Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 1

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects

When most people think of a leader, they tend to think of iconic figures from government, business, and sports…but, unfortunately, not Project Management (he says with tongue firmly in cheek). However, as the famous politician Tip O’Neill once said, “all politics is local,” implying that individuals really are only concerned with how laws and decisions impact themselves. And while most people do not interact on a daily basis with an elected official, a titan of industry, or a professional sports star, a lot of them likely do work with a Project Manager.

I’m sure you’ve witnessed the positive and negative impacts a Project Manager has made on the lives of individuals in the workplace (or at least you are familiar with this phenomenon from reading Dilbert). So the argument for strong Project Leadership is a simple one to make. That said, not all projects require a Project Leader. But I will presume that many of the beautiful and intelligent readers of this blog series either aspire to be Project Leaders or that you manage Project Managers who you want to step up to become Project leaders. Well, this blog is for you.

The difference between a Project Manager and a Project leader can be debated; I believe the differentiator can be summarized in one of two verbs. While a Project Manager pushes a team to deliver on scope, schedule, and budget, a Project leader inspires a team to produce their best and exceed expectations. While both Project Managers and Project Leaders will spend portions of the day playing task master and schedule monkey, the Project Manager resembles the cat herder: someone who is focused on “on-time, on-budget,” who attempts to foster teamwork, and despite getting scratched up, will get the job done with varying degrees of success most of the time. The Project Leader, on the other hand, will intentionally create a better process and experience, deliver better project results, and raise the satisfaction levels of the project team and stakeholders.

The challenge is that while most Project Managers want to perform like Project Leaders, they are not aware of the principles of Project Leadership nor do they know how to transform into a Project Leader.

Project Leadership Principles. These are the principles that I have found define and guide project leaders. I have experience with good and bad examples of each, and personally have both achieved and struggled with each from time to time. If a successful Project Manager wants to become a great Project Leader, these are the principles to embrace.

  1. Advocating a Vision
  2. Setting Expectations
  3. Building Trust
  4. Fostering Joint Accountability
  5. Giving Recognition
  6. Embracing Change

In this post, I will outline the first three principles of Project Leadership and provide examples of how these principles function in a Project Management context. In my next post, I’ll do the same for the second three principles. In the third and fourth posts in this series on Project Leadership, I will outline two approaches that good Project Managers should adopt in order to become great Project Leaders.

1. Advocating a Vision
In order to inspire others to follow them, a leader must present a credible and personally compelling reason to do so. Before we drink the Kool-Aid, we need to be compelled to set course for somewhere better than where we are at today. Especially when an obvious direction is unclear, providing clarity of goals that are persuasive to the individual and the team is an essential function of leadership.

There is also a clear difference between a manager and a leader. Managers tell you what to do because of their position, while leaders inspire you to do something by providing a vision.

A number of years ago, a colleague told me that “when everyone else on the project is freaking out about something, that is the time to go big picture and help focus everyone on that perspective.” By doing so, the Project Leader helps in two ways. First, the leader’s vision frames and provides relative prioritization of the issues. Second, it helps align the resolution of issues with the overall objectives of the project.

By the way, the converse is true as well: when no one is freaking out about the project, the Project Manager should be nervous and begin looking for the next thing to knock the project sideways. Be it Murphy’s Law, or because no one is paying attention, when everything is going smoothly you, as the leader, have the bandwidth to be performing Proactive Risk Management and searching the horizon for that rouge wave.

2. Setting Expectations
To enable each individual to successfully contribute toward the team goals, and for each to be held accountable fairly, a leader needs to provide clear and explicit expectations. Providing clear expectations also means the Project Leader should highlight the limits of expectations to ensure each individual collaborates well with other team members and does not attempt to take on too much by themselves. Rarely are there elements of a project where an individual is not dependent on the contribution of another person, and therefore accountability should have limitations to accommodate that sense of dependence and teamwork. Lastly, the Project Leader should make the individual aware of the resources available to support those expectations.

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of setting the expectation with his son that Covey the Younger is in charge of keeping the lawn green one summer. The boy agrees to the expectation but ultimately shirks his responsibility. Once the lawn turns brown, the elder Covey informs his son that all he had to do was ask for his father’s help. OK, great life lesson—as both father and son now retell that story in their respective books—but the end result was that the lawn for that summer was still brown. I would offer that the son still would have learned the lesson AND the lawn would have remained green if Pops Covey had told his son about the available resources at his disposal (e.g., dad and the hose) before the lawn went brown.

One the best ways I have found to uncover and identify expectations on projects is to create a Stakeholder Management matrix where the Project Manager will collect the expectations that each key stakeholder has for the other stakeholders. Once completed, the matrix should be reviewed with all the key stakeholders so they are aware of the expectations between them that might otherwise not have been communicated.

At the center of most conflicts there usually is either a difference in expectations or in perceptions of what has occurred. By ensuring expectations are appropriately set on projects, the leader can create a culture of accountability. This eliminates a lot of drama and inefficiencies caused by the behavior of individuals acting without accountability—e.g., finger-pointing and blamestorming—when things go wrong.

3. Building Trust
Trust is essential to healthy teamwork. It’s also the lifeblood of positive, mutually beneficial relationships that produce the level of efficiency and productivity achieved by great teams. Like leadership, a lot of us strive to improve our capabilities to deliver trust at higher levels. And also like leadership, trust can be one of those hard to define and articulate subjects.

The first step in mastering the mechanics of trust is identifying these mechanics. Fortunately the son in the above story, Stephen M.R. Covey, recovered from his brown lawn experience and wrote an amazing book called Speed of Trust that clearly and concisely defines the fundamentals of trust. He also identifies the behaviors that make or break trusting relationships. I recommend Speed of Trust more than any other book because trust is so important to everything we do as Project Managers and as Consultants, and because Covey the Younger has done such a masterful job articulating the mechanics of trust.

Covey identifies the four core principles of Trust as the following:

  1.  Intent—why you do what you do—an element of character;
  2.  Integrity—doing what you say you will do—an element of character;
  3.  Capabilities—are you able to do what you say you will—an element of competence; and,
  4.  Results—do you deliver the results you promise—an element of competence.

Covey suggests that the fastest way to build trust is to demonstrate competence, and the quickest way to lose trust is to commit a violation of character. As anyone who leads teams should know, be it as a Project Manager, the president of a company, or the captain of a sports team, people will only follow your lead as long as they trust your character and your competence. Trust is required to inspire people to stretch and achieve greater things than they thought possible.

In order to inspire acts of greatness, a leader needs to understand the interests of the individuals he/she wants to lead and then align objectives with those individual interests. Hopefully you’ve had the experience of having a boss or a coach who you would “run through a wall for”. If so, I guarantee it’s because you feel like they have your best interests at heart. But to understand individuals’ interests, a leader first needs to build trust to persuade them to reveal their interests. How does a leader do that? Covey says it comes down to four things: intent, integrity, capabilities, and results. Actually, I think it comes down to only one of them because either you possess and demonstrate the other three or you don’t.

Integrity, capabilities, and results: all three are externally visible to your team. You will demonstrate these or you will not. Only Intent is something they can’t see. So to expedite this I share my intent with clients, stakeholders, and team members as early in the project as I can. That act by itself will not build trust. However, over time as I’m able to demonstrate integrity, capabilities, and results, my stakeholders begin to connect the dots between my intent statement and my behavior and actions, and trust is accelerated from there.

Next Post
In the second post in the Project Leadership series, I will outline the remaining three Project Leadership Principles: Fostering Joint Accountability, Giving Recognition, and Embracing Change. I hope you can return to see how the story ends.

What do you think?
Even though we are only half way done, I would love to hear what you think about the principles of Project Leadership and whether you agree—or not—about its significance for successfully managing projects. Additionally, if you have any tips or tricks you want to share, please join the conversation and post a comment.

Slalom Consulting’s Seattle office Slalom Consulting's Project & Program Management focus
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About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

8 Responses to Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 1

  1. PM Hut says:

    Hi Roger,

    I would like to republish your above post on PM Hut under the leadership category. I think it will offer great insight on the topic to fellow project managers.

    Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

    • Roger Kastner says:

      Hi PM Hut,

      Thanks for the offer, I will contact you via email to make this happen. Looking forward to joining the esteemed ranks of authors on your site.


  2. Roger Kastner says:

    Came across a great video of a Steve Sinak talk on why Leaders should “start with why” (also the title of his book). Sinak suggests that leaders will start with why (Advocating a vision, stating intent), then explain the how, and the what, whereas the rest of us will usually start with the what, then the how, lastly providing the why. Simple difference, big results. Check it out.

  3. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 2 « The Slalom Blog

  4. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 3–Becoming a Project Leader vol 1 « The Slalom Blog

  5. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 4–Becoming a Project Leader vol 2 « The Slalom Blog

  6. Pingback: Leading While Naked Part 4: That’s a dumb question « The Slalom Blog

  7. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Transformation Initiatives Facing Healthcare Organizations « The Slalom Blog

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