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Leadership Tips for Project Managers – Part 1

Leadership Tips for Project Managers – Part 1

By Mike Griffiths
March 15, 2023

Welcome to part one of a four-part series introducing basic leadership ideas that any project manager or Scrum master can employ. This first article explains how leadership differs from management and outlines five core leadership attributes for managing projects.

Leadership vs. Management

“Management is getting people to do what needs to be done. Leadership is getting people to want to do what needs to be done.” – Warren Bennis.

As this quote explains, leadership goes beyond directing work and instead, engages the motivation of others.

For team members, good leadership makes the difference between going to work just for money and feeling like they are making a difference in a supportive environment that recognizes their contributions. Leadership skills are crucial for building high-performing teams. Leadership, coupled with management skills, magnifies productivity.

Motivation and Productivity

We all experience different levels of motivation and productivity. Sometimes we are keen to do the work, and sometimes any other distraction seems more appealing. This is normal at the small scale of minute-to-minute tasks. Yet, it also manifests up to our overall performance in a role.

The image below shows how team member productivity contributions can vary from net-negative Undermining or Resistance on the left-hand side all the way to Passionate Innovation on the right.

Our job, as project managers, is to move people more to the right. We use leadership skills to do this.

Leadership is a vast topic; more has been written about it throughout history than the whole field of project management. For this series we will focus on the five leadership behaviors from the book “The Leadership Challenge”, by James Kouzes and Bary Posner.

  1. Model the way – Exhibit the behavior you want to see in others
  2. Inspire a shared vision – Reveal the beckoning summit so others can chart their own course
  3. Challenge the process – Search for opportunities, innovate and experiment
  4. Enable others to Act – Foster collaboration, create a climate of trust, strengthen others
  5. Recognize contributions – celebrate the values and victories, show appreciation

1) Model the Way

Authors, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, conducted a 10-year study of more than 75,000 people and asked, “What values do you look for in your leader?”

They gave people a choice of 20 recognized positive traits and asked people to select their top five. Time after time, from country to country, across industries and demographics, the same four attributes emerged first.

More than intelligence, imagination or courage, these four attributes are what people look for. The number one trait is honesty. We will not willingly follow dishonest people for long. This is because emotion precedes action; it has to feel right for us to commit to them. It undermines our own sense of worth to follow someone we do not respect.

Without honesty and integrity, other personality traits or skills do not matter because people are no longer listening. We demonstrate honesty by following through on what we committed to, by not lying and showing integrity through our behaviors and actions.

Project managers should demonstrate the behaviors they wish their team to exhibit. Admit your mistakes, promote candid discussion of issues and show humility. Adopt a sharing, abundance model to information and always be communicating.

2) Forward-Looking
The second attribute, “Forward-looking,” means being able to create a clear and compelling view of where we are trying to get to. People will only willingly follow you when they think you have somewhere worthwhile in mind.

This does not only apply to high profile CEOs and visionaries like Elon Musk; the same applies to mundane projects such as repainting toilet blocks and performing office moves. People need to see you have a plan, and you can describe it effectively. We will look at how to create a compelling vision shortly.

3) Competent
Leaders do not have to be super-efficient, technical geniuses. Instead, they just need to be competent enough to guide us. A track record for getting things done is more important than domain expertise as the other team members can fill in any gaps.

4) Inspiring
People want their leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic and optimistic about the future. After all, if a leader shows no passion for a cause, why should anyone else? Emotions are contagious, and so if the leader can generate some enthusiasm for the goal, hopefully, this will spread to the other team members. No one suggests being artificially optimistic (this goes against honesty), but leaders who can inspire contribution are preferred over dull or pessimistic thinkers.

Set a Clear Vision and Mission

(Paint a clear picture of where we are trying to get to)
Linked to the Forward-looking attribute, a critical step in leading a team is creating a clear and motivating vision of where we are trying to get to. One of the best ways to understand the importance of creating a clear vision for a project is to consider how we act when we do not have a clear vision. What do we do when we are driving in fog?

We slow down. Unclear of what lies ahead, we take our foot off the gas and proceed cautiously. The same happens on projects. Without a clear view of where we are trying to get to, teams are hesitant. Clarity and direction allow focused effort and speed.

Vision unites and concentrates effort. To be effective, the project vision should be:

  1. Ideal
  2. Specific
  3. Visual/Image
  4. Future-Oriented
  5. Common purpose

Project managers can do this in many ways.

Project Vision statements describe the desired end-goal and outcomes for the project. They depict the project ‘s direction and general destination, which helps with funding and stakeholder alignment. A good vision gives project participants a reason for contributing (beyond it being their job.)

When writing vision statements, be clear, concise and have a time-horizon, yet be inspiring about the goal to get people to want to be a part of it and with the right level of challenge, so it is ambitious but not unrealistic.

There are many templates for creating project vision and mission statements, too many to review in this short revision format. Instead of trying to cover them all, we will instead take a closer look at just one technique called “Design the Product Box”.

Agile projects often use a vision/kick-off exercise called Design the Product Box to co-create the project vision statement. The activity is derived from “Design the brochure description” described in the book “Managing the Design Factory” By Don Reinertsen. Later, Jim Highsmith outlined the “Design the Product Box” exercise in his book “Agile Project Management.” Since its introduction, the exercise has started to be used in hybrid and traditional project settings too. Have a look at the description below and see if it could be adapted to work on your projects.

Co-Creating the Project Vision with Design the Product Box

This exercise can be used at Kick-off meetings to help clarify the project objectives and align stakeholders around those objectives. Sponsors, business, and team members are split into two mixed groups to contain people from each functional area. The groups are asked to imagine that we were to sell the completed successful project outcome. Each group then has 20 minutes to design the box the product will ship in following some simple rules.

On the front of the box, they must create the product name, optionally a logo, and the top three features. Not four or five, just the three essential features for the project/product to deliver. Then on the back, they can list the next 10-15 most important features.

After 20 minutes, each team presents their product boxes and explains why they thought their three items were the most important. The dialog that ensues as executives and business representatives who were split between teams debate the merits of their top three list compared to others is incredibly valuable.

Kick-off meetings can otherwise be limp, introduction-focused sessions. Using the product box exercise, we quickly resolve key project issues. A final product box is created (sometimes with executive tie-breaking), and a strong sense of purpose and vision is created.

This exercise is helpful as it embodies the five principles of a good project vision:

1) Ideal – it represents some future preferred state.

2) Specific – it is not generic (like statements such as “happy stakeholders”, “conforms to requirements”) but a product of a specific team addressing a definite problem.

3) Visual/Image – Images are important because they connect the right and the left sides of the brain, enabling us to better understand the preferred end state.

4) Future-Oriented – providing a target to aim for in the future.

5) Common Purpose – provides a common goal that stakeholders who have different skills can all work towards.

Vision Helps with Local Decision Making

Creating a clear vision for the project helps stakeholders make better local decisions aligned to the overall goal. Leadership Challenge authors Kouzes and Posner liken creating a strong vision to “Revealing a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course.”

Once we explain and illustrate where we are going, it will help everyone else as they make decisions in their day-to-day work. This way, when faced with their choices, or forks in the trail towards project completion, they make decisions aligned with the larger goal.

Establishing a project vision is not a once-and-done process. The best leaders spend a significant portion of their time maintaining the shared vision of success criteria. This is in part because people forget, people adopt simpler interpretations that suit their needs better, and stakeholders leave and join the project.

Be sure to check out part two of the series, where we build on Inspiring a shared vision to cover the benefits of diversity and inclusion, along with how to employ servant leadership as a project manager.

[Source: This article is a sample from “PM illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Project  Management.” That illustrates project management concepts to people who like to see the big picture and explore content graphically.]

Mike Griffiths

Mike Griffiths is an experienced project manager, author and consultant who works as a subject matter expert for PMI. Before joining PMI, Mike consulted and managed innovation and technology projects throughout Europe, North and South America for 30+ years. He was co-lead for the PMBOK Guide—Seventh Edition, lead for the Agile Practice Guide, and contributor to the PMI-ACP and PMP exam content outlines. Outside of PMI, Mike maintains the websites www.leadinganswers.com  about leading teams and www.pmillustrated.com, which teaches project management to visual learners.]

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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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