This is How Project Managers Excel as Leaders

Teams climb higher when their managers empower them to contribute moreDo your Project Managers exhibit true leadership in directing and managing project work? Do they encourage project staff – indeed, provide opportunities for staff – to contribute to project success by taking on activities over and above their assigned tasks?

Think about a typical project team structure and the daily activities on a project. The Project Manager and her direct reports have their fingers on the pulse of everything that is happening on the project. They review the project schedule daily. They communicate with their client counterparts daily. They check in with their team leads daily.

However, the project staff at the bottom of the organization chart, who are performing the lion’s share of the project work, often receive little relevant information that would benefit them in their project tasks.

They are not typically consulted regarding their current timelines or completed tasks. They often learn of changes that affect their work via edict from high up in the hierarchy.

The justification for not involving project staff in project decisions is that the Project Manager and Team Leads would know if and when their teams need to be made aware of any changes. After all, it’s leadership’s job to weave their magic to keep the project momentum moving forward. Leadership needs to keep this additional churn away from the team members in order to keep them as productive as possible.

At least that’s the theory.

What is overlooked, however, is that the team members at the bottom of the org chart, the ones with their sleeves rolled up, know the effect of such changes to their work effort in the greatest detail. Yet they are told what they must do. They are kept in their silos with their blinders on, and are expected to maintain their personal tasks on schedule. As one young developer once told me, “They treat us like mushrooms. We’re kept in the dark and fed <fungi food>.”

Momentum is lost. Morale is undermined. Errors are introduced. Task deadlines are missed. Projects are delayed. Clients are unhappy. Profits are eroded.

You’ve heard it said, “employees are a company’s greatest asset”, but this is only true when employees are treated as such. When staff are treated as cogs, or silos, or “mushrooms”, they do not respond like valued assets. They become frustrated when they have no ability to influence the final product.

They have the detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the system design, but they are not asked to provide input.

How then can you get your greatest asset – your people – involved and contributing to the bottom line? How then do you avoid needless project delays and lost profits?

It boils down to this: projects will be successful when project staff are treated as though they matter. Your project teams are proficient in technology. Your Project Managers are PMI-certified and run projects according to proven processes. But, do your Project Managers and team leads place as much focus on the people aspects of project management?

When I am asked to consult with the project management staff of an ongoing IT project, I often conduct an initial Team Assessment. I interview project executives and staff from both the IT provider and end-user organizations. I observe the teams in status meetings, in requirements gathering workshops, in system design sessions, or in training preparation activities. Invariably, I discover opportunities for improvement in the people aspects of managing the project.

Following the Team Assessment, I conduct a Team Development program with the project leadership. We work together to instill this people focus into their daily activities with the project staff. As noted earlier, projects are more successful when project staff are treated as though they matter. The unstated benefit is that team members will put in the required extra time and effort when given additional opportunities to contribute beyond their normal day-to-day work.

However, we must not confuse people aspects with people skills. People skills are patterns of behavioral interactions. People aspects of project management go beyond mere people skills. They are lived out by Project Managers who take purposeful actions to raise the profiles of individual project team members. They accomplish this through focused involvement and training of project staff, and through specific attention to team members’ personal goals on the project and in their careers.

Take, for example, these vignettes from my own personal experience of involving project staff in activities over and above their normal work responsibilities:

  • a developer with a desire to improve his ability to speak in front of an audience was coached in speaking in public speaking and given opportunities to present. Today he speaks to large audiences of college students to help them navigate college and career.
  • an analyst wanted exposure to the senior project executive. She was made responsible for planning extracurricular activities for the project team, thereby reporting to the executive. Within a year, the Project Manager was so impressed with the organizational skills that he promoted her to deputy on one of the development teams.
  • a developer, for whom English was her second language, wanted to improve her writing skills. Under close supervision, she was given the task of writing the weekly status report. After several months, she was producing the 40-page report largely on her own and facilitated the status meeting with the client in absence of the Project Manager.
  • a new developer wanted to understand more about the end-user functionality that his programming supported. He toured the client’s business to study these activities for himself. During User Acceptance Test, he became the end-user testers’ go-to person for questions about issues with the new software.
  • an analyst wanted to become more proficient in the MS Office suite. She became the main creator of PowerPoint presentations for the team. Two years later she was managing the internal project management office.

These are just a few examples from a very long list. In each of these situations, staff felt involved. They took on the extra tasks voluntarily, as they saw new opportunities. They contributed beyond their day-to-day tasks for the overall good of the project.

They felt “in the know”, and were kept informed about what was going on across the teams. They learned new skills, opening avenues for faster promotions. There were fewer missed deadlines, fewer change requests, more accurate functionality, more satisfied end-users, and solid profitability.

Becoming proficient in the people aspects of project management is a learned skill. Project Managers need to be educated to create the environment where staff can feel free to take on tasks in addition to their normal assignments, and put in the extra effort while still adhering to the schedule.

Unfortunately, this is not an innate project management skill. Many IT organizations feel that they are already proficient in this area but, in my experience, they typically are not.

Even organizations that pride themselves in having project management staff with this skill are hit and miss, and do not realize where they are falling short. Providing opportunities for rank and file team members to contribute outside of their assigned silos is a boon to ongoing project success and the success of the workforce in general.


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