I’ve heard someone saying: “Everyone can be a project manager”.
Following his line of reasoning, we could also say that everyone can dance. However, if you have ventured onto various dance floors you will be familiar with a spectrum of outcomes – from individuals nailing it to others looking completely out of depth like a bull in a china shop.
Hold onto this thought and imagine the range of results when appointing just anyone to be a project manager. The same logic could be applied to appointing anyone to be a leader, whether on a corporate C-Suite level or the global government stage. If the success of your project or goal was of utmost importance, would you truly want to risk appointing just anyone?
What if the options for this kind of appointment were limited?
In such a case, and reflecting on my past career as a Project Manager, Operations and Project Director and now Vice President, I’ve made a connection on 5 specific project management skills which can bolster leadership success:
1. Soft skills
2. Stakeholders management
3. Risk Management
4. Change control and management of change
5. Lessons learnt.
Can these project management skills genuinely enhance leadership in their pursuit of success? The answer is yes, as there are many synergies between these two roles.
Project Management is the use of specific knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to guide and influence project team (who usually are not direct reports) to deliver value for stakeholders; whilst projects are efforts to create value through unique products, services and processes .
Leadership, on the other hand, stems from social influence, not authority or power, allowing an individual with particular personality traits to guide and lead others (who may not be their direct reports) in maximising efforts towards achieving a goal .
One can argue that a project manager is, in essence, a leader on a smaller scale.
Let’s explore each of these skills with relevant examples to support the connection I’ve made. Starting with number one on the list: soft skills.
1. Soft Skills
What exactly are soft skills?
Soft skills are attributes that govern how you interact and work with others. They include key competencies like communication, teamwork and other interpersonal skills. Employers value soft skills since they are hard to teach and vital for sustained success of an organisation. These stand in contracts to hard skills, which are technical in nature and job-specific .
Why are soft skills vital in project management?
Projects, programmes, and portfolios depend on the skillful orchestration of people to meet specified objectives. Project Managers, recognising their own limitations, need to continually reassess their strengths and weaknesses in order to effectively delegate tasks, manage work, and guide their teams toward success .
Unlike functional manager, Project managers rarely have direct reports. Their authority is often indirect, so success depends on using soft skills to foster commitment and engagement within team members. A project manager’s proficiency in these soft skills is critical, as it shapes the communication of project objectives ensuring that the team members understand and fulfil their responsibilities.
Soft skills also shape collaboration within teams and motivate team members to achieve desired results. With projects often bringing unexpected challenges, a project manager’s creativity and critical thinking skills become crucial in finding relevant solutions that keep the project on course.
Leadership demands more than experience and knowledge. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, leaders are individuals with particular personality traits, and soft skills are essential to effectively navigate and collaborate with diverse cultures or perspectives. Therefore soft skills are paramount for bolstering global leadership in the quest for success.
Unfortunately, traditional educational environments like schools or universities often overlook the development of these soft skills. This neglect occurs despite numerous sources heralding soft skills as essential in today’s digital world, with some even deeming them indispensable for future employees . As noted in Forbes, wise automation allows leaders to refocus on leading, fostering better communication and cooperation, driving innovation, and enacting positive organizational change. However, this shift demands an upgrade in “soft skills,” now considered a vital currency in the workforce .
While acquiring these skills may seem an overwhelming process, it doesn’t have to be that way. Experience-based courses available online can hone and master these skills .
Since people are at heart soft skills, let’s turn our attention to the second skill on the list: stakeholder management.
2. Stakeholders Management
What does stakeholders management entail?
The Association for Project Management (APM) defines stakeholders management as a systematic process of identifying, analysing, planning and implementing actions to engage with stakeholders .
Projects are diverse in nature, varying in duration, complexity, stakeholder(s) requirements, and other factors. Upon appointed, a project manager’s role becomes multifaceted. They must consider all these variables, skilfully navigating through them to meet the expectations of stakeholders associated with the project’s deliverables.
But who are these project stakeholders, and what makes them so important?
Stakeholders can be any individual, group, or organization, internal or external, with an interest in the project. Examples include investors, employees, customers, suppliers and more. Each stakeholder can directly or indirectly impact the project’s success or failure. Since stakeholders may have different and sometimes conflicting interests, classifying them according to their potential influence and keeping them updated on progress is essential .
Why is satisfying and identifying key stakeholders so crucial? Doing so enhances the chances of project success and reduces the risk of conflicts that could potentially derail the project. Mishandling stakeholder expectations can result in serious consequences like a damaged reputation or the withdrawal of vital funds.
Interestingly, commitments made by public officials or governments to their electorate, especially during election campaigns, may not always have been fulfilled, especially when decisions favoured certain influential stakeholder groups over other.
This situation points to an area for improvement, calling for the same level of care, engagement and diligence in stakeholders management as exhibited by project managers.
That’s why I’ve included Stakeholders Management as the second skill necessary to fortify leadership in their quest for success, with risk management up next.
3. Risk Management
Risk management is a process that allows the identification and control of individual risk events and overall risk, ultimately aiming to enhance success by minimising threats and maximising opportunities . Every project is inherently risky due to its unique nature, constraints, underlying assumptions and the fact that it is executed by individuals who are subject to external influences.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) further clarifies that an individual risk is an uncertain event of set of circumstances, that should it occur, will have an effect the achievement of one or more objectives. In contracts, the overall risk is defined as the exposure of stakeholders to the consequences of variations in outcomes, which arise from an accumulation of individual risks along with other sources of uncertainty .
Risks are adverse events which could impact project execution and consequently, stakeholder(s) satisfaction. Risks can vary widely across projects, especially those of different complexities. Therefore an effective risk management is an essential component of a project manager’s skill set. Experienced project managers, in collaboration with relevant subject matter experts, apply various risk mitigation strategies such as avoidance, reduction, transfer, acceptance, or sharing of threats to protect the project baseline, deliverables and pre-defined requirements and expectations, such as quality of final product or timely execution. This process is iterative, and each risk response is quantified before and after risk mitigation strategy is defined. Risks can be internally delegated or escalated depending on their potential impact on factors like an organization’s reputation, safety, or profitability.
Unfortunately, our global leadership often seems to lack this level of diligence. Political decisions are sometimes made in isolation, without sufficient discussions on risk mitigation strategies or consultation with subject matter experts to assess potential consequence and communicate findings with relevant stakeholders, such as the electorate. Instead, when decisions prove ineffective, the burden of rectification, including costs, is transferred to the general public. This pattern is evident in situations like the bailouts of financial institutions in 2009 and again in 2023, as well as the current inflation-driven increases in interest rates that consequently drive up the cost of production or services. So what would a good mitigation strategy look like?
For years, experts like Ray Dalio (an American billionaire investor and hedge fund manager) have been advising that inflation is a significant problem requiring intervention by the Federal Reserve (Fed). While tightening monetary policy may reduce inflation by decreasing spending, it doesn’t necessarily improve the situation in the long term, as it reduces buying power and can lead to economic weakness or stagflation. Instead, the sustainable solution is to raise productivity, with central banks using their powers to keep debt assets and liabilities relatively stable, similarly to a skilled driver of a car who anticipates when to accelerate or slow down instead of slamming the brakes or hitting the gas pedal hard each time .
Why should you pay attention to what happens in the finical sector in the US? Because since World War II, the dollar has been most widely used currency for international trade. It’s the reserve currency held by central banks around the world and changes to its exchange rate affect international trade, influencing financial, economic or political (in)stability around the globe .
Hence the importance of effective risk management and should risks mitigation strategies require changes to be incorporated – this is where the change control and management of change come into play.
4. Change Control and Management of Change
So, what conditions must be met for a change to be initiated, approved, and incorporated?
For change to be initiated, approved and incorporated, three factors must collectively outweigh the cost of implementing the change: the dissatisfaction with the current situation, the desirability of the proposed change, and the practicality of making that change. This assessment needs to occur throughout the project life cycle, taking into account the impact of change on outcomes and overall project benefits .
Effective change management plays a pivotal role in the successful completion of projects as it has implications that span the entire project lifecycle. To illustrate, consider the scenario where you decide to incorporate a small system into your design solution. The change management process would involve not only the additional drafting resources needed to incorporate this element into the design, but a comprehensive assessment of the impact on raw materials, fabrication, installation, operations, regulatory requirements, and more.
As this example shows, change management is a complex process requiring critical thinking to fully understand and assess the scope of its impact on project benefits and the pathway to completion .
Despite complex changes introduced on global scale, global leadership change management practice doesn’t seem to resemble the above approach.
Changes do not always appear to be thoroughly analysed or comprehensively assessed. One may question how was the cost of change compared against the combined dissatisfaction with the current state, the attractiveness of the proposed change, and the practicality of implementing that change. Let’s consider for instance the global efforts to transition to green energy.
Modern economies heavily dependent on fossil fuels to exist and flourish. Yet they face a dilemma – on the one hand they must transition to renewable energy sources rapidly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, on the other hand they must obtain sufficient energy supplies while transitioning from high net energy fossil fuels to lower net energy renewables .
To achieve this, nations (the wealthy as well as the poorer ones) need to invest in development of low-carbon energy infrastructure, which construction and maintenance will itself require energy. The, not so widely discussed, fact is that the transition may consume much of the energy available to society, and also be a source of considerable emissions. It is estimated that carbon emissions associated with the transition to a low-carbon energy system are ranging from 70 to 395 GtCO2 (with a cross-scenario average of 195 GtCO2). This means that the actual share of carbon emissions for the energy system will increase from 10% today to 27% in 2050 .
Effective management of change relies on comprehensive assessment of its costs and benefits throughout the entire life cycle, from inception to implementation. Unfortunately, such an exhaustive approach does not seem to be reflected in current practices, which often focus on a fragment of the overall required change.
On a positive note, if a management of change fails, there is the final skill for us to utilise, and it’s the last one on the list of project management skills: learning lessons from failures.
There are no secrets to success.Colin Power
It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.
5. Lessons Learnt
What are lessons learnt?
Project management Institute (PMI) defines lessons learnt as documented information that reflects both the positive and negative experiences from a project . For this process to provide project managers with an opportunity to learn from others’ actual experiences, it needs to be constructive and foster a “no-blame” environment .
Purpose of the lessons learnt assessment is to identify the successful elements and areas that require improvement. The lessons learnt thus become a vehicle for continuous improvement and informed decision-making, enabling the replication of success and avoidance of repeated mistakes in subsequent projects. This diligence is of paramount importance in a resource-constrained environment.
Various sources can contribute to lessons learnt, ranging from project reviews and audits, stakeholders’ feedback, to an in-depth analysis of project metrics and performance data. To sift through this extensive data, identify patterns, and anticipate potential crises, digital literacy becomes an indispensable skill.
Who gets invited to a lessons learnt sessions?
The pool of participants in lessons learnt reviews can vary, encompassing project managers, team members, customer representatives, and even the leadership. The documentation from these reviews can be shared with a broader group of interested stakeholders. It’s worth noting that when lessons learnt are followed by the execution of identified actions, they can foster meaningful change and improvement.
This capability is particularly relevant today, as global leadership often grapples with learning from past experiences and applying those lessons to current and future situations. This requires leaders to be open to feedback, prepared to reassess their decisions and existing assumptions as new data and information emerge in this digital era.
Taking the events post the 2008-09 financial crisis as an example, we can observe the crucial role of lessons learnt. Governments across the globe responded to this crisis by rolling out new legislation designed to regulate financial activities .
In response to the crisis, the government and the Fed acted swiftly, deploying radical measures to control the situation, and laying out reforms designed to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. Some of these preventative measures, such as safeguarding against banks becoming too large to fail and mandating substantial cash reserves to buffer against a liquidity crisis, have proven to be effective.
However, broader reforms aimed at protecting consumers, investors, and borrowers have had less success. This became glaringly evident when a similar crisis unfolded in 2023, demonstrating the persistent gaps and the need for effective implementation of lessons learnt.
In essence, successful leadership mirrors competencies required in effective project management such as: superior soft skills, strategic stakeholder engagement, proactive risk management, comprehensive change management, and diligent implementation of lessons learnt. While these competencies are not the sole requirements for successful leadership, they form the core of project management skills that, when adapted by leaders, can enhance their success.
This relevance is particularly crucial in our current global leadership crisis, which has been acknowledged worldwide. According to Christine Lagarde, the President of the ECB, there are three main contributing factors to this situation :”
- Sheer scale and complexity of today’s challenges, which require unprecedented levels of multilateral coordination;
- Globalisation of events, where leaders can make progress by collaborating across countries, sectors and disciplines;
- As the need for cooperation becomes even greater, we see a countervailing wind blowing: the world is moving in directions that make collective action harder.
Indeed, the complexity of our global landscape has surged over centuries, reaching a peak in the face of today’s uncertainties: climate change, global inequality, geopolitical instability, energy uncertainty, pandemics, the collapse of financial institutions, global supply chain crisis, among other challenges. Yet, we have never been as equipped with data and technology to enhance our decision-making capabilities as we are today.
Each of the 5 project management skills detailed above forms the bedrock upon which leaders can steer their teams, organizations, or nations towards a brighter, more prosperous future. These principles serve as a constant reminder that effectual leadership, similarity to successful project management, is an ongoing journey.
You’re never too young to lead and never too old to learnKofi Annan
However, without consistent practice and real-life experience, one cannot expect to master the dance of leadership. Therefore, the road to becoming a great leader, much like that of a great project manager, is paved with continuous learning, practice, and adaptation to the ever-changing landscape of the world around us.
- Simplarity course – UDEMY