A day in the life of a project manager

Developing leadership competencies for project managers.
By Catherine Daw
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/06/2001

After I attend the annual project management symposium in Toronto each year, I am always riding on a high. That comes from spending time with other project managers — we get to speak the P.M. lingo comfortably without having to explain it to anyone else.

This year’s symposium was no different in providing that opportunity to rub shoulders with like-minded people. One of the speakers, Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, retired from the Canadian Armed Forces, provided some insight on leadership. MacKenzie is best known for his remarkable peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia. His advice and counsel has been widely sought ever since by leaders of government and industry.

Using stories from his various peacekeeping missions, MacKenzie highlighted why leadership style is so critical.

It got me thinking about the role of project managers, who are not only managers but leaders too. That said, there are skills and activities that distinguish these two roles. Leadership activities include communicating, motivating, presenting, negotiating, organizing, directing, decision-making and focusing on the goal. Management activities, on the other hand, include facilitating, resolving conflict, providing support, giving feedback, listening, analyzing, problem solving and ensuring follow through.

As project managers we all could hone our skills in the leadership area. In fact, when we consider the behaviours identified for effective project managers, strong leadership skills ranks in the top 10 along with satisfied clients, strong teamwork, effective communications, good project planning and tracking, and high quality work output.

HR managers need to be aware of the need for strong leadership skills when developing training for this particular group of people.

MacKenzie gave the audience something to take away with them by providing a list of his top 10 general leadership traits necessary to be effective and strong leaders. Below are five of these traits that I believe impact our ability as project managers to be effective leaders.

Trait 1: L.B.W.A. — Leadership By Wandering About. The project management walkabout allows you to see what people are up to on a casual but visible basis. This allows team members to see you and know that you are interested in the day-to-day minutia of the project. It may be difficult with a virtual team but there are creative ways to get around that such as chat rooms and Web bulletin boards.

You could also negotiate for a travel budget to visit remote team members or have them come to the central site on a regular basis over the life of the project.

Trait 2: Do the right thing by demonstrating character on ethical decisions. This one in particular is my soapbox.

Ethics in project management can be very tricky and project managers often walk a fine line when working with such diverse stakeholders.

There will always be thorny issues on a project. As the project manager you must always be seen to be doing the right thing. Honesty, integrity and communications go a long way to your success. Imagine someone very important to you — your spouse, sibling or friend — looking over your shoulder as you make those tough decisions.

Trait 3: Have difficult but achievable objectives. As a good leader you will know how much is too much.

Today, selecting team members from a wide variety of functional, organizational and cultural areas can make a project manager’s job very challenging in terms of cultivating and sustaining commitment to the project goal.

Without the right target it is hard to keep a team motivated — making it difficult keeps them challenged but making it achievable won’t overwhelm them.

Trait 4: On bad days be an actor and act like you do on your good days. In other words, be consistent in your management style — not unpredictable. By being consistent people are not trying to second-guess when they should tell you about something or how to deliver bad news. Consistency makes the team feel at home coming to you with problems.

Trait 5: Prepare subordinates. By allowing them to take on some of your tasks as the project manager you begin the process of training them to eventually take over your job. It also allows you to focus on the leadership activities while they do the managing work.

One area that we often forget is the need to eventually replace ourselves so we can retire or do other things. By preparing subordinates we are recognizing that we are not irreplaceable.

Major-General MacKenzie left us on a ‘high’ — telling us we can be the best that we can be. Reality set in on Monday when I was back at my office. Not that his lessons are not achievable, rather it is simply the challenge of putting those skills into daily practice while being on the frontlines.

Strategically, however, project managers must set direction for the team in its quest to deliver the project objective and strong leadership skills allow us to delight senior management and exceed the expectations of project stakeholders.

Catherine Daw is principal and president of the SPMgroup Ltd., a company focused on optimizing organizational performance. She can be reached at cdaw@spmgroup.ca

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