Someone has told me recently that the word “project management” has become quite a confusing word as we have begun to overuse or even sometimes misuse it. We seem to convert everything into a project and then “manage” it. If we know so much about project management, as it appears from talking with colleagues and peers – why would we need to add a leadership layer on top of that and what for? After all, if we apply knowledge and best practices from project management, and see our project success rates improve, wouldn’t this suffice? As a seasoned management consultant, I would say – it mostly depends on what one is trying to achieve.
Team Leader or Project Manager?
In the last 10 years I have managed quite a number of projects – mostly multi-million pound (£) international development projects across Asia and Africa, with large multidisciplinary teams, challenging local contexts, demanding clients and stakeholders with different expectations and goals. I often swapped roles in the project life cycle – I designed projects at the bid stage and let someone manage them afterwards, but also led projects developed by someone else. Was I academically taught and prepared to do it? In some cases more than in others and with each project I gained more and more experience in applying best practices from various project management methodologies. I also participated in a number of large, complex and international projects managed by other people. Have I learnt something from them? Definitely – I have seen some good practices to take away with me and things that I should remember not to repeat in my own work. In all those international development projects a standard staffing model would apply – a Team Leader (TL) in charge of the entire team and project/programme outcomes who would work in the beneficiary country, and a Project Manager (PM) who would support (or backstop) the TL remotely from the headquarters or would be deployed to the local office. At that time not only did I find this model quite fitting, but for a number of reasons I was actually very much in favour of it. It was a model built on the experience from past projects: we simply couldn’t find an individual able to both deliver project impact and ensure project management requirements.
Often it was simply too big a role to fill by one person and we felt that internal project management support would serve as a bridge and provide the necessary comfort to the client who looked at the project impact, but also its timely and costly delivery (i.e. performance). Looking back at that time of my life, I see now why some of these projects were more successful than others. Of course, some quick ideas come from thoughts around improvements on project management trinity: time, budget and quality, or a better application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements1. However, more often than not I ponder whether my projects had the right skill set at the top level: have we chosen the right Team Leader and Project Manager, and – most importantly – have we correctly defined their roles, division of labour and our expectations?
Successful project manager – is it enough?
Warren Bennis and Peter F. Drucker said “management is doing things rights, leadership is doing the right things”2. Over the years I have worked with a long list of people who have excellent project management skills – great individuals who have worked hard to get projects over the line with their teams, even when sometimes one could have thought it wasn’t possible. From that time, I remember great projects with great results and impact. From the other hand, I vividly remember equally great projects in terms of achievements, but the memories are not so great. Why? Well, mostly because of the way these projects were managed or maybe led.
Couple years ago I worked on a number of different projects led by my Senior Manager – the core team mostly remained the same, the scope and country changed, and we always had support from country teams in terms of project design and delivery. The Senior Manager was a brilliant individual – smart, effective and tough, on all those projects she delivered her work to tight deadlines without hesitation and with brutal execution. I admired her for her drive, intelligence, business acumen and performance – yet after couple of projects I hated working with her. She was very good at delivering short- and medium-results – senior leadership was impressed by her quick turnaround and successful track record. Her team not so much. With every project we came out “wounded” – and by wound I mean every feeling of doubt, fury, low esteem, frustration and lack of self-confidence. Not to mention physical exhaustion and drainage. And yet, she managed to get us to work and deliver success with each project. Luckily, the organisation I worked for at that time was quite vigilant at spotting the nuance between management and leadership – especially when it concerned its senior management and leadership team.
My manager was at the senior management track with aspiration to move higher in the corporate ladder onto a leadership position. But this project didn’t end with success – with her improving project success rates, her team’s drive and motivation visibly decreased. So what happened here? She was a great manager after all and I admit, in the beginning, she created a conducive working environment. But as more projects came into the pipeline, she struggled to keep our motivation and excitement high, or she simply ignored it as she focused on delivering the end result. Building on Blake Mouton managerial grid (Blake and Mouton, 1982, see Exhibit 1 below), she quite smoothly shifted from “team management” style into the “authority-compliance management” approach. “Means justify the ends” would become her motto – she would be fixated on delivering her work, no matter how many people would be “hurt” in the process. At the end, senior leadership did not put her forward onto the leadership track and she left the organisation couple months later to pursue another endeavour.
Effective leadership skills – a key to successful project management?
Peter F. Drucker (1996) defined a leader as one who has followers. According to him, regardless of a leader’s own individual abilities or greatness, there can be no leaders without followers3. In the project management context, the project team members are the project manager’s followers. The project success thus depends on team’s performance4. By solely applying project management knowledge and best practices, a project manager can smoothly deliver project short- to medium-term results. What if a project lasts 5 years? According to Ken Blanchard, trust between the leader and the team is a must when working together. He further emphasizes that fostering a trusting relationship with the team is a premise for a an effective team leadership. Only then can one foster long lasting motivation and inspiration among project teams – and this in turn can serve as a catalyst for innovation. Furthermore, effective team leadership also means team development and taking into account the readiness (a combination of skills and motivation) as well as maturity of each team member5.
When I lived in Bangladesh I was part of a project management team working on a 5-year community legal service programme. I worked on a 30-person international project team led by an international Team Leader – an expert in his field, with 25+ years’ experience and great rapport skills. I consider time spent on this project as one of the most inspiring and fruitful experiences I have had so far. In those 5 years of this large programme the team had a number of projects to deliver, outcomes to achieve and challenges to overcome – we had solid project management frameworks and tools to utilize, yet it was the TL’s drive, vision and determination that kept team’s performance high and staff turnover low. Each year the programme ranked highest scores in the annual review exercise, both in terms of project impact and performance. It is not to say that the programme was managed without errors – over the project life span the team faced multiple internal and external challenges, each of us had moments of doubt. But it was the TL’s approach and the project trusting environment he created that kept us going and ensured our continuous performance – he was a successful project manager, but most importantly, an effective leader.
To sum up
And this is perhaps the answer to the question – yes there are project managers who excel in project delivery without leadership skills. It is possible – mostly if one focuses on short and medium perspective. If we are looking at a long-term perspective, then leadership skills play an important role in project management. A successful project manager who delivers successful projects consistently with high success rates may not be a successful leader. Project management skills are relatively easy to replicate and/or taught in case of a sudden loss, even among the lower ranks within teams – one can develop project management skills through knowledge of the standard project management framework as well as experience in implementing project management methodologies. After all, that’s how we become project managers.
Leadership skills are rare and more difficult to replace, especially that their source can differ from person to person. But they are the key to long-term success of every project or organisation. Projects are not always nice and easy, people are not always willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones, the project environment may not be conducive, the project results may not be satisfying – the list of unfavourable project management factors is long. So how can we motivate ourselves and our team members in those situations? More often than not it is the leader’s personality and skills that make the difference – the drive, charisma, creativity and adaptability to ever-changing context. Someone who says “follow me” and sees the crowd behind ready to follow, even if the direction is quite murky. Those who do not have this type of impact on their followers would be saver to say “forward”, hoping that the project goal and the way the project is managed, would suffice. But in this scenario the project manager will have to repeat this on every single project – which from the project management perspective does not sound like an efficient and effective approach.
1 A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008).
2 Source citation: Van Ingen, Steve. “Leadership of project teams: management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things — Peter Drucker & Warren Bennis.” Chemical Engineering, Jan. 2007, p. 55+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.
3 A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008).
4 Kumar, V. S. (2009). Essential leadership skills for project managers. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2009 – North America, Orlando, FL. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute..
5 Blanchard, Ken. Effective Leadership Is Transformational – It all starts from within Chief Learning Officer (https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2019/06/13/effective-leadership-is-transformational/). Accessed 20 Oct.2019.
Specialist in international project management, with focus on strategy formulation and implementation. She works with private and public sectors on improving organisational effectiveness and efficiency, developing growth strategies and implementing business models. She started her professional career in 2011 in the United Nations agencies and western consulting companies specializing in the design and implementation of international development projects, financed by international institutions. She successfully managed technical assistance programmes in Asia and Africa, with focus on strategy delivery, organisational strengthening, result-based management and private sector development. She has experience in providing advisory and consultancy services having worked in leading consulting firms such as Grant Thornton and McKinsey & Co. She is a lecturer at Wyższa Szkoła Bankowa (WSB University) in Poznań.