My review – “The Power of Project Leadership” by Susanne Madsen
Project Managers aspiring to advance in their careers typically work on their technical skills – getting better at their craft. However, what really differentiates them from their peers though are their people and leadership skills. Recent research by the Project Management Institute has established that leadership skills are essential to managing more complex projects in this changing world. Susanne Madsen has written a book focused on this message. The book gets to the heart of what matters if you, the project manager, are responsible for executing change. Project Execution is about people first and processes second, the author contends. The book makes a case that leadership skills are needed for a project manager to succeed at a higher level during this time of rapid change. An executive is quoted as saying – “If a project manager just follows orders he is not much use to me”. The executive in question is clearly stating which project managers are valued more – the ones with creativity and leadership skills. After making a case for a project manager to transition into a project leader, the author challenges the readers to locate their hidden drivers. Then she outlines the seven keys to leadership. The book finishes with the call to make the transition happen. The reader is provided with data, interviews and various exercises at different points in the book.
The exercise in the first section starts with identifying the patterns in the challenges the project managers face at work. The author then asks – “How many of your challenges, for instance, could be resolved if you were generally better at dealing with conflict, leading the team and interfacing with people?” The author suggests that the reader get in touch with his or her beliefs and mindset. Beliefs drive more than 90% of our actions subconsciously. A way to understand this sequence is – Beliefs > Attitudes > Actions > Results. The project leaders should develop an empowering mindset if they don’t already have one. The author quotes experts Anthony Robbins and Angela Duckworth of the “grit” fame to make her point. Madsen suggests that when events seem to go wrong , ask yourself how you can move forward in spite of the issues and look at the situation as an opportunity. The author then challengers the readers to find their big “why”. Why do they want to grow into a leader? Is it a drive for recognition, money or legacy one leaves? Madsen examines the six basic human needs as taught by personal development experts Anthony Robbins and Chloe Madanes – Certainty, Variety, Significance, Connection, Growth and Contribution. Author asks “which of these six human needs are driving you?” Madsen brings the discussion back to self-awareness – “Leadership is not about emulating others or following a specific set of rules. It’s about finding your own way and being who you are whilst serving your client and bringing your team with you.” After appealing to the readers’ desire to become excellent, the author discusses the seven keys to project leadership.
The first key is to be authentic. This idea is all about knowing who you are and owning who you are. The author suggests acting according to your values. This recommendation is in line with other leadership books. The true test of being authentic is doing what you say you will do. The author reminds us that your behavior is what people associate you with – sound and practical advice! Madsen suggests that a value driven project leader appreciates the uncertainty inherent in decision making, seeks differing viewpoints and then also listens to his or her intuition. One quote makes it clear: “Authentic leadership is about knowing your values and living by them.”
The second key “Lead with vision” reminded me of an old quote “without vision, people will perish.” Start with a clear agreed upon goal and then show people where you are going. The author cites J M Kouzes and B Z Posner (2009) who concluded that being forward looking and enlisting others in a shared view of the future are the most striking attributes separating leaders from non-leaders. Project leaders are encouraged to partner with sponsors as the vision is being shaped and help them define the project’s vision, goals and benefits. Partnering with your client will help you gain buy-in and a high degree of trust, says Madsen. This partnership allows you to add more value at a strategic level. The author suggests that the leaders focus on MVP – motivation, vision and project objectives. Project leaders should understand the business drivers and the strategic measures of success. The author also advocates obtaining understanding of human psychology to drive change in the organization. Many project managers are not skilled in dealing with the emotional responses from users who don’t like the product delivered to them. Project leaders understand emotions behind actions. They engage their audience with questions and storytelling.
The third key “improve and innovate” appeals project leaders to improve themselves and their team . The author starts by recommending taking a step back and taking a “helicopter view” of the project. Madsen suggests that keeping the status quo goes totally against a project leadership mindset. Project leaders are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and take risks to ensure progress. The way to be outstanding is to look for new ways to accomplish tasks. A good leader questions every part of the project and looks for opportunities to better utilize people and resources available. “You need to stand up for what you believe is right” – says Madsen. She challenges us to introspect and become aware of how risk taking we are. Being willing to test and fail is a critical part of project leadership courage. Madsen encourages us to seek diversity of thoughts as a way to seek better innovative solutions. Asking the right question to prod creativity is encouraged. We should ask the team and ourselves to think about the project from a customer’s point of view. Creating a space for your team to experiment is suggested, and that leads into the next key – empower people.
The fourth key “empower your team” is practical advice to help the team collaborate and win. Great project leaders guide their team by telling them what to do on a task but not necessarily how to do it. Peter Drucker is quoted saying – “the first secret of effectiveness is to understand the people you work with so that you can make use of their strengths.” Leadership is about facilitating collaboration at all levels and instilling the right culture, enabling the team to do what it does best. Great leaders don’t jump in and take over when something goes wrong. They stick with supporting and challenging from outside like a great football coach. The author provides multiple strategies to empower the team including challenging, providing focus, delegating and praising. Madsen challenges project managers to become a leader of people rather than a manager of tasks and processes. Finding out what brings out the best volunteer in a team member is one way to do so. The author advocates challenging and supporting a team member – with a keen understanding of their desires and strengths. The author also mentions multiple models of team dynamics, e.g. Tuckman’s famous Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. There is value in listening to intrinsic motivation, Madsen suggests.
The fifth key “get close to your stakeholders” means becoming a trusted advisor. A mature project leader understands that communication is the area where Project Managers spend most of their time, and that effective communication with all the stakeholders has the biggest impact on his or her project delivery. It is people who deliver projects, not processes. Many projects fail because of poor relationships. This failure can be avoided by building great relationships. “I believe there is no such thing as a difficult person. There are, however, lots of people with whom I have difficulty. ”suggests Wayne Strider, an interviewee. A project leader has the power to influence how a sponsor shows up. We need to take time to collaborate with a sponsor to communicate what their role and how they can steer the project, says Madsen. Project Leaders should have the courage to ask for help and guidance when required and to address conflict when it occurs. If the client or stakeholder goes off course and loses strategic focus or makes a poor decision, project leaders refrain from bluntly pointing it out. Instead they coach the stakeholders so that the sponsors come to realize their mistake on their own. Project leaders need to create and maintain high-trust environment to lead people through uncertainty and change. Trust building requires time, energy and conscious effort. The main components of project leadership trust are competence, capability, connection and communication. Communication is given its due in this section in the book. Madsen states – If you cannot express your thoughts clearly, the recipient will have little chance of making sense of them.
The sixth key “establishing your foundation” is related closely to the foundational Project Management concepts. This message is reminding readers to establish a foundational project management framework and master the basics, i.e. scope, requirements, benefits, cost, quality, communication and risks. Project leaders pay attention to tasks and processes while they are mastering people and strategy related elements. It is important to assess the needs of the project and implement only the necessary value adding tools and processes. One must tailor the processes to a project’s needs – there is no one size fits all. Taking time to define the scope and having a strong change management process is encouraged. A project leader creates project artifacts as applicable to the project.
The seventh key “work with intent” is to work with a purpose. This advice should be convincing for Project Managers who deal with goals and objectives during most of their work life. A lot of effort is wasted when the leader is not working with a clear intent. A tool to help the leaders is time management principles. On the lines of the renowned author Steven Covey’s important and urgent time management principles, Madsen recommends that project leaders spend time on proactive and important tasks first. Project leaders should minimize firefighting and stop timewasting activities. The author introduces a time management triangle dividing work items into three categories – proactive, firefighting and time wasting. A mature project leader spends 80% of their time in proactive category. Immature project managers focus on the short term solutions. A project leader should get out of the vicious cycle of fighting fires and wasting time. Madsen advices against multitasking — our brain performs better and our productivity improves when we focus on one task at a time. The author mentions tools like Pareto’s Principle to help readers focus.
The last section of the book brings everything together with items that can be put into action immediately. Author appeals to readers to think about and acknowledge their past achievements. A project manager’s journey from a manager to a leader can start with the ambition to grow and achieve. The author recommends that a project leadership student adopt the seven keys as a tool box, consider which tools are useful to help them achieve their ambitions, and then take actions. Introspection and listening to your intuition are encouraged. Take the first step on your journey and keep making progress. Understand that you will make mistakes and learn from them. Mastery of experiences will lead to efficacy and goal achievement, says the author quoting Psychologist Albert Bandura. There is nothing stronger than a made up mind. Make up your mind now. Manage your mind, stretch beyond your comfort zone and hire a coach if appropriate.