Don’t limit project success: turn managers into leaders

17 Sep 2018 By Nick Cutland

Nick Cutland outlines the skills that project managers should have in order to make successful leaders

Project management is an incredibly useful skill for employees to master – whatever their profession or level of experience. And while a project manager (PM) will be expected to define and manage systems and processes, in order to deliver programmes that bring about lasting, positive change, PMs also need to be armed with significant leadership skills. 

Yet, the importance of leadership in effective project management is often overlooked, which is a big mistake.

Leadership is not a job title, position or status; it is a mindset and set of tools that enable you to work successfully with other people. Here are three leadership capabilities which, while not always considered priorities for PMs, can make the difference between the success or failure of a project, a team, or indeed an organisation. 


Communication is an excellent place to start when considering how to transform the nature of project management in your organisation.  

A PM spends a significant portion of their time engaging with colleagues, partners and stakeholders to make sure the project runs smoothly and effectively. To successfully manage these vital relationships, the PM must expertly navigate difficult conversations with delicacy, tact and efficiency, across multiple channels and with different personalities.

For instance, if the project timeline needs to be extended, the PM will need to broach the subject, communicate the situation clearly and confidently, make necessary assurances and explain next steps to all those involved. This is no easy feat, especially when miscommunications can derail a project. 

Satisfying multiple stakeholders, understanding their pressures and ensuring they are comfortable with the implications of change is where management meets leadership.


The bigger the project, the more people are involved, and it’s the PM’s job to ensure the team works together effectively as one unit. PMs need to be capable of fostering a team that is happy and productive – one that collaborates, communicates and is committed to group successes.

This is particularly important when it comes to managing risk, and a PM should involve the entire team in this throughout the life cycle of their project to ensure they are working collaboratively to avoid risk – and are prepared to manage issues that may surface. If the team is not working well together, relationships can break down and errors made. And poorer productivity is the result.

Leaders not only track the progress of a project, but they build, maintain and sustain the engine – the team – that makes it work. Skills such as resilience and inspiring others are the type of leadership skills that cannot be underestimated when it comes to making projects work.

Problem solving

Challenges are inevitable in any project, and the PM should possess the skills and drive to find and implement a solution – whether that means renegotiating, tackling conflicts or facilitating open dialogues between parties

PMs must have a range of skills, from active listening to fast critical thinking, sensitivity and confident decision-making, and the self-assurance to take responsibility for an agreed course of action.

Failure to come up with solutions that demonstrate empathy and perspective could risk the deterioration of relationships with partners and stakeholders and damage the progress of the project. Ultimately, it’s their leadership skills that will determine a PM’s ability to keep initiatives on track and to achieve what they’ve set out to do.

Developing great project leaders doesn’t happen overnight. Building up the skills and knowledge that will allow a PM to excel requires time, patience and a mix of informal and formal learning. But if you can balance the development of project management skills with leadership skills, it will pay huge dividends in the long term.

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

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