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In thinking about the hundreds of client projects I’ve completed over the last ten years, if I had to pick one key to success, it would be project leadership. For example, I worked with one client on multiple projects simultaneously with several project leaders over the course of many months. The same senior leadership sponsored every project. A few were downright frustrating as we struggled to move an inch a week whereas others leaped forward a mile in the same timeframe. Of course my focus was to accelerate progress on the ones that inched forward; however, significant acceleration could go from an inch to 5 feet; still slow as molasses as compared with moving a mile.
While leading and/or participating with hundreds of projects with manufacturers and distributors across multiple industries, geographies and company sizes, several keys to project leadership success emerged. What successful leaders have in common is worth noting. Thus, it seems discussing top strategies for success would be of value. Instead of limiting it to the top 3, I thought I’d share a longer list that arose during observation.
- Vision: As all executives know, having a vision is essential to success. What do you expect your project to accomplish? Why is that of value to the organization? How does it fit with strategy?
- Communication: Having a vision does little for success if no one hears about the vision. Communication skills are essential. This is the bedrock for any leadership role. However, it tends to be even more critical on projects as the majority of team members might not report to the project leader for their day job and so communications might be limited.
- Energy: It helps to have a project leader with energy. Being excited about what the project can achieve goes a long way to making the team interested in being a part of that objective. Demonstrate excitement through your tone of voice, language, through promotion, etc.
- Competence: As effective a communicator you might be, it is still essential to be competent in the subject matter related to the project. There is no need to be an expert; however, you need to have a basic knowledge to be able to lead effectively.
- Ability to ask questions: One of the keys to success is the project leader’s ability to ask good questions. I have worked with horrible project leaders who asked “stupid” questions – it was obvious to the team members that they weren’t capable and/or was annoying; thus, no matter what other qualities they had, their project progressed slowly at best. On the other hand, I’ve seen people with zero knowledge of engineering successfully lead a group of engineers by having enough knowledge or logic to ask a few good questions to keep the process moving.
- Ability to think of the critical path: One of the most important aspects of project management is to know what is important to the success of the project. Not all tasks are created equal. In today’s busy world, there is rarely time to focus on all tasks to the desired degree; thus, focusing attention on what’s important is critical. The critical path will make it obvious which tasks should be the focus as they will hold up the rest of the project.
- Ability to facilitate teamwork: It is important for the project leader to facilitate teamwork. Typically the project team might be from multiple disciplines/functions who might not know each other and who might be in conflict in terms of daily objectives. Thus, the project leader needs to facilitate the common objectives and find strengths to leverage while making all team members feel included in the process.
- Ability to push back: The best of managers, when all is proceeding smoothly, can become the worst of leaders if a roadblock arises. It is critical for project leaders to be able to address issues head on in a respectful and proactive manner. This often requires pushing back on executives who might have conflicting interests. Turning it into the best interest of all parties helps the leader push back successfully.
- Follow-up: No project is successful if follow-up is lacking. A key part of the process is being proactive about which tasks are coming up and making sure the task owners are ready and potential roadblocks are resolved. Checking in with the project team, sponsors, related / impacted employees and the like is key to success.
Since project leadership proves to be #1 to successfully achieving objectives, it is worth additional focus. Are you assigning whoever is available with some level of competence to your project as resources are scarce or are you carefully considering the options? Since the vast majority of cost improvement, new product introductions and the like are accomplished through projects, it is worth extra focus to ensure project leadership success as these results will impact growth, profit and cash flow.