Projects Need Strong Leadership and Executive Support & Need to Build That from Day One

projects often focus on the end goal, but a strong beginning is just as important

March 28, 2022 | Helen S. Cooke

supportWhy do organizations create a project? Projects are created when important objectives cannot be easily obtained by doing “business as usual,” and when getting results is important to organizational success. Whether the project is created by an executive or an independent sponsor, a project manager must take charge of the initiative, define it, organize it, and get it done.

In this context, the performance and character of the person selected to lead the project is always important. It does not matter so much whether a project manager is liked or disliked, but whether they can deliver results. A project manager of course has to be likeable in order to effectively lead a team, but capability is more important than likeability. And credibility is more important than popularity. When a project is moving into new territory and is likely to generate disruption and stress, the honest and ethical performance of the project manager role is crucial.

Project managers are uniquely skilled at delivering results under novel circumstances. Most often they possess both inductive and deductive reasoning skills, and can handle both “the big picture” and detail. They need an integrative mindset to reconcile the agreed plan with any necessary changes. They need to be able to communicate effectively with both senior management and technical specialists of various types. Their management style must be to collaborate and lead, recommend and listen, check the patterns of progress and read data, follow the plan when it works and change it when it no longer provides valuable guidance. Even if they have a support team, as in a large project, the project manager sets the course of action and delegates tasks such as schedule changes to a team member.

In these circumstances, leadership is always more important than control. Control-oriented managers are unable to move nimbly from one project crisis to the next, motivating and redirecting the team toward the ultimate project objective. In the context of an innovative project, personal achievement is less important than team achievement. No one wins unless the entire project team wins. The team needs every member to fulfill their role in order to reach a successful result. Project managers must then be adept at leading without controlling or offending team members. The gap created by losing someone might be more disruptive than that team member was.

When a project is first getting off the ground, executive backing is paramount. Executives take a lot of risks when deciding to open a new project. Unfamiliar team configurations, changes in traditional work methods, ambiguities in both goals and likelihood of success are risky. It stands to reason that the desired objective must be more valuable to the organization than preserving the status quo. If the goal of the project could have been achieved using routine methods, it would already be done. There are tradeoffs. The project manager’s job is to make sure the risk was worth it.

Valuable resources are committed to projects in order to reach important objectives. Budgets are established, specialists are assigned to the project, and a window of time is defined within which the project manager and team are charged to deliver results. The project estimates for that window, and its needed resources, range from the earliest feasible delivery date to the latest viable one. Key professionals, often experts, are dedicated to making the project a success. Senior management assists in defining the critical success factors and defining necessary limits. A high-level plan and approach are approved and the project is launched. Portfolio managers are charged with making sure the allocation of resources is aligned with the executive plan. Everyone is betting on the project’s success. The strategic objectives of the organization depend on it.

It is important to the project manager that the project is properly positioned in the corporate hierarchy. When changes must be made or challenges arise, the project manager will need the backing of the sponsor or executive champion to get the needed changes made. Many of the success factors are set during the first part of the project’s initiation. A project manager will have a good understanding of both the organization’s strategic objectives and the executive management team’s long-range goals.

If the project’s sponsoring organization is well-versed in the challenges and benefits of effective project management, the project is more likely to successfully achieve its objectives. Refining the scope, objectives, resource requirements, time period and quality expectations is within the project manager’s own authority. Getting it right is just as fulfilling as riding a big wave, or accomplishing a big win in a sports competition. Reading the trends, assessing what is needed to succeed, and “pulling it off” is rewarding. The financial rewards and recognition that come with success just make it sweeter.

The big, important, strategic projects need and deserve the skill and knowledge of the best project managers. And the best project managers deserve the backing and respect of their sponsoring organizations if they hope to succeed.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.