From project manager to project leader

If “manager” hasn’t become an outright dirty word, it’s definitely lost whatever gloss it once had. People boast of multi-generational traditions in politics, in military service, in labor, art, and science, but never in management. We shrug at layoffs when they target “middle managers.” We damn with faint praise the mediocre quarterback, acknowledging him to be a “game manager.” And to “micro-manage” is to commit the worst of all business sins.

No wonder project managers struggle to be regarded as more than functionaries. But there’s a golden opportunity to turn the project management function into a true leadership role. Instead of being seen as simply a number cruncher and a milestone checker, PMs can adapt into coaches, mentors, and visionaries.

It’s just going to mean breaking some old patterns and bad habits.


1. Recognize that managing and leading are not the same thing

If you can’t see the distinction, think about that ambivalent management canard: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” It conjures up the image of a snoop, poised over everyone with a clipboard and stopwatch. The contrast is clear. Leaders inspire. Managers measure.

“A lot of people can’t make that transition,” says Gordon Tredgold, author of FAST – 4 Principles Every Business Needs to Achieve Success and Drive Results. “You have to relinquish some level of control.”


2. Trusting your people to attend to the details is essential to leadership

Managers fixate on details. Leaders focus on results. The ability to step back and trust subject matter experts to be accountable—and to recognize when they are not being forthcoming about their capabilities and limitations—is more important than being a jack of all trades who knows exactly what everyone is doing at all times.

“I don’t need the details of what you’re doing, but I do need a plan of progress so I can understand if you’re delivering on the goals,” Tredgold says.

For example, coaching someone through a weight-loss plan doesn’t require detailed experience in nutrition or exercise, but it does require a set of milestones and the willingness to hold conversations about accountability if the plan goes awry. The same basic principle applies to much more arcane and technical endeavors.


3. Look at results, not progress reports

A manager pushes buttons (both literal and figurative) that induce their charges to move a progress report 10% closer to completion, or from a red status code to a yellow. A leader keeps it simple: are things done or not done? And if they are not done, when will they be done? Leaders focus on accountability to the team as a whole, not to the standard set by a progress report.

That means when items slip, it’s a valid item for a status meeting, where the implicit pressure of the entire team can be much greater than any sternly-worded email from a project manager ever could be.

“Get them to promise it in front of their peers, and then they will decide on their own to work the weekend to get it done,” says Bill Sanders, principal and senior consultant at Roebling Strauss. “It’s about creating an atmosphere of communication where people want to get the work done.”


4. Recognize that your training focused too much on process

Project management credentials and education arm you with management skills that focus on structure and processes. They are not fundamentally focused on leadership.

“When you do a PMI certification or learn PRINCE2, there is very little talk about people. Why? Because people are [difficult] to deal with,” Tredgold says. “It’s easier to focus on the process and the technology. But projects usually don’t fail because of technological capabilities, they fail because people weren’t inspired.”


5. Managing less will advance your career

Advanced positions are essentially about leading large teams of managers. Demonstrating leadership abilities, and being willing to establish direction and delegate responsibility, is a prerequisite for advancement. It shows that you have potential to handle larger teams, without making it seem like your project management expertise is the linchpin keeping the entire organization from collapsing.

Tredgold puts the problem simply: “If you have to do everything, I can’t promote you.”


6. You have to want to give up your safety net

Some managers manage because they like the safety and security of structure. Focusing on leadership means giving up that safety net. “You have fewer rules to follow. You aren’t just focused on pushing things around a Gantt chart,” Sanders says. “But if you want your role to focus on helping people achieve their objectives as quickly as possible, then you’re automatically stepping into a leadership role.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.