Great Project Leaders Aren’t Born, They’re Evolved


Taking on the mantle of a project leader is a daunting task and one that carries with it, its fair share of responsibility. From getting the budget correctly allocated to making sure that the tasks you shared out are being carried out correctly, you’ll find yourself in a number of roles throughout the life of the project.

While it is a significant amount of work and effort, seeing a long-term project through to completion and seeing it done well, ranks up there with one of the most satisfying job-related feelings in the world. Of course it’s unlikely to be all smooth sailing but that shouldn’t put you off stepping into a role that is both terrifying and exhilarating.

You can be the most organised and efficient team leader on the planet but there’s no getting away from it: sometimes projects do go wrong. It might be because of one thing, or a collection of problems that escalated and then snowballed out of control. Whatever happened, the secret of being a great project manager is looking at your role, admitting your mistakes and making the one change that makes all the difference next time around.

So how do projects veer so dramatically off the rails? In the first instance it might be because in the rush of excitement about getting the job started, no clear, achievable goals were set. Without specific targets in mind, the team strayed off course, often heading in different directions and a project led like this is bound to run into difficulties.

Overcoming this issue is straightforward enough, but possibly the least interesting part of the project. However, by setting good foundations that’s where strong projects grow and thrive. Take the time to set out objectives and time frames and make sure everyone is on board and working towards the same goals. Consider using some kind of project management tools to share online tasks with and tick off completed elements as you go. Have everyone make sure they know how to use them properly and more importantly, update regularly.

Being accountable to each other as part of a team helps produce a sense of mutual responsibility and bonds your team together over a shared vision to see tasks ticked off and the project moving steadily and safely forward.

Where possible build some flexibility into deadlines so that even when an element of the project lags behind you aren’t left panicking that it will pull everything down with it. Whether you choose to share this flexible schedule with your team is entirely your choice.

Being part of a team should require a spirit of cooperation but all too often project workers slip silently away into their silos and work secretly on the parts of a project they like best. While they may get satisfaction out of completing set tasks you’re not always guaranteed individuals are playing to their strengths. As tempting as it is to assign tasks to whoever asks for them, particularly if they’re friends, get a clear idea in your mind about your team’s strengths, individually and corporately and give out tasks according to ability, rather than personality.

Getting a hard job done well is far more beneficial than keeping one or two people happy. The only real way of doing this correctly is by getting to know your team and doing some research into their previous performances on projects and their general aptitude for the job. You might not be able to see appraisal files but taking time to sit down with them, with their colleagues and their line managers will give you a well-rounded picture of who it is you’re working with and where they would fit in the life of the project.

As with everything in business, communication is key. It’s all too easy to find yourself head down, busily keeping up with your tasks but taking time to communicate regularly with project team members will help on a number of levels.

Firstly and most practically, you’ll be able to see what stage you’re at with your work and get an overview of progress. Secondly, but equally as importantly, if you’re stuck on a project you’ll be able to thrash out a solution together and achieve your personal and corporate goals much more quickly.

Make sure you’re meeting weekly, face-to-face in order for your team to feel connected and valued as members. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions about how things are going and be prepared to give honest but not overtly critical feedback.

If you’re a team member rather than in a managerial role, then failing to communicate with your colleagues and your project leader is a project in danger, according to business start-up experts. When you’ve hit on a sure fire way to cut out the middleman, saving money, time and manpower on a project and no one takes the time to hear your ideas, that’s when your motivation sinks through the floor and that insidious spirit of resignation takes effect. Great leaders will always take time to listen to staff and even better give kudos to a team member who hits on a way of making the project run more smoothly.

While communicating with your team and letting them know how things are going is the right approach, caution is due when it comes to over-communicating. By this we mean burdening your direct reports with too many details, that’s what you’re there to take care of. Your role is to shoulder all the burdens of clients changing their minds about small and large details, pressure from the managing partners and worries over budget. As tough as that sounds, you won’t get the best out of your team if they’re all worrying and not working. By all means share the headlines as and when that becomes necessary but the micro-detail falls to you to take care of

Consider too, the communication you have with your client and stakeholder groups. Be the main funnel of their queries and the lead communication point and then filter questions down to your team if need be. Deadlines will slip, budgets will change but great, open and honest communication will go a long way to softening the blow of any bad news.

Inherent to every project is risk. You can’t avoid it or run away from it and nor should you want to. Without an element of risk some of humankind’s greatest achievements would never have been carried out. Embracing, managing and preparing for risk are the ways to deal with it. Have a plan and a back up plan, in case the plan fails.  Taking the necessary precautions and knowing the appropriate response, even before a problem arises is the action of a project manager at the very top of their game.

Let your colleagues have sight of the contingency plan, but put yourself in charge of implementing it should the unexpected happen and that risk not quite pay off.

It’s not easy to admit to anyone, least of all yourself, that the project you’re working so hard on, seems to be going in the wrong direction for whatever reason but when this does happen it’s time to hold your hands up as soon as possible.

There will be hard times on any long term project, times when it seems that around every corner lies another problem that needs dealing with and overcoming. It can be quite draining to continually be the firefighter but keeping a cool, calm head will get you through.

Sometimes the only course of action is to halt the project in its tracks and like a great ship, gradually bring it round in a different direction. It requires strength and no small amount of determination but when it needs to be done, it needs to be done. Better to make the necessary changes now than have to face the wrath of a client and your own senior managers later down the line when it’s all too late.

You might have managed hundreds of projects in your career, or this might be your first go round, however experienced you are there’s one thing that you can always do and that’s learn from your mistakes on the job. The managers that we all want to work with are the ones that have learnt the hard lessons and know how to avoid the pitfalls. However keen you are and however much you want to impress, a steady pair of hands trumps impulsiveness any day of the week.

When it comes to brilliant project management take your time in the planning stage, making sure to get the basics just right before building upwards. Pick a great team, get to know them and play to their strengths. Finally be a leader, not a manager. Find a way of communicating with your staff on every level. Make time for them and help bring out their best qualities. This will set them and you aside as a team who gets things done and gets things done professionally.

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