Why Project Managers Need Leadership Skills
Managing projects is one of the most challenging jobs in any organization, and it’s important that project managers are equipped to do well.
They literally have the success of the business in their hands: when projects are successful, businesses leap ahead. Where projects are slow to deliver, competitors outrank them and the business stagnates.
Leadership is what makes the difference. Good leadership is a blend of knowledge, skills and experience, as well as surrounding yourself with people who make the difference. No one is appointed a leader: leadership happens because people decide to follow. And nowhere is that more apparent than in a project setting, where the project manager often has no formal authority over the team members.
That’s why we believe leadership skills are so important for project managers – so much so that leadership development should be part of the plan for how you support your project delivery team.
Not convinced? Here are five reasons why project managers should develop their leadership skills, drawn from our years of experience working with PMOs and project teams.
1. Growing successful teams
Success as a leader is often determined by the success of the team. After all, it’s not the project manager doing all the work. That role is responsible for creating an environment in which people can carry out their tasks effectively.
A good leader will make sure the team avoids burnout through adequate resourcing, building the skills of their colleagues and ensuring project work is efficiently scheduled to align to availability as well as desired dates.
Turnover can be an issue for project teams as well. A lot of project and operational knowledge is built up in the team over time. When someone leaves, the team has a knowledge gap – and this often happens however much effort has been put into managing the transition. When someone leaves unexpectedly, perhaps through illness that results in them being out of the business for some time, no knowledge transfer happens at all.
While we can’t always predict when people will be out of the office or choosing to leave the team, we can make the project team an inspiring and positive place to work. Strong leaders are often the reason people stay in a role. Leadership reduces turnover and keeps morale high.
2. Faster delivery
Project managers who are not effective leaders struggle to deliver their projects on time. That’s not necessarily a reflection on their project management skills: the technical ‘book learning’ skills are only part of the job.
Leadership is also about influencing, negotiating and resolving conflict. It’s these softer skills that are actually hard to do. But done well, they can make the difference between an on time delivery and a project delay.
3. On-budget implementation
Interpersonal skills come into play for delivering to the agreed budget as well. If you are able to negotiate effectively for resources, operate within the social system of the organization and navigate the political waters, you can often find ways to deliver without blowing the budget.
3. Satisfied customers
Project leaders work closely with their customers. Customers can be internal or external, but each customer has their own expectations and interpretation of what a quality result looks like.
Project managers are expected to lead their teams to deliver the result the customer is looking for – and for that output to be at least of the expected quality, preferably a little bit better. It’s always nice to ‘wow’ someone with the result, although we advise against gold plating requirements!
However, complex projects often have many stakeholder groups, each of which consider themselves a ‘customer’. Meeting the needs of a diverse selection of stakeholders takes fine leadership and an emotionally intelligent approach.
5. Improved profitability
Leadership skills have a direct impact on the bottom line. When a project is delivered faster and is better quality, the implication is that profitability can improve. A product gets to market faster. The return on investment is greater than expected.
A project manager’s business acumen is part of their leadership toolkit. And knowing how to influence profitability by taking a ‘business first’ approach to leading their project, helps improve business performance. The best companies have leaders who make the right decisions for the organization, not just the team or individual who appears to be directly involved in the moment. Every decision is shaped by the organization’s core values.
Project managers, therefore, need to be able to champion the change, direct teams and influence the organization. Leadership skills help them do all of this.
As well as the organizational benefits to having strong leaders in project management roles, there are personal career benefits too.
People are promoted not just on their technical mastery of project management techniques but also on their ability to take on more complex and challenging projects. The larger and more complex the project, the more of a steady hand it will take in the leadership stakes. Companies aren’t prepared to entrust strategic initiatives to project managers who are ‘only’ technically competent. Career progression comes through being able to demonstrate interpersonal and leadership skills and show that they are capable of leading large teams. Leaders who rise to the challenge find even more doors opening for them.
Leadership development for project managers should be something routinely considered for the project managers in your organization. A 360 degree feedback exercise is a simple place to start. Gather feedback on the existing skills of the team and then prepare a training needs analysis to help bridge the gaps where necessary. It won’t take long for your best leaders to rise to the top.