by Bas de Baat

5 qualities a leader must have to turn around troubled projects

Apr 14, 2016
IT LeadershipProject Management Tools

What traits does an IT leader need to do a 180-degree pivot on problematic projects?

Turning around troubled projects is a tough thing to do. It requires an interdisciplinary team of professionals with the right skill mix and personality traits to pull it off. The team must be led by an accomplished leader with the right qualities. But what are those qualities?

If you miss out on this step, don’t even bother to try to make a turn-around. Most likely you will end up with the same results: failed attempts. You have got to change the ground-rules and that takes courage. You would actually be surprised how often organizations ignore reality and keep driving through a red light. This is primarily because of time pressure, cost impact and lack of leadership.

A few months ago I saw the film “The Martian,” and for some reason got inspired by the main character Mark Watney and his approach to dealing with severe, existential problems.

Mark is an astronaut who is mistakenly presumed dead and left behind on Mars. The film depicts his struggle to survive and others’ efforts to rescue him. Mark is relentless in finding solutions to return to Earth.

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you … everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem … and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?”

In my mind his attitude is what turn-around leadership is about. Leaders grow when they have to deal with difficult situations, because it requires them to change. They advance to the next level when they find a way out that brings them and the team to a better state.

What are the 5 qualities that a project turn-around leader must have?


Being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions is crucial. Mark Watney is unstoppable in his actions to return to earth, despite all the set-backs that he has to endure along the way. What it comes down to is a deeply rooted belief in the possibilities to reach the ultimate goal of turning around the troubled situation, without knowing exactly how you can make that happen. 


For turn-around project leaders, planning is an art. It is a skill set they master. They are able to quickly grasp the business context and the root-cause of the troubled situation and with that define targets, strategies, plans, alternative plans and realistic timelines. The structured approach sets the turn-around team up for success. With a roadmap, there is a way out. Without you are stuck. Mark Watney had a road map in his mind. He knew that he had to be able to survive and worked that out first. Once he fixed that, he started working on his way back home. He planned and carefully executed all the steps. When he faced unplanned circumstances that were devastating, he had a plan B


Having a plan is one thing, to make it happen is another. Turn-around project leaders must have a mixed bag of business, technology and organizational change knowledge and experience, because troubled situations are a mix of these 3 elements. With their creativeness they are able to unlock the potential of the team to the fullest by continuously challenging them on what the result can and must be. In his final attempt to return to earth, Mark Watney needed to find a solution to cover a wide open space at the top of object that would bring him back into space. He challenged the team of experts who helped him remotely and found a way to make that happen. It wasn’t necessarily the ideal way, but it was good enough for that particular step. The same applies to turn arounds, not all individual steps needs to be perfect, as long as the end result brings you were you need to be


Turn-around project leaders are relentless in the planning, execution and control of the engagement. They are laser focused on the all the aspects that bring the organization from troubled to desired state. Their focus is based on automaticity. With that they are keen on articulating and managing expectations of the team. They implement mechanisms to ensure that progress is made and tasks completed. Their primary focus is on results, but they know how to balance that with the people aspects turn-around projects. Mark Watney had to make sure that he had enough food to survive, while he was executing his plan to return to earth. He was meticulous with his diet. He knew what was available, how much he needed at a minimum, and what he could possibly produce with the means that were available to him. His focus on the primary survival needs kept him going


It is not uncommon that decision-making in organizations is a challenge, left alone in troubled situations. Turn-around project leaders must have a mandate from the executive team to make decisions. They are masters in building trust with the key stakeholders in the organization and the turn-around team. Turn-around project leaders build trust because of their character and competence. They are clear in their intentions and work in full transparency. Their environment knows what they are up to and value the results that are being delivered. As they go, turn-around project leaders gain ground and confidence from the organization by making the right calls with involvement of the right people. Their decision model is based on real data, facts and intuition. They do not need to discover all the facts to make decisions. They calculate risk, weigh options and make the decision and move on. They seek feedback, learn from mistakes and strive to do better the next time. They are opportunistic and look ahead. Up to the point that they have turned the situation around

Troubled projects should be perceived as opportunities and not as failures. Not only from a project management perspective, but more from a leadership and educational perspective. It requires a different attitude towards dealing with set backs, ambiguity, uncertainty, change, risk taking and cross-functional collaboration. All of these aspects can fuel and accelerate growth if the organization responds in an adequate manner by putting the right leadership qualities in place.