How to Effectively Lead Projects (Because You Really Don’t Have the Authority)

Very seldom in the realm of project management does the project manager actually have final authority over the project. The simple fact is that final authority rests with a project sponsor, or more likely, an executive steering committee.  So, if you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you need to lead projects, but lack the authority, how will you get the job done?

That’s a question that I’ve been developing the answer a good portion of my professional career.  The simple answer is that when authority isn’t present, you will need to lead projects through influence.  The challenge then, is how does one develop effective influence to ensure the ability to provide a strong, steady hand on the wheel?  Gravitas, trust, and confidence.  Again, simple answer but as with much in life, not so simple to achieve.

Project Leadership Through Influence

Influence is all about shaping activities to achieve a desired outcome.  How many times on a project you were managing did you need a specific outcome to occur, but you lacked the authority to make it occur?  In the consulting world, the answer will be nearly every day!  Therefore, in order to shape actions to achieve the desired outcome, you will need to exert influence.

Project managers can develop effective influence to lead projects through these five actions:

  1. Generate Trust. You absolutely cannot exert positive, effective influence if your trust is lacking with the client, executive committee, or project team.  In short, you need to deliver on your word and engender yourself to the larger stakeholder community associated with the project.  As everyone begins to trust that you will deliver and that your intentions are in the best interest of the larger good and project, your influence will grow.  The reason is that when you make a statement or present a recommendation, everyone knows it’s been well thought through.
  2. Generate Value. Projects can have a very large number of stakeholders involved, each contributing to or detracting from the forward momentum of the overall effort.  If, in your project manager role, you are consistently generating value to the project by identifying and recommending adjustments that mitigate risks, solves issues, or reduces overall costs, your influence will grow.  Clients and project executives who are involved in governance are consistently concerned with legal, financial, and schedule matters.  Developing the capacity to generate value for them by solving issues in these areas will most certainly increase your influence.
  3. Advise and Guide. The effective project manager never forgets that they are an advisor who provides guidance, not someone who tells and directs.  The project manager that assumes a directive personality will quickly find themselves dealing with challenging intra- and inter-personal issues.  Since so much of what project managers are responsible for is outside their direct authority and control, you need to become the trusted advisor that is focused on guiding both senior project leadership and those on the project team towards recommendations that produce value to the project and end users.
  4. Operate with Confidence. While you will find yourself without full authority on projects, this doesn’t mean you can’t act with confidence.  In the end, as the project manager, your role is to ensure that a project is delivered within scope, on schedule and within cost.  There are a multitude of responsibilities that come with this and some delegated authority from the project sponsor or executive governance board.  This is adequate for providing you the foundation on which to take charge of your project and operate with confidence. Leadership positions under any situation demand that they be filled with a person that has the gravitas of a leader, one with confidence.  Your ability to operate with confidence in your project management role will contribute greatly to establishing the influence needed to be effective in your role.
  5. Get Vector Checks. In order to make certain that you don’t overstep any authority you may have been delegated, or operate outside your assigned role, seek feedback.  I call these requests for feedback a “vector check”, a phrase that stuck with me from my Air Force days.  In essence, you’re asking the project sponsor and/or the executive governance board for acknowledgement of the direction you’re actively taking the project. Vector check denotes both direction and level of energy being applied – literally it means this – to the project, to a risk mitigation action you’re recommending be applied, or some other issue where you want to ensure that you’re operating both within your lane and with support from the top.

 

One last note:  it’s your responsibility as the project manager to get along with the client and project leadership, not their job to get along with you.  Your influence over a project will grow if you keep this in mind as you actively check your ego at the gate to the project site and confidently work to build trust and value.

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