What does the P in your PMO stand for?

The importance of strong leadership to IT project success.

Project management teamork
Credit: Thinkstock

Project, program or portfolio? Probably. How about power, potential and pioneer?

While governance and process are vital to the smooth running of IT projects and their ultimate successful outcome, strong leadership is essential.

“Essential to what extent?” you may ask.

The answer is clear. The greatest project outcomes I've seen in my career, I wholeheartedly believe, are largely down to the leadership skills and capabilities of the project team running the show.

Conversely, so too are the worst project outcomes.

I use the word team intentionally; it is not exclusively down to the project manager or the portfolio manager or the head of PMO for that matter — it is a team effort and as we know; successful teams have great leaders.

That's how essential strong leadership is. The difference between success and failure.

If you are looking to improve your PMO or looking to advance the career of individual project managers have you considered paying more attention to building strong leadership skills? Project management offices led by a strong leader achieve better outcomes and individuals equip themselves strong leadership skills they earn the currency needed to climb the management ladder.

As a project management professional, I think I have the second best job in the world. I used to think I had the best until the midwives delivering my children showed me otherwise! What we do is great though! From the CIO to the project manager and the PM team. You are the change catalyst within your organisation. Your organization’s IT strategy and therefore (these days) entire business strategy is effectively your responsibility. It is your vision, clarity of thought and communication that takes an IT project from a hazy concept and turns it into a market disruptor! It's exciting and not for the fainthearted, meek or shy. It’s a heck of a responsibility and takes real strength of character.

A Google search of the "importance of strong leadership in project management" returns about 10.6 million results. Many of the posts appear to be a list of attributes that strong IT leaders must have, or a silver bullet or a resume of a book that will turn you into a great, strong leader.

The lists are worth a browse, although they are mostly populated by obvious things like "clear communicator," "great motivator" and "cool under pressure." That aside they are a good read on a rainy Sunday afternoon. They all miss one key element.

While it's true that right great strong leaders do need "integrity" and "delegation skills" and to be a "great team builder" and all the other attributes listed, I believe that it's only 20 percent.

The other 80 percent is YOU. The CIO, the Project Manager, The Project Team.

Your USP. Your DNA.* Your culture.

The difference between project success and project failure is YOU. There is no silver bullet and the only book that can turn you into a great leader is being written by you, right now, every day. Your mistakes and the lessons you learn from them and your successes and the lessons that they too teach you are what make you a great, strong leader. It's a career-long process and the best leaders never stop learning.

I asterisked DNA because it is a question often asked, are strong leaders born or made?

What I’ve observed from great CIOs and IT project leaders over the years is that, like with most things, it's a mix.

Some people, indeed, are born leaders. They started out good, got very good (very quickly) and are now excellent. If I had to put a number on this group I'd say it's only 5 to 10 percent, though. Then there are those who have given it a go but no matter how hard they try, no matter how many books they read or seminars they attend, just are never going to be great leaders. Let's put a number on this too, probably 10 to 15 percent.

This isn't to say that they're not as important. Whilst The Apprentice may not represent the epitome of teamwork and leadership, it does serve as an interesting demonstration of the multiple roles needed to achieve — or not achieve — a particular task. Watch any episode of The Apprentice to see how important each individual team member is to a project's success. They are still essential to the smooth running of a project and a key part of the successful outcome — just not leaders.

The good news, as well, is that CIOs who have project managers who aren’t natural leaders can buy in "strength" like a commodity by accessing the project management as a service market. Here the attributes of strong leadership, like robust vendor governance and effective SLAs and KPIs, can be bought from project management services partners who will make you look good!

Between these two groups of “high-flyers” and “buy-it-iners,” there is a large space and that's where most of the rest of us ply our trade. Between 75 to 85 percent of very good or great, strong project leaders were not born — they're being made. I mean, they have a spark, some untapped potential that inspired themselves and others around them but essentially they are being made on a day to day, project to project to project basis. It is each CIO's responsibility to nurture their potential. They are the future.

What should be jumping out at you is the scale of the potential. It's what excites me. Revisit those numbers. If 80 percent of what makes a strong project leader isn't born or taught in a book or read in an online list — if I’m right and it is what you, uniquely, bring — then you, my friend, whether you are a CIO, a project manager or a project team member ... YOU are powerful! Think about it, the market for this approach (the space between those “high-flyers” and “buy-it-iners”) is also around 80 percent then the potential is huge.

So what makes a good leader strong?

Having dismissed lists of attributes earlier I won't present you with one now but based on my observations of strong leaders, I'd say that "knowing oneself" is key.

I reckon only about a quarter of project managers I have worked with are truly self-aware. The rest don't seem to be looking into a totally accurate mirror of themselves. Thing is, if you can't see your faults if you can't identify your part in a mistake — how will you know where to improve? You can’t make a chicken casserole if you've got you’ve only got beef, no matter how hard you try or how closely you follow the recipe and the method. You’ll end up with beef. Some project managers careers are being built on false foundations because they can't see, truly, where they are starting from.

CIOs need to create a culture of total honesty and transparency where mistakes are not punished but learned from. When you do this you encourage immediate acknowledgement and correction of errors and you provide project managers with a truthful mirror in which to see themselves.

To help with this, I'd recommend inviting and more importantly listening to feedback, from up and down the chain of command. There are valuable clues in every response from the C-Suite to your PMO team. Encourage listening objectively, not through a filter of your own perception — don't project your own home movie onto the feedback you are being given.

Strengths, as a leader, become clearer through greater self-awareness. When you realize you have beef, not chicken, you start to know what to do with it! When you know who you are and what you can achieve, when you see where you went wrong and how you can improve, when you listen without prejudice, you become a greater, stronger leader.

Remember, though, it's a career-long process. You won't be as great or as strong today as you will be in a year ... but with your self-awareness you already knew that, right?

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Download the CIO October 2016 Digital Magazine
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies