Aloha! Fletch here again, happy to be back for another edition of the Leadership Toolbox. Last month, I revisited some of my first experiences with the drilling industry, and the frustrations of communicating water well issues and solutions to leaders that did not listen. This month, I would like to visit a basic question that often arises in project management training: What is project management? To clarify, this question came up in a mentoring session I led recently. Mentoring, by the way, is one of my favorite things and something I think good leaders should always look for opportunities to do.
Whenever someone poses generic questions like this, I like to look beyond the lens of what a dictionary or textbook might offer on the matter. The mechanics of managing a project are teachable. People can learn schedules, budgets and designs — all the tangible elements of project management. However, this question involves a combination of the tangible and intangible elements. You may hear people debate the difference between management and leadership. Management implies more passive oversight, and leadership a more active directing toward a goal. If we think about it logically, successful project management cannot exist without leadership.
Having worked with and for many project managers, and managed many projects myself, I find certain things outside the mechanics of project management that require leadership skills. For instance, a good project manager often excels at relationship building. It may sound obvious, but remember that projects, in any industry, require people for success. Build a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the subcontractor, the stakeholder — even members of your own team, and it will pay dividends when the unforeseen happens on your project. Relationship building, a decidedly intangible element of project management, is a leadership characteristic.
Another good example of how leadership ties into project management: strong public speaking skills. Verbal communication speeds up the dissemination and gathering of information, making it critical to the construction industry. I constantly hear complaints about employees my age and younger lacking the ability to speak confidently on a phone call. A project manager cannot expect to lead a project successfully via email. Not every meeting with subcontractors or the project team requires a Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” style speech, but you must capture the attention of the audience, large or small, fully and with an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.
One final correlation between leadership and project management involves responsibility for outcomes: the willingness to give others credit for success, yet accept responsibility for failures. A mentor of mine when from ROTC in college once told me, “You can be the kind of leader that chases rank, or accept the fact that you may not make it as far in exchange for having a greater impact on others.” Many project managers find this difficult because it involves putting everyone before yourself, something not taught in the tangible mechanics of project management, but that is a leadership trait.
You might say, “But Jake, it is possible to be a good project manager if you are an expert solely on the mechanics of project management.” I would agree, but with the caveat that the project conditions matter. It’s relatively easy manage a project when everything goes well. Anyone who has led a project or served on a project team that ultimately failed knows the true abilities of a project manager show in how they handle difficult situations.
This topic reminds me of a project manager I worked for who embodied strong knowledge of project mechanics, but lacked leadership skills to accompany them. I’ll call this person “Smith.” To provide some background, Smith had a reputation for completing projects ahead of schedule and under budget in the company’s home market. When the company took on a high-visibility project with very high potential profit margins in a neighboring market, Smith was selected to lead the project based on his record of success.
Smith enjoyed favorable conditions in his previous projects, and had trouble responding to the adversity that emerged. Smith began the project highly organized and making good use of the mechanics of project management, with which he was highly experienced. The designs were well-vetted, the schedule well-constructed and the budget agreed on by all stakeholders. But the project fell behind schedule. Smith blamed subcontractors and project team members and degraded their work, which damaged positive relationships he had built. Furthermore, he often held long meetings because there were so many issues on the project. The people in these meetings rarely paid attention when Smith talked. They felt he wasted their time and did not respect them. He blamed them for his problems and then asked for help to solve them. The company supplemented the project team to help distribute the workload and get the project back on schedule. Team members worked nights and weekends and the project gained significant progress. Smith failed to recognize the efforts of his team and their ability to rebuild relationships he had broken.
Despite a strong knowledge and a record of successful project management, Smith lacked the leadership skills to compliment his mechanics and to help him work through adversity. His failure to build and maintain strong relationships, lack of public speaking skills and inability to recognize the good work of others ultimately contributed to his downfall.
These intangible leadership skills are just a few examples of a wide variety out there. My point is not to say that these three skills are the key, rather that project management combines both tangible mechanics and intangible leadership qualities.
The real question is not what project management is, but which project manager would you trust with your company’s future? Would you take the project manager that lacks leadership or the leader who lacks project mechanics? Is it easier to teach a person to manage or to lead? The answers to these questions make a useful addition to the leadership toolbox, and just might help you find your next rock-star project manager. Until next time, Fletch over and out!