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Author  Michael Chachaty, Director, Certitude Australia

September 5, 2023 |

 8 min read

  • Blog

A lot of leadership training that takes place in organizations today covers largely generic topics like leadership principles. For project managers and program managers, however, it is more helpful to talk about leadership with regard to a project or program.

A lot of leadership training that takes place in organizations today covers largely generic topics like leadership principles. For project managers and program managers, however, it is more helpful to talk about leadership with regard to a project or program.

How, for example, do we deal with issues such as conflict, change, resilience and fatigue in a project environment?

When organizations invest in strengthening their project and program capabilities, most tend to look at it through the lens of the technical skills individuals need to properly plan for and deliver their projects. But whilst technical skills provide foundation, they alone aren’t enough. Organizations should also consider what people skills are needed to drive high performance within their project teams, to empower a clear vision and define a clear outcome for why a particular initiative exists.

And this focus on people skills becomes increasingly critical when project managers start to run bigger projects with larger teams, or when having to deal with personnel changes in longer running projects. Maintaining a clear focus on outcomes whilst understanding how to shape team behavior and motivation in such instances is vital.

Applying best practice

Many project managers work within a matrix organizational structure without direct authority over people. In fact, in many cases, being appointed as the project manager leads to them being involved with their project team for the first time. While technical skills allow project managers to delegate roles and responsibilities and set deadlines, people skills allow them to take this a step further. They can help guide their team through each stage of the team development model (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing, Adjourning). They can work with their team to understand the project’s outcomes, establish ways of working together and achieve the behaviors they want for the project environment. 

Indeed, a project manager can have the most detailed plan in the world but, unless their team is aligned, committed, empowered and motivated, that plan won’t be fully realized. In short, it doesn’t matter how strong they are technically, if they can’t engage with their team and bring people along, they won’t be able to achieve the desired outcome.

It works both ways, of course. It’s possible for someone to be an inspirational, people-oriented leader but, without a detailed plan and a well thought-through delivery strategy – underpinned by best practice standards such as PRINCE2 or MSP – they’ll have a well-motivated team that isn’t necessarily delivering outputs, outcomes and benefits.

Transforming the team’s enthusiasm

One of Australia’s leading zoos was recently carrying out an upgrade to its facilities and its car park. At one point, during the project review, it was felt by everyone present that things weren’t progressing as well as they should be. During the course of a conversation, however, the mood soon changed.

The team described the project as upgrading the car park and some facilities. When asked why, they answered that it would enable more people to visit the zoo and experience what it had to offer. Pushed further they agreed that this, in turn, would drive a better understanding of animal conservation and would help promote the zoo’s vision. Moving from what the project’s outcome was to the why behind it instantly transformed the team’s enthusiasm. They realized that, rather than just upgrading the zoo’s car park, they were enabling a large part of the population to learn about animal conservation, to share the zoo’s love of wildlife with the public and to inspire change.

Led by leadership with both technical and people skills, this realization – and shift in thinking – significantly increased the energy within the project environment and helped deliver a much better result for the zoo and its conservation mission.  It united the project team around a common goal.

A significant shift

Project management training usually starts with establishing a basic understanding of the requisite technical knowledge – effectively a 101 in planning and delivering a project – before moving on to how this might be applied in practice. Importantly, rather than simply giving them a process to follow, this should involve providing them with conversations they can have with key stakeholders when appointing their project team – to clearly establish the whys, for example.

This approach is a significant shift away from people completing a template for the template’s sake, to understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Using their technical knowledge to ask the right questions and their leadership skills to ask those questions in an engaging manner. The two are intertwined. Delivering one without the other won’t always achieve the desired results at project level – and certainly won’t at program or portfolio level.

Organizations should therefore consider a holistic approach to development: not just a certification pathway, but a certification pathway connected with behaviors, attitudes and leadership skills. And it needs to be in context: Why does this matter to a project? What are the outcomes going to be? As the zoo example demonstrates, understanding the why as well as the what can energize a project and deliver much better outcomes for all stakeholders.