In many of our past thought leadership pieces, we have discussed the importance of project leadership, especially as it pertains to organizational change management (OCM). Some of the highlights or key takeaways include selecting executive sponsorship at the right organizational level—those who are empowered to lead and have the respect of stakeholders. Equally important, we recommend project leadership deliver consistent and transparent communication, and serve as a positive driving force – rewarding successes, while demanding accountability. The list of project sponsorship responsibilities continues, and we are often asked to coach and provide feedback during a project. This typically includes first defining individual roles and then providing strategic direction, customized for the different levels of project leadership. Much of these themes are discussed in a recent Point of View, Change in the E-Suite.
Recently, I was asked to provide a concise but informal presentation on desired project leader behaviors. This is somewhat different from our usual requests, not because it isn’t an important consideration, but because project sponsors and leaders are usually named long before the Parker Avery team engages with a client. These are leaders who all have their own distinct leadership styles and we want them to remain authentic. Even more, when we do talk about “how to sponsor” or “how to talk about a project leader” we talk in terms of tactical approaches and what needs to be accomplished, but not necessarily attributes. We are always aware of individual strengths and weaknesses or differing personalities and accommodate these variables with discretion.
However, I believe it is healthy and beneficial to discuss these expectations in an open forum. It not only helps sponsors and leaders understand what they have truly signed-up for, but it also provides a way for them to support other stakeholders and impacted people through the overall initiative. For others, it provides a starting point or opening to get targeted executive support. Let’s take a look at some behaviors and attributes of great project sponsors.
1: Understands the problem to be solved
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes the “problem” is an actual challenge such as an outdated legacy system that prevents the company from effectively competing in the global retail market. Other times, the “problem” or objective is to prevent an even greater issue from occurring or to improve upon an existing capability. Regardless of the reason for the initiative, project leaders should be able to clearly communicate it to stakeholders and make decisions that drive the future state.
2: Ensures the solution fixes the problem
One of the foundational activities The Parker Avery Group performs is to create guiding principles for the project. The purpose of this activity is to establish and socialize goals and objectives of the initiative. These principles are established upfront so they can be used to help guide decision-making. Speaking simplistically, these principles are used as guardrails and are referred to often during process, organizational and system design decisions. It is important that project leaders are actively involved in the creation of these principles and utilize them throughout the length of the project. Another key factor to consider after this framework is established is make sure that issues that are uncovered are actual root causes and not symptomatic of larger issues. This helps to ensure that conflicting and unsubstantiated decisions are not made; and that a realistic project is constructed and protected.
3: Has a holistic vision and accessible position
Project leaders come from many parts of the business and have varying backgrounds. It is natural to take a position that benefits their specific business area or to only focus on project areas where there is a sense of familiarity. However, as a project leader, one has to have a complete and holistic view of the entire project and be open to building knowledge and learning about areas that may not be familiar territory. Additionally, this willingness should be reflected during project meetings and briefings.
4: Knows where the “rabbit hole” starts
Similarly, when faced with subject matter about which one is well acquainted, it is natural to want to be fully engaged and ensure involvement in every meeting, documentation and discussion. While I would never turn away an enthusiastic project sponsor, on the flip side, overzealousness runs the risks of alienating full-time project resources whose role is to direct and manage the project on a daily basis. These are the people who should be entrusted to go down the “rabbit hole” and present the outcomes. Granted, there will be times where the project sponsor must dig deeper, but this should not be the default state.
5: Knows where the “satisfactory” line is
Business requirements (and sometimes functional requirements for systemic needs) are established so the project team has an instructional guide of how to design a new process or function. A project sponsor should provide short- and long-term strategic perspectives and help the design team create the best (and most simple) process and / or organizational design. The project sponsor should also help identify adequate resources and time expectations so the team is positioned to successfully reach project objectives.
6: Makes the tough decisions
The project sponsor’s role is not only to lead the project to success, but also be an advocate for both the overall business and impacted stakeholders. This means being aware of project issues, potential risks and overall status / developments. Based on this information, the project sponsor will be expected to make timely decisions, that may change the current way of doing business dramatically, and may possibly be very unpopular. This can be a somewhat difficult position to take; yet it becomes even more paramount to clearly communicate the future vision.
7: Models the right behaviors
Finally, we bring it all together.
In an upcoming Parker Avery Point of View, we will not only go into greater depth of the six attributes discussed here, but we will take a closer look at the right project sponsor behaviors.