Developing good project leaders needs a holistic approach

As Nick Cutland explains, giving project managers the skills they need requires more than just training

What makes someone an ideal project manager? Is it the ability to manage processes? Is it about problem solving? Or perhaps it’s effective communication skills that help them influence teams, partners and stakeholders?

The reality is that a great project manager (PM) needs a myriad of skills to do their job well and successfully carry a project to completion. But how can business and HR leaders foster the development of these skills?

PMs often develop their most valuable and enduring skills through their experiences in the workplace, learning from their colleagues and bosses, as well as from their own triumphs and mistakes. But formal training also has an important role to play when it comes to ensuring that PMs bring best practice and optimal performance to their projects.

Build a foundation of theory and knowledge

Although a PM may have learned various processes in practice, they may not necessarily understand the rationale behind them. For example, many PMs will have experience managing risk but may not have put much thought into what the actual objectives of certain processes are. If people aren’t clear about the reason why these processes were originally put in place, they won’t be as readily able to utilise them as tools that can be adapted for future projects.

Formal training offers project managers the opportunity to learn the theory behind what they do and why, giving them a broader understanding of their role, the importance of their actions and how they can optimise and refine their own processes and working style. By providing employees with the foundation that will allow them to make more effective decisions, they will feel more appreciated and empowered.

Align positive leadership skills and values

It is vital that PMs, whatever their level of experience, understand why good leadership skills are important and the role these play in project management.

Research conducted by ILM last year found that both good and bad leadership skills can spread contagiously throughout an organisation: 74 per cent of UK professionals said that they emulate the behaviours they see in their colleagues, and most often when faced with challenging or unfamiliar tasks. 

This can be a problem for organisations where PMs are relying on leadership skills acquired purely on the job – including communication, teamwork and problem solving, which are key for project management. The risk is that the people they may have emulated and learned from aren’t necessarily the best role models for these skills.

By offering formal training to teach those skills and values that are so crucial for successful project leadership, businesses can feel confident that their employees will be embodying and transferring to others the positive attributes they need for organisational success.

Broaden horizons

Learning on the job can fall short if less experienced project managers aren’t exposed to high level responsibility. Indeed, key components of the role such as priority stakeholder management and risk management are often reserved for more senior project managers.

In the classroom, a PM can learn key skills in a safe environment. This gives trainees the opportunity to practise for those make-or-break moments that are a hallmark of every complex project, so when the time does come around, they are equipped with the tools to confidently deal with them. 

Think holistic

When it comes to cultivating project managers with the optimal blend of knowledge and skills, targeted training can go a long way to ensure best practice and productivity. But it’s critical that this can be readily incorporated into the working day and developed on the job to ensure real-world relevance.

To have a lasting impact, employers should take a holistic approach to developing project leaders, combining formal and informal learning and reviewing training, requirements and outcomes on an ongoing basis.

Nick Cutland is director of quality at ILM, City & Guilds & DigitalMe, City & Guilds Group