating these results.
We often walk a tightrope between the satisfaction of the desires of our customers and our understanding (and that of our teams) of what is feasible or not. The compromises are numerous during a big project to find the fine balance between desire and reality.
On the other hand, I was able to notice that organizations have different levels of tolerance to risks in general and towards some in particular (environmental, legal, safety). Naturally, it is going to influence the approach in risk management and steer us towards either solutions of avoidance, or mitigation plans, or insurances, or transfers of responsibility when feasible. And in each case, we need to adapt the answer to the impact and to the probability that the risk could materialize.
A concrete example was reported to me by the project manager of the construction of the rail cabs in two big cities in France.
This project manager explained that he had adopted diametrically opposed approaches in the communication and realization of these two undertakings. In one of the cities, the main sponsor was extremely resolute to go fast. His reasoning was that regardless the dialogue and communication, the construction of the rail cab was going to be painful for the local residents and storekeepers. Thus, he’d better go fast and pass this difficult stage as quickly as possible. In other city, the sponsor was persuaded that the dialogue was imperative, that it was necessary to take time for discussion, to take into account the remarks… Naturally, the second project took 4 or 5 times longer than the first one. But, should it be considered a failure? Maybe not for the city in question, but the sponsor of the second city is not longer in position to appreciate the outcomes …
Also, it will be necessary to pay very high attention to details while keeping a little distance to maintain a global view of the project and its final objectives. Not always easy to raise our eyes towards the horizon when the daily tasks monopolize us.
And to complete this subject of the necessity to maintain a balance, I would mention a point which I find particularly difficult to manage: perseverance.
Perseverance is very certainly one of the major qualities asked of the project manager. He has an objective to achieve and has to try hard to eliminate any obstacle preventing him from reaching it in time and on budget. Nevertheless, things changes all the time around us and in the project in particular. Change management requires rigor and also flexibility to avoid extremism and yet deliver the best product or the service possible to the customers.
3. Learn to trust your instinct
- Not enough data
- Too much data
- The detailed analysis provides several options
- The situation calls for an innovative approach
- Necessity of fast decision-making
The vast majority of the project managers I work with are Cartesian, logical, and pragmatic.
It may be due to the fact that I evolve in a world largely populated with engineers and technicians. However reasoned we may be, we often feel a chill, an instinctive reaction which warns us of danger. It is possible that unconsciously a situation reminds us of another one. Let us take the time to listen to these messages and to decode them before deciding to integrate them or not into the decision.
More concretely, it is frequent that we do not have enough data to make a really informed decision based on certainties. In other cases, it is the overload of data that kills the information and we are flooded under the mass. At other times, the consultants or the experts who studied the subject do not succeed in identifying a best option among those that they studied, or do not manage to agree on a common recommendation.
It happens frequently enough that the project, which according to PMI® « is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”, is very precisely unique and requires achieving something never done before. Only an innovative approach will permit to reach the objective. The experience and the reasoning by analogy will not be of great help.
On top of this, certain decisions cannot be postponed.
We can be in a situation where we have to decide before midnight if we backtrack in the installation of the new version of the software (that is taking longer than planned) or continue (at the risk of no-return solution in due time). We can have a limited window of opportunity. For example, have to launch the project operational on January 1st or postpone it by several months or even cancel it altogether if we are not ready on time.
4. Enthusiasm, to inspire your team members
- Trust the team
- Delegate real responsibilities
- Belonging and loyalty to the project
- Know yourself ( personal style)
- Globalize your approach
- Lead by example
Trust the team. Confidence in others.
It is almost impossible to create a reliable climate without demonstrating every day your confidence in the team, in its members and in our capacity to make together the project a success. It is often easier as a first reaction not to trust. We may wish to take back a task previously allocated to someone because his first deliverables are not matching what we expected in terms of contents, quality or duration. We can be tempted to request heavy and\or too frequent reporting. We can even simply stretch out excessively the duration of certain tasks for a given person due to a lack of confidence in his capabilities … However, the slightest error is fatal. The lack of trust will be perceived by the interested party and by his team-mates. It takes a lot of time to gain trust and only seconds to lose it.
The following topic in this same subject is delegation.
This one is all the more difficult when the project manager is himself an expert of the domain and capable of executing perfectly the task he delegates. It also may happen that a task appears so important to us that we think we cannot possibly delegate it. The leader will start by surrounding himself with good skills, better than his own as much as possible. He will attempt to develop the resources which are entrusted to him through giving them difficult, critical, complex assignments and by providing them the necessary support to succeed. I have been favored to work with some great leaders and it always was a pleasure to learn and to grow next to them. All had very different styles but in common this capacity to trust you. A trust you do not want to disappoint.
It is also true that we cannot on one hand « bad mouth » the project and on the other ask team members to go out of their ways to deliver an excellent product in due time. It seems evident, and nevertheless … This commitment to the project can begin with quite simple things such as the signature at the bottom of your emails which will indicate clearly your belonging to the project, the message on your answering machine ( » here Pierre, leader of the project X within the division Y of Z « ), the positive comments at the coffee machine, the well prepared elevator speech that will not miss to praise the project in response to the classic question about your job …
There is also a notion of authenticity in leaders: to be conscious of your style, your personality is very important.
I explain. Are you rather directive, consensual, paternalistic, action oriented? In my personal case, I am very action oriented and I have a rather participative / cooperative style. When I involuntarily fell over under the pressure towards a more directive and cutting style, it was a fiasco. Even more badly perceived that I did not feel at ease in this operating mode and that this change was thus very badly lived: a lack of authenticity. On the other side, I had the opportunity to work with some very directive bosses. And it was not really raising issues for the team because they knew very well what to expect upfront.
Globalize your approach.
I work since ever it seems to me in an international environment. The teams are geographically distributed, the customers also. We use English as common working language with naturally quite important disparities in the level of practice of the language. We come from different cultures: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Indian, Cairo, Japanese … When we evolve in such an environment, it is necessary to think global and to take into account the local differences which can lead to very different results for a same activity.
For example, during my first professional visit to Japan, I have very stupidly (but I learned it only later) tried to conduct with my Japanese colleagues the same session of brainstorming as realized with a lot of success in Europe and in North America. Complete disaster! After a course upon my return about the Japanese culture, I was able to appreciate not only my error but also the very uncomfortable situation in which I had involuntarily placed my colleagues (my apologies again, Hiroshi-San). I had happily asked at a common session and without preparation to persons of very different hierarchical levels to exchange openly on their ideas. I went against their very mode of operation as teams where they try to understand/test in small touches the positions of each other before softly pushing ideas. Nothing is innate in this domain of intercultural work and nothing is ever acquired. It is necessary to constantly keep it in mind.
I had on the last point, « to lead by example », animated discussions with some project managers. I shall let you be your own judges. Personally, I sincerely think that the leader project manager has to lead by example.
I push the ball a little further in workshops in front of professionals by saying: first arrived, last to leave, always open and happy, hard at work, positive … Naturally, it is not only the number of hours which count, but it is also what we put inside: the intensity. Nevertheless, all the great leaders whom I worked with in the field of project management are hard at work and volunteer. They are open and approachable. They have faith in the future.
5. Show respect
- Learn to listen
- Honesty and fairness
- Provide opportunities to team members
- Recognize own limits and ask advice from experts
The respect begins in my opinion by listening.
I know project managers who speak all the time. It is very true that communication is a major part of our job and it is also true that communication is bidirectional. It is necessary to stop speaking from time to time to be able to listen to others, to verify that the message was received and understood. To remain silent is not enough: the project managers not only has to listen to but also look for the dialogue, arouse comments, look for the criticisms and value the ideas of his interlocutors. Numerous leaders succeed in strengthening their efficiency by their capacity to listen and to ask the right questions. It may even be their key strength.
To receive true and sincere comments, it is necessary to establish a relation of proximity (and of trust)…
…with his team and customers, particularly in the case of geographically distributed teams. The « open door » attitude and the management by « wandering around » are particularly effective. Cooperative tools can reproduce at distance a certain level openness and even create proximity: instant messaging, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs …
On the other hand, to monopolize the successes of others cannot be a proof of leadership and will not lead the project manager very far. On the contrary, to recognize the contributions of each and advertise it is very welcome. Additionally, it is necessary to facilitate the development of the people entrusted to us for the duration of a project by giving them tasks which challenge their abilities. These will always benefit to the company in due time, on this project or following ones. Additionally, to help to build their reputation will facilitate at the end of project their transition to their next challenge.
Finally, we cannot be expert in all trades and should not even attempt to become. To know how to attract good skilled people is the strength of all leaders and the project managers in particular.
6. Dare to persevere even in adversity
- We cannot always please everybody
- Understand the position of opponents and partners
- Remain constructive
- Keep up
Project manager’s role sometimes appears thankless.
In particular to those whose engine is the recognition and the appreciation of others. Indeed, to produce in due time quality deliverables and under constrained costs requires decisions not always appreciated by all. The technician of the team may have difficulty in accepting that we do not use the latest version of the database engine. The customer will be tempted to add requirements along the way without taking the time to fully specify them and expecting no impact on costs and timing. The sponsor can at the same time reduce the budget, refuse any compromise on the launch date and reject risk-taking or perimeter reductions. So many examples lived by many of us and this almost daily. Thus, there will inevitably be compromises to find and not everybody will see his dreams become reality.
One of my first managers when I started as software developer used to tell our customers: » it is simple, we have 3 parameters: time, contents and costs. Pick 2 and leave me free on the third one ». A little bit extreme, but there is a lot of truth in this very simple and direct message. We cannot always win on all boards. It is important for the project manager to understand indeed on which axis he can eventually expect some flexibility.
What motivates your stakeholders to support you and your project?
An English consultant with whom I worked for several years had a very sharp sense of politics in his most interesting meaning for us as project managers. He always asked the question (and often out at loud so that I could benefit from his experience): « What could Mr or Mrs X gain in helping us to make this project a success? ». This voluntarily positive attitude in the search of how to sell the project to such or such person was very useful in the numerous countries and organizations we worked with. The corollary « what could Mr or Mrs. X be afraid of or have to lose because of the project « is also interesting to work on your selling arguments. (Thank you for your numerous advices Ralph)
Remaining constructive at all times.
A project is rarely a long and quiet river. Hurdles will be numerous and the tough passages also. When things are going well, it is easy to be positive and constructive. But it is when they harden and do not go as we wish that it is most important for the leader to keep in mind that his attitude is observed and is essential for the members of the team. He cannot give up, or let go some pessimistic comments … It is his constructive strength that will step by step, stone after stone, help the project team to progress towards satisfactory if not ideal solutions.
Finally, the road is long towards the success of the project. As for a marathon, it is necessary to get ready for the inevitable difficulties, not to run out of juice by throwing all our strengths in the beginning of race, to find the good rhythm and to keep it up until the final straight line where it will again be necessary to accelerate if we have some strength left. It is necessary to run the full distance!
7. Know how to change and quickly adapt
- Keep listening to the environment
- Think off the beaten track
- Look for the differences
- Learn from others
- Accept unavoidable changes
The concentration, necessary for the project manager to drive his project and reach the objectives, needs not to isolate him and prevent him from listening. In particular, it is necessary to remain informed of what is happening outside our ecosystem: project, company, customers, partners, team members …
Some events external to the project can have important impacts on this one.
The recent « sub primes » crisis can be an example. The vote of a new law, the emerging of a new technology, a new competitor unheard of before, the arrival of new shareholders, changes in the executive management… the list is endless.
Additionally, it is necessary to constantly look for novelty and as often as possible outside our usual perimeter.
I advise you for example to follow on-line broadcasts of video recordings from TED, these events share some of the best ideas on the planet (Http://blog.ted.com/).
It is not rare that a presentation on a subject that is totally foreign to me, allows me to establish a parallel with a situation which I meet or met. And, to find new ideas for solutions and new approaches which I would not have thought of. In the same vein, if you keep recruiting clones of your own person (similar environment, nationality, experience, school or culture), you are not likely to obtain many different perspectives. Thus, looking for difference, remaining curious of everything rather than specializing excessively, are good tracks to increase your project management leadership.
Finally, one of the leaders of a big multinational for which I worked said: « If you see that something is inevitable, don’t fight it. Lead It! ». There are situations where perseverance, one of very qualities for which you were recruited, can play against you and your project.