One of the project leaders I interviewed for my recent book The Power of Project Leadership was Benoit Jolin. I first met Benoit when I facilitated a project leadership session for Expedia. I was taken aback by his insights and asked if I could interview him. Below is the full interview from a true project leader. Enjoy his insights.
Influential Leadership Skills: Good project leaders have what it takes to become leaders in their organizations, and many often are. As they most often don't directly manage others, this requires them to earn their authority and lead by influence.
A healthy obsession over results: In addition project leaders have a natural drive anchored in execution. Future success is often a reflection of past performance and when it comes to project leadership, only results lead to value creation. They understand that when this is not achieved, nothing more than cost and effort have been produced.
Where do project managers most often go wrong? Which mistakes do they make?
Majoring on the minors: Weak project managers tend to procrastinate, get caught in process over progress and often lose sight of the end goal: what is the economic driver behind the project? This can lead to a rigid attitude that impedes effective team collaboration and increases the risk of the project succeeding.
Poor ability to reduce risk during early stages of the project: Despite a good appreciation of customer problems, many if not most product assumptions will be wrong. This is not a bad thing as long as care is taken to validate these assumptions early on. An effective way to do this is to clearly define key metrics that would indicate if an assumption is valid and test each assumption early on before any material investment of resources and cost is made. Data should inform future product investment decisions and help the project leader refine the solution definition. Continuous testing is a great way to eliminate HiPPO decision-making, reduce risk and make the organization stronger over time.
Courage: Making the right decisions requires courage, even more so when the right thing to do is to course correct or halt an investment. Too often, pleasing key stakeholders supersedes rational decision-making. Data and the insights resulting from a test-and-learn-approach [where the proposed product is tested through pilots and prototypes] are powerful allies and will help project leaders make the right decisions.
What are the most severe consequences of these mistakes?
Economic Loss: Too many projects fail once material investments (product, technology, marketing) have been made. Decisions to halt or pivot often come too late as cutting losses is a difficult thing to do psychologically and politically. By creating a product culture around testing, this risk is mitigated and the right product reflexes are developed.
Team Disengagement: Collaborators and stakeholders no longer buy-in to the project, lose interest and passion for the initiative, distance themselves mentally and politically and ultimately disengage. Project fatigue is a common risk, especially for intense projects or projects that span over a long timeframe. Poor project leadership accelerates and exacerbates these symptoms. Early and regular “wins” are required to maintain focus and senior leadership support.
In which ways do you feel that the recent economic crisis has impacted projects and the expectations, which companies have of project managers?
Less is more: My recent experience has led me to believe that two factors are contributing to a change in what executives expect from project management. (1) Urgency and the need to deliver tangible results in shorter and shorter timeframes, often due to investor/shareholder pressures for rapid returns and an increasingly competitive landscape, and (2) Return on capital as we expect more from each dollar invested.
As a result, what we are seeing is a growing distaste for unnecessary ceremony, excessive planning and status reporting, and a growing appetite for lean project management principles: early project de-risking through test and learn methods, fast failure models, high fidelity demos or prototypes, etc. It’s all about keeping it real (read: data driven decision-making) and focusing outcomes over outputs (read: useful, usable and tangible results). Less is definitely more today and wasteful procedure is making way for more experimentation.
What are your top tips for project mangers who want to step up, become authentic and impactful leaders who add real value, build great teams and get results?
Be in the know: Understand the customer for whom you are solving a problem. Spend as much time as possible with them directly instead of relying on a proxy such as a sales organization or market research to understand their pain points and what is important for them. Ask yourself repeatedly: “how could we increase our contributions to their success?” and focus strictly on that.
Focus: Have a clear understanding of what really matters and outline a plan to sharpen the focus on those areas only. Avoid the natural tendencies to please all stakeholders or cover all use cases. Saying NO is one of the most difficult things to do. This requires courage and self-confidence and these both come from having a profound understanding of the customers. More than anything, a project leader’s ability to influence will come from his ability to be perceived by others as a subject matter expert.
Embrace the details: Understand the details, but don’t drown in them. Strong PMs have an ability to helicopter in and out of details, having the desired outcomes top of mind, yet the curiosity to understand where the risks and issues lie. The devil does lies in the detail and great product leaders have, but control, their paranoiac nature.
Your drive will drive others: Ideally, find a project you are passionate about. Your passion will be contagious and help drive others involved. This will draw out peoples’ natural creative and curious side that often leads to innovative thinking and the building of great products that people love.
Fight ignorance: Know your strengths and weaknesses, admit when you don’t have the answer and own up to mistakes. Collaborators will respect you more and this will fuel your influential leadership abilities – key to successful projects.
Don’t panic: At some point, the pressure, demands or deadlines mount and it becomes easy to give in to emotional reactions. Don’t. When overwhelmed, take a step back and pause. Be aware that stress will affect your leadership style. Assess what circumstances are under your control and ignore the ones that aren’t. Divide complexity into small, bite sized tasks and ask yourself: “what would happen if we didn’t do X, Y, Z?”. Then only focus on the areas that would severely impact the outcome of the project. By tackling the discreet areas that matter most, you stand the chance of identifying and resolving the root causes that are contributing to the urgency. Your sense of cool will also calm others and increase odds of favourable outcomes in periods of stress.
Do you have any other tips that can help project managers become leaders?
Listen: Really listening is an art and requires practice and takes time, but one’s effectiveness as a manager will greatly improve as a result.
Feel what your client’s feel: Spend time with your clients understanding their world, their preoccupations, their pain points, their hopes/desires. Don’t ask, rather try to live their reality. Spend a day in their shoes, shadowing them. Feel what they feel. They will like you for it and this will make you immensely more successful.
Work for and with great project leaders: We all, to some extent, have a tendency model ourselves to the people we work with. This is especially true for people we admire. Find the best talent in your field and try to work with, for, or as close as possible to them.
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