When you are in a Project Leadership role, you have a lot to do. As well as managing your project day-to-day, you’re responsible for your people. They look to you for leadership and guidance. But, with so many responsibilities, it can be hard to know what your priorities are. So, we’ll focus on my top 4 project leadership skills. If you develop each of them, they will set you up to LEAD.
Often, it is the soft skills that are hardest to practice. Yet they regularly make the biggest difference. There is a well-established acronym, listing four vital soft skills. For me, it forms a great checklist and reminder of my top 4 project leadership skills.
And, in this article, I want to share that acronym with you, with some tips and tricks along the way. So, let’s dive straight in, with the four leadership priorities we are going to focus on. And to make them memorable, they spell out LEAD:
You might want to pause here for a moment and look at each of our top four project leadership skills. How would you rate yourself on each one?
I recommend you use a simple score out of 5 for each of them:
Adding the figures together for your four leadership priorities will give you a Personal Leadership Score out of 20.
But, more importantly, the different scores in each section will help you recognize which of your leadership priorities you need to focus on.
Because these four project leadership skills are equally important, I recommend you start with the one that scored the lowest. If two scored equally low, then start with the one that appears first in the LEAD framework:
Listening before Encouraging before Asserting before Deciding
The first of your top four project leadership skills is listening to what your team members and stakeholders want and need to tell you. Listening is the soul of good communication.
The challenge on a busy project is creating time to give your full attention to someone, and really hear what they want to tell you. Indeed, sometimes it can be tricky to help someone into the position of wanting to tell you what you need to hear.
The better you are at listening, the easier people will find it to speak with you.
You may have been born being able to hear, but that doesn’t mean you were born a good listener. This is a skill you need to learn and practice. To listen well, you need to:
This makes listening your single most important skill. So in this course, we’ll look at why this is true, and seek to understand what listening really is.
But at the core of this powerful course, we’ll learn something nobody ever teaches at school – despite being so valuable… How to really listen.
And we’ll close by tackling the three main challenges every listener faces.
Listening is nice. It’s soft and fluffy and everyone likes it.
But, why should it be one of your top project leadership skills? Well, there are plenty of good reasons. And here are ten of them:
Your team members want to do their jobs well and develop their careers. And, it’s your job as a project leader to give them every possible opportunity to do this. There is no leadership without followers, so this must clearly be one of your top project leadership skills.
This is a big topic. And we have a big article with the catchy title of:
Do take a look at it.
Here, I want to focus on four aspects of everyday encouragement:
The key word here is ‘support‘; not ‘smother‘. It’s a trap I’ve seen new and well-meaning project leaders fall into. They know support is important, but they offer too much. This can leave people feeling smothered. They believe they aren’t allowed to take the initiative and don’t feel trusted. It can also be time-consuming, robbing you of much of the time you need for other leadership priorities.
But, done well, your support can provide:
Above all, team members want to understand what you expect of them, that you will back them up along the way, and – perhaps most important – the ‘why’ of what you are asking of them. If they don’t understand the purpose of what they’re doing, they will feel easily demotivated by the slightest setback. However, when people understand and appreciate the meaning behind their role, they are more resilient to setbacks and more ready to redouble their efforts when they make mistakes
Arguably, this is the most powerful workplace motivator – and de-motivator, if you get it wrong. There are two reasons for this, I think:
So, build recognition events into your regular project meetings. Give your team members a slot to describe their achievements and allow the team to recognize their contributions. This also provides a chance for the whole team to learn new ways of doing things better. By working together to embed good practices, you can move your whole team to a higher performance level.
Some people thrive on criticism. They soak it up and come back fighting.
Others wither up. But…Praise grows us; like water and sunlight grow a flower. Click To Tweet
Perhaps the best way to motivate your team members in a flourishing project is to set them up to succeed, and then catch them doing it!
Setting lots of project milestones, and breaking big milestones down into smaller ones, will create more points where you can recognize and praise success.
Rewards are not, as people often think, the primary motivators at work. Especially in the form of financial payments and bonuses. It is the motivator of last resort.
Money has minimal impact on our motivation, as long as we feel we are being rewarded enough to satisfy two criteria:
But we do like rewards. And the ones that have the biggest effect are well-within your power as a project leader, even if you don’t have control over salary, perks and bonuses. Here are some rewards every project manager can offer their team:
It’s easy to get caught up in the softer side of leadership and forget that sometimes, people want their leaders to guide them. To deliver a project, you need to balance two concerns:
We’ve addressed the relationship focus with our first two leadership priorities: Listening and Encouraging. The second two address the tasks at hand: Asserting and Deciding.
Asserting is the most tactical of our top 4 project leadership skills. It is directed at immediate action. On the other hand, Deciding is a more strategic skill and is about preparing for future action.
This may be because:
On the other hand, if the risk of failure is low, it is often better to give minimal direction. Let your team members figure things out for themselves. They’ll learn more that way. And if they get it wrong, they’ll learn even more.
Your leadership priority is not to prevent all failures. It is to manage the risks of failure, so the benefits of trying new solutions and opportunities for deeper learning are balanced against the potential costs of failure.
It is important to understand the relationship between three behaviors:
I like to think of your decision-making priority as being the strategic aspect of your task focus. On projects, choices are as much about setting priorities from among competing possibilities, as about picking one ‘right’ answer over other ‘wrong’ answers.
And with so much change and uncertainty, you will need to make a lot of choices, throughout your project. That’s why I include decision-making among my top 4 project leadership skills.
To make a good decision, you’ll need to:
We’ve published two long articles on decision-making:
So, we don’t need to discuss this in too much depth. But my key leadership tip is that good decision-making needs:
A good leader will use their team to leverage their decision-making capacity.
Doing what is right is what often makes decisions difficult. And that’s when ‘right‘ and ‘fair‘ give the same answer. As a leader, one of your priorities has to be to understand your own values and make your decisions with integrity. Ultimately, you may use colleagues to help you understand your decisions, but you must always be prepared to take responsibility for the choices you make.
A ‘good’ decision is not the same as a ‘right’ decision.
You can only know if a decision was the right one with the benefit of hindsight. But, you should be able to know whether you are making a good decision at the point of deciding. Therefore, if it is a good decision, it will also be the one with the best chance of turning out right. But, even if it turns out to be wrong, a good decision won’t stop being a good decision.
Five things make up a good decision:
I’ve outlined my own top four leadership priorities:
But I always want to learn from you, my readers. So let me know what your own top project leadership skills are, and how you implement them on your own projects. Use the comments section below, and I’ll respond to every contribution you make.
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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LEAD: Your Four Project Leadership Priorities
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