Wanted: Project Leaders

I am pleased this week to offer insights on how to ensure project success through effective leadership from guest contributor, Dr. Karen McGraw.


Project managers are valuable because of their ability to plan, organize and direct mission-critical initiatives to meet organizational goals. But management skills alone don’t ensure success. Leadership is a critical component to successfully guiding a team to the finish line.

In one KPMG survey, 67 percent of the companies who participated said that their program/project management function was in need of improvement. Factors like unreasonable project timelines, poorly defined requirements, poor scope management, and unclear project objectives were cited as the culprits, even with the widespread practice of putting certified project managers in charge. Perhaps there’s a larger issue at play. The root cause for project failure may stem from a project manager’s inability to lead projects, not just manage them.

Shouldn’t hiring a Project Management Professional (PMP) offer an increased likelihood of success?

After being called in to rescue and turnaround numerous IT projects, I’ve found that while a PMP certification is important, it alone is not sufficient for successful project management. In many troubled projects, there appears to be a common thread: there is no leadership. That is, while the project manager may be focused on what needs to be done — and know how to do it — he or she may not be acting as a project leader

At a basic level, project managers must be able to set the vision, define success and determine the measurements of success. It takes true leadership to drive complex projects to successful conclusions. My experience with both government and commercial clients reveals that project management without project leadership is likely to result in project failure.

What does it take to be a true leader? Volumes of business and strategy texts have been written about this critical competency. Some authors or practitioners have made the point that leadership and management represent two different skill sets and that either an individual has the characteristics and skills necessary for leadership or those more appropriate for management. Others have suggested that leadership comes from knowing where to go and that management is about how to actually get there. My experience has shown me that not only can project managers act as leaders, but that they must provide leadership if projects are to succeed.

What It Takes to Lead
Project leadership is about shaping a team of diverse individuals (employers and contractors alike) into a force that produces measurable project results. I believe project managers must provide leadership in three key areas:

  • Leading courageously
  • Influencing others
  • Acting with resilience

Consider the environment that large IT projects often operate within. Many require a huge resource pool representing individuals and contractors from different organizations and with varying job roles. Each resource may require slightly different tasks and may not all be aligned with project goals. There also may be numerous issues and risks that make it difficult to spot the tasks that are most critical. In this kind of environment, courageous leaders are paramount. To lead courageously means to clarify what is important and take a stand to resolve the issues that matter. A courageous leader acts promptly and decisively and challenges others to make tough choices. 

The ability to influence others is also critical for those leading large project teams and for those addressing numerous stakeholders and different user communities. Influencing others means giving compelling reasons for ideas and suggestions and winning support from others, both within the project team and in the user and stakeholder community. It also requires a talent for persuasion. Finally, it means influencing the decisions of upper management, whether within your own organization or the client organization.

To be resilient means to keeps the focus relentlessly on project goals. This is especially important when projects are at critical stages or are in trouble. Sometimes it means being tough enough, in the face of adversity, to fight for what is right and get agreement on issues that threaten to derail the project. Or it may simply require being flexible enough to negotiate solutions that keep can keep a project driving towards success, when others might give up and accept defeat.

While a PMP certification is a great step towards proving you have set of critical management skills, it’s the attributes that make up a good leader that can set a project on the right path. Without a courageous, influential and resilient leader, projects can be doomed to fail at the first sign of conflict. The same is true for nearly ever profession including teachers, physicians and CEOs. Management skills and knowledge can take you far. But true effectiveness comes from being a great leader.

Dr. Karen McGraw is the founder and CEO of Cognitive Technologies. She has extensive experience in technology-based performance improvement solutions ranging from the design and implementation of computer-based learning and learning management systems, to expert systems, performance support systems, intelligent interfaces and knowledge management systems. Dr. McGraw is a co-developer of the Performance DNA toolkit for analyzing human performance to diagnose improvement opportunities.

This post is from an article that Dr. McGraw published at:

There is post on managing virtual project teams that shows how leadership fits into the overall management matrix of skills

PM Best Practices – Dealing with customers and clients

Yesterday I was talking with a friend—actually I was only listening as she ranted about her experience with an insurance company after a minor car accident. To put it mildly, she was angry. She was spitting nails and plotting cyber-revenge via Twitter and Facebook. As she discussed how the insurance company made her feel and why, I wondered—to myself since I could not get in more than a sympathetic “um-hmm”—if there was any wisdom to be gained from her experience for project managers  dealing with customers or clients.

I think there is.

Here is a summary of her complaints:

  • The claims people were paper-pushers. They only wanted to fill out forms—they had no interest in what happened unless it fit a blank on their form.
  • It took forever to get through the automated phone system to a real person. My time is valuable, too.
  • They acted as if I was stupid or I had done something wrong.
  • Every action was for their convenience and my inconvenience.
  • No matter the evidence, they took way too long to accept responsibility.
  • They did not care that I was without a vehicle because of their insured’s mistake.
  • Their attitude was “it was my problem” and if I did not like the way they were handling it, I could sue them.

Take-aways for project managers

  • Be available. As project manager, you personally cannot always be available. But, it is important to have a person designated to answer calls during business hours and a way to reach someone after-hours.  “Leave a message and we’ll get back to you” is not enough.
  • Listen first. When a customer or a client is having a problem, they want and need your understanding of the impact on their business. Clients may not tell you in tech-savvy words what is wrong. They may be angry or frustrated. You do not improve the situation by cutting off their story and trying to get them to rationally describe the problem.
  • Do not blame the client for the problem. It’s true that the client may have done something wrong, but pointing that out will only lead to more anger and defensiveness.
  • Apologize. Even if you have done nothing wrong, you can respond sympathetically to the client’s situation. “I am sorry you are having this problem.”
  • Confirm that you will solve the problem. How you will solve the problem and when are details. But you should first allay their fears and assure them that the problem will be solved.
  • Give them a timeline. People are less anxious and angry when they know what to expect. Be realistic about the steps you can take and when you will take them.
  • Do what you promise.
  • Give the client or customer feedback along the way. Contact the client by phone with updates on your actions and the status of the problem solving. Be proactive; do not wait for them to call you.
  • Thank the client. Let them know you appreciate their business.

If you have had success in dealing with upset clients, share your tips and tricks in the comments section.



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