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Project Management Leadership: Get in the Game

Feature Apr25 35368388 XSProject managers and sports are so intertwined that you hear common sayings like the following:

“That’s a slam dunk!”
“Just pass the puck (or “give me the ball”), I’ll put it in the net!”
“All I needed was a decent set up, and I could have slammed it home!”
“Who dropped the ball?”

Athletic team leaders and project managers share common attributes. The following three sports roles will get you thinking about how skills can carry over from the court/field/ice to the project room.

Volleyball Setter: Fixing the Problems

“You touch every other ball and, if you screw up, you only have one more person to back you up. You can’t go hide in the corner.” – Kerri Walsh, Olympic Gold Medalist

The volleyball setter has a strategic job; she’s the go-between, taking the pass from another player and setting to the hitter to complete the play. Similarly, the project manager (PM) coordinates the handoff between activities. The overall goal for both is to complete the objective.

The setter also reads two steps ahead of the play to ensure that the “set” of choice has adjusted to the course of the play. If the service pass is sloppy, the setter must move to the ball and make a calculated adjustment regarding how to set the ball to the appropriate hitter. Along the same lines, a PM must anticipate probable outcomes and plan for the risks that may materialize in a project. The PM may have to plan several activities ahead of time to ensure the effort is passed in an accurate and timely manner.

The setter executes the plan from the coach. Prior to each match, the setter has collaborated with the coach and the team to understand her team’s strengths and the opponent’s weakness. The setter must keep these in mind throughout the course of the match to ensure that she leverages the hitters for their respective side strengths, understands the blocker’s abilities (and cover if needed), and accommodate the defensive float if the course changes. A PM does likewise by assessing the team’s skill levels to ensure enough time is allowed for novices to “learn” and “do” at the same time. A PM requests different resources if the required skills are not present, reads the progress of the effort and goes to the project sponsor to solicit resource skills/needs.

The Quarterback: Leading the Pack

“Anyone can support a team that is winning – it takes no courage. But to stand behind a team to defend a team when it is down and really needs you, that takes a lot of courage.”  – Bart Starr, Legendary Football Player

The quarterback relies on his teammates to protect him and execute the play. The coaching staff has helped the team hone its skills, but the quarterback has to earn the respect and loyalty of his teammates as well as motivate and inspire them to elevate their performance. He must perform at a peak level to lead by example. If he’s a great leader, his team will follow. It’s no different for a PM; a good PM is a leader at his core. He elevates his game, and in doing so, his actions help bring out the best in his colleagues, ultimately lifting the whole team’s performance. He follows guiding principles of the profession, culture and the team.

Quarterbacks can call an audible when they see an opportunity to take advantage of a better situation, but not at the expense of losing what was planned first. PMs call audibles (paralleling tasks, pushing teamwork harder) when they see an opportunity to improve the quality, schedule or cost, but not at the expense of the scope of the project. Similarly, quarterbacks spontaneously improvise when things don’t go as planned by drawing on their training to make the best of an unexpected situation. Good PMs follow suit and pull up the contingency plan when they run into trouble.

Lastly, the buck stops with the quarterback. Even if the entire offense has a bad day, a good quarterback will take ownership of the outcome. This behaviour elicits respect and loyalty because he has the courage to report the truth and question what he could have done differently. Likewise, good PMs look inward first to see if they could have avoided a problem within the project. They report the truth in their project updates and present options to right the course.

Ultimately, projects, like football games, are won or lost by the team. Strong project managers, just like strong quarterbacks, can bring out the best in their teams and lead them to the win.

The Hockey Defenseman: Winning with Versatility

“Forget about style; worry about results.”  – Bobby Orr, Hall of Fame Hockey Defenseman

The thing that makes project managers essential to projects and their organizations is their ability to lead teams and make them feel like they are part of something special.

The defenseman in hockey can have multiple jobs on the ice. He either leads in the offense, stops the other team from progressing into their territory, or plays a key role in the power play (known as the power play quarterback). The versatile defenseman needs to know in which scenario he plays which role. For example, if the opponent has a high-scoring, aggressive line, he may act as a stay-at-home defenseman.  And, when his team has the advantage with the opponent in the penalty box, he plays quarterback and leads the charge. This player needs to be flexible, alert and able to adapt to a multitude of situations, including the minute-to-minute pressure of the game.

A PM plays a similar role. She must be adept at reading personalities to determine how to motivate her team members. In her role as an offensive leader, she’ll have to push and motivate. If she finds herself in a conflicting effort that is pulling and straining progress, she needs to understand how to keep moving ahead while defensively keeping the team from losing ground. The PM should also be positioned to identify when she has the advantage and leverage it to provide a higher chance of winning, and with a score that makes the customer happy!

The End Goal

Sports often provide highly relevant analogies to personal lives and careers. It is not a leap to extend these experiences from high school or intramural sports to day-to-day project management skills. After all, the project team is made up of project managers who all have something to offer, much like a sports team. And as Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

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