Project Manager: Leader or Administrator?

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

I’ve always believed that Project Managers are leaders, but I don’t know if I am alone in that belief. On the surface people will say it’s a leadership role, however as I’ve watched how people behave, I would say they truly don’t respect the role as a leadership one. Now, that also has a lot to do with the Project Manager themselves but I believe they get caught in this weird space that causes them to feel like they are nothing more than an administrator with all the responsibility of a leader.

Usually, Project Managers don’t have any authority over those who are on their project. Having people on a project that report to others can be really confusing and difficult when it comes to leading a team to a productive and positive outcome. This can have a varying impact, so I thought I would list the top four issues as it relates to Leadership and Project Management and how to overcome them.

The lazy or resentful team member.

This “lazy” person is usually assigned because it’s the only person available to do the work. Sometimes those who are more capable have been assigned to other seemingly more important projects. You can also get the person who really doesn’t want to be on the project for whatever reason. I have found that putting the effort into getting closer to this person and understanding what motivates them as quickly as possible is the best technique. Building a bond of trust and encouragement as soon as possible is the key to getting them engaged. Get over whether or not you should “have to” motivate or get close to your team. If you feel that way, then you will always struggle with people on your project. The other thing I find that works is short milestones and checking in. Don’t confuse that with micromanaging. You aren’t telling them what to do, however, you are engaging often to ensure they are making progress. Not only does that help with trust and motivation, but it also builds their self-esteem as a valuable member of the project team.

The team member who feels they know more or better.

This person can be an extremely valuable person on the team if you can get them over their headiness. Instead of immediately bristling, lean on them for their expertise however make sure you do your due diligence that the information is accurate and not just the advice from someone who wants to sound or be important. It’s most likely this person has not been heard in the past whether it’s his own manager or the previous PM, so you have some trust to build. Also, it’s important to make sure this person can listen to and build on ideas. A project team works best and is the most productive when the team forges ideas, plans, and approaches as one. That means you need to make sure that one person isn’t bullying the team to be right and that others speak up to share their thoughts and concerns. The ultimate decision comes down to the technical lead, you, and the board of the project but I would much prefer showing up with a well rounded and thought through game plan. So, use these people for their experience, let them know you count on them for their technical knowledge. That too builds trust and will most likely loosen their attitude. (As an aside, when I say technical knowledge I don’t mean IT. I mean the person who has the understanding and most technical knowledge of what you are trying to accomplish.)

The team member who is assigned to many other projects or pieces of work.

This is probably one of the most common hurdles you will face as a PM. I find the best way to lead through this is to build relationships with this person’s manager (who they directly report to) and other PM’s. Most PM’s I’ve come across spend a lot of time bitching about this situation and not much of any time trying to resolve it. The best way to lead through this issue is to take a two-pronged approach, so let’s take one at a time. First, building a relationship with their manager. This is more than just niceties. You want to be able to sit with them and understand how you can relieve that manager's situation of having too many project requests thrust on them at once. You want to have a discussion about timings and agreements with the other PM’s. For example, maybe they have allocated your person 30% to another project, but you know they’ve hit a snag that is going to take some time to resolve but the PM is being greedy for fear of losing this person's time when they need them again. That means you have a bit of negotiation to do with the other PM. Building relationships with managers is good as well because they start to lean on you for information on how their people are performing. Once you become a trusted confidant, then you become a priority for future projects. Two, building relationships with other PM’s. Sometimes you need to really negotiate these other PM’s and you can’t do that if you haven’t started to build that relationship. As in the earlier example, you could discuss with the PM that you have an urgent need and you know that they in a bit of a holding pattern. Negotiate that you will take advantage of their 30% allocation and promise to release this person as soon as their project is ready to go again. Having someone sitting on the bench is silly, so work on your negotiation skills. Also, nothing kills a relationship by not following through on your promises. So, if you promise to release him by a date…then release him.

The stakeholder that goes around you.

This is a tricky one and very similar to managing up. In my opinion, this is done in a two-pronged approach as well. First, you need to have a good dynamic with the project team so they will inform you when they are being pushed by someone else. Even if it’s still in line with your scope, you need to know that someone is interrupting. That means you need to thank them for informing you and not do something that puts them in hot water by speaking up. You want transparency, so you must act in a way that allows for that to happen. Second, you need to speak to the stakeholder. Explain that there are processes in place for a reason and that your purpose is to deliver a project that is in scope, on time, and under budget and their involvement can risk those. Even those who are well-meaning can disrupt the flow of communication and then you might have one team trying to deliver two different things because there’s been mixed communication. That miscommunication will take time and potentially money to rectify. I do find that it’s more often someone is trying to help rather than taking over, but that doesn’t mean that protocol shouldn’t be followed. Usually, when you explain things simply and calmly, they get it.

There are so many skills and qualities that make a Project Manager an excellent one. The key is to find a balance between leading and directing. While the PM ultimately does not make the large decisions, they do create and craft the best options for the Board to make the right decisions. That in itself is leadership. Leadership is also solving and leading teams through situations that can de-rail a project like problematic team members and stakeholders. If a PM can do those things, they are definitely a leader, not an administrator.