7 Tips for Making a Successful Transition to Project Lead

For many tech pros, becoming a project lead is often the first rung on the ladder to achieving their ultimate goal of becoming a project manager, tech manager or even a CIO.

However, your climb may be cut short if you fail to understand the subtleties of the project-lead role. You also need to adopt skills and behaviors that will help you transform into an effective leader.

Since you’ll likely need some coaching and tips, we asked some experienced pros to share what it takes to achieve success as a project lead.

Learn the Unwritten Rules

While it’s possible to understand the basic duties of your new role by reviewing the job description and project scope with your manager or PM, some things are not written down, explained Sara Gallagher, PMP, PSM1 and senior consultant for the Persimmon Group.

“Every project has unspecified rules that exist in the white space,” she said. Understanding all of the tasks and duties that team members are expected to complete can help you excel as a leader. For example, is it everyone’s job to scan for risks and suggest solutions, rather than just flagging problems? Not knowing what’s on “everyone’s job list” can lead to frustration, stress, unrealistic goals, and missed deadlines.

Remember, your team is a reflection of your leadership; you provide the coaching, training and support that allow it to succeed.

Don’t Fall Prey to ‘New Leader Syndrome’

Your strengths as an individual contributor may have helped you land a leadership role, but you won’t succeed at the next level by doubling down on your personal activity, warned John Kackley, senior manager for Centric Consulting. Kackley calls this common mistake “new manager syndrome.”

“You may get yourself out of a jam every now and then by doing all of the work yourself,” Kackley added. “But you’ll be more successful over the long haul by recognizing, respecting and leveraging the talents of your entire team.”

Commit to Developing People

Some leaders are reluctant to invest in the growth and development of technical staffers who roam from project to project. But Kackley calls that notion shortsighted.

“You will achieve greater success by being a servant-leader and putting as much into your people as possible,” he said. You have to trust that other leaders will do the same, and that your efforts will somehow come back to you in the future.

Evaluate and Adapt

Even if you don’t use an Agile process, team leads should constantly assess progress, especially as staff members come and go and requirements change. Be intellectually honest about your progress and the capabilities of your staff, and be willing to change or reboot if something’s not working.

Embrace a Collaborative Style

An autocratic or top-down leadership style will not produce effective results across internal teams or cross-functional boundaries. Today’s environment requires a more collaborative style of leadership that is characterized by open discussions, involvement, and the sharing of ideas, control and power.

“Developing accurate and realistic estimates of project costs, schedules and so forth requires trust and knowledge of your team’s capabilities,” Gallagher noted. “Using a collaborative style and asking for input can help you estimate time for projects more accurately before trust is established.”

Own It

Successful leaders think and act like business owners rather than employees. Accept responsibility for your team’s performance and take an interest in understanding the needs of the business. Remove barriers that impede team performance and treat the project budget as if it were your own money.

Keep a Captain’s Log

Keep track of your progress as you make your journey by jotting down ideas, best practices, lessons learned and tips gleaned from colleagues and mentors. “Be intentional about your professional growth by creating a searchable diary or tool,” Gallagher advised.

“Don’t get down on yourself,” she added. “Everyone makes mistakes. The key is to learn from them.”

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