As any project leader will tell you, project management is a science that requires a strong grasp of standards, systems, processes, and methodologies.
It’s a science that a 2017 McKinsey report, The art of project leadership: Delivering the world’s largest projects, argues is, for the most part, well understood.
However, less attention is paid to the “blend of leadership, organisational skills, mindsets, attitudes, behaviours, and organisational culture that need to complement the science” – what the report calls the “art of project leadership”. A better understanding of how to get this art right will materially improve delivery of projects.
We talked to two industry leaders, Richard Williams, VP of Engineering at Plutora, and Jason Fischer, VP of Engineering at ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll, about why leadership is essential to successfully delivering quality projects.
Be the coach, not the star player
The McKinsey report states that “effective project teams have a unique and shared identity and create a culture of mutual trust and collaboration.” It’s up to project leaders to articulate purpose, role model behaviours, and nourish the desired culture.
Williams agrees. Without good leadership you lack direction, purpose and clarity, he says. “Good leadership is good for morale in that it provides a mechanism for motivation, a driving force behind the ‘why’ we need to do something. Without this, processes and standards tend to fall apart, and the work will be badly managed, steered and delivered.”
Project leadership is not just about managing tasks, it’s about effectively managing people. It’s the leader’s responsibility to get the most out of their team, says Elmo’s Fischer. Opportunities to achieve personal recognition play a secondary role to creating a cohesive and capable team.
“A leader needs to be able to set the direction or path that the team is to go on,” he says. “It’s not about telling them how you want it done but more to set the scene for what you are trying to achieve.”
Once that is done, he says, the next step is to empower the team to achieve the shared goal. “The leader’s role is to ensure the teams are supported in what they are trying to create, and they are all still walking down the same path and not going off on their own tangent,” he says. “Without setting the scene and then supporting the team, the project would be in danger of not completing or being subject to massive scope creep.”
Sometimes, a leader needs to take a hands-off approach. “Micro-management…shows lack of trust therefore showing that you don’t believe in your team,” says Williams. “Empowering the team and trusting those you hired to deliver is so important.”
Key skills for project management leadership
In ‘Essential leadership skills for project managers’, Victoria S. Kumar identified four key skills project leaders need to be successful. First among them is motivating and inspiring teams: developing and communicating a vision to the entire organisation and supporting the team to achieve it, maintaining the team’s enthusiasm and focus, and encouraging team members to strive to meet goals.
Giving employees a sense of autonomy can help boost a team’s performance, says Fischer. “Have them be part of defining the scope of what they are working on and how it will be done,” he advises. “Allow them flexibility to try new things. If there is scope for improvement in the product or process, let the team try new ways of working to improve their day to day lives.”
At Plutora, Williams helps keep teams engaged and productive by scheduling regular catch-ups and meetings between staff at different levels. Celebrating wins is also important, he says. “[We] focus on the positive things [and] reward as often as we can.”
Project leaders also require strong communication skills. “They need to be good listeners,” says Williams. “It’s important to empathise and understand the team. Great morale makes for great productivity.”
Project leadership requires a degree of bravery. It’s important to “make good judgement calls and not be afraid to make the hard shots,” says Williams. They should “be decisive and provide clear and consistent messaging.”
Maintaining quality under pressure
Automation will improve efficiency, while appropriate monitoring of risk and progress can help prevent small issues that arise during a project’s delivery become insurmountable obstacles. Even on the tightest of timelines, “you must stick to your guns” and implement gated quality checks, says Williams.
What constitutes quality needs to be a universally agreed-upon measure, says Fischer. “If the team believes in this as a rule then they will be the ones that will keep each other honest.”