Home » Why Your Project Managers Struggle to Deliver—and How to Turn Them into Project Leaders

Why Your Project Managers Struggle to Deliver—and How to Turn Them into Project Leaders

Leader with a team

Project leaders are able to get things done when project managers fail. Here’s why.

This year, I’ve spoken to several leaders in my network at tech companies in Los Angeles about their project management organizations. Strangely, they all have a similar complaint: While they have project managers on staff dedicated to managing their projects, they still struggle to get things done.

They refer to their project managers as “clipboard managers,” “well versed in theory,” “good at following a process,” but not effective at ultimately delivering projects. They yearn for a breed of people who are more hands-on, more assertive, more adaptable—those who can drive a project to completion. They are puzzled by why it’s so hard to find people who fit the bill.

I see their problem. They have project managers, but what they really need are project leaders.

What is a project leader?

“Management is not something you do to other people. You manage your inventory, your checkbook, your resources. You can even manage yourself. But you do not manage other human beings. You manage things, you lead people.

All projects are delivered by people. Therefore, to successfully deliver projects, you can’t just manage them. You need to lead them as well.

A project leader is a person who has the special blend of management and leadership skills needed to drive projects to completion.

Here are three principles that project leaders apply consistently— beyond traditional management tactics— to lead their teams to success.

Principle #1: Project leaders take full ownership of project delivery

In their book Extreme Ownership, former US Navy SEALs Jacko Willink and Leif Babin share their philosophy on leadership based on successful leaders and teams in the Navy. Whether you are on the battlefield or working in business, ownership is the key to true leadership. They write:

“Of the many exceptional leaders we served alongside throughout our military careers, the consistent attribute that made them great was that they took absolute ownership—Extreme Ownership—not just of those things for which they were responsible, but for everything that impacted their mission.”

Traditional project managers are taught that it’s their job to track status, progress, and accountability for their projects and then report on it. They are taught to remove blockers and communicate risk. However, they are rarely coached to take full ownership of the project.

Unfortunately, when you lack a sense of ownership, you also don’t exert the extra effort to get the job done. In contrast, project leaders feel accountable for every aspect of project delivery themselves, not just the tracking of them. And that is what motivates them to undertake every effort to see their projects through to successful conclusion, even when they face challenges.

Principle #2: Project leaders strive to bring out the best in their teams

Stephen Covey, author of the classic leadership book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said:

“Leadership is communicating others’ worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”

The most effective project leaders I’ve known embody this principle. They inspire their teams by communicating to every person why they are valued. They connect daily work to a greater purpose so that each person is able to easily see how their actions contribute to collective success and aspire to achieve it.

Project leaders also strive to bring out the best in their teams when implementing governance for their projects. While most traditional project managers lean on predefined templates and standardized processes, project leaders only use processes that boost productivity for their teams. Similarly, while many traditional project managers apply Agile scrum ceremonies religiously, project leaders follow the original intention of the Agile Manifesto by valuing “individuals and interactions over process and tools.”

Project leaders know there are no magic shortcuts that can fix all problems for every team. As such, they take extra effort to tailor project organization to their team’s needs and cast away rules that do not meet those criteria.

Principle #3: Project leaders are the glue that binds their teams together

One of the earliest texts on project management, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, reveals that all major issues that occur in software projects are actually human issues, not development issues. As a result, those most successful at project delivery are emotionally intelligent people leaders who focus on creating strong team dynamics.

As an example, coauthor Tom DeMarco challenges himself to explain the value of a mysterious woman whom I can now identify as a project leader. He said,

“During her 12 years at the company, the woman in question had never worked on a project that had been anything other than a huge success. It wasn’t obvious what she was adding, but projects always succeeded when she was around. After watching her in class for a week and talking to some of her co-workers, I came to the conclusion that she was a superb catalyst. Teams naturally jelled better when she was there. She helped people communicate with each other and get along. Projects were more fun when she was part of them.

Project leaders intuitively do everything they can to creative cohesive teams. They act as the glue that binds teams together, filling gaps in process and communication wherever there is a need.

In the sports world, a similar phenomenon exists in players that are affectionately termed “glue guys.” In his article on Forbes.com, Great Teams Need Glue to Hold Together, Don Yeager identifies these glue guys on several teams and the traits that make them particularly effective.

“Great teams realize players like Fisher, who won five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, Battier, Ross and Johnston are the glue that holds the organization together. Teammates who build each other up, show appreciation for everyone, and connect with each other are key parts of any great team.”

Glue guys go beyond their predefined responsibilities. Whether their teams need encouragement, support, appreciation, or someone who just makes it more fun to work together, they aim to fill any gap they see. In essence, they use talent and care to make their teams complete.

Final Thoughts

If you are struggling to get things done in your organization, it is likely because you don’t have enough project leaders driving your projects.

To transform your project management organization into a delivery machine, empower your managers to adopt leadership principles in lieu of focusing solely on task management. Coach them to:

1. Take full ownership of projects, even if that means extending their responsibilities beyond their official title.

2. Strive to bring out the best in their teams by making sure team members feel valued and tailoring process to fit their team’s needs.

3. Become the glue that binds their teams together by using their talents to fill gaps in skills, communication, support and process.

These principles will help your newly anointed project leaders focus their time where it is needed most. As a result, your teams will be more productive and your critical projects will be delivered with success.

Adapted from Glue: How Project Leaders Create Cohesive, Engaged, High-Performing Teams.

For more tips and examples about how to be an effective project leader, read my book Glue. Available for preorder on Amazon today.

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