Successful projects are usually the result of strong leadership. The question arises as to what is considered, or what does it take, to be a strong project leader. Especially in today’s world of project teams made up of people from cultures around the world. This paper will examine the many different aspects, interpersonal skills and qualities of what it takes to be the leader of a successful project in the IT world.
Project Managers (PM) are very unique people. The expectation is that they bring their projects to a successful conclusion with hopefully just enough resources, money, and time. The expectation levels are pretty high and the pressure can be extreme. They’re asked to take a huge unknown and make it all work together to produce a known. They are the boss of no one; yet are expected to get people to do what needs to be done and are held responsible if they don’t succeed. They have to bring together a group of people who have likely never worked together before and make it so they are a finely tuned engine with all cylinders firing in unison. Depending on the size and nature of the project, that could be a lot to ask of any one individual. It would take a special kind of leader.
Leadership is no longer limited to one or two executives at the top of an organization. There are many different levels of leadership in any company, especially in today’s global economy where resources specialize in a given area of business. Everyone in the company must be a leader if the organization is to survive and thrive (Tichy & Cohen, 1997). Without good leadership, nothing works. Projects have been known to get totally out of control because there was no one leading the group. And even if there is a leader, if they’re weak, the project team will run all over that person.
Leaders are not born leaders; leadership is a discernible set of skills and abilities. Granted, some people are better at managing than others, thus seeming to so many to have been born a leader. But like everyone else, they learned and practiced to become skillful at leading.
Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. Not all of us can or want to be leaders. Sometimes the relation
ship is one-to-one; sometimes it is one-to-many. Regardless of the number, leadership is a relationship between leaders and followers.
But amongst all of the traits a leader needs there is one that has to be earned and it is the one most admired; personal credibility. Without personal credibility there is no foundation of leadership. Personal credibility brings with it trust; we want to believe in our leaders, have faith and confidence that they believe in the direction we are all going. The team has to believe that the PM has the end goal in mind.
PM’s need to have a combination of the above mentioned skills and abilities in order to be good leaders. First amongst these skills are people skills. Next is, depending on the project, technical skills. Technical skills really depend on the project. If it is IT or other highly complex project then technical skills helps in bridging the trust factors of the team (Verzuh, 2012). If the team doesn’t have faith in your technical skills, or at least your ability to understand what they’re doing, they begin to believe you cannot lead them to the end goal of the project.
Other interpersonal skills include leadership, team building, motivation, communication, influencing, decision making, political and cultural awareness, negotiation, trust building, conflict management, and coaching (PMBOK, 2013).
PM’s have to be able to think quickly on their feet when making decisions, sometimes by themselves, but more often with the project team as a whole. They get much of this ability to think quickly from the knowledge and experience they have gained from many years of practicing their trade. Without the education that experience brings us we would not be able to be leaders in this new world.
There are five success factors every project has to meet in order to be successful: Agreement amongst the team as to the goals of the project; a plan with a clear path to completion along with clearly defined responsibilities that can be used to determine progress in the project; continuous effective communications understood by all involved; controlling scope; and management support (Verzuh, 2012).
Getting everyone involved in the project to come together on all five factors is the PM’s job. This paper will discuss the various interpersonal skills needed to successfully bring these factors together and how they apply to the art of Project Management.
There is no doubt that the best PM’s are also exceptional leaders. They inspire, they bring people together by giving them the vision of what’s down the road, people trust them, and they achieve countless things. To successfully lead a project to completion requires a strong leader with people skills in leadership, teamwork and team behaviors, decision making, problem solving, and conflict resolution. Without these interpersonal skills the project will lack strong leadership and direction which could cost the organization tremendously.
There are three skills, broadly speaking, that good leaders should have:
1. Technical skills because the team will trust and believe in you if you can participate one-on-one with them in finding a solution; or at least can talk the talk and walk the walk. In the IT world it’s knowing programming, it’s knowing how the pieces of the system fit together in order to make it work. The team wants to know that if need be, you can make it work on your own.
2. Human skill knows how to work with people. It’s very different from technical skill which has to do with working with things. These skills allow a leader to work with people to help them achieve their goals which helps the project achieve its goals. People skills allows a leader to work with groups of people, especially useful in project management since the object is to get a group of people to work as one towards a common goal.
3. Conceptual skills involves possessing the intelligence trait as it deals with the ability to work with ideas and concepts. It is central to creating the vision and plans for the project and conveying those thoughts effectively to the team and stakeholders.
Good leaders need to possess a certain traits like intelligence; basically the ability to express ones-self verbally, perceptually and with sound reasoning brings people to trust in your ability to lead. They need to be self-confident. Self-confidence is the ability to be certain about ones skills and competencies. This includes self-esteem. But a good leader is not arrogant. Influencing others is part of being leader and having the self-confidence to influence allows the leader to feel that their attempts to influence are correct and good for the project. Integrity is highly important because it is the quality trait of honesty and trustworthiness. Leaders who adhere to a strong set of principles taking responsibility for their actions exhibit integrity. Sociability is the trait of seeking positive pleasant social encounters. Good leaders like to talk with people, especially in intelligent stimulating conversations. They are polite, sensitive to others needs, outgoing, tactful and diplomatic (Northouse, 2004).
Leadership involves concentrating the efforts of a group of individuals and moving them toward a collective goal, empowering them to work as a team. Leadership is the talent to get things done through others. It’s very much like herding a bunch of cats. Respect and trust are keys of actual leadership. Fear and compliance only lock the door to future cooperation. Although important in every project phase, good leadership is critically important during the initiation and planning phases of a project. This is the time to bring the team on board by telling them the importance of the goal, using that vision to motivate and inspire a group of individuals to come together formulating a team to achieve success. Good leaders always have the end in mind.
All through a project, the PM has to establish and reinforce the vision and strategy by continuously communicating the message. This communicating helps to build trust; build team; influence, mentor, and monitor project and team performance. After all, it is people, not plans that complete projects. The PM, by inspiring others to find their voice, keeps the goals and objectives front and center. A successful project is a result of everyone agreeing on what needs to be done and then doing it. From initiation to closing, the project depends on the willingness of all involved to come to agreement, to synchronize action, to solve problems, and to react to changes. Communication amongst everyone is all that is required (Verzuh, 2012).
Team building is the process of helping a group of individuals to work together as a cohesive unit, to work with their leader, to work with external stakeholders, and the organization. In the end, good leadership with good team building makes teamwork. PM’s have to remember that running a project is not a one-person effort; it takes a team to complete a project.
Team building really does require all the interpersonal skills a PM can muster, as well as the five success factors for a project. To know and like a PM is to trust them. It’s not likely the team will trust their leader if they don’t really like him, they can’t really like him if they don’t know him, and in the end they won’t trust him if they don’t like or know him.
A project team is a group of people with complementary but diverse skills and experiences who are asked to work together to accomplish the goals and objectives of the project. The purpose of the team is to develop and execute a work plan that will meet the goals and objectives of the project. Everyone on the team needs to be committed and dedicated to the same thing: meeting the goals of the project. Although the goals may be same, how the team elects to execute the work plan is variable.
Team-building activities consist of a series of tasks that establish the goals of the project, clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each team member, and establish the procedures and processes the team will work under.
Some of these processes include how the team will communicate, how it will interact with each other in meetings; the PM needs to lead the team to agreement on establishing the rules for conflict management. Establishing these rules allows the developing of an environment in which the team can work. Part of developing a team environment involves handling project team problems and determining how these issues will be discussed. The PM puts these processes together with their team because the PM knows that the team needs to take ownership and have buy-in for it to work.
Team building helps build commitment from your team. They have to choose to become a member of the team. The PM cannot make them commit, the individual has to decide. The PM, as a leader, has to figure out what is the best way to get that true commitment from you. He has to figure out how to empower you to decide to commit to the project, its goals and its objectives. Some people prefer committing to a team rather than as an individual; it makes it easier for individuals to join. Some people just have trouble committing to a decision except when in a group. Some call this group think where one individual does all the talking and everyone else just follows along. The talker is given a false sense of empowerment believing they have control. The wise leader will learn what it takes to motivate this individual and what it will take to bring the best out in the rest of the team.
Team building involves bringing out the best in each member. Some members can be timid allowing other members to make the decision and they’re along for the ride. The problem here is that there are a select few who are actually running the team rather than having involvement from all. If all are not participating it makes it tough to get strong commitment for all because decisions are being made that some might find objectionable. But because the team leader didn’t allow the opportunity for them to speak up, they go along half-heartedly accepting the direction the project is taking even though they might know a better course of action.
Changes are inevitable in a project, and the PM has to manage them effectively with a continual team-building efforts. The PM should continually monitor team functionality and performance to determine if any actions are needed to prevent or correct various team problems. With team building, as the PM develops the team, team performance should increase.
One model of team building involves five distinctly different stages of maturation in the team (Tuckman, 1965):
1. Forming: This is when the team is getting to know each other. They’re interested in who each member of the team is and what they bring to the table. Questions like what do they know and will they be able to help me if I have a problem. Teammates also want to know that the other teammates will carry their weight.
2. Storming is where the team begins to dig into the project goals and objectives. They begin to define and divide the tasks needed to be done and who will be responsible for completing those tasks as well as when. Technical decisions are made during this period. Gaining an understanding of the project processes also occurs. Cooperation can become counterproductive if the team does not collaborate well.
3. Norming is the beginning of cooperation amongst the members of the team. They begin to trust one another, especially each others abilities.
4. Performing is when the team begins to work as a well-oiled machine. Trust is attained and production increases. Conflict is minimal but productive as they work through issues easily.
5. Adjourning brings the project to a close. The final product is approved for production and the team moves on to the next project.
Team building can be additionally enriched by gaining top management support; encouraging team member commitment to the goals and objectives of the project; introducing appropriate rewards, recognition, and ethics; creating a team identity; managing conflicts effectively; promoting trust and open communication among team members; and providing leadership. While team building is essential during the front end of a project, it is an ongoing process. Changes in a project environment are inevitable. Maintaining ownership and buy-in form the team will be difficult. To manage these changes effectively, a continued or renewed team-building effort is required. Outcomes of team building include mutual trust, high quality of information exchange, better decision making, and effective project management.
Three Spaces of Projects
As discussed above, part of team building involves creating the right environment in which to work. The dynamics of a project have been said to operate at three different spaces of project management. Space refers to an abstract boundary of human relationships.
First, people interact within the systems occurring in an expansive organizational space. This is the space that is defined by the organization that all members of the organization have to abide by. These include where in the building a team member’s desk is located; dress codes; hours of operation; company vision and goals.
Next, people interact with each other within a smaller space known as a team space. Because each project is different, organizations allow them to set up their own rules and processes so long as they fit within the organization space. The team space is defined by the team. This is where the team defines how members will interact with each other. Rules are defined as to how communications will be handles, how members will conduct themselves in meetings, how status reports will be delivered.
The last space is made up of each team member’s personal space where the individual team member’s interactive thinking occurs and human factors are formed. This is the individual team member’s space to do with as they choose. They make up the rules and decide the direction they will go. From this space team members choose how they will interact with others on a day-to-day basis; even from one issue to another. Much of how we react is determined by how and where we were raised, what cultural beliefs values are, and our individual personalities. This is the space that the PM must learn as much as they can about the individual team member in order to effectively manage them. From this space the PM can learn what it takes to motivate the team member thus allowing the manager to better direct them so that it meets that motivational factor (Wong, 2007)
Project team members come from diverse backgrounds. Each has their own expectations, and individual objectives that they want to meet. The overall success of the project depends upon the project team’s commitment. This commitment is directly related to their level of motivation. Motivating your team in a project involves creating an environment to enable your team to meet project objectives while also enabling them to meet their objectives and what they value most. These values will likely include job satisfaction, challenging work, a sense of accomplishment, achievement and growth, perhaps even money.
The PM has to determine how best to meet the need of each team member by learning what does motivate each of them. One way to do this is by listening every day to how they respond to different interactions. Meeting with each team member individually will be time consuming in the beginning, but will prove to beneficial later in the project when you get to crunch time. By learning early on what it takes to motivate that team member the leader will be able to know how to ask them to step up to the plate when it becomes necessary (Spreitzer & Quinn, 2001).
One motivation tool to use is letting your team do their own communicating with stakeholders, so long as they can do so reliably. What this does is to build confidence in the team member that you as the leader believe in their ability to do their job. If the PM is constantly hovering over the team member, especially in meetings with business Subject Matter Experts (SME), interrupting and over explaining, it brings a level of distrust in to the relationship. The PM has to allow for the team member to rise or fall on their own. Setting the expectation that the team member has to work with the SME’s raising the level of confidence in the team member. More importantly; it takes a load of work off of the PM by letting the team do their jobs.
Today, business is changing faster than ever, and most of those changes are being implemented through projects that require even stronger project management. However, just using sound project management methods does not ensure success, as many a PM has learned. Many PM’s have learned that while their project is a technical success; everything works as the business requirements document, the functional requirements documents, and the technical drawings stated; but the project is deemed a failure because it didn’t meet the business objectives of the company (Campbell, 2009).
The biggest reason a project fails was because communication, identified as one of the single biggest reasons for project success or failure, failed. Real communication is essential not only within the project team, but between the PM, team members, and all external stakeholders. Open communication is the opening to building team, creating teamwork and getting high performance from team members as well as your stakeholders. Communications helps build relationships among project team members which helps to create mutual trust. Building trustful relationships helps to move the project along enabling it to meet the goals and objectives all have agreed to. The PM needs to be aware of the communication styles of all involved in the project; He needs to know the cultural nuances/ norms, relationships, personalities, and the overall context of the situation in order to communicate effectively. Awareness of these factors leads to mutual understanding and thus to effective communication. Identifying various channels of communications helps the PM to better understand what information they need to provide, what information they need to receive, and the interpersonal skills that will help them communicate successfully with various project stakeholders.
Stakeholder satisfaction can be met through a clearly defined project scope. In the scope the object and the goals of the project need to be clearly defined to meet the expectations of the business and the stakeholders. Ultimately they are the ones who approve the scope of the project. The PM needs to ensure that the scope defines how the object of the project will be met. He needs to ask and get answered the question of what is the purpose of the project: What need or problem is the project supposed to fulfil or solve? What business outcome is the end result?
The definition of the scope is the first means by which the team begins to make the connection between the stated business goal and the means by which to achieve that goal. One of the tools that incorporate the scope is the project plan, including the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). In the WBS the project team defines the work needed to achieve the business goal. It breaks the work down into manageable work packages, sometimes referred to as activities. The duration of time it takes to perform these work packages is estimated which ultimately helps to formulate our budget. The stakeholders will have to review and approve the WBS, the budget, and the schedule that gets produced. All this activity brings a greater understanding of the strategic business goal of the project.
With the Communication plan the project determines what types of communication would be required including status reports, Business Requirements documents, Functional Requirement documents, Project Plan, Project Schedule, Financial Communications, and as you can see, the forms and types of communication are many (Westland, 2006).
Many of these types of communication were determined by utilizing other documents such as the Stakeholder Register, the Charter and Scope, as well as the project management plan.
Projects can develop what is commonly known as a Project Management Plan (PMP). The PMP helps put all the relevant structure under one document; it helps us to define how we were going to communicate; manage certain events in the project such as change management, and risks: Verzuh points out that the Change Management Plan should be tailored to fit your specific function (Verzuh, 2009). And he’s right because it is not one size fits all in Project Management.
PM’s should carry out team building activities to help determine and understand team member styles of communication such as by email, phone, types of reports, texting; this allows managers to plan their communications with understanding towards relationships and cultural differences. Listening is always an important part of communication. Both active and passive listening techniques give the user awareness of problem areas, management strategies for conflict and negotiations, decision making, and problem resolution.
What happens if you ignore project communications? You do so at your own risk. As stated earlier, many projects fail due to poor communications. Poor communications could be the result of weak leadership. Not wanting to be the bearer of bad news you will hope the issue goes away. Of course it never does go away. The issue just becomes worse until when you finally decide you need to tell upper management, it’s too late to solve the issue except at tremendous cost of time and money. You, as the PM, look bad because it’s your job to raise these issues so that can be solved; obviously the earlier the better. Part of your job is to solve these problems. Being the bearer of bad news comes with the job. The PM cannot be afraid to raise the red flag when a management decision is the only way to resolve the issue.
One area of communication the PM should consider is with the key roles of members of the project. Would your Business Systems Analyst be able to connect with business stakeholders? Can the Tech Lead deal with outside vendors in communicating technical requirements? Good salespeople learn early on that they can land a sale if they bring in a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to talk with the customer. It’s not like the sales person, or PM, doesn’t have the technical know-how; it’s that the business stakeholder, or customer, will have a tendency to believe the SME over the PM or sales person. The PM has to realize that if what it takes is the SME talking with the stakeholder to get the issue resolved, so be it. True leadership never lets their ego get in the way.
Political and cultural awareness
Politics are inevitable in projects due to the variety of backgrounds, and expectations of the people involved with a project. Skillful use of politics and power helps the PM to bring the project to a successful end. Ignoring or avoiding project politics and incorrect use of power can mean trouble in managing projects. Because PM’s operate globally in many projects, and many projects operate with a mix of cultures they are expected to be to handle a multitude of different situations. By being appreciative and make the most of cultural differences, the PM is more likely to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and a highly performing atmosphere. Cultural differences are not just individual; they can be corporate in nature and may involve internal and external stakeholders. One way to manage cultural variety is getting to know the various team members and developing good communication plan goes a long way towards reaching that goal. Culture behavioral includes those behaviors and expectations that occur outside of geography, ethnicity, or language differences. Culture can either slow or increase the speed of working, decision-making process, and the urge to act without appropriate planning or permission. Conflict and stress can occur in some organizations as a result of these differences unless addressed appropriately (Kerzner, 2001).
Politics, handled effectively, can help smooth the road in a project. Depending on the level in the hierarchy your sponsor has can be the difference between moving forward with the tools and the authority needed or finding brick walls in front of you. Having a sponsor of equal footing within the hierarchy of the organization with other department managers makes bringing in the big gun easier if needed. Having upper management support certainly helps to remove a lot of political obstacles as it gives greater authority to the PM. If the CEO of the company is supporting your project everyone in the company knows it and will usually bend over backwards to ensure you get what you need to reach the project goal.
Negotiation is a strategy of consulting with various parties of shared interests with a view toward reaching an agreement. Negotiation is an important part of project management and if done well, increases the chances of project success. The following skills and behaviors are useful in negotiating successfully: Analyzing the situation, and differentiating wants and needs. By focusing on the interests and issues rather than on positions you stand a chance of concluding successful negotiations. Be realistic when negotiating: ask high and offer low. When conceding, make it sound like a really valuable concession, don’t just hand it to them. The negotiations should always be a win-win proposition (Katz, 2009).
Influencing is a method of distributing power by relying on your interpersonal skills to get others to move towards common goals. The PM should always lead by example, and follow through with commitments. Do what you promise to do, always. Clarify how decisions will be made in the project or when considering an issue or conflict. Use a flexible interpersonal style and adjust the style to the audience. Apply your power skillfully and cautiously. Think of long-term collaboration or effects on the project.
Decision Making Styles
There are four basic decision styles normally used by PM’s: command, consultation, consensus, and coin flip (random). There are four major factors that affect the decision style: time constraints, trust, quality, and acceptance. PM’s may make decisions individually, or they may involve the project team in the decision-making process. PM’s and project teams use a decision-making model or process such as the six-phase decision model (PMBOK, 2013):
• Problem Definition; Fully explore, clarify, and define the problem.
• Problem Solution Generation: Prolong the new idea-generating process by brainstorming multiple solutions and discouraging premature decisions.
• Ideas to Action: Define evaluation criteria, rate pros and cons of alternatives, select best solution.
• Solution Action Planning: Involve key participants to gain acceptance and commitment to making the solution work.
• Solution Evaluation Planning: Perform post-implementation analysis, evaluation, and lessons learned.
• Evaluation of the Outcome and Process: Evaluate how well the problem was solved or project goals were achieved (extension of previous phase).
The ability to build trust across the project team and other key stakeholders is a critical component in team leadership. Trust is connected to cooperation, information sharing, and problem resolution. Without trust it is near impossible to establish the positive relationships necessary between the various stakeholders engaged in the project. When trust is compromised, relationships deteriorate, people disengage, and collaboration becomes near impossible. Some actions PM’s can take to help build trust (Verzuh, 2012):
1. Engage in open and direct communications to resolve problems.
2. Keep all stakeholders informed, especially when fulfilling commitments is at risk.
3. Spend time directly engaged with the team asking non-assumptive questions to gain a better understanding of the situations affecting the team.
4. Be direct and explicit about what you need or expect.
5. Do not withhold information out of a fear of being wrong, be willing to share information admitting you may be wrong.
6. Be open to innovation and address any issues or concerns in an upfront manner.
7. Look beyond your own interests.
8. Demonstrate a true concern for others and avoid engaging in non-productive pursuits detrimental to the project or others.
Conflict is inevitable in a project environment. Incongruent requirements, competition for resources, breakdowns in communications, and many other factors could become sources of conflict. Within a project’s environment, conflict may yield dysfunctional outcomes. However, if actively managed, conflicts can actually help the team arrive at a better solution. The PM must be able to identify the causes for conflict and then actively manage the conflict thus minimizing potential negative impacts. The project team is then able to deliver better solutions and increase the probability of project success. PM’s have to develop the skills and experience necessary to effectively manage to the situation. Managing conflict in a projects involves building trust with all involved parties early in the project; being open and honest, and to seek a positive resolution to the situation causing the conflict. PM’s make every effort to establish a collaborative approach among the team members to achieve full resolution of the problems. When the collaborative approach isn’t working, the PM must then use other methods for handling the conflict; forcefulness, accommodation, avoidance, or compromise. Managing conflict is one of the biggest challenges a PM must deal with on a regular basis. It requires use of all the other interpersonal skills of a PM in order to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion (Kerzner, 2001).
Coaching helps propel the project team to higher levels of adeptness and performance. Coaching is about helping people realize their abilities through enablement and growth. It aids team members in enhancing their skills that could lead to project success. Coaching can take many forms and styles. In many instances, informal training is used to increase technical skills. Most companies expect that a minimal amount of coaching should be used since they think they’re buying the expertise already. Most coaching happens in one-on-one situations of the moment and the PM needs to know when to apply it.
The PM must reach deep into their experiences and training in order to effectively lead. PM’s are very unique people, but they’re not born leaders; they have to learn and experience it in order to practice it effectively. They’re expected to bring the project to a successful conclusion while meeting the needs of the business. They’re expected to bring the project to a successful conclusion on time and within budget. As stated earlier, the expectation levels are pretty high and the pressure can be extreme. It takes a special kind of leader to bring together an idea and make it all work together. PM’s are the boss of no one; yet are expected to get people to do what needs to be done and are held responsible if they don’t succeed. They have to bring together a group of people who have likely never worked together before and make it so they are a well-oiled machine working together. Depending on the size and nature of the project, that could be a lot to ask of any one individual. But by putting the right person with the right project one can expect that it will end successfully. That person needs to have experience in many different facets of people and technical know-how as well as a healthy amount of business acumen. Without these the PM as a leader will likely fail. With them, they can go far.
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