Wowing the audience when you’re the ‘support act’ The leadership challenges of programme and project management roles Karen Tregaskis, Director, Tregaskis Brown Ltd Programme and Project Managers are leaders
Programme and Project Managers are often excluded from organisational leadership development initiatives. They’re seen as the ‘support act,’ relied on to deliver, but outside of the line management structure. However there is a strong argument for placing Project and Programme Managers centre stage because organisations rely on them to deliver on strategy, to successfully manage large investments and complex change initiatives. Everyone would benefit from bringing Programme and Project Managers into the scope of organisational leadership development initiatives, however there is plenty we can do ourselves to build our leadership capability ourselves.
Becoming a successful leader
We can all think of individual Programme or Project Managers who have become extremely influential. You can be certain that they appreciate the complexities of leadership in the project environment and are excellent leaders themselves.
Taking responsibility for our own leadership development will drive the success of our projects and substantially increase our career options.
It’s important to understand that the pressures of project and programme leadership differ in fundamental ways from those of line management:
1. We typically don’t have positional authority over the stakeholders most critical to the success
of our programmes and projects. Therefore we are reliant on our influence to win and sustain cooperation.
2. Success requires some core leadership traits that are particular to our environment – the time
cost and quality specifics of projects create pressures that are not present for line managers.
One thing we do have in common with our line management colleagues; developing leadership capability is a journey. We become effective leaders over time by reflecting on our experiences, challenging ourselves and investing in our development.
Gaining influence without authority
Great Programme and Project Managers wield considerable influence even though they are may be seen as the ‘support act’ when it comes to business as usual. The appropriate use of influence is critical to their success and they typically achieve this through their considerable personal authority.
William Oncken1 describes three forms of personal authority that are an excellent match for the leadership demands of programme and project management roles. It is crucial that Programme and Project Managers develop all of these forms of personal authority. Relying solely on one will not create the level of influence required. Also, over-reliance on one type of authority risks reducing, rather than enhancing a person’s influence. The three types of authority defined by Oncken are:
The authority of competence Really, really knowing your stuff. People who demonstrate high levels of competence in their role will have authority that is independent of their position. People are more likely to listen to a competent person; it would be risky not to take their advice.
The authority of character Who we are speaks more eloquently than what we say. People are much more likely to be influenced by someone who they know to be of good character; someone who has proven to be sincere, honest, reliable and ethical.
The authority of personality
Be easy to work with. Approachable people, who listen and are willing to cooperate, encourage the same behaviour in others. Approachable Programme and Projects Managers will know about emerging risks, opportunities and issues early on. They don’t engender the avoidance and denial behaviours that can dominate in projects under pressure.
Leadership traits that really make a difference
The stand-out leadership trait of great Programme and Project Managers is taking personal accountability. Volumes have been written about this topic; however the underlying principle remains the same.
Programme and Project Managers who take personal accountability:
Consistently take a problem-solving approach when faced with challenges
Manage their own reactions, particularly in difficult situations
Keep their ego in check despite the reactions of others
Are comfortable with critical feedback
At Tregaskis Brown, we see this as a core skill for everyone on our team. Trying to develop as a leader without taking personal accountability is like having Christmas decorations without a tree to hang them on.
1 The Authority to Manage: Oncken W. Training Bul etin, 10 July 1967
Leadership and career paths
It is a common misconception that the career path to programme management is to take on increasingly large projects. There is a further misconception that programme management consists of coordinating a number of associated projects. However genuine programme management is about delivering transformational business change; think of it as programmes with a capital “P.” Therefore the leadership demands of programme management are different to those of project management.
Leadership development research2 indicates that different leadership competencies are important at different levels of responsibility. For example in their research, Lombardo and Eichinger identified that ‘Dealing with Ambiguity’ is a critical competence at the executive level whereas ‘Action Oriented’ is critical for first line management roles.
This research is equally relevant for programme and project management roles. The leadership competencies required to lead programmes are very different to those required in the project management environment. Competencies such as ‘Strategic agility’ and ‘Dealing with ambiguity’ are not generally required in the project environment. However managers of substantial programmes will rely on these competencies to succeed.
Programme and Project Managers should establish which leadership competencies are critical for their role and consider how effective they are in these competencies. There is plenty of generic leadership material available to help you in this process - which brings me to my final point:
Developing leadership capability is a journey
The path to developing programme and project leadership competence is not always clear. Current learning and development theory suggests that:
70% of improved leadership behaviour is derived from on the job experience therefore this
is the most important aspect of any development process
20% of improvements can be attributed to receiving constructive feedback and working
Only 10% is attributable to formal training
Project and Programme Managers should look to develop their leadership capability through all of these methods. Consider:
Focus on developing up to two leadership competencies at any one time, research
indicates that more than this and you won’t make progress
Keep up with current leadership thinking through your reading, there are several good
Attend leadership development programmes and seminars to challenge your current
Seek out and exploit every opportunity to work with successful leaders
Find a mentor or a coach to provide feedback, advice and support
Put yourself in situations that require you to learn and grow. These can be uncomfortable
at the time but are effective in pushing us up a level
2 FYI For Your Improvement, A Guide for Development and Coaching, Korn/Ferry International, 2009
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