Making leaders of managers

Research has identified the key skills required of project leaders – and the focus is on behavioural capabilities rather than technical ones


  • Sarah Coleman
  • Prof. Mike Bourne

10 December 2019

There has been considerable focus over the years on developing the tools and techniques for planning, measuring and controlling project delivery. In our view, this emphasis on the mechanics of project management has been overemphasised, at the expense of focusing on the leadership of people and their performance. As projects become increasingly complex, a traditional view of project management is no longer enough, and a rebalancing of technical and behavioural capabilities is required.

Project leadership, both client- and supply-side, is becoming a strategic issue for businesses and government. The pool of people with the necessary experience and behaviours needed to run major, complex, multifaceted and interconnected projects successfully – many of which are construction and infrastructure – isn't expanding to meet demand.

The growth of the knowledge economy, demographic changes and the increasingly rapid turnover of experienced and senior project professionals have all contributed to the pressure on succession planning, selection and recruitment, learning and development. Organisations are compensating for this by developing project leadership talent in house, as well as recruiting new talent from outside.

Our research report Project leadership: skills, behaviours, knowledge and values, which was supported by the APM Research Fund, helps to refine the understanding of project leadership in terms of capability building for project professionals and their organisations.

Finding a definition

The literature review we conducted as part of the research revealed that traditional views of leadership tend to focus on a formalised role, title or hierarchy or on centralised command and control. These views have typically emphasised the personal, heroic model of leadership, often reflecting the cult of the individual. However, these views have continued to evolve with newer, less autocratic models of leadership placing increasing emphasis on social and ethical behaviour.

A major difference for professionals moving into a leadership role is leaving behind the day-to-day issues or working in the project and taking a more strategic stance, that is, working on the project. This involves becoming slightly removed from the project to be able to view the bigger picture. Standing back from the project detail allows a deeper understanding of the project that comes from, as one interviewee put it, 'emotional knowledge', while having a comprehensive view of the stakeholders, the project environment and any changes or threats that could occur.

About the research

We conducted in-depth interviews with 38 individuals across five multinational organisations – BAE Systems, IQVA, Jacobs, Shell and Siemens – chosen because of their reliance on complex projects for the delivery of strategy and performance. Interviewees had experience of a variety of roles: from the aspiring leaders delivering smaller projects to the most experienced project leaders, heads of profession and project sponsors responsible for complex projects with budgets of more than £1bn. The combined project experience of the interviewees exceeded 500 years.

We looked at project leadership from a personal perspective and the experience of the project leader, rather than what the organisation believes project leadership should look like. In doing so we identified skills, behaviours, knowledge and values that project leaders believe they need in order to deliver major, complex, novel and contentious projects successfully.

The challenges of their work are no longer focused on the technical: they rely less on the technical tools and techniques acquired early in their careers, and more on the improvisation of leadership skills that have been learned in practice.

The term 'emotional knowledge' captured the way a number of interviewees described the situation where people were both aware of what was happening on the project – to a greater degree than recorded on the information system – and emotionally comfortable that no aspect of the project was being overlooked.

The project leaders' responsibility for multimillion-pound budgets or, in some cases, budgets of more than £1bn, was also highlighted in the interviews. To put this into perspective, the project leaders interviewed were responsible for budgets that exceeded the turnover of some UK-based small- and medium-sized enterprises – they were effectively CEOs of major organisations, albeit temporarily.

As a temporary endeavour, the life of a project team is much shorter than that of a typical enterprise, but the project leader needs a full overview of more than just the usual technical project activities for design and delivery; they also need a complete picture of organisational functions.

Relevant competencies

Our interviewees were invariably more interested in the issues surrounding the future of the project and on the big picture rather than the past details of the project schedule. Their focus was on external stakeholders and the associated benefits, rather than time and cost schedules.

This didn't mean they were unaware of activities inside the project, far from it, but these internal tasks were delegated to other team members. The role of the project leader was recognised as focusing on leading the team and removing any blocks to progress: creating and building a strong project team was raised as a key competency. Furthermore, the experienced project leaders interviewed understood that their leadership style, at any given point, depended on their ability to read the situation and context, and be able to respond flexibly to the situation.

Eight project leadership survival skills were identified as a result of the research. We don't expect these skills to be a complete surprise to an experienced project leader, but they will help to provide focus and clarity for existing and aspiring project leaders and to those delivery organisations that depend on project leadership capability.

Project leadership survival skills

  • Anticipating: being prepared for any events that could potentially knock the project off course.
  • Judgement and decision-making: making timely decisions although information may be incomplete.
  • Seeing it all: being aware of what is going on inside and outside the project.
  • Building credibility and confidence: creating belief in the leadership and team.
  • Being organisationally intelligent: knowing when and how to engage with the organisation; understanding how power and influence are used to benefit the project.
  • Learning: being open-minded, reflecting on and developing their own performance – and that of the team.
  • Resolving conflicts and collaborating: building a common purpose despite the rules and restrictions of the contract, and ensuring strong collegiality across the supplier base, delivery teams and clients.
  • Creating the project culture and environment: deliberately defining and creating the working culture and environment to succeed.

These skills will also allow project professional bodies to consider the competency range for their bodies of knowledge, along with competency frameworks and the spectrum of accreditations and qualifications.

Competency frameworks

Organisations use competency frameworks to help shape and foster capability. As part of the research, we undertook a comparative analysis of 15 competency frameworks provided by various organisations that covered project management, project leadership and general organisational leadership competencies.

Our analysis showed a number of competencies across all three areas:
  • communication
  • decision-making
  • execute
  • risk
  • self
  • stakeholders
  • teams
  • vision and purpose.
We identified competencies specific to the project leadership capability frameworks that were not reflected in either the project management frameworks or general organisation leadership frameworks, as:
  • building and retaining credibility
  • controls
  • situational leadership.
Finally, there were some competencies that all the project leadership competency frameworks analysed had in common:
  • communication
  • collaborative working
  • relationship building
  • trust.

We noted, in particular, the gap between what the organisation had mandated as project leadership competencies and those described by our interviewees as being most useful to them. On reflection we realised that, as a result of our approach to the interviews, interviewees were encouraged to discuss their own experience from a personal perspective rather than to simply recount organisation or project good practice.

We had captured direct experience of being what one interviewee called 'in the thick of it'. Many of the responses reflect insight gained as a result of navigating challenging situations; that is, improvisation learned in practice as opposed to theory learned from textbooks or qualifications.

Making the transition

The most immediate conclusion for current project leaders and individuals making the move into a project leadership role is that there is no single best style of project leadership. The style of leadership required depends on the context and circumstances of the situation, and on the strengths and capabilities of the individual.

The transition from project management to project leadership can be difficult, raising the question of whether good project managers can necessarily become good project leaders. Any career transition – be it a promotion or a new role – carries challenges, issues and ambitions about leaving the familiar and embracing the new.

Case study: London heritage programme

Leading a team during the initiation phase of a major heritage programme in London has demonstrated the leadership challenges associated with major programmes. My role is to lead the team, providing the programme management capabilities as part of the programme delivery team, and working with the client, architect and engineering team.

Developing the governance, structures and organisation of the programme are key responsibilities. Three aspects have characterised this phase of the programme and influenced the leadership approach: uncertainty, organisational instability, and complexity.

Uncertainty is inevitable during the initiation phase. Requirements are not yet clear, and there are funding and operational challenges before the programme governance and structure has been set. These issues create pressures that can expose people to situations and decisions that challenge deeply held personal values. Leadership must provide direction and vision.

Thames at Westminster Bridge from the air, showing Elizabeth Tower under scaffold

To help focus the team on the programme's end goal – its purpose, benefits and the needs of the eventual users – we employed a solution-focused approach as a collaborative, workshop-based tool for helping the team to maintain progress. My experience from working on other major programmes – such as HS2 – at a similar stage was that leading the team to develop the vision and the route to the end goal collaboratively can be a powerful way of creating a sense of collective purpose. However, it requires sound leadership.

Creating a major, multibillion pound programme from a standing start in a short timescale results in a high degree of instability. Leading in this context therefore involves a considerable amount of collaboration, patience and understanding between all parties. We found that working as an integrated team and ensuring the activities of the team are aligned with incentives, values and vision, enabled us to be better placed to respond to the uncertainty.

There are many causes of complexity on programmes: on this programme it is the context, characteristics and culture of the client and user community. Leading in this environment has required a more empathetic approach than might be expected in the mid-delivery stage on a major piece of economic infrastructure. Personality profiling, facilitated conversations, and reviews of language tonality and behaviours are regular on the programme.

John Pelton MBE is programme director at Jacobs
Contact John: Email

Project leaders are typically promoted on the basis of their technical project management ability and will need to refocus their behaviours to work on the project as opposed to in the project. Interviewees identified the importance of letting go of the familiar technical activities that come with project management to help them transition into a new and enhanced set of leadership skills and behaviours.

According to analysis by the UK's National Audit Office, good project leadership doesn't guarantee a project's success; but the lack of it is one of the most-cited factors in unsuccessful projects. It is clear that leadership competencies should not just be left to those anointed with the title of leader, but that all project managers require leadership skills – and these skills and behaviours can be distributed across the project at all levels.

The project leadership role is not just a case of project management at a more senior level: our research demonstrates clear differences in skill requirements, and reveals that the project leadership role is a function in its own right.

Sarah Coleman is founder and director of Business Evolution Ltd
Contact Sarah: Email

Mike Bourne is professor of business performance and director of the Centre for Business Performance at Cranfield University
Contact Mike: Email

Related competencies include: Communication and negotiation, Leading projects, people and teams, Managing projects

Case study: Team 2100

The Thames Estuary Asset Management (TEAM2100) programme is a ten-year £308m programme of works to refurbish and replace tidal flood defences along the Thames. It is being delivered by an integrated and co-located team formed from the Environment Agency, Jacobs, Balfour Beatty and a tier-two and tier-three supply chain. As programme director, I lead the delivery partners.

Moving from a project-based role to a programme-based role requires a different mindset and a different set of skills. When I was delivering projects, I knew every detail; but this is not physically or emotionally possible now that I'm responsible for delivering a major programme.

You quickly understand that the performance and motivation of your team are critical success factors. I spend a lot more time on relationships, networks, guidance, coaching, vision and creating the right environment. It took a while to transition from a project manager approach to a programme leader approach.

Thames Barrier in B&W
With a highly diverse team of more than 250 staff, creating the culture and environment to enable the team to work effectively is key. We have focused on:
  • staff development and effective working between personality types
  • creating the correct physical environment to enable collaboration, including break-out areas, branding and visual messaging
  • leading by example from day one, behaving as we expect others to behave.

As with any long-term relationship, challenges arise and both individual and organisational conflicts can occur. We've adopted a simple principle: that conflict resolution needs to be fair. This is stated in our contract, giving us a contractual obligation to resolve challenges in the spirit of shared dependency, cooperation and collaboration.

The future of infrastructure delivery is exciting, and improvement in efficiency will see us moving away from traditional site construction trades to a production and manufacture approach.

Embedding digital technologies into our programmes will also present new challenges in terms of programme complexity, data management and digital interface management.

I see the role of project leaders changing, with networks growing wider, working with new supply chains in sectors that were previously remote from engineering, and engaging more with tier-two and tier-three suppliers where innovation and domain expertise exists. It's an exciting future, but we will all need to learn new skills.

Matt Kuhn is programme director at Jacobs

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