Leadership – The 11th Knowledge Area

Many project managers feel that they have no power to change the organizational culture and projects and therefore cannot achieve success when they are challenged with a toxic or negative environment.   While it is a daunting task, project managers can not only overcome this hurdle but actually achieve a positive culture capable of supporting high performing work teams that exceed expectations and deliver outstanding results.


Project Managers the world over complain that projects exist within corporate environments, cultures that permeate every initiative and staff member of the project.  They regularly state that they cannot change the organization, its culture and the impact the organization has had on its staff (the team members).  So how can a Project Manager set up a team that has a unique culture, value and ethics system when it operates within a larger environment? How can they create a High Performing Team (HPT) when the corporate culture works against this?


Corporations, government agencies and non-profits  have and are making the commitment more and more towards project oriented work.  They are starting to value the project team and the ability of a group of people focused on achieving a single objective achieving more than individuals can on their own.  While project failure continues to be an issue, standards and processes provide a great deal of input into the potential for success.  The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a process that assists in generating repeatable project success, but management and process are simply not enough to ensure success.


Organizational environments range on a spectrum of toxicity to healthy.  A culture can be toxic with standard behavior including backstabbing, hostility, personal abuse, and management support of negativity, or they can be extremely healthy promoting positive reinforcement, communication and conflict resolution.  As such, each organization has challenges that work against the achievement of project and program success.


Project Managers have neither the power, nor the responsibility to change the organizational culture.  Their job is to build a team and create a unique product, service or result with limited resources mostly consisting of staff that has been influenced (positively or negatively) by their past experiences with the company.  A PM can follow processes but the mechanics alone do not explain how to.com build an innovative, empowered, self-managed high performing project team in a toxic organization.


The sheer formation of a project team creates a new environment with all the potential in the world.  The environment consists of new relationships, processes, goals, objectives, and potential.  I call this environment a “Project Bubble”.  This bubble is formed not by management effort, or process or directive.  Instead it is created because it is a unique situation with many unknowns.  Team members are unsure of what the team will be, how it will work, what interrelationships will be formed and how communications will be handled.

 Project Team Bubble

We recognize the team formation process and opportunity through Tuckerman’s Stages of Team Development (1965)


  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing
  • Adjourning




This team development process is repeatable regardless of organizational health, projects, operational initiatives or committee creation.  Teams go through this process both consciously and unconsciously but the pattern is repeatable and recognizable. The simple process of creating a team of unique resources creates a blank canvas where unknowns exist:


  • How will this be managed? Micro-managed? Loosely controlled?  Chaotic/unplanned?
  • How will risks be handled?
  • Will I have input into the approach or will we have to follow a plan I don’t believe in?
  • Does my opinion matter?
  • What if I don’t agree with the vision?
  • Who get’s credit for success?  Blame for failure?
  • What will my role be?
  • Who is this PM and if I don’t work for them, why should I listen?


Each team member will come to the kick-off or initial team meeting with these questions permeating their thoughts.  It is at this forming (initiating) stage that a leader has the greatest potential to influence the team.  Forming is where process is identified, communication channels are created, conflict resolution strategies developed and team environment is initiated.


A leader recognizes this process and leverages the forming as an opportunity to influence the team in a positive and healthy direction.  They define a project vision, set standards for the team interaction, outline the management strategy, recognize the challenges, and define their commitment in supporting the team.


Left to it’s own means, the team members will fall back on the organizational environment, processes, resentments, feelings of helplessness, communication patterns, and conflict approaches.  But a leader has an opportunity to influence the team with a focus on:


  • Open communication
  • Respect
  • Empowerment
  • Innovation
  • Risk tolerance


Of course team members may assume the worst, but the unknown provides a unique opportunity for the PM.  This is an opportunity that can either be welcomed, or ignored.  It is at this point that Leadership has its greatest opportunity.  A leader can take this moment of unknown and undecided as an opportunity to create something new, or allow it to pass and focus on the process of PMI.  This is a crucial point for the team and the effort.


It is important to note that while teams progress through the forming, storming, norming phase it is not a guarantee that they will achieve performing, or even high-performing standards.  As a matter of fact, it is more the exception than the norm that team growth stops at the norming and does not push into the next stages.


Leadership is crucial to team development and without a conscious and invested leader, teams can often stagnate at the norming phase.  A leader leverages tools like empowerment, rewards/recognition, communication channels, and vision to drive the team forward to the next stages and achieve the performing stage.


Tom Edison (2008) suggests that Tuckerman’s team development can actually be extended to include High Performing as a team stage after performing and to achieve this, a leader must invest in the team and facilitate the growth of the team to drive forward towards a more challenging and rewarding level of interaction.



High performing teams demonstrate a level of achievement and progress that individuals and normal teams cannot achieve.  They are generally self-managed, intrinsically motivated, have clear roles and responsibilities and are recognizable by their supportive and healthy relationship with team members.  A high performing team outperforms others because they have a clear understanding of what the vision of the effort is, who is responsible for that vision, an ability to achieve decision-making as a team as well as a defined path for escalation of issues when necessary.


While leadership is critical in driving a team to achieve a high-performing stage, the objective of a leader is to allow the team to progress on their own once this stage is achieved.  The leader can do more harm than good intervening and attempting to manage the team when the progress and tasks are clearly understood by all.  Instead, it is a leaders role to support the team running interference with outside influences, protecting the team culture and environment, and communicating the team success on a regular and consistent basis.


Edison also points out that once a team has achieved a high performing state, there are tremendous risks it faces without a strong leader.  Over time, the team can start to hit dysfunctional behavior and decompose when the accomplishments are not recognized or as the vision is not extended. Edison adds a stage in the team development cycle for “informing”.  Informing requires a transformational leader is critical to maintaing the team through external support, recognition of accomplishments, communication of achievements and a constant update and communication of the vision for the effort.  The informing stage ensure that teams are valued for their contribution and continue to demonstrate the highest level of commitment to the effort.  Informing ensures that the recognition from the organization enforces the value of the high performing efforts and helps to prevent a dysfunctional deterioration for the team as a whole.


So, while a Project Manager cannot change the organizational culture, the opportunity for creating a project team culture is a valuable one.  Project Manager’s recognize the project bubble that is formed and work to build that bubble to a positive, healthy and supportive culture, even while it may exist within a toxic environment.  The strength and duration of the project bubble is one that the leader is responsible for.  Rather than assuming that the organizational culture is too strong to change, a successful project leader will leverage a project bubble to create an environment dedicated to success and the growth of the team.  They will then assume the leadership necessary to drive the team development through each stage pushing towards high performing and once achieved, maintaining that level with informing through recognition, communication, and support.



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Developing and Achieving a Common Vision

“The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and
followers. . . . Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary
supports for leadership.”
—Gary Wills

How often have you heard the phrase “I am like a mushroom, kept in the dark and fed BS”? This phrase is one vocalized from frustration by a team members identifying the concern that they do not know what they are working on, why it is important, or how it will contribute to success. Often they are not even aware of the components that must be integrated to achieve the program objectives. It has been proven time and again through numerous examples of failed projects that compartmentalizing people and providing limited information leaves them unsure of their contribution and unable to take advantage of opportunities available to them by understanding the overall vision of the effort. Keeping team members in the dark increases risk for both threats and opportunities and creates a scenario of distrust between team members.

Informed team members understand the end game and become aware of efforts outside of their area of responsibility. Through this information gathering, teams can gain insight into the overall program and begin to identify areas of redundancies, reuse, and risks. In a positive environment, team members are open about the risks they identify in the project and can establish mitigation strategies for it and potentially include it in the expected monetary risk assessment. In addition, it is crucial to understand that a negative risk in one project could be a positive risk in another project or in the program as a whole. When team members communicate these risks, it enables the program manager and their project managers to be aware of the risks and to possibly leverage them into positives for the overall effort. With awareness and knowledge, teams can work together to ensure a clear and concise view of the product, service, or result, enabling individuals to understand how their part of the program will contribute to the overall success of the effort. We as program managers need to include the team in the development of the vision, risks, and benefit realization plans. Team members responsible for QA, development, engineering, marketing, customer service, and requirements all can offer helpful suggestions about the challenges, opportunities, and land mines we will encounter as we take on the effort. I believe in involving the team as early as possible to ensure that we don’t waste time chasing down issues that are unnecessary to the program or project rather than identifying a viable solution to the problem.

On multiple programs, I have encountered situations where the current state of the program was anywhere from the initiating stage to mid program, only to be surprised that many of the team members either had no idea of what the program was supposed to produce, had conflicting opinions of the program intention, or did not know the scope that was intended. In some cases, program team members were uninformed as to what their contribution to the overall effort was and why their contribution was critical to the success of the effort. Based on this lack of information, team members would struggle to identify necessary requirements or understand how their work affected the critical path. Obviously, there was no way to know if the effort they were working on had additional opportunities to contribute to program objectives.

You would be amazed at how often program managers start an effort without a clear understanding of the program, complexity, risks, assumptions,and constraints. When assigned a program, the very first question to be asked should be, “What does success look like, and how will we know when we have achieved it?” Unfortunately, many stakeholders simply do not know. Instead a program manager needs to go through the steps to identify what the goals are—not just the high level, but the detailed objectives and how they will affect the stakeholder community and benefit the organization at large.

Understanding what success looks like is the first step in developing a vision for the program. We use the term “vision” as a clear and concise statement to describe the characteristics and features of what the final product or service will be. It is a complex set of objectives, goals, and benefits that the program will deliver and how it aligns with the strategic objectives of the organization established by the executive leadership team. The vision will define what will be produced, how it will operate, and what process it will execute, as well as what is not included in the program (out of scope).

Because programs are the creation of a new result, product, or service through the culmination of multiple projects, operational efforts, and process change, program vision is crucial to the success of a program, but it is also the most common reason for program failure. If the vision of the product, service, or result is not clear, time and energy can be wasted on work that is unnecessary to the finished effort. It is impossible to build something we can’t envision, and managing the expectations of the stakeholders and sponsors is not something that can be accomplished if we don’t all agree on what the product, service, or result characteristics should entail. When success cannot be defined, there is no way to establish and realize benefits from the effort. Furthermore, without a clear vision programs can deviate from the organizational strategy. Developing a clear and concise vision that is understood and shared by all team members is the direct responsibility of the program manager and must be approved and supported by the program sponsor.

A program manager will use the program vision to ensure that everyone understands what the effort is intended to produce. Program managers must be able to be both a sender and a listener in communicating the vision. In other words, they cannot simply state the vision and expect understanding; they need to elicit questions, concerns, and assumptions, and to gather recommendations. This conversation is one that must take place throughout the program life cycle, and it is the program manager’s duty to be willing to adjust as new information is identified. We will discuss conversational approaches later in the book, but realize that the sender-listener relationship is one way that program managers build confidence and trust in their team members.

There are quite a few times that I have found the need to adjust program scope or the benefits realization plan because when we hit technical or usability issues, there were better solutions available to us, or ideas evolved that offered additional opportunities to the program. So the conversation around vision is an ongoing one. And it is through the vision that we can better understand the benefits that a program will achieve and the timing of those benefits, and therefore realize the benefits for the organizational stakeholders.

On the other side of the coin, program managers can also leverage the program vision to decrease or bind the outcome (scope) of a program and to ensure that benefits not included in the program are communicated and understood by team members and stakeholders to more effectively manage expectations around program outcomes. When a program vision is not clearly communicated, stakeholders may have expectations that are not communicated and will be disappointed when the final product, service, or result does not meet their desire or needs.

A successful program manager will ensure that the benefits of the program are clearly communicated and that the factors outside of scope are clearly understood by all. A program vision will be a technical or strategic road map that is derived from the benefits realization plan that will be achieved through the life cycle of the program. Individual projects will be started and completed during the life cycle of the program, and while each will achieve benefits, it is the culmination of all of the projects that achieve the complete set of benefits that the program is intended to deliver. As such, when a project is completed and reaches closure, its operational control may stay under the program until other projects are completed and operational control can be effectively transitioned to the end user, client, or functional operational departments. A clear, concise, and non-ambiguous understanding of what the effort is intended to create and why that is beneficial to the firm or customer is required to ensure that both program stakeholders and team members know what is being built and how the program will be beneficial to them.

Each team member should completely understand what is required, who is doing what portion of the program, and not only what he or she is working on individually but also on why it is important to the program and the effort as a whole. In addition, if we don’t know what we are building, how will we ever know when we are done or what success looks like? Understanding the vision provides us with decision-making boundaries that are used in everyday actions and enables the team members to ensure that a common goal
is followed for the program at hand. However, if the vision is even slightly off, project team members can end up with gold-plated features, adding additional functionality that is unnecessary, or miss crucial aspects of the feature sets. As previously mentioned, a vision should be clear, concise,and leave no room for ambiguity. Something like “software to enhance the user experience” or “create a service that optimizes the customer satisfaction levels” can be left open to interpretation and lead to decisions that are well outside the scope of the program. Instead a vision should ensure that anyone who reads it or hears it will have the same understanding. A better program vision would be: “Eliminate current road congestion problems by turning all stoplights on Highway 28 into overpasses from Highway 66 to Highway 267 decreasing road congestion by 60%.”

That is not to say that any one vision or even the program manager’s vision is the correct one. Quite often the final vision for a product will differ dramatically from what the initial vision looked like and will include contributions from all team members and stakeholders. Enhancements requested, opportunities found, and learning will all contribute to the vision as it evolves through the life of the program. Because of the evolution of a program vision, it is critical that not only does everyone understand what the vision is; they also must be informed as the vision evolves and team buy-in is achieved. As has been mentioned, if the team does not understand the evolution of the vision or disagrees with the choices, the delivery of result, product, or service will suffer. Changes to what the product or service will look like or do will require team members to make adjustments to their efforts, ensuring that they are staying in line with the end goal.

I worked on one program that was specifically designed for an expert set of researchers to be able to better do their searching of intellectual property. However, as the program advanced we found that by eliminating the search key commands and instead using common language for searching, engineers could add to their knowledge and work by searching themselves. This dramatically reduced the number of failed requests for patents, because the engineer could see that someone had already filed a similar or same idea and could then develop nuances or changes that made his or her approach unique in the field. The overall program included software development, marketing, data conversions, data centers located worldwide, and sales efforts.

Because the software development aspect was only a piece of the overall program and had a unique product that it would produce with limited time and resources, it was defined as a project within the program and required a clearly defined vision. A project vision is created from the overall program vision to define the unique needs of the project and how it will continue to the program’s benefit. In many cases, minor differences of opinions on the project’s vision can create chaos for the overall effort and result in costly rework. In other situations, the project can be canceled as it no longer meets the needs of the program. For example, a project that was estimated to require more than a year to build with the costs consuming too much of the program budget could be outside the scope of the program itself, and the project would be canceled. The program would have to reevaluate the needs and define a new project that would achieve the benefits desired without the overruns of cost and schedule. If this were a software development effort, the decision could result in a make-versus-buy decision, and the costs of the purchasing of commercial off-the-shelf could be less than the costs of building a new software application.

The program vision sets the stage, and the project vision aligns with the program so that the defined benefits related to the project can be achieved. Every project team member must have the same understanding of what the program and project will result in, who the stakeholders are, and how the project will result in achieving the defined benefits for the program.

While the program may have additional benefits that other projects and operational efforts will achieve, the project contributes to these benefits, and understanding the contribution is necessary for the project team to realize the benefits. If this is not the case, minor decisions made by project participants can result in costly rework and scope creep. Had the information been readily shared, opportunities for reuse and eliminating redundancies could be leveraged.

On one program that I was asked to take over, the effort to create an online software application had been going on for six months, and the client was so unhappy with the progress that they canceled the program. At that time, the team consisted of five contracting companies, located around the globe, and almost 100 total team members. I was asked to take over and restart the program. The very first thing I did was to travel to each of the organizations involved in the program and ask them to tell me what the program was supposed to look like in its end state.

Each of the teams, and some individuals within teams, presented differing and sometimes conflicting views on the end state. This was not a question of the client and contractor having different views based on their perspectives but, instead, contractors and development companies conflicting externally and internally on the vital aspect of what the program was intended to be. I was left with the distinct view that if we cannot envision what we are building, how can we possibly build it?

When I returned from my site visits, with a very confused view, I sat down with the client to understand its desire for the effort and, amazingly enough, I heard yet another vision for the program. Obviously, the policies, procedures, documentation, and all the formal meetings were meaningless if the teams did not agree on and understand what they were building. The failure of the program was not the methodology or the conformity to a set of processes; instead it was the leadership of the program and the inability of the program manager to establish and communicate a common and accepted vision motivating disparate parties to all contribute toward a common goal. Once we overcame this hurdle, the process and development of the product ran incredibly smoothly.

The exercise was painful, and I admit that the vision had to be adjusted for some very adamant individuals who did not want to change their view; but eventually everyone was on the same page as to what the program benefits would look like and the product it would offer. At the end of the day, the vision for the program was something everyone felt ownership in because they contributed to it and were vested in the success of implementing an enterprise-wide vision. Each team member could point to a specific feature or function that he or she contributed to the vision and as such took ownership of the program personally, making it successful.

Once we had the vision established, the project was able to get back on  track with every member working cohesively with other team members, contributing to a master schedule and starting to form into an HPT. Although this team was a conglomeration of over 5 outside different consulting firms and one client, a Microsoft executive who joined a team lunch commented that he could not differentiate who worked for which company as the entire team intermixed with open conversation on the challenges and obstacles they faced. This HPT was observed offering suggestions for other team members to problems that have not been resolved.

It is important to recognize that the PMI framework for program and project management was implemented, and the teams generally operated with a formalized development approach; but without leadership and a common vision, success was simply not possible. Each product elaboration had to overcome the visionary issues and address concerns that should have been identified and handled at the program onset. Many hurdles were ahead, but with the clearly defined vision and established roles and responsibilities documented, the teams were able to dispense with meaningless infighting and start focusing on developing a solution that not only was on time and on budget but also exceeded client expectations.

Of course, the vision had to be repeated clearly and concisely often throughout the program life cycle. Without this, team members could get off track, identifying potential new ideas and gold plating the program. The goal of the program manager was to stick with the vision, communicating clearly and often so that any confusion as to what was being built and why it would be beneficial to the organization could be eliminated. The achievement of the program’s defined benefits allows the organization to reap the reform they anticipated from their very large investment in time and money.

Excerpt from my book “Program Management Leadership: Creating Successful Team Dynamics”, published by CRC Press as part of the series “Best Practices and Advances in Program Management” by Dr. Ginger Levin.

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Leadership Interview

I recently had the pleasure of doing an interview with Tom Cagley for his SPaMCAST series.  The interview focused on my new book “Program Management Leadership: Creating Successful Team Dynamics”, CRC Press, 2013 as part of Dr. Ginger Levin’s “Best Practices and Advances in Program Management Series”

Please take a listen at
SPaMCAST 280 – Mark Bojeun, Program Management Leadership

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Leadership in Project Management

During my career I have specialized in failed and troubled projects as well as teaching program and project management.  The teams that I have worked with have been incredible but in most cases were disjointed and in conflict before we seriously invested time and energy in building the team.  Process is a vital part of project management and ensures that critical steps are followed such as risk, scheduling, cost and change management.  However, I continue to find it disturbing that PMI and most training facilities deliver Project Management training courses without spending any time on the role that leadership traits play in the delivery of successful projects.

PMI does reference team development in the Human Resource knowledge area, but fails to address the role that effective leadership and leadership traits play in the building of high performing teams.  Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan (1994), describe leadership as a process that “involves persuading other people to set aside for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare of a group” (p. 493).  As such, leadership is not the management of personnel or mandating directives, but instead the motivation of team members to work towards a common goal and vision.  A true leader is someone who was naturally charismatic, intrinsically motivated, visionary and empathetic.  In addition, a leader must be able to not only create a vision but also to communicate that vision to team members achieving overall buy-in.  Without this capability, a project will inevitably fail.

On one project that I was asked to take over, the project had been going on for 6 months in the creation of an online software application and the client so unhappy with the progress they canceled the program.  At that time, the team consisted of five contracting companies, located around the globe, and almost 60 total team members.  I was asked to take over and restart the program.  The very first thing I did was to travel to each of the organizations involved in the project and ask for them to tell me what the project was to look like in its end state.

Each of the teams, and some individuals within teams, presented differing and sometimes conflicting views on the software end state.  This was not a question of the client and contractor having differing views based on their skill sets, but instead contractors and development companies conflicting externally and internally on the vital aspect of what the program would be.  I was left with the distinct view that if we cannot envision what we are building, how can we possibly build it?

When I returned from my site visits, with a very confused view of the project, I sat down with the client to understand their desire for the application and amazingly enough; I heard yet another vision for the project.  Obviously the policies, procedures, documentation and all the formal meetings were meaningless if the teams did not understand what they were building.

The failure on the project was not the methodology or the conformity to a set of procedures instead it was the leadership of the program and the inability of the Project Manager to establish and communicate a vision motivating disparate parties to all contribute towards a common goal.

The exercise was painful, and I admit that the vision had to be mandated to some hard-liners, but eventually everyone was on the same page for what the program would look like and what it would be.  Once we had this common vision established, the project was able to get back on track with each party working on their components contributing to a master schedule and starting to form into a team.

After six months into the effort we had a team lunch with 20 members from all five of the contracting firms and the client.  A senior manager who had not been involved with the project earlier was amazed that they could not tell which company anyone came from as they all seemed to work together and contribute equally to the conversation.  These 20 team members had moved from a conflict ridden environment to one where they could perform together to achieve a goal that they all believed in.

It is important to recognize that the PMI framework for Project Management was implemented and the teams generally operated with an Agile development approach, but without leadership and a common goal success was a long-shot.  Many hurdles were ahead but with the clearly defined vision, roles and responsibilities the teams were able to dispense with meaningless infighting and start focusing on developing a solution on-time, on-budget and exceeding client expectations.

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Program Management and Leadership

Program Management is rapidly becoming a driving force in the successful delivery of solutions.  Standards such as the Project Management Institute’s Program Management Standard and Prince2 Program Manager Certification outline the tasks and responsibilities, inputs and outputs, and knowledge areas.  Though these processes can definitely contribute to the successful delivery of services there is much more to being an effective Program Manager.  Certification, education and experience are all beneficial, but what does a truly successful Program Manager look like?

A program is defined by PMI as:

“A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.  Programs may include elements of related work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program. “

(The Standard for Program Management, Second Edition)

The primary responsibilities for a Program Manager are defined by PMI as 1) Benefit Management, 2) Stakeholder Management, and 3) Program Governance.  These three key areas permeate everything that a Program Manager does.  Although process and knowledge areas go into great depth and detail, everything these process areas contribute to a program can be directly aligned with the three key tenets.

Yet the approach taken by the Program Manager in leading the team, Project Managers, and stakeholders is crucial to the overall success of the effort.  It is the Program Manager that sets the tone and creates the environment through which the teams will operate.  The PM will create a formal or informal environment, establish communication patterns, autonomy and reporting levels and will set the standards that all team members are held to.  As such the Program Manager will create an environment that appears somewhere on the spectrum from hostile and toxic to rewarding and high performing.

A team that operates in an open and honest environment will tend to be more creative and innovative, working towards a common goal, while the same team in a more hostile situation will become risk intolerant and communication channels will begin to close down.  The positive side of the spectrum enables open communication, personal commitment, tolerance and innovation while the hostile environment will create finger-pointing, hidden concerns, and unvoiced risks.

The environmental setting is so crucial to the success of the effort that it is a key factor in achieving success and sets the standards for everything from communication to technical effectiveness.  Mello (1999) states that leadership studies have taken place for over a thousand years, dating from the ancient Chinese, Greek and Latin classics, as well as both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Fulmer and Conger (2004) point out that in the first few years of the 21st Century, over 15,000 books and articles have been published on leadership alone. As such, it is curious that when taking on managing a large and complex effort such as a program, that the standards so effectively miss this crucial critical success factor.  However, I have yet to find a standard dealing with the management of complex efforts that outlines the role that effective leadership plays.  Process and policy, tasks, roles and responsibilities are crucial, but to be truly effective a Program Manager must be an effective leader.  The standards provide the steps but as Peter Drucker (2003) cautions “no book will ever make a wise man out a donkey or a genius out of an incompetent” (p. 7).

This article will attempt to identify some key leadership traits that contribute to successful Program Managers as related to the process and standards of the Project Management Institute.

Benefit Management

Benefit management is the identification, realization, and communication of tangible benefits that the program will deliver to the stakeholder community.  The benefits of a program are most likely to be lost or forgotten with time and general impact of delivery.  The Program Manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the benefits are useful and aligned with the organizational objectives, communicated throughout the organization, and when realized, validated to ensure that the benefits intended were those that were realized.

Therefore, the Program Manager must be capable of envisioning the future state, providing a gap analysis between the current and future, and ensuring that stakeholders and program team members all recognize and see the value of the future state.  A program that is undertaken with no tangible benefits has little support from the organization and will often be challenged on the basis of cost, organizational impact and resource consumption.  While a program with great benefit will receive the vast amount of support and resources to ensure that it is able to achieve established goals.  At the same time, the greater the benefits the more pressure to deliver in a timely manner.

For any and all efforts the PM must be able to align pain points with benefits so that stakeholders can recognize that the future state will be a better one and are prepared to deal with any temporary pain points while waiting for the new set of benefits that will be an outcome of the effort.

A successful program will also leverage the program team to work together in the development of a solution.  The environment created by the Program Manager will determine the level of personal contribution, investment and innovation that the team delivers as a whole.  Each participant is a key player in achieving success.  The PM must ensure that every team member clearly understands the benefits of the program, the future state and is on the same page working towards the same vision.  Without this, teams will head in disparate and sometimes opposite directions burning time, resources, and dollars without tangible benefits.  Thus, as the responsible party for Benefit Management not only must the PM define the environment but they also must be someone who can envision the future and must be an exceptional communicator to ensure that everyone involved with the program whether a contributor or user is operating to the same vision and expectations.

Stakeholders need to have clarity in what will be forthcoming, when things will occur, and when they will receive information.  Without this, the program soon becomes a “black box” which is often resented by those waiting for benefits.  Regardless of the technical or managerial knowledge of the stakeholder community, there is an expectation that they will be capable of observing some level of progress.  Often this progress can be demonstrated through tangible achievements but there are times, especially early on in a program, where the progress is more intangible.  The PM must be able to effectively communicate progress and schedule throughout each stage of the effort.  Stakeholders need to know not only what the status is, but when they will hear additional status updates and the form that communication will take.  In the PMI Standard, this is accomplished through the communication plan but it also is anticipated that the PM will be able to respond to questions, deliver status on a moment’s notice and recognize when the communication schedule needs to be adjusted to better meet the needs of the community.

Stakeholder Management

Stakeholders must also clearly understand what the program will and will not deliver.  Expectations that are not directly aligned with the program deliverables will create a level of frustration and cause a loss of support for the effort.  Communicating the program expectations in terms of features, functionality, schedule, cost and quality must be an ongoing dialogue validating that stakeholders clearly understand what is proposed and how the program will meet needs.

In working with various stakeholder communities I find that not only must the PM be able to communicate they must also be beyond reproach in the information they communicate.  A PM cannot be inconsistent, illogical, or demonstrate a lack of knowledge.  They must be aware at all times of the many statuses of projects, efforts, and tasks.  They must be able to discuss, at any level, the progress of the effort, technical challenges, financial issues, and resource concerns.  When this pattern is found, the general outcome is one of honesty, reliability and trust. Honesty and reliability work together to build trust and it is the trust of the stakeholder community that is crucial to success.  A PM communicating progress who is not trusted is not believable and therefore the progress, program status, financial estimates and risk identification all become questionable.

The reality is that all programs have good days and bad days.  There are times when risks are realized, issues encountered, and the unexpected hits causing tremendous concern for the program outcome.  Yet a Program Manager will need to communicate openly and honestly the good and bad of the program regardless of the potential outcry from the stakeholder community.   The news must be put into context and balanced between the fears of failure and the realities of issues encountered.  A PM full of all bad news, or all good, soon loses credibility with the community. Therefore the PM must be courageous in communicating issues and avoid cheerleading when the effort appears to be firing on all cylinders.

At the same time, the Program Manager is responsible for the work performed by the teams that they manage.  In the event that an issue or problem occurs, the PM must defend the team and maintain control of the effort.  It can often be painful to stand up to executive managers, but a PM who takes responsibility for failure and passes success on to the team creates an environment of internal trust, confidence, innovation, and success.  I have always believed that “Failure is mine, success is the teams, and failure is not an option”.  This quick motto helps to create an environment where the team can operate with best efforts and not fear.  It also fosters the overall level of communication and ensures that the Program Manager is aware of the facts, good or bad, and has the ammunition to clearly brief stakeholders.  The team that is protected by management becomes more willing to innovate and create knowing full well that they will not be “punished” for attempting to solve challenges.  This creates a safe environment regardless of the organizational culture and encourages greater internal communication and contributions eliminating hostile or toxic traits such as finger pointing, sabotaging, withholding information and focusing on personal success over organizational.

The trait of courage and expertise leads to a level of confidence that a Program Manager should demonstrate.  Stakeholders who are concerned about program success will look to the Program Manager to instill confidence in the objectives.  In addition, team members will be more successful in following someone who is confident in the approach and where they are leading the team.  Uncertainty, fear, and anxiety will come across as a lack of belief in the program and potential benefits.  This negative will feed the communities concerns and when issues are encountered the stakeholder community will immediately interpret their concerns as valid.

On the other hand, a leader who demonstrates confidence in the team, program objectives, potential benefits, technical approach, and evangelizes the solution will generate a following of stakeholders who begin to believe that success is achievable.  It is only through this confidence, communication, and trust that a Program Manager can ever hope to develop a true high performing team.  And it is the high-performing team that can achieve the impossible.

High performing teams are achieved through a shared vision, communication, trust, confidence and also motivation.  Individuals need to be motivated to move beyond the 8-5 work day and begin to take pride in the work they are producing.  When motivated team members come together to deliver a solution every aspect of the effort becomes important.  A high performing team blurs the boundaries between responsibilities as team members begin to assist each other and work towards the common goal setting aside their personal ambitions for a short time and focusing on success.  Internal communication increases as the team shares knowledge and issues among themselves, and therefore lessons learned becomes a dynamic process that takes place throughout program development.


While much of this article has focused on the delivery and motivation of teams, one aspect that is critical is the assurance that information required is available and the process is complied with.  Although a transformational leader motivates a team to greater levels of communication, creativity and innovation they must also make sure that the effort does not stray from the required processes.  Skipping over critical areas because of momentum in others is a sure way of creating program failure.

An effective leader will need to ensure that the team complies with all aspects of governance implemented so that individual efforts, projects, or tasks do not go astray.  A program is a combination of smaller component efforts (projects) that when combined offer a greater benefit than managing each project alone.  Therefore, Project Managers and team members must comply with processes such as schedule management, financial management, performance measurement, and project reporting to provide the foundation on which the effort eliminates redundancy, disparate efforts, and disconnects between projects.

Although the PM is focused on many positive leadership traits, the compliance with process is one that may require some level of transactional or authoritative traits to constrain non-conformity.  Obviously, it is better to communicate the end-state, vision, and challenges that a program will encounter encouraging team members to willingly comply, an effective PM will also have the authority to require conformance where necessary.  Often this is more a demonstration of courage than standing up to stakeholders as many Project Managers can be quite skilled leaders in their own right.


I am a big fan of learning and leveraging the process of PMI and other methodologies.  I hold PgMP, PMP, and PMI-RMP, but while the knowledge of process is a definite contributor to success, effective leadership traits are also necessary to be able to consistently achieve success.  Teams respond to quality leaders and to positive working environments.  Authoritative managers forcing an unnecessarily formalized environment will create a more uncomfortable working environment and may inadvertently decrease communication, innovation, creativity, and personal investment.


Although certifications are quite useful in ensuring that a manager has the tools to lead a team, there is much more to program management.  To be successful as a Program Manager an individual must be:


  • Transformational / Charismatic
  • A visionary
  • An effective communicator
  • A trustworthy colleague
  • Courageous
  • Confident
  • A motivational leader




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Organizational Toxicity Can Posion Programs and Projects

Over the last 10-15 years, I have found myself in various corporate and government environments as a contract Program / Project Manager.  Although many experts believe that a qualified PM can be effective in any environment, the culture or situation in which an individual operates has a tremendous impact on his or her willingness to introduce innovation, ability to introduce change, and potential to influence the morality of decisions made. Organizational environments that are harsh, negative, and derogatory, and where failure is loudly broadcasted, can inherently disable the ability, or willingness, of individuals to rise above the self-preservation instinct in the pursuit of change or entrepreneurial drive. These environments create a culture of risk aversion, leaving leaders fearful to step outside acceptable corporate boundaries.

Gabriel and Carr (2002) propose that the organization itself can become “neurotic”, which then affects every participant, member or partner. They extend this description to posit that “neuroses” can generate beneficial behavior to the organization, encouraging work-alcoholism and personal-drive, or negative, creating a hostile and/or toxic environment. Where a negative environment exists, it impacts on all who interact with it. This “toxic” organization is something that creates its own set of issues relating to leadership and the drive towards innovation.

The toxicity of an organization can create environments where hostility and backstabbing is rewarded, where the “old-school” guard quashes new ideas and creativity, or where ridicule is used to counter new and innovative ideas. Organizations demonstrating toxicity will often stifle creativity, use personal attacks against the source of new ideas, and criticize without facts.  In addition, these organizations will often demonstrate a lack of employee empowerment, regular HR related issues, and high attrition rates.

When such a negative environment exists, is it possible for organizational change to exist within a firm in which those involved in initiating and leading the change are inherently driven to ensure their own survival, values, and culture?

A leader’s acceptance and ability to rise to challenges is one of the factors used to define him or her as a leader (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). Based on the definition of a leader provided by Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan (1994), “leadership involves persuading other people to set aside for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare of a group” (p. 493). Since a leader envisions a future and motivates followers to achieve that future state, leaders, as a general rule, would be incapable of imagining a successful future without their own involvement, regardless of their personal biases, preconceptions and prejudices, since their vision is what they are pursuing. Thus, leaders can either help or hinder an organization, depending on the alignment of vision, cultures, values, and motivators. If organizations rely on new ideas to remain competitive then the value brought to the organization by a leader is the introduction and implementation of new ideas.

A leader’s reaction to his or her survival instincts is one of the most basic functions individuals will encounter (Maslow, 1943). It is possible that leaders may drive decisions and actions to avoid risk in an attempt to protect their jobs, persons, or health. The avoidance of threats and the achievement of a level of gratification can reach a point where individuals avoid any behavior that would threaten their security.

As professional Program and Project Managers, the challenge is to find a path to success regardless of the toxicity or negative factors encountered.   Any number of techniques and approaches can be leveraged to overcome hostile environments:

Communication – In a negative environment, clear and concise communication is often one of the greatest tools a PM can use to ensure that stakeholders are aware of facts rather than opinion and innuendo.

Courage – A PM faced with constant attacks, both professional and personal, must be able to stand behind the plan, schedule, and the vision of the effort.  This can be very difficult, especially when the PM is an employee of the organization.  However, the path to success is to achieve regardless of the arrows along the way.  Therefore, a PM must be able to demonstrate the courage of their conviction and protect the team in such a way that the team is able to produce and not get sidetracked by attacks.

Humor – My experience is that humor creates a positive environment where teams can let off steam, avoid negativity and relax with peers and colleagues.  Using humor provides a sub-culture that is supportive and positive regardless of the outside environment.  The project/program team must feel comfortable in their working environment to encourage innovation, creativity and open communication.  Quite often, humor is a very effective tool for the development and maintenance of this environment.

Patience – Program / Project Managers who rise to the challenge of every attack often find that they are spending more time battling issues than delivering solutions.  Often the deliverables and benefits that the effort generates can be used to speak for themselves and don’t require defense.

Political Savvy – Although we would like to hide this aspect of leadership, a truly effective leader will have sufficient savvy to recognize unfounded criticisms versus very real concerns and will work to overcome the concerns of stakeholders.  Facing this storm is vital for ensuring that stakeholder commitment is maintained throughout the lifecycle of the effort.  Quite often, a PM will have to utilize their political skills to refute unfounded issues without direct or hostile confrontation to ensure that they are effective and maintain their perceived expertise.

Benefit Management – Program Managers are now being trained to ensure that benefits of the initiative are identified and communicated early to ensure that any negative impacts on stakeholders are countered by the potential advantages that will come from the effort.  Clearly communicating the value and anticipated benefits of the effort generates stakeholder support.

Risk Management – My personal favorite tool for overcoming negativity is the management of risks.  Communicating risks and documenting response strategies can be a fantastic deterrent to avoid potshots and negativity towards an effort.  Through this process potential problems are identified early and often throughout a program life-cycle.  Quite often potential issues brought up by detractors can either be found in the Risk Management register, or should be added to it.  Accepting negatives from detractors and making them a part of the success of the effort is an effective tool for minimizing negativity.

Of course, these are just a few approaches to operating within a toxic environment and achieving success.  Toxic organizations are constantly growing out of economic concerns, unchecked ambition, and the very human trait of accepting bad news without supporting evidence, while good news must be questioned. Quite often, toxic organizations are a direct impact from executive management.  If negativity is welcomed and encouraged, or even rewarded, the behavior will grow at the top levels making it very difficult to overcome.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that if a PM were to give in to a negative culture they are giving away their success factors and their ability to achieve.  Maslow (1943) in his Hierarchy of Needs points out that fear and threats to safety can drive an individual to begin to protect themselves rather than focus on the innovation and creativity that is necessary to achieving success. Acknowledging this personal driving force, a self-aware individual can make a conscious decision to overcome it and to instead focus on the effort that was undertaken.

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Can stakeholders and political agendas kill a program?

One of the key factors in managing any effort today is the impact that the stakeholders and internal politics can play on the overall effectiveness of program management. Stakeholders are directly responsible for scope creep, financial issues, panic, and risks. However, it is the Program Manager’s responsibility to overcome the impact that any factor (internal or external) can play on the delivery of program benefits.

In many situations, I have had top level government executives, CEO’s, Chairman of the Board, Vice Presidents, Managing Directors, you name the title, come to me and demand that the program will add features, functionality or operate with a decreased budget and/or schedule. So, do we bow to this pressure out of concern for our job? Should we simply determine that since they are in charge we must do what they say? The simple answer is an emphatic no!

A Program Manager is generally judged on their ability to perform and to deliver the required benefits of a program within budget and timeframes. Of course, client satisfaction is crucial but in the end client satisfation is generally driven by delivery. In addition, communication and politics are always included in the mix. A PM will recognize that demands are going to come and expectations will change. Therefore, regardless of pressures to the opposite, we must find ways to manage the expectations, demands, and constraints on a program to ensure that the program can deliver on-time, on-budget, and exceeding expectations. Program Managers must plan for these situations to occur and must be fully prepared to deal with them immediately when they occur.

On one recent program, I had a sponsor who would suddenly shift the focus to some “new idea”. The ideas were always good ideas and always included the phrase “this is a non-starter if we don’t have these additional features”. Of course this is tremendous pressure. The sponsor of the program has a new idea and feels that everything will fail if their new idea is not included.

As a PM, I work with the sponsor and executives to follow a clear change management process. Every idea has to be studied for its impact, feasibility and additional costs before it can be approved. In addition, schedules have to be modified. As long as the change has been signed off and schedule/cost changes are approved then the effort can include the change. If however, the change is not approved but instead mandated a political fine line has to be walked.

I find that exposing tradeoffs openly is the key. If a change is mandated, the sponsor / executive has to be informed that it can be done, but there is a cost. Quite often the analogy that nine women cannot have 1 baby in a month is effective. I also use car repair and sports metaphors to communicate that work has to be performed before additional features can be added.

In my experience, the key is honest and open communication. No matter how great the desire to tell the sponsor/executive what they want to hear, we must be firm in communicating the honest truth.

For example, on one project I was working on the biggest issues we faced was that the company hired small contractors and then did not sign the contracts (having contractors working at risk) as well as not paying bills on time. In this project, I had to communicate to the executive board that if these internal issues were not resolved, they would have no contractors and the project would be shut down. Admittedly, telling the CEO his greatest problems were internal was not something I wanted to do, but I found that telling him the honest truth earned more credibility than telling him what he wanted to hear.

So, although I have mentioned communication, honesty and leadership, courage is vital. A successful Program Manager must have the courage to tell the truth, push back, and sometimes inform others of facts that they would rather not hear. It is this honesty and courage that brings an effective Program Manager success regardless of the situation that they face.

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