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Leadership coach

Susanne Madsen is an internationally-recognized project leadership coach and the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership. We recently sat down with Susanne to pick her brain about project management leadership and learn how PMs can improve their relationships with project team members.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about project management leadership?

My passion for turning project managers into project leaders stems from my personal leadership journey and a eureka moment I had in 2008. At the time, I was working as a project manager in finance and was managing the bank’s largest and most business-critical project. As you can imagine, I felt very stretched. Towards the end of the two-year project, I went on a 5-day leadership course and was fortunate enough to also be coached one-on-one. It was the most empowering 60 minutes I have ever experienced!

I realized that if I wanted to change my situation – and no longer feel stressed out by the project – it was in my power to do so. It sounds banal, but it was a huge realization for me. I basically stopped being a victim and took full responsibility for the project management stress I was experiencing. I felt so empowered that I decided to study coaching and leadership; and the more I immersed myself in the material, the more I realized that project managers need to add awareness and leadership to their list of attributes.

How does the concept of project management leadership differ from general corporate leadership?

The core concept of leadership is the same, but the context, of course, is different when we talk about leadership in a project management setting. The biggest difference is that projects are all about change, whereas corporate leadership is more about operational management. This means that building teams, mobilizing people to deliver the project’s outcome, and overcoming resistance to change are bigger factors in project management leadership. Another big difference is that project managers normally don’t have any authority over the team, since no one reports to them from a line point of view. That means that the concept of influencing without authority becomes a key feature that any project manager needs to master to become an effective project leader.

You’ve worked with clients around the world across many different industries

Does the idea of effective project management leadership vary by industry or country? Or is it all the same?

You know, that’s really interesting because I have found many more similarities than I had expected. From manufacturing teams in China and Malaysia to the charity sector in the U.K. or the tech industry in the U.S., what we expect from a good leader is relatively similar – and so are the challenges. Everywhere I go, teams are high-strung and no one has sufficient time to get all their tasks done to the highest standard. Project managers often end up firefighting their way through the project and some of the important proactive activities are de-prioritized, such as gaining an in-depth understanding of the client’s business, running planning or requirement-gathering workshops, writing the business case, building trust with the client, or having one-on-one conversations with team members.

Good project leadership is as much about people and being emotionally intelligent as it is about tasks and cognitive intelligence. In my latest book The Power of Project Leadership, I write about the 7 keys of excellent project leadership. I have definitely found these keys to be universal. The 7 keys are: Be Authentic, Lead With Vision, Improve And Innovate, Empower Your Team, Get Close To Your Stakeholders, Establish A Solid Foundation, and Work With Intent.

You’re a big proponent of what you call the Get Things Done approach

It sounds like a simple concept – but what does this approach entail?

What I really mean is that I’m a big proponent of action and that I help my clients to get things done. Most of us know very well what we need to do and what our next steps are; but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we do them! There is a very big difference between knowing something and doing something. As a project leadership coach, I help people move forward and remove any roadblocks that are in the way. Some of these barriers can be related to unconscious fears – for instance, fear of conflict – or limiting beliefs around the role of a project manager. Some people feel that because team members do not report to them, they are not in a position to challenge the team about the work they do. But leadership isn’t about exercising authority. It’s about collaboration and influence, and it’s about getting things done and showing results. Every great leader is self-motivated and consistently works on the highest priority tasks over and above those that are urgent but not important.

You also reference the 80/20 rule, where 80% of success comes from focusing primarily on 20% of the necessary activities

Could you give us an example of what activities merit more attention?

When I first came across the 80/20 rule and asked myself what the 20% of activities were that added to 80% of my results, the answer was the weekly user group meeting. This was a regular project meeting where all the key stakeholders and team members got together to work through detailed requirements and make decisions that would move the project forward. It only lasted for one hour, but it was the heartbeat of the project that determined our focus and ensured that everybody was singing from the same hymn sheet. High-value activities will often be related to understanding and setting business priorities, planning, communicating, and motivating the team.

What is the most common shortcoming of today’s project managers when it comes to leadership?

Most project managers I work with are too task-oriented and don’t understand that leading people isn’t about pushing them or being overly directive. Leadership is about engaging through questions, working collaboratively, listening, and making people feel safe. But it’s also about having tough conversations and being able to stretch and challenge others. Most project managers haven’t been taught how to do that well, and the biggest shortcoming I would say is emotional intelligence – how to build trust, read others, and manage emotions. That’s why I always encourage PMs to learn about psychology and human behavior.

How should a strong project manager handle a team member who seems apathetic or ambivalent about the project and/or is not properly pulling his/her weight?

In this situation, the project manager needs to have a “straight talk” or a “crucial conversation” with the team member where he or she calls out the problematic behavior and inquires about what is going on. The project manager simply needs to relay what he or she is observing without being accusatory or jumping to conclusions. The aim is for the two people to have an adult conversation about what the situation looks like from each person’s point of view. There will be things that the team member needs to change and things that the PM needs to change.

First of all, they have to come to a mutual agreement about what “good” behavior looks like. It’s important that the project manager provide specific examples of the behavior he or she finds problematic, because being too vague can be unhelpful. Afterward, the project manager needs to actively help and support the team member in changing his or her behavior step by step. The PM must remember not to drive this meeting too much, because that doesn’t leave any room for the team member to step in and take responsibility. Ideally, the team member needs to come up with the solution; otherwise, he or she may not take responsibility for the outcome.

What kind of feedback have you received from your workshops and talks on project management leadership?

Any specific success stories you wish to share?

The usual feedback that I receive is that it’s eye-opening, inspiring, and provocative, but I also have evidence that it produces lasting results. A couple of months ago, I ran a two-day project leadership workshop in Finland. We recently got back together on a conference call to discuss what they had learned and what support they needed to continue their development. The participants said that the workshop had had a profound impact on their day-to-day interactions with team members, clients, and stakeholders; and now they are much more aware of how they interact with people. The biggest differentiator is that they now take the time to listen more and to have that 2-minute conversation with a team member where they give them their full attention instead of rushing off and being too task-oriented. The project leadership workshop had transformed their relationships and increased their self-awareness, which is a fantastic outcome.

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