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Are You a Successful Project Manager Or a Reluctant Leader?


In my previous incarnations as an executive at two different consulting firms, I often came across the type of person that I refer to as the reluctant leader, or the reluctant manager. I use this term somewhat euphemistically. This type of person is more aptly described as having or exhibiting one or more of the following attributes: being clueless about their role and responsibilities; scared that they are in over their head; ineffective at managing people and projects.

Whereas it is clear that a person who can be classified as a reluctant leader is currently a bad fit for the position, the brunt of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of that person’s immediate superior. Should they have been hired or promoted to project manager in the first place? Did they receive proper guidance and training? Were clear expectations and responsibilities proactively communicated?

Project Manager versus Managing a Project

In smaller firms, a person who is called a project manager may actually be a single person working on a single project. In that case, whereas they are managing a project, they are not truly a project manager. Project mangers usually oversee more than one project at a time and have a team of people whom they lead.

When a company’s backlog grows large enough, it is crucial to appoint a few, results-oriented project managers. Each project manager leads their own team of people. Each project team is tasked with handling a number of the firm’s overall projects in the backlog. The project manager will delegate various chunks of a project’s workload to the team, only keeping a small portion of the project work to his or herself.

Signs of a Reluctant Leader

To me, one of the telltale signs of a reluctant leader is that they would rather be doing the “real” project work and not that “other stuff”. How is that desire communicated? In different ways, but often like this.

When sitting in a meeting discussing a project issue, that project manager seems uncomfortable, maybe even frequently looking at their watch. They finally get the guts to say, “I need to get to work on the project,” or “can we end this discussion because I have to get back to work.”

It is not uncommon for reluctant leaders to assume that all the other duties of a project manager are subordinated to the project work itself. What they fail to realize is that successful project managers have many responsibilities that must equally be performed. Their share of an overall project’s work is just one of many duties.

Successful Project Managers

Successful project managers need to be proficient multitaskers. They need to accept as well as give constructive feedback; proactively communicate with clients and employees; build motivated, results-oriented project teams; sell their vision to their team, to clients, and to recruits; have a passion for leadership; and derive a good portion of their energy from coaching team members and helping each member reach their potential.

In addition to these basic requirements, successful project managers need to manage project chargeability (if measured), organize and lead team meetings, and oversee their share of an organization’s strategic plan. They also need to be results oriented, handle difficult employee issues, and oversee project QA/QC.

A project manager needs to respond in a timely fashion to all team-member inquires—even if it is uncomfortable to them based on his or her communication style. It is imperative that project managers provide clear guidance and direction, effectively delegate the work load, and, finally, perform their share of the project work—what reluctant leaders call the “real” project work.

What Makes a Project In Itself Successful?

Well, that depends on the overall goals for a given project. But a general definition is as follows: hitting the profitability goal, completing the project on time and on budget, and achieving more than satisfactory results for all parties.

In the end, it is up to a project manager’s superior to hold them accountable for project successes and failures. By doing so, it increases the success rate of future projects and can help mold a reluctant leader into a successful project manager.

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