12 February, 2018

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

Team Leadership itself is not hard.  What makes it difficult is fitting it in among a load of other project priorities that are facing you. You’re under pressure to do this and do that. So, you often default to a combination of doing it yourself, telling people what to do, and getting annoyed with a general lack of progress.

And, if this is your first opportunity to lead a project team, you want to do well. So, these pressures can mount up and suck the energy out of you.

In this article, I want to hone down to the four essentials of project team leadership. None of the fancy stuff. Just the four things that make the biggest difference.

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership
The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

You Get the Team You Deserve

Leadership isn’t something you are born with, like brown eyes. And it is not something your parents give you like a doll. It is a talent that comes from learning, practicing, and mastering many different skills.

Some people get the opportunity to do this from early in their lives, whilst others need to wait a little longer.

Some people seize every opportunity they get, while others let them pass by.

I believe there is a simple truth about team leadership.
And all project managers need to understand it…

You get the team you deserve Click To Tweet

First and Foremost Team Leadership is about Attitude

‘You get the team you deserve’ does not mean that the universe will reward good people with a good team.. And punish bad people with a bad team.

If only life were that fair.

Instead, it is about the attitude you take to the people you have. Never confuse rank, position, grade, or status, for leadership. They are very different. Leadership is about who you are, what you do, and how you do it.

Good leadership is about the attitude you take to the people you have.

Let’s face it: few Project Managers are privileged to hand-pick our ideal team. Most often, we get who are allocated to us, and these are the people we must lead. If you take the attitude that this is not the team you wanted, then all is lost.

How to Deserve the Team You Want

On the other hand, if you take the attitude that this is the best team you could have had…

If you invest your time, your energy, and you commitment into helping this team succeed…

Then, perhaps, you’ll deserve a great team.

So, what are the essentials to helping your team succeed?

There are four:

  1. The Individual
    Give everyone the attention they need
  2. The Plan
    People will only follow you if they are confident that you know where you are going
  3. The Team
    People need to feel part of something worthwhile
  4. Communication
    Create an environment where your people can succeed
The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership
The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership

Focus Your Team Leadership on Individuals

There’s no ‘I’ in Team

That’s a pretty old joke, and we know what it means. But it’s wrong.

If there is no sense of individuality in your project team, then where is the diversity that gives a team its:

  • Strength in problems solving
  • Robustness in challenge and decision making, or
  • Joy in learning from one another?

Your first priority in project team leadership is to get to know each team member and find out their strengths. It is easy to deprecate people for what they aren’t good at. Go beyond this, though.

Value people for what they can offer – rather than deprecating them for what they cannot. Click To Tweet

Invest your time and energy in helping each one to develop and grow as a result of involvement in your project.  There are two dimensions you can stretch people in:

  1. Skills
    The chance to learn new things and to strengthen existing skills towards mastery is intrinsically motivating as well as good for careers and therefore for employers.
  2. Responsibilities
    Opportunities to take and discharge more responsibility grow character and judgement.

To learn more…

Build and Share a Clear Plan

A project team needs to feel confidence in you as a team leader. And, for that, they need a sense of control and certainty. This is what a plan brings.  Without it they can have little confidence in you.

But it is important to involve your team in creating your plan.

You are the project manager. So, it is easy to believe that you have a monopoly on wisdom and foresight, when it comes to planning. You don’t.  There are three compelling reasons to involve team members in planning:

  1. Together, you have greater collective wisdom than any one of you alone.
  2. Involving people in the planning process is a recognition of their experience, knowledge and judgement – which is highly motivating.
  3. When team members get involved in planning, they become more committed to the plan. They have a reputational stake in making the plan work.

But what about Agile Projects?

The plan you need, to foster confidence is about making sure your team knows what you expect of them, and the part they have to play. This means that what matters are:

  • a clear goal
  • operational processes
  • certainty about what tomorrow holds

A well-run Agile project can offer all of this, without a traditional plan.

Fostering a Sense of Team Spirit

People want to feel a sense of belonging and a project team is ideally placed to provide that.  So, team leadership can offer three things we value particularly highly at work:

  1. relationships,
  2. recognition and
  3. respect.

Your job is to cultivate a team spirit and the best place to start is with a clear goal.  A shared and compelling purpose is both motivating and unifying.

What you don’t need, is complex ‘team-building’ events. Instead, establish a few simple team traditions, like cakes on Friday or celebrating team successes on a Monday morning. These are the sorts of things that will bring people together and foster the loyalty, mutual regard and collaborative behaviours that will carry you all through easy times and hard.

Communicating Relentlessly… and well.

Nothing stifles enthusiasm more than the feeling of not knowing what is going on, what is expected of me, and what the future holds.

So, a vital part of team leadership is creating effective communication channels. You must take responsibility not just for communicating well yourself, but also for building a culture of good, collaborative team communication among your team members. Done well, this leads to spontaneous collaboration, seamless conflict resolution and real caring between colleagues.

This is important, because if all you do is become a hub of good communication; then you will become a point of weakness for your team. If you aren’t there, communication will break down.

If all you do is become a hub of good communication; then you will become a point of weakness for your team. Click To Tweet

Feedback: the Primary Team Leadership Communication Mode

Developing your team members needs constant attention. And the way you can best do this is by offering high quality performance feedback.

Use feedback to constantly balance the levels of support and challenge you offer. And feed your team members with the resources they need, when they need them.

Basic Care and Maintenance

My principle attitude to team leadership is that you are there to take care of your team. Your job is to ensure that they have the resources they need, and also that you remove unwanted heat and contaminants from your team before they stifle enthusiasm and productivity.

It’s like your job is to keep your team motivated by acting as a human environmental control mechanism.

This means Showing Courage

Problems build up and, just like the fizzing bombs in Tom and Jerry. And, if you don’t tackle them quickly, they will explode in your face.

Not only does this hurt you and the people around you, but avoiding problems looks weak to your team. It creates a climate of ‘what next?’ fear.  A positive willingness to take on issues rapidly, work the problems, and make decisions will create the confidence in your leadership that motivates followers.

Deserving Your Team

An enthusiastic team will want to work hard for you.

What will you give them in return?

There is no need for elaborate gifts and bonuses: their role in motivation is exaggerated by the people who have become accustomed to them.  Remember that deserving a great team boils down to attitude. Fundamentally, people need to feel valued for their efforts. A three step process works well:

  1. Recognise your team members’ contributions
    …and help them to learn valuable lessons from their experience
  2. Reward their efforts
    …with something as simple as your praise and thanks
  3. Celebrate their successes
    …by recognising them in front of their peers

Here is the most important thing, though.  Do not save all of your feedback, praise, and opportunities to learn from experience to the end of the work.  Build it into the regular cycle of progress checks and support.  This way, you can harvest its benefits throughout the life of your team.

The Essence of Project Team Leadership

People want to follow leaders.

So be the leader whom people want to follow.

Define your own leadership template to build the style that feels right to you and creates the culture that you want. Integrity is not negotiable, but here’s what I would also want:

  • enthusiasm and confidence,
  • optimism and flexibility,
  • openness and compassion,
  • challenge and excitement.

To find out how teams form:

What are your Team Leadership Essentials?

What will your leadership watchwords be?

And how hard are you prepared to work to make them a day-to-day reality; even on the toughest of days?

Tell us about what you think are the project team leadership essentials in the comments below. And, we’ll look forward to respondng to everything you contribute.

This article is adapted from an extract from How to Manage a great Project (US|UK) by Mike Clayton (Pearson, 2014)

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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