How to Go From Project Manager to Project Leader

April 16, 2015 Marcus Varner

By Shawn Dickerson, GTM Director for Workfront. Article originally seen in Wired Innovations Insights.

shutterstock_149926760 Project managers play a vital role in every organization. But, despite their importance, they’ve traditionally been commoditized and compartmentalized, perceived as merely traffic cops focused exclusively on keeping their specific projects and teams running smoothly.

As businesses become more integrated across departments, project managers are being asked to develop a broader view, to understand how their projects impact other departments and the entire business, and to operate with a more holistic approach. This mandate requires a more advanced skill set, updated tools, and a strategic perspective that is new territory for many project managers.

While challenging for some, this evolution actually presents a unique opportunity for project managers to develop both the tactical and leadership skills they need to transform into project leaders. In return, this opens the door for project leaders to increase their value to the organization and expand their career opportunities for advancement beyond “traffic cop” status.

What separates an ordinary project manager from an extraordinary project leader? These four key differentiators provide a crucial starting point.

  • Visibility across the enterprise. Gaining broader visibility throughout the enterprise—across every department, into future projects coming down the pike and the overall strategic goals of the company—can give project managers an incredible advantage in managing their own projects, as well as providing strategic support where it’s needed in other areas. Of course, this holistic viewpoint and involvement requires management support and buy-in. However, the forward-thinking project leader might just find himself leading the charge to get tools and systems in place that give teams, managers, and executives better visibility into what’s being done.

In addition to adding strategic value, this visibility also provides tactical advantages, like enabling extraordinary leaders to prioritize effectively, maximize resource utilization, and avoid overwhelming the team. Projects flow more smoothly and on-schedule, winning the admiration of management and team-members.

"As the manager of the PMO, I'm supposed to know every issue on all 90 projects and what we're doing about them,” says Tiffany Schepens, Manager of PMO at Tampa General Hospital. “Gaining visibility of everything across the department means if I don’t know about the issue, I can look it up, and right there I've got the issue. I know what it is. I know what the status is and who's working on it.”

The ability to see what each team has on their plate and understand the trade-offs of working on one project versus another has enabled Schepens and her team to reduce the time spent in staff meetings by 66 percent and increase their project success rate by 11 percent in just three months.

  • Strategic resource management. Having adequate resources at your disposal is critical for both project and company success. While certainly resources may be limited by budget and personnel availability, extraordinary project leaders have the ability to achieve optimum utilization of the resources they do have to work with. Amid stiff competition for resources and the need to do more with less in a lean operational atmosphere, project leaders must be careful and calculated in allocating assignments, staff skills, and time.

With the superior visibility gained in mastering the first skill (above), project leaders can anticipate needs, make realistic assignments and prioritize tasks appropriately. Tracking work status in real time can also help the leader—and the entire team and organization—to stay on top of progress and identify and rectify obstacles to reduce unexpected deficits and last-minute surprises.

“We have eight project managers in the field. Now, we can actually see their project workloads, and when they get too many projects, we make that one sit out,” says Ed Budda, senior manager of Implementation Services at Draeger Medical. “They’ll raise the flag and say, ‘I just have too many on my plate. Can this one be reassigned?’ And we’ll look for the project managers who have a little less.”

By managing resources more efficiently and not overwhelming the team, Draeger’s Professional Services group has increased their on-time delivery ratings by 125 percent.

  • Team-wide alignment to strategic business goals. Creating a team-wide laser-sharp focus on a clear business strategy is vital to ensuring everyone works together toward the same goal. By getting everyone on the same page, deadlines and objectives can be met much faster and with less friction.

Exceptional project leaders start by working with stakeholders to identify the overall business goals that relate to each project or work request. Projects that don’t map to strategic goals are pushed to the back burner, tabled until time and resources allow. The next step is to communicate with team members about how individual project objectives align to the overall company goal. This gives the strategically aligned team the ability to focus on tasks that deliver maximum benefit for the organization, while justifying the need to set certain projects aside for now. When everyone agrees on the strategic alignment from the start, projects run smoother and deliver better results, with less stress, chaos, and catch-up.

University Hospitals has taken alignment mapping to a whole new level, by creating a scoring system for each project. “It allows us to take a step back and compare a business project to a clinical project to an infrastructure project, which all could be requiring the same resources. It lets us rank projects as we go into governance discussions,” says Andy Kinnear, Director of PMO.

Ensuring strategic alignment can dramatically increase the amount of time spent on strategic projects by as much as 150 percent, eliminating time wasted on busy work and doubling or even quadrupling project capacity for some companies, allowing them to do more work with the same amount of staff and resources.

  • Efficient collaboration and seamless communication. We’ve all heard stories about the mailroom clerk who came up with the brilliant idea to solve a big company challenge. But, this isn’t just a novel ideal—collaborating with and seeking input from fellow team members and leaders across the organization is critical to achieving both project and company-wide success. With visibility, resource management, and strategic alignment in place, project leaders can understand how and where projects, priorities, resources and expertise connect across the organization.

This provides new opportunities to bring cross-team or cross-departmental resources to bear in new and innovative ways to solve challenges and devise novel solutions. But, to support this type of broad-scale collaboration, seamless, integrated communication is a must. Everyone must be on the same channel, using the same system to share resources, ask for input or assistance and discuss obstacles and strategies to overcome them.

Too often, organizations use multiple tools and channels, like email, phone, voicemail, instant messaging, social networks, etc. to communicate, making it difficult to keep up, which allows critical details and tasks to slip through the cracks. By centralizing and streamlining all communication onto one system, the entire organization can keep up and move forward.

At Trek Bicycle Corporation, streamlining communication and collaboration onto a single system has dramatically improved time management and productivity. “Each week, 40 percent of my time was spent chasing down how projects were going, what information does a manager need, contacting other teams globally on how things are going, and phone calls at night, sending a lot of emails,” said Kris Lamp, director of program management at Trek. “Now I can go into a project, open it up, see the notes in there, and send it off to my manager, saying, 'Here it is.' Or he could even do it.”

As a result, team members recovered 30 percent of the time previously lost to maintaining spreadsheets, and on-time product delivery increased by 80 percent, adding millions in new revenue.

Developing outstanding leadership skills and proficiency in advanced work management techniques and tools can empower project managers to enhance their strategic value to the organization and prevent being perceived as ordinary, commoditized traffic cops. Demonstrating leadership, strategic foresight, exceptional resource allocation, and collaboration skills improves job effectiveness at the tactical level and enhances career growth and advancement opportunities. By transforming from a project manager, project leaders can become role models and valued team members within the organization for their ability to boost morale, productivity and profitability.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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