You're Ready to LEad a Project Team?

You’re Ready To Lead a Project Team?

It started simply.

Joe had been called into the Portfolio Manager’s office first thing in the morning – and immediately offered a cup of tea.
“Tea?” he thought to himself. “Hang on…I barely speak to this guy and now he is asking if I want milk and sugar? What’s with that?”

The conversation began innocently enough, just casual banter about the weekend and the football – until like Dracula’s sisters at sunset, he felt the dread creeping up on him as those infamous words were uttered:

“Joe, I’d like you to do a job for me. I have a “squeaky” project that needs someone to get it back on track.  I’ve been watching you and think you are the right guy for the gig. Oh, by the way…it’s really important to the company that we get this right. Can I count on you? Good, glad to hear it.”

Oh dear.

In the moment that he received the hospital pass, Joe stepped across the Great Divide – no longer a Project Manager, he had become a Project Leader. Not simply responsible for his usual meat-and-potatoes delivery to time, cost and scope, Joe now had to pull the team together and get them motivated, placate influential and restless stakeholders and steer the leaky ship safely to shore.

These are the moments that can shape our careers – those brief windows where we can stand tall, define ourselves and drive real, enduring changes. They really are the diamonds that Project Leaders live for and that first timers like Joe can build a career on.

Of course, it’s not going to be easy for Joe – the first step into the Project Leader shoes can seem really daunting. But there are some markers that he can look for to help make his transition easier; simple things that ALL new Project Leaders can draw encouragement from.

If I could offer Joe some advice, I would start with these 5 personal favorites.

Ditch the desk.

Effective Leaders need to be visible.

Hiding behind emails or leaving last minute voice messages and then escaping the office will not cut it. Sure, meeting a new team and stakeholders can be nerve-wracking, particularly in Joe’s case where there is an air of distrust and poor morale, BUT first impressions pay themselves back time and time again.

In Australia, we learn at a very young age that “snakes and spiders are more scared of you than you are of them”.  In the same way, Joe should remember that even if he is feeling nervous, his audience will also feel the same; tremendous opportunity lies in the thought that his team is likely to be sick of the poor morale and itching to have him stand up and insert some positive energy.

People crave visibility from their leaders – they want to see them standing up front and setting the path, they want to be reminded that the leader is a real person and that they are in it together.

As Project Leaders, we can all do the same.

When you join a new team, identify the key people and introduce yourself. Take the initiative – share a coffee, pay them a visit, sit at their desk and talk about things. Put a face to the name, make a personal connection. Find out what they think of the project. Seek their opinions – openly, sincerely and with humility.

If Joe takes the initiative to get out from behind the desk and kick off authentic, personal, face to face contact with his team and wider community, then he will have a great opportunity to tap into a reservoir of goodwill.

Eat humble pie

My advice to Joe is something that I have had drummed into me over the years and which still holds true today.

When we step into any new situation, it is important that we conduct ourselves with humility. Over and over again, I have seen THIS proven true: “Remember that you don’t know everything and you don’t have all the answers. So don’t go into the situation pretending otherwise”.

Acknowledge your team, your stakeholders, mentors, colleagues, peers, partners and everyone in between. Let them know that they are appreciated and that their input is critical to the whole team’s success. Listen to what they have to say and learn to say thank you.
As Joe steps into the Big Shoes, he needs to remain humble and ask for help – show people that he needs them to remain alongside him. As much as he may have the shiny desk plate and the formal title, he will be setting himself up for failure unless he can bring his people along and tap into their experience.

Roll the sleeves up

Leading a team is tough work.

When Joe kicks off, he will need to roll his sleeves up and be prepared to work harder than ever. We know that his team is sure to be disjointed – schedules and costs are likely to be under pressure, expectations are confused and people will be looking for certainty.

One other thing that we already know – Joe will not be given more time or money. He will be expected to make do with the same resources and funding, the same timelines and the same deliverables. Phew.

So what can he do? He needs to act quickly, take control and build confidence and credibility with his team and key people.  Joe needs to fire up his team and reinforce their commitment by making sure that they feel involved – he needs to quickly create an environment where they feel like they can put their ideas on the table and be listened to.
Although it seems that everything is stacked against him, he CAN do this. Joe can get his people on board quickly if he gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility.

  • He can bring the team together and lay the cards out on the table; he can let them know the situation, explain what needs to be done and how they play a part.
  • He can set the ground rules, help them see their place and invite them to plan their work effort – encourage them to be bold and to trust their experience and intuition.
  • He can engage them in targeting “low-hanging fruit”, those quick and low risk deliverables that show progress, build momentum and instill confidence.

Build relationships

From Day One, Joe needs to take the initiative and connect with his key stakeholders.

He needs to devote time and energy to building bridges and connecting with them at a personal level; his stakeholders are anxious and he can go a long way to restoring confidence and gaining momentum by committing himself to understand their drivers and priorities and articulate exactly how his project can help grow the business.

He has a rare chance, right at the outset, to set the agenda and frame the conversation in his terms. This is a really valuable opportunity. Although there will be established lines of communication and a corporate hierarchy in place, Joe comes to the role with fresh eyes and fresh energy. This window will not last if left unattended, so he needs to act quickly.

But to do this, he needs to be bold and proactive.

  • He needs to seek senior people out and invest the time and effort in hearing what they have to say. Some of it may be unpleasant or challenging – but he needs to be persistent.
  • He must treat relationship-building as a long term investment; this is not a quick set-and-forget task on a schedule (“Met with the Sponsor? Check.”) but the start of a dynamic, influential engagement that if done properly, will provide authority, momentum, credibility and all-important executive support.

Connect with your network

One of the very best resources that a new Project Leader has at their disposal is their personal learning network – their mentors, advisors, colleagues, peers, partners and online communities. These are the people we turn to when we need to bounce around ideas, check on our instincts, look for advice or test the waters with trusted fellow professionals.

Joe needs to be proactive and reach out to check with his trusted circle as soon as possible – ask for their advice, tap into their past experience and even just seek simple reassurance that he is on the right track.  THIS can be a big step for new Leaders because it means accepting our vulnerability, admitting that we don’t know everything and asking for help. In a cut-throat corporate environment, this can be a difficult thing to do but with some creative thinking and serious effort, Joe will be the better and more confident for it.

Check your Appearance (inside and out!)

First impressions count.

The way that we dress, speak and behave – everything that we do as a Leader matters

It is absolutely critical that new Leaders step back daily and check in on their appearance, behaviour, language and even the way that they conduct themselves on Social Media.

As a Project Leader, Joe’s role is three-dimensional, multi-layered, 24/7, with an increasingly blurred line between his personal and professional lives.  Joe needs to think of himself as a role model, as someone that people look to for direction and support.  It is so important that acknowledge that whatever he says, wherever he says it – matters.

Joe’s stakeholders and partners will <a href=”http://blog.firebrandtalent.com/2013/04/the-day-social-media-killed-your-job-chances/” title=”The Day Social Media Killed Your Job Opportunity” target=”_blank”>check out what he has to say</a> on his LinkedIn profile, his Google+ page or his Twitter feed and that will form an opinion on his professional capabilities, rightly or wrongly, from what they read.

To be successful in the role, to gain the trust and acceptance of our teams and stakeholders, we need to conduct ourselves with absolute integrity and accept that the lines between our personal and business personas are increasingly blurred – for better or worse. We need to think of ourselves as a personal brand and take the time and effort to make sure that everything we do and say publically reinforces the sort of leader that we want to be seen as.

I would suggest to Joe that before he starts meeting his team and stakeholders, that he get a cup of tea and spend some serious time checking those photos and cleansing those pages.

Good Luck, Joe!

The first step into a Project Leadership role can be daunting and we are never totally prepared for it.

But rest assured, there are things we can do to make the transition easier – to gain the respect of our teams, the commitment of our stakeholders and the support of our wider communities. In fact, there is a fabulous array of people, communities, tips and lifehacks around the world that we can draw on to help us over the line.

I encourage Joe and any other new Project Leaders to draw breath, embrace the opportunity, take the first step and enjoy the ride!

Once you have drunk from the well, there’s no going back!