There is a fine line between art and science in certain professions. A brilliant surgeon will never reach full potential if he or she has an awful bedside manner. As the project management professional (PMP) credential becomes more and more important, and as more and more project managers obtain the PMP credential, it is no longer enough to master only the science of project management. Earning the PMP credential demonstrates that a project manager understands the “hard skills” of project management: earned value management, development of the work breakdown structure, project schedule, project budget, and risk management plan. However, there is another set of skills a project manager must master to reach his or her full potential: “soft skills,” such as interpersonal communication, leadership, negotiation skills, influencing, and personnel management. Soft skills are much more art than science. Companies that invest in the development of their project managers’ set of soft skills are the ones that have the greatest chance of achieving project success.
Among the most difficult skills for a project manager to master is communication. The ability to plan and build a communication management plan is a hard skill that doesn’t require finesse. Soft skills come into play when the project manager has to have difficult conversations, negotiate with the sponsor or stakeholders, or to detail subpar performance to a member of a project team. A 2012 study by Brandeis University cited that among the top ten reasons why projects fail is that there is inadequate communication within a project or among the project teams.  That same study rated the soft skill of communication, including progress tracking and reporting, as more than two times more responsible for failure or success than the hard skill set of creating the communication management plan. Many project managers live in the comfortable world of being able to make a plan, monitor the plan, and control costs, timelines, and scope. But the ones who will find the greatest success in the next decade will be those who can communicate clearly, influence stakeholders, and display team leadership.
Leadership within teams has long been something of a mystery. As a project manager, the number one resource that you have is your project team. What is holding you back from taking care of them? Do you have the necessary leadership skills to rally the team and deliver the big project on time and on budget? What constitutes a good leader is as difficult to define as what makes someone more prone to like chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Different people respond to different styles of leadership; the trick is to adapt your leadership style to the people on your team. If you are a project manager who has decided that your team has to adapt to you, then you are in for a rude awakening. Today’s employees are not the employees of yesterday; those employees who were hired by a large, respectable company and stayed at a job for 35 years, despite little personal satisfaction, simply because they were happy to have a job. The U.S. Department of Labor has reported that the average 18-to-38-year-old stays at a job an average of four years. Two million employees quit their jobs every single month in the U.S. Alan Hall of Forbes Magazine has stated that this is purely a leadership issue.  Many employees do not feel that they are respected by their bosses. They also feel like they are not paid what they are worth, and that when the team achieves success, they are not included in the rewards for those successes. Many employees are also convinced that leaders within their organization are not invested in their personal development and don’t underwrite honest mistakes. This all adds up to a growing sense within teams and organizations that those who are supposed to lead are only looking out for themselves, not for the health of the team or individual employees.
Retaining Team Members
How can the leadership gap be bridged and how can project managers hold onto their best and brightest? The answer is in inspiring, coaching, and mentoring your project team members. Inspiring your team members is not a difficult task if you get the right people on your team to begin with. This can be difficult if you are in a weak matrix organization that assigns team members to your team with little to no input from you. But if you are in a project-oriented organization or a strong matrix that allows you to have full or nearly full autonomy over hiring project team members, then the inspiration question begins and ends with you as the project manager. Ensure that you are hiring people who are in line with your organizational and project goals. Solicit input from those who are already serving on your team and ask for their feedback on the hiring process. Inspiring team members who already buy into the project and your organizational goals is much more easily accomplished than motivating someone who is only inspired twice a month: on the 1st and 15th.
Coaching and Communicating
The ability to effectively coach your team members is also important to the leadership dynamic within your team. Coaching the members of your team is a way to maintain constant communication, set expectations, and create a roadmap for success for your team members. Spending time communicating with your team members in a one-on-one setting demonstrates to them that they are important to the team. Communication ties directly back to the issue of employees leaving their jobs because they feel like their leaders don’t respect them and their talents. Show them otherwise by taking some time to communicate directly.
Setting clear expectations for the members of your project team is another critical leadership task. It can be extremely frustrating for team members to constantly wonder whether or not they are meeting or failing to meet the project manager’s expectations. While ground rules for a project are addressed in a kickoff meeting, individual duties and deliverables are not. Taking the time to address the senior members of your project team individually and setting the expectation that they demonstrate leadership will create a cascading effect within your team. You are responsible to set their roadmap and lead them, and they, in turn, are responsible for those who report to them.
Developing a mentoring program within your team is how to foster the professional development of our team members. Senior members of the team should be receptive to taking a junior member of the team “under their wing” and sharing success secrets. New team members should be encouraged to find a more senior member of the team with whom they would like to establish a mentor-mentee relationship. The agreement between the two team members must be mutual; there can be no mentoring or development if one of the parties is not interested. The sharing of a mentoring relationship between team members leads to greater team success by building camaraderie and trust within the team. The payoff for the junior members is receiving guidance and career advice, which strengthens their commitment to the team and to the project. The payoff for the project manager and leadership team is that committed team members will deliver better results. Forward-looking companies embrace and commit to developing project management soft skills in their project managers, which in turn reduces turnover and builds cohesive project teams.
Reproduced from Global Knowledge white paper: Emerging Trends in Project Management.
1. Marando, Anne. “Balancing Project Management Hard Skills and Soft Skills” (PDF) February 2012.
2. Hall, Alan. “‘I’m Outta Here!’ Why 2 Million Americans Quit Every Month (And 5 Steps to Turn the Epidemic Around)” Forbes Magazine, March 11, 2013.