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Successful Project Managers - The ‘Ninjas’ of Influence

By Ron Montgomery (1230 words)
Posted in Project & Process Management on September 24, 2012

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By Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC

It’s a common complaint among project managers; “I have the responsibility, but I don’t have the authority.”  It’s true that project managers rarely have formal authority, and the lack of such authority makes it difficult to meet project objectives and ensure that issues are resolved in a timely manner. However, successful project managers still manage to get the job done without formal authority.  What differentiates a successful project manager from all the rest?  One key differentiator is that successful project managers employ the power of influence.    


Over the years, I have witnessed project managers with an almost “Ninja-Like” ability to get things done without nagging, issuing orders, or raising their voices.  One might call them natural leaders, but that provides only a superficial understanding.  If one digs a bit deeper, these project managers exhibit a number of common behaviors. 


Here are five “Ninja-Like” behaviors of successful project managers:


Behavior #1: They diligently seek opportunities to recognize and reward team members who perform in an exemplary manner. 

When a team member puts in extra hours to solve a difficult problem, they make sure to tell her manager.  When a customer takes the time to praise the quality of a project deliverable, the entire team hears about it.  When the project completes successfully, they stage a celebration that includes the customer, the team, and their managers.  They appreciate, recognize and reward hard work and commitment, and their teams reciprocate with even more hard work and commitment.


Behavior #2: They exhibit high standards of professional behavior.  

Influential project managers direct their decisions and actions toward the success of the project rather than their own self-promotion.  They do not gossip or share confidential information because doing so would mark them as untrustworthy.  They exhibit organization, discipline, and a strong work ethic.  Their use of language demonstrates that they are well mannered, and an educated professional, who can be trusted in front of a customer.  They can expect high levels of behavior from their teams because they are leading by example.      


Behavior #3: They commit to ongoing professional development. 

Project team members are subject matter experts in their respective disciplines; they respect project managers that are also experts.  Influential project managers demonstrate a commitment to developing their expertise.  This commitment includes earning relevant degrees and certifications such as the Project Management Professional (PMP®) designation from the Project Management Institute. They also seek out opportunities to write, speak and mentor others.  They leave no doubt about their competence. 


Behavior #4: They keep up appearances. 

In spite of the casual dress standards in place at most organizations, they recognize that appearances do matter.  They understand the difference between casual and slovenly.  Further, influential women project managers understand the distinction between dressing for work and dressing for an evening at their favorite nightclub. Their manner of dress projects the image of a serious professional.


Behavior #5: They connect with sources of formal authority. 

Influential project managers develop strong working relationships with project sponsors, steering committee members, and others with formal authority.  These relationships allow them to quickly resolve issues, remove obstacles, and obtain project resources when needed. 


Of course, anyone in a leadership position can benefit from these behaviors.  But project managers have a more acute need for them because they normally have little or no formal authority.  Informal authority, or influence, is their primary source of power.  Without it, they will be unable to properly lead and their projects are likely to be challenged or even fail, which is why senior executives who sponsor projects should take note.   Failed or challenged projects not only result in the loss of the project investment, they could also make the entire organization more risk-averse and resistant to change.  At minimum, project failures reflect poorly on the executive sponsors, who should therefore be keenly interested in the development of project managers. 


Here are some suggestions for project sponsors:


  • Ensure sufficient funds are budgeted for project manager training and development.
  • Provide for mentorship and support of project managers, particularly those who are new to the role or to the organization.
  • Reinforce the role of the project manager by referring those with complaints or concerns back to the project manager instead of trying to resolve the concern by yourself.
  • Be in attendance at key project meetings, and use these events to demonstrate your support for the project manager.


It could be argued that project managers should be assigned roles with formal authority.  This might be correct, but it is incompatible with the structure of most organizations.  Typically, projects that cross multiple functional boundaries are organized in a matrix structure, which limits the ability of a project manager to possess formal authority.  So, given the current state in most organizations, project managers must become experts in the power of influence.


Do projects typically fail or succeed in your organization? Do your project managers exhibit the behaviors outlined in this article?  What level of involvement do your project sponsors usually have?  Join us in our Project Management community to continue this and other discussions.


{#/pub/images/RonMontgomery1.jpg}Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.



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Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 

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Comments (10)

Frank Sherman posted on: September 25, 2012

Too funny...how very true... influence is a necessity for project managers. Not only because often they don't have the authority to direct, but because they work with such a diverse group.

Ninja of influence... very nice!

Cathy Dreardon posted on: September 25, 2012

The comment about connecting with sources of authority really resonates with me. It is important that those who do have the authority are your brand new best friend...they are at the top of my "personal list" I keep for managing stakeholders.

Shawn Allen posted on: September 25, 2012

Nice article Ron. As a project sponsor this reinforces the importance of my role to support and enforce the project manager. It is something I take pride in with my Project Managers and I believe we have a much higher rate of success as a result of it. Project Sponsors cannot approve and forget, they must be engaged and accessible throughout the process.

Joe Fredrickson posted on: September 25, 2012

I think saying they are good leaders is correct, but also agree that it is an easy overview of what they do. Bottom line is they act with integrity, are fair and reasonable and know how to get people to do things. This is a solid summary.

Brett Silverwood posted on: September 25, 2012

Successful Project Managers don't run away from challenges, they jump in without looking just knowing they will be able to solve the problem and keep working until it is resolved and closed out.

DANIEL QUIAMBAO posted on: October 4, 2012

I think the top 3 traits that make a successful Project Manager and I consider the these are among the most critical namely: 1. The Project Manager must always be thinking in terms of the big picture – thinks like a generalist, and this certainly requires knowledge in many different areas and that must pay attention and care about everything and everybody, 2. Project Manager, along with having good presentation skills, should have equally strong communication skills too, 3. A good Project Manager should be a strong estimator, a proactive in this regard. He should be able to estimate the progress of each individual, the skills of each member, the abilities during the project. He must also should be good parent, in regard to understanding himself, his team members, management, customer, other teams, peers – i.e. all involved in the project.

Norm Purcival posted on: October 8, 2012

Top 3 Traits of Project Managers:

attention to detail
able to take in the whole scope

Yury Petyushin posted on: October 22, 2012

I believe that successful project managers:
1. Spend A LOT of time on the planning phase
2. Have excellent management (and especially people management) skills
3. They're natural leaders, so they can influence people without having administrative power over them

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