Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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The Project Manager's Personality, The MOST Important Factor

My very first interview for a project management role wasn't about my attention to detail around planning and controlling a project.

I don't recall talking at all about the 'technical' side of the job. The bulk of the interview revolved around my personality and how I would use and change it to suit the situation.The concepts discussed were quite new to me, as it's something I'd never thought of before. However I would be leading major transformation pieces of work and managing a team of software developers and the two, I was told, would need different approaches.

Fast forward 20 years and this is something that rarely - if ever - makes it into the project management textbooks let alone job interviews. It rarely makes it into blogs too, as we don't appear to either understand or admit that the project manager is the most important factor in whether a project succeeds or not.

The research tells us otherwise.

In 2007, Purcell and Hutchinson proved there was a direct correlation between an individual's personality and a successfully delivered project. A report in the Journal of Industrial Engineering and Management found that to be successful, project managers need to demonstrate extrovert and perceiving personality traits (more about that below). While noted project management researcher Lynn Crawford stated in 2001 that once a project manager had achieved an entry level of project management knowledge (yep, entry level), then more knowledge doesn't make them more competent. Prof Crawford concluded: 'It's their personality and leadership style that does.'

Conversely, every leadership and management blog or book that you read will tell you that strong personality and leadership is critical to organisational success. Barely a week goes by without reading quotes from luminaries such as Drucker, Godin and Peters about just how vital it is.

So why the disparity between the two?

Turner and Muller - asked by the Project Management Institute in 2005 to research this - couldn't find a reason. Concluding, after 59 pages, that 'the question can only be answered if it's directly measured' which was highly unsatisfactory having read the justification as to how the two are linked. Thankfully, there is now a tool for that, however whether organisations consider measuring the leadership ability of project managers important, is another matter when it's easier to use the project metrics of time, cost and scope.

Consultants will be hired to tell you the problem is your framework and templates, creating months’ worth of work where nothing will actually improve. Little wonder. Project management has become easy money for those who don’t understand its true value to business or else don’t have the skills to deliver successfully in 2016.

Project management is a critically important profession required to ensure that teams are built to deliver products that transform organisations. It's just as important as strategy, accounting and HR. Yet, you seem to be able to call yourself a 'project manager' as soon as you've been on a three-day course. Is it any wonder that project failure rates are so high? Just imagine if everyone who went on Excel training called themselves an accountant? This is where we are.

Our profession - and no single entity or organisation is to blame here - has got lazy.

In our rush to ‘projectise’ just about everything we've unwittingly created an army of people who think they can do the job effectively by studying the books and that's just not enough. We then use lazy ways of measuring them and then never hold them to account when they don't provide the level of service (to the stakeholders) that they should.

You have to know the following to be successful as a project manager:

  • who you are
  • what you stand for
  • what your strengths and weaknesses are
  • how to behave
  • how to motivate others
  • how to deal with poor performance
  • how to manage upwards
  • how to show gratitude
  • how to keep your head in times of crisis
  • how to remain consistent
  • how to care for others
  • how to get better at being you.

Once you know all of that, you have to apply that to the people that you're leading and learn to understand them too. And because everyone is different, you can't apply a one-size-fits-all approach. To successfully lead a team you need to know:

  • how to communicate with them (as individuals, not collectively)
  • how to reward them
  • how to ensure they understand what's expected of them
  • how to create an environment in which they feel they can do their best work
  • how to spot when they may be struggling or ill
  • how they may react when put in certain situations.

Different projects require different personalities and very few organisations match these up well. Typically, whoever isn't massively overworked at that time is given a project and (despite governance training suggesting otherwise) few project sponsors pick their project managers.

It doesn't have to be that way. In my experience, those organisations that apply thought to matching the right project manager with the right project are much more successful than the ones that don’t.

For larger projects (in terms of team size and organisational scope), an extrovert may be more suited to the role. Someone who can build key stakeholder relationships early and take the necessary steps to create a culture that will evolve and grow as the project progresses.

These project managers will be comfortable speaking to large groups of people, outwardly displaying their passion for the project. They know when to consult and when to direct and ensure that senior management actions and behaviours are in line with the outcomes required. I like this quote from author Beatrix Potter, who said that 'I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations.'

Similarly, introverts may be suited to smaller more localised projects. Relationship building is still key, along with the evolution of the project culture, however, the groups will likely be more specialised and the stakeholder group smaller.

These project managers will have a greater subject matter knowledge, will focus on more collaborative activities and will favour faster delivery with less organisational impact. As Susan Cain said in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, 'introverts prefer to work independently and solitude can be a catalyst for innovation.'

That said, there are no hard and fast rules about which type of personality can manage which type of project. Both introverted and extroverted project managers will need to flex their personality in line with the situation. They'll both need to be empathetic, kind and considerate and role model the behaviours of leaders. They will both see the value in maintaining plans, managing risks, dealing with issues and reporting on progress and will always be able to answer the question 'what's left to do?'

In short, they'll blend leadership and management and will never stop pushing themselves to get better at both. They'll also use these skills to understand how best to communicate and get the most out of the different personalities on the team as not everyone likes attending workshops.

The project manager is the most important factor in project success. Once you’ve found a good one, you know how true that statement is.

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