Operational Excellence

Project Management - Are You Creatively Leading or Managing?

by Brad Egeland, April 28, 2014

Project leadership and project management. Project leader and project manager. Do these terms generally invoke the same thoughts or concepts when you think of them? On the surface, I think most of us would say yes. Both mean you're in charge of the project. You manage a team and a client and a series of tasks needed to complete a project and turn over some end solution to your project client. Isn't that what project leadership and project management is all about?

Well, yes and no. I maintain that what I just described is really project management. I really simplified it in those few statements. There is no question that it is really much more complex than that. It's all of what I just mentioned PLUS many best practices and adhering to policies and processes and methodologies and trying to make a lot of people happy all at the same time. Project management is following the processes and managing the resources in an effort to bring home a successful project. On some projects you can just sort of go through the motions and find success on the engagement. If you're trying to manage five or six projects at once, you might actually go crazy if you don't sort out those two or three projects that are 'easier' and rely more on the PM processes to help you do the work and focus your next leadership skills on those two other projects that may be experiencing issues, or have some team conflict, or have difficult clients.

Project leadership? True leadership taken literally? It's actually considerably more than that. True leadership of the project requires some other skills - depending on the project, needs of the client, issues you are experiencing, and challenges you may be experiencing with members of your project team. What are these? Let's consider...

Managing team members through conflict. This one is no fun, but does require a leader, not just a manager. Be ready to acknowledge when there is head-butting going on, know how to sit team members down and talk through issues, and know when tough actions need to be taken, like taking disciplinary action, going to the resources' senior management, or replacing a resource altogether. Leadership is about knowing when to do these things and then following through on them.

Keeping a straying client engaged. I know, I know. A disengaged client sounds like a luxury. They are out of your way. But the bottom line is you really need them and you don't want them disappearing on you. Not only do the serve a great purpose of questioning you from time to time and keeping you and your project team accountable to a client authority. But you also want them available when tough - and quick key decisions need to be made to keep the project heading in the right direction. You can't always nail every requirement, but when you need fast clarification on a client requirement or business process so you know what you need to know to make some on-the-spot technology decision, it's important that you have easy access to them. How do you ensure this? By keeping them engaged. And how do you do that? Keeping them assigned to tasks they are accountable to - no matter how small - and always stay true to a regular meeting and status reporting schedule. You stay consistent and it is more likely that those you need access to will stay consistent as well.

Running through issues to go-live. Oftentimes we find ourselves pushing through some tough times near the end of a project just to get it accepted by the client and live and ready to function as an end solution...whatever that may be. Sometimes this point of the project is what separates the managers from the real leaders. This is where some PMs find themselves being yanked off the project and replaced by another leader to get resolution and get the project signed off and completed. This has been the case for me twice...thankfully I was the one being brought in to resolve and not the one being pulled for failure to resolve. It can take some quick action, fast decision making, and wise budget management to bring this all together at the end. Leadership.

Keeping senior management informed and engaged. Finally, keeping your executive team engaged on those high profile projects that you manage from time to time. You want them available to knock down barriers, get the right expert on the team if something comes up, or maybe to add some funding to the project if some requirements change but you need to keep that client happy. There can be many scenarios to this one, but the key is it takes a leader to be connected and to finesse these individuals if necessary.


90% of the time it's fine to consider project manager and project leader the same. And they really are. But I consider that sometimes leadership is its own entity and isn't really well covered in the general concept of what a project manager is or needs to be. And my list is far from complete. Please feel free to share your thoughts...or even disagree.


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