10 Surefire Approaches to Leading a Project Team

The ability to lead a team is a Project Manager’s greatest assetI’ve always been a little disappointed in the Project Management Institute’s (PMI’s) discussion on the topic of “Manage Team” in the PMBOK® Guide. The topic of leadership gets a nod, described using a circular definition and an ambiguous reference to “multiple leadership theories.” (Project Management Institute, 2017, pp.344-351).

It all sounds so clinical, so pedestrian, so “follow this process and you’ll succeed”.

In this article, I go beyond the process of managing a project team and offer several practical approaches to leading a team to a successful outcome. Throughout this discussion you’ll note that each idea focuses on the people aspects of project management.

But what is management? What is leadership? How do the two interact in the process of “Manage Team”? It seems that both are necessary.

I like the simplicity of Harold Koontz’ definition of management: “… management is the art of getting things done through and with people in formally organized groups …” (Koontz, 1961, p.186). Juxtapose that with Kevin Kruse’s definition of leadership: leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” (Kruse, 2013), and you have a reasonable definition of the requirements to manage a project.

Whether you are a Manag-eader or a Lead-ager, a Project Manager must be both manager and leader to execute a project well. Traditionally, the manager focuses on process and systems, putting the necessary structures in place to control the tasks and activities to carry out the vision of the project. The leader creates the vision, and through a combination of influence and well-honed people skills, sees the vision through. Both management and leadership qualities are a must.

Here then are 10 approaches to managing/leading a project team to successful delivery:

  1. Communicate!
    A Project Manager communicates in person, whether in formal meetings or hallway banter; by email and text; over the phone and in teleconferences; in video conferences, and many other ways. No matter the medium, communication must be clear, transparent, accurate, and frequent.

    Team members and client staff alike want to know what is going on. Infrequent or inaccurate communication creates suspicion that results in the spreading of negative rumors. On most projects on which I served, the teams had quick daily stand-up meetings to keep abreast of project status and to set daily goals. On a bi-weekly schedule – sometimes more frequently – we had all-hands meetings to keep staff informed.

    Not only is it important for the Project Manager to convey vital information to his or her team, it is equally important to be open to receive feedback from team members. This two-way relationship builds trust, cooperation, confidence, and collaboration.

  2. Set the example.
    I once thought that setting the example meant that I needed to be the first in the office in the morning and last to leave in the evening. While that made me available to the staff at all times, it didn’t set the example I thought it would.

    However, there were other ways that I communicated my expectations to my team. These soon caught on and were emulated by the team members. I was never late to a meeting. I required that every meeting started on time, had an agenda, and the agenda followed. I modeled a strict work ethic on the job, but also took time to just relax over conversation and coffee with team members. In short, I endeavored to practice what I preached and to be my own best team member.

  3. Delegate; don’t micromanage.
    I shared in an earlier article that as a new team lead, I would often execute a task myself rather than delegate it. I felt that if the task were to be done correctly, it was easier for me to do it than to teach someone else. I soon found that I was staying late to complete these tasks, while my team left work at the regular time.

    When I did begin to delegate, I would look over their shoulders, again to make sure that the task was done correctly. Of course, my team members resented this.

    Now when I delegate, I get out of the way. I provide instructions at the beginning of the task and make myself available during execution of the task – but only if initiated by a team member. My teams grew in experience and became more productive.

    The key is to help team members be more effective as they become more independent. As their manager, it was my job to equip them with adequate training and tools; and as their leader, I needed to trust them to do the job they were delegated. After all, we build our project teams with competent staff; we must therefore trust them to perform without hovering over them.

  4. Be consistent.
    Have you ever seen parents apply reward or reprimand to their children in an inconsistent way from situation to situation? Or from one child to another? This confuses the children and can cause erratic behavior.

    This is similar to leading a team. A Project Manager’s approach to leading the team must be consistent in rewarding the same types of actions each time they occur, and disincentivizing the same types of behavior when they occur.

    It is not necessary to treat each person exactly the same for the same behaviors. Not every individual reacts the same way to reward or counsel. For example, I’ve had persons on my team who reacted well to monetary rewards, while others preferred time away from the project, or the ability to work from home on occasion. My objective was to reward individuals for the same types of behavior, but not necessarily with the same incentives.

  5. Explain why.
    One of the most frustrating aspects of project work was when I was assigned a task with no explanation of how it fit into the master plan. Without context I had no way of knowing if what I was doing was correct and that it advanced the project as planned. I vowed that when I became a project leader, I would never do that to my team members.

    When I left corporate IT and began consulting with client organizations that were planning major system implementations, I saw the benefits of explaining why in convincing fashion. As I prepared end-user staff to work with the IT provider with regard to tasks with which they had no relevant experience, I was always careful to explain why they were performing the particular task and why the task needed to be accomplished in a certain way. The end-users caught on quickly, and by the time an IT provider was selected to implement their system, they were well prepared to conduct their responsibilities on the project. When I took the time to paint the bigger picture, it made it easier for them to see how their contributions fit into the overall project goals.

  6. Be transparent.
    One of the best ways to develop a sense of mutual respect between a Project Manager and his or her team members is to always maintain complete transparency. True, there are issues that crop up that must be kept confidential; however, lying or withholding other information always results in a loss of respect for the Project Manager. Transparency shows a leader’s integrity, and lets the team become part of the solution when they are made aware of problems or challenges. The need to communicate and to be consistent as described earlier, contributes to a leader’s transparency. Being humble, owning up to mistakes, and showing one’s human side provide the transparency that allows team members to feel comfortable in approaching their leader and working alongside him or her.
  7. Build relationships.
    Productive teams are comprised of individuals who collaborate and get along with one another. Team members that enjoy working with each other have more motivation to show up on time and to work alongside their colleagues towards project goals.

    It is imperative that the leader develops a rapport with each member of his or her team. This strengthens teamwork, develops a trust connection, and puts a personal stamp on the working relationship.

    One of the best ways of building a relationship in developing the rapport is by spending time outside of work for team bonding activities. Mid-career I was privileged to lead a project in the state of Hawaii. Hawaii is known for “ohana”, or “family”. On many weekends you would find our entire team, along with our client’s team, at the beach or at local parks. Spouses and children were also there in the spirit of “ohana”. Those times of relaxation and play fostered strong working relationships and led to a very successful project.

  8. Reward accomplishments publicly; counsel in private.
    Whenever a team member accomplishes something over and above what is expected, or performs in a consistently stellar manner, he or she should be recognized for the accomplishment. The recognition should be shared publicly with the entire team. Whether solving a difficult programming problem, or initiating a major breakthrough with the client, or consistently beating task estimates, the Project Manager should be looking to catch individuals on his or her team doing something well.

    The actual reward itself need not be extravagant. For example, on one of my more recent projects, various team members were awarded paper stars during the all-hands meetings. Their exceptional accomplishments of the past week were handwritten on the stars. But here’s the catch – the stars were created and awarded by members of their own team. This “awards ceremony” became the highlight of the week.

    Though the reward need not be extravagant, it needs to be consistent in its meaning. Otherwise, it will lose its significance, especially if team members feel that the Project Manager is playing favorites.

    At the same time, if a team member is not a team player, or consistently falls behind in his or her tasks, or otherwise detracts from the overall project goals, it is up to the Project Manager to counsel the individual. In private. Not only will the individual maintain his or her dignity, but the Project Manager will have an opportunity to support him or her in correcting the failing. Feedback is essential, and each team member is owed an understanding of how they did or did not meet expectations.

  9. Enjoy the work.
    It is the responsibility of the Project Manager to help the team avoid burnout, to enjoy the journey. One of the ways to do so is to set boundaries regarding time spent in the office. For example, on the Hawaii project mentioned earlier, I set a hard rule of absolutely no work on the weekends. The team would put in the required effort during the week; however, weekend time was beach time and time to relax in the beautiful islands. I remembered being on project in different locations, and working so many hours that I never took adequate time to enjoyed the location. I was determined that would not happen for my team in a location as beautiful as the State of Hawaii.

    Making work enjoyable helps to develop camaraderie and loyalty among team members. An activity as simple as a surprise lunch outing, or taking a day off if ahead of schedule, or participating in meaningful teambuilding provides welcome breaks and helps prevent burnout.

  10. Manage conflict.
    Conflict among team members must not be ignored. Conflict breeds a negative atmosphere that negatively affects team productivity. A Project Manager who is aware of what his or her team is doing at all times, maintains clarity of roles and responsibilities, and adheres to an open door policy to deal with questions and problems as they arise, will have fewer conflicts to deal with. Managing and leading the team according to the approaches described above will also go a long way in preventing conflicts from developing.

    Leading a project team is one of the most rewarding careers that an IT professional can aspire to. Leading a project team to success is the ultimate satisfaction. These ten approaches to “Manage Team” have little to do with process or technology, and everything to do with the people aspects of project management.

Footnotes

Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition. Newton Square, PA: PMI Publications, 2017, Print.

Koontz, Harold. The Management Theory Jungle. 1961. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Academy of Management, 1961, accessed September 7, 2020, http://salamisquad.free.fr/bordeldivers/MEMOIRE/the%20management%20theory%20jungle.pdf

Kruse, Kevin. (2013, April). “What is Leadership?”, accessed September 7, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2013/04/09/what-is-leadership/#1d67530d5b90 

 


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