Project management is a big job. In this blog, we share the differences between being a project manager and a project leader. It’s about more than simply getting the job done – it’s about getting the job done well.
Every day, thousands of companies worldwide try to get things done by turning their goals into a project. And once they have a project, they need to manage it.
The Project Management Institute is only one of the many authorities advising would-be project managers on what to do and how to do it. You could fill a large library with all the guides, manuals and methodologies for project management.
Virtually all of them will tell you that a project needs to have a project charter, a project schedule, an issue log, a risk log, a project governance structure and so on. Furthermore, there’s metadata about the project. In essence, what methodology will you use? What tool will you use to document the project schedule? How will you track and report progress?
Driving all of these tasks – managing them, if you will – is the project manager’s job.
Project Management: What It Is and What It Isn’t
What may surprise you is that in many environments, the project manager is not responsible for delivering the project objectives.
In many organizations, the project manager is an administrator. Better ones will be proactive and vocal, asking for status on deliverables before the day they’re due and discussing issues before they’ve turned into burning oil platforms. But, as we often call them, they are professional nags. Everyone else is busy actually getting something done, and they’re making sure their PowerPoint slides look good for the Steering Committee.
It’s no wonder that in some organizations, project managers get very little respect. And no wonder that in many organizations, they also get very little accomplished.
We once worked with someone whose project management mantra was “Projects get behind a minute at a time, a day at a time.” His point was that a project manager must be on top of things every single moment because once you’ve let something slip, the time’s gone. You’ll never get back the half a day you lost because someone’s computer went down or a key business contact was out sick.
We’ll concede there’s a basic point there. You rarely make up time on a project. If you’re late getting to your first milestone, you can safely push them all back.
Nevertheless, we find this mantra tremendously annoying.
First, it demanded an intensified experience as a project nag. Simply thinking in terms of human communication, there’s a limit to how often and how rigorously you can ask people to provide updates on what they’re doing. Ask enough times, and you can be sure you’ll get evasions, estimates and outright lies – anything to get rid of you.
Second, it oversimplifies why projects are late and suggests every problem is either avoidable with proper foresight or fixable within its original timeframe.
Project management is about planning, predictions and mitigation. We may sound critical of it, but there is no question that sound project management is key to project success.
What is Project Leadership?
Project leadership, on the other hand, is about owning the outcome and working with everyone involved to deliver it. It’s the “Yes, and,” to project management. Rather than observing progress and nudging the team occasionally, a project leader is out in front. They set the pace, the example and the objectives, and then they work to establish a shared vision of the completed project.
A project can be well-run, knock off all its project management artifacts, produce its deliverables, come in on time and under budget, and still fail. That’s what happens – best-case scenario – when you don’t have a project leader.
A project leader differs from a project manager in that:
- A project manager accepts resources as provided. A project leader constantly reviews and adjusts project resources needed for project success.
- A project manager accepts the project structure provided. A project leader constantly reviews and adjusts the project structure for project success.
- A project manager drives the administrative completion of standard project management tasks. A project leader selects and deploys standard project management tasks as tools to enable delivery success.
- A project manager focuses on project management deliverables. A project leader focuses on resolving problems and delivering business results, regardless of the source of issues or solutions.
- A project manager supports team delivery of a business outcome. A project leader collaborates on the achievement of business results.
In short, a project leader:
- Engages with and leads the team.
- Actively engages with the project sponsor and shares ownership of project outcomes.
- Takes personal responsibility for project success.
Effective project management is crucial, but it is not sufficient for project success. A project leader goes beyond managing tasks and deliverables by inspiring and guiding the team toward a shared vision of the completed project. They actively lead and collaborate, taking personal responsibility for the project’s success. By focusing on business results rather than only project management deliverables, project leaders create an environment of engagement, ownership, and accountability, leading to more impactful and successful project outcomes.