Why does project leadership matter so much?

Why does project leadership matter so much?  We discuss core principles and barriers to becoming an effective Project Manager….

Power Generation Expert

By Bill Ray and Craig Nicholson

Project leadership matters

I recall working for an engineering firm that was losing money on large projects. We performed a study looking at tendering, execution and product failure. It was clear, the company was losing a significant amount of money in execution due to poor project management. In fact, the problem was severe enough to threaten its future. Something needed to change, but it didn’t change quickly enough.

Nuts and bolts best practices – Don’t go far enough.

There are known best practices in project management, such as commercial handovers to operations, review of lessons learned from prior projects, defining clear goals and performance expectations, accurate project schedule and budget tracking. These are an integral part of any successful project. But they do not necessarily guarantee success. In fact, they don’t go far enough. None of these focus on leadership.

The human factor

For every member of a project team, starting with the project leader down, the ability to perform effectively begins with our own behavior. While leadership may be interpreted as finding and correcting the flaws in others, it should really begin with a hard look at your own strengths, tendencies and shortcomings. The finger points outwards. In reality the finger should always be pointing within. That’s how we truly influence by changing ourselves.

“If we want to influence those around us, it starts with change from within.

Talking the talk is easy, walking the talk is not for the weak hearted

Simply put, acting with integrity builds trust. Furthermore trust is the foundation for great teams. Nonetheless acting with integrity requires both discipline and courage. Let’s say we incorrectly communicate completion of a deliverable to a team who, in turn, relies on that information for the performance of their work. We are eroding trust with our constituents. Moreover, such behavior can sound the death knell for leadership on a project.

Discipline is required to walk the talk. Do what you say you are going to do and set the tone for others to follow, this is the true power of leadership. It’s not as easy as we think and involves prioritizing what’s important, striving to achieve with full vigor while subordinating less critical tasks.

Courage is required, as likely, we have to defer or postpone other tasks and resist some of the most prolific productivity killers in our work environment; emails, instant messaging and meetings to focus on achieving our commitments. In the short run, such behaviour will likely be unpopular and may result in conflict, which we naturally try to avoid; however, we are not playing the short game of gratifying or pleasing others, including our peers and bosses, we are focussed on specific goals to drive success with predetermined outcomes. We are leading, not following.

Leading from a principled base is difficult, and that’s not because your unprincipled.

If every decision we make is from a principled base, making key decisions from the standpoint of fairness, honesty, openness and accountability, we exhibit behaviours and traits that are consistent, transparent and reliable. This gives our teams the necessary foundation to build cohesiveness that affords itself a greater chance of a successful outcome.

Principled decisions are not easy when they incur conflict with management, customers, important team members or may be to the detriment of ourselves. More importantly, we have to take responsibility, and live with the consequences, of our lack of action in the face indiscretions by others. True leaders do not turn a blind eye.

Being tough on the problem not the people

Speaking out or critiquing a superior or key team members can be challenging and put you at risk for further cooperation. The key is balancing courage with consideration. Do we see the situation through the lens of that individual or purely from our standpoint? Do we fully understand what is driving such behaviours? Consideration for the other person’s viewpoint starts with empathetic listening and understanding. Though this may expose us to the risk of opening up, such insights will help us be more in tune with the needs of the individual, while still allowing us to be tough on the problem. Perhaps we can face the problem together, rather than that person becoming the problem.

Practice, fail and get up again

Rarely do projects or companies fail because of process, they fail because of the messy business of people. Implementing such philosophies takes practice and may result in short term pain or failure. That said, if we have the strength, discipline and courage to persevere, there will be greater success than failure because we are truly leading. When we do fail, we still have our integrity and the ability to learn. To quote John Paul Jones the founding father of the US Navy ‘It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win’
Leading is risky business. Easy on paper, inexorably hard to implement and extremely effective for those who do.

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