What is project leadership?

Dec 18, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

Successful PMs use their skills to leverage tools, motivate actions, and accomplish objectives, which is the essence of leadership.

Over the past three decades, numerous pieces of research have studied project management in AEC firms. Researchers have hypothesized that, as project uncertainty and complexity grow, so too does the need for leadership from project managers. This work has spurned the notion that project leadership will supplant the more management-oriented practices of the past. What is project leadership exactly?

The hairs of management and leadership have been split in the academic community for years, with much of the research failing to bridge the gap between academia and practice. However, more recent research has begun to dial in on what exactly it means to deliver project success, and the results are a bit surprising. Whereas classic approaches to project management define success as delivering projects on time, on schedule, and on budget, the modern AEC climate has considerably more facets to “project success” than simply those three metrics.

Rather than monitoring and controlling a static environment (i.e. “managing”), project success today is defined by the project manager’s ability to create clear objectives for the team, communicate with a variety of team members and external stakeholders, resolve conflicts, solve problems, and connect everyday activities to the overall project vision, among other items. Project manager success today is about the project manager’s ability to apply leadership principles in the project environment. Unsurprisingly, researchers agreed and found that the leadership ability of the project manager is the strongest predictor of project success.

Both investigative research and Zweig Group’s data suggest that there are a set of skills and competencies that serve project managers well and that are present in successful project teams. One study boiled the most important project manager skills and competencies down to 10 key items:

  1. People skills
  2. Leadership
  3. Listening
  4. Integrity
  5. Strong trust builder
  6. Verbal communication
  7. Strong team builder
  8. Conflict resolution and management
  9. Critical thinking and problem solving
  10. Ability to balance priorities

Most interesting about this list is that the relative importance of the various items are dependent on the project environment. Some items, like risk management, do not appear in the top 10 global inventory, but are most important in a project with high uncertainty. However, leadership, people skills, and communication consistently rank in the top five as most critical to project success, regardless of the circumstances of the project. How do we link this to practice?

Bridging the gap to practice. Researchers asked project managers what they thought were the most important elements of their work. This same research also asked clients what, in their view, was the most important work for project managers to focus on when working on their projects.

Project manager self-report: Client report:
1. Setting clear objectives 1. Planning
2. Reporting 2. Communication with the client
3. Planning 3. Setting clear objectives
4. Motivating the team 4. Establishing and maintaining communication with clients and stakeholders
5. Monitoring and controlling, managing uncertainty (tied) 5. Monitoring and controlling 

In the eyes of clients, two of the five most important elements of any project manager revolve around the their ability to communicate with clients and stakeholders. Conversely, project managers (in this research) do not feel that to be a top five issue. Project managers trade that away for “reporting” and “motivating their team.” These are not unimportant items, but it probably explains a lot of why project managers feel a sense of inner turmoil about having to choose what to work on.

Your clients’ preferences are distinctly different than what you feel to be most important about your work. How can we resolve that?

Prioritizing leadership. Effectively leading projects starts with prioritizing project interactions and project communication. Carving out the time and space to prioritize interactions requires interrogating and leaning out your internal project manager to only those items that advance you toward your goals. Here is a simple framework that you can use to take a hard look at your current process and determine if you are prioritizing the right things:

  1. What are the most important goals of this phase of the project?
    1. What are our goals?
    2. What are our client’s goals?
  2. What are the actions that need to happen to accomplish these goals?
  3. What are the specific, purpose-built tools that project managers should use to facilitate those actions?
  4. What are the leadership skills that project managers should bring to bear to be successful in achieving these goals at this point?

When linked together, it becomes clear that successful project managers use their skills to leverage tools, motivate actions, and accomplish objectives, which is the essence of leadership.

Unsurprisingly, in our work with nearly 1,000 project managers over the past two years, project managers rate leadership and communication skill development to be most critical to their continued success and their overall career development.

Give the people what they want! This presents an incredible opportunity for firm leaders to win big with their people and their clients by prioritizing development of those skills that are best linked to what both your staff and your clients are looking for in AEC providers. It is hard to find a good reason not to.  

Justin Smith, P.E., is an advisor at Zweig Group specializing in project management and leadership development. He can be reached at jsmith@zweiggroup.com.

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