From project manager to leader of strategic initiatives2. September 2021 - Thomas Peter Rønholt, Project Management Consultant and Client Director at Mannaz Share
As well as being able to deliver the right projects, all organisations deliver value to their clients through the knowledge and competencies of the professionals who work for them. Likewise, is the strategic implementation carried out through the selection of projects as part of the overall project portfolio.
I’ll argue here that project managers are leaders of strategic initiatives, who create value for clients and organisations, not only through technical project plans and using the right tools but also by applying leadership skills and business acumen.
Organisations working with projects are increasingly focusing their attention on the benefit realisation of the projects they initiate, and so they should. A survey by Boston Consulting Group found that Danish companies only achieved about 7% to 10% of the benefits they expected from their projects*. Usually this is not the fault of the project manager nor is it typically their responsibility to measure the benefits of the project once it has been completed. However, if we start to rethink the role of the project manager organiations will start to achieve higher benefits from the projects.
You as a project manager need to broaden your view, to see the project in a wider context, understand the business and apply leadership skills beyond the triple constraint model.
Understanding the hierarchy of objectives and the ‘why?’
All projects are change initiatives and part of the organisation’s overall strategy. Senior management has the responsibility to decide which projects to start, which to put on hold, which to stop and which not to start in the first place. The project manager must understand this from the beginning of the project; you need to lead and communicate effectively both upwards and downwards, as well as out towards stakeholders in general. In other words, you as a project manager need to broaden your view, to see the project in a wider context, understand the business and apply leadership skills beyond the triple constraint model.
If you’re in doubt about your project’s objectives, it will be difficult to achieve the benefits. You’re obliged to ask, ‘Why are we doing this project?’. The measures of success are more than a project coming in on time, on budget and to the right scope.
Creation value from projects
At the same time, the value creation proces in any project organisation links directly to the knowledge and experience of the project leaders that are capable of leading the team, leading the project owners, leading the stakeholders as well as taking care of themselves.
This is especially the case for professional service firms, where the principal source of revenue is the successful delivery of projects, which in turn increases the opportunity to win the next project. In high-income countries the service industry now accounts for a significant part of the Gross Domestic Product (74% in 2015, according to a report by Deloitte Insights**). The project manager must have an understanding of the value creation processes in their organisation, as well as the business acumen to navigate the project team through the right service delivery, bearing in mind the domain choice of the organisation and the resources available.
In other words, the knowledge and reputation of the resources determine the kind of projects the firm can win and successfully carry out. At the same time, the strategic choice of projects will help enhance organisational knowledge and provide valuable experience that can be used to win the next – hopefully even more rewarding – project.
We must start to think and talk about the project leader as the project’s CEO, with due consideration for the expected skills, experience, and results.
From manager to leader
As the context widens and the responsibilities increase, it also makes sense to start thinking and talking about the role of ‘project leader’ as being the person in charge of delivering projects that are part of strategic initiatives expected to realise benefits for the organisation.
Project leaders are expected to have client handling skills and to be able to establish effective relationships at every level of the client organisation. Likewise, leadership skills are needed to deliver sound business value from projects aligned to the organisation’s strategy.
Mastering basic skills, such as planning, estimating, stakeholder management, risk management and negotiation skills, remains a prerequisite in planning and delivering projects. However, as an effective project leader, you must also be able to master effective communication, often across cultures and at different levels. Finally, you are expected to demonstrate leadership skills by motivating yourself as well as the project team for the duration of the project, all while handling the conflicts that will inevitably arise, to the benefit of the project.
We must start to think and talk about the project leader as the project’s CEO, with due consideration for the expected skills, experience, and results. We’re moving from a ‘manager of projects’ to a ‘leader of strategic initiatives’.
As an aspiring or new project leader, you’re advised to look beyond the project management (PM) toolbox for your skills development:
- Build on the PM toolbox knowledge with leadership development such as team leadership, motivation, situational leadership., etc.
- Self-awareness is important in your development process; tools such as 360˚ assessments can help you find out how others perceive your communication and actions.
Skills development for the project organisation
As the project leader needs to develop their management and leadership skills, so the project organisation needs to develop its skills in organising and prioritising customers and projects. The organisation must clarify and communicate:
- the strategic initiatives
- the expected benefits
- how to realise these benefits
- the responsibilities of the steering committee and how it is to fulfil its role.
Finally, you can consider working on projects as a discipline which require particular skills and knowledge about projects and how to contribute beyond the professional competencies. In other words, the project organization must also train the project team members in the basic project management tools.
The professional project organisation must develop and maintain skills at all levels:
- Senior management needs to communicate the strategy or domain choices, project prioritisation and the expected benefit realisation.
- Steering committees need to have the right level of decision-making power and the availability to provide ad hoc leadership for the project leaders when needed. Steering committee members must know what to expect from the project leaders.
- Project leaders need to know the PM toolbox and demonstrate continuous development in leadership skills.
- Project team members need to assist the project leader in the best ways possible.
Project leaders of the future
A project manager is not just a project manager. A competent project leader can be the difference between the success and failure of a project and, in the end, of the organisation. Competent project leaders not only understand the business aspect but also lead the project safely through changes and challenges while staying focused on the agreed deadline, as well as the post-project benefit realisation. This is the kind of project leader who really makes a difference. Competent project leaders are an organisation’s best change agents, as it’s through projects that companies execute their objectives and strategy.