Bears Business Brief: Informal authority: A key to successful project leadership

Neal Callahan

By: Neal Callahan

In today’s highly competitive global market, companies increasingly identify projects as the means to implement improvements and achieve business goals.

Formalized project management training, ranging from short courses to master’s degrees, has increased dramatically over the last decade. By definition, a project is a temporary endeavor that could last a few days or many years, depending on the scope of the task. This temporary component is what makes some parts of project management different and more challenging than managing an ongoing operation.

When a company implements a project, it often temporarily assigns employees from various parts of the organization, but employees still report to their permanent boss. Projects in the functional organization are particularly challenging when team members come together from varied areas such as production, research and development, accounting, engineering, etc. to complete a task. In a situation like this, the project manager often has less formal authority than or shares authority with a functional manager.

As a result, many project managers must rely heavily on their leadership ability in order to succeed. Good project managers possess a unique set of skills and traits that allow them to communicate effectively, influence and motivate others, and convey a sense of trust. These abilities are strongly supported by personal integrity, organizational skills and diplomacy.

Because team members usually identify more with their permanent boss from their respective functional area, the project manager must often depend on informal authority to lead the project. Faced with a group of people who do not directly report to them, project managers often depend on influence to gain cooperation and support.

Influence built on character, competence, and trust is critical in developing much needed informal authority. Influence involves the ability to convince others without having to directly apply force. Building trust is the key to exercising influence.  Trust requires character, but character alone is not enough; competence is also necessary. I am sure we can all think of someone of high character who is simply not competent in a certain area.

Project managers are required to interact with a wide variety of stakeholders. Stakeholders are a group of people who actively work on the project or have some sort of interest in the project. Stakeholders vary from project to project, but often include:

  • Project team
  • Other project managers
  • Functional managers
  • Upper management
  • Public and the press
  • Government regulatory agencies
  • Subcontractors
  • Customers

Clearly, with such a wide range of constituents, the project manager must draw on informal authority and influence to complete the project successfully.

Due to the wide range and complexity of interactions involved, the project manager must do more than maintain the schedule and meet the technical requirements of the project. Developing a social network of stakeholders where influence drives motivation, support, and cooperation is critical. Intentionally developing and honing the soft skills necessary to achieve this influence will serve the project manager well and lead to the highly valued informal authority so important to successful completion of a project.

Reference: Larson, Erik W., & Gray, Clifford F. (2014). Project Management the Managerial Process, 6th ed., New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Neal Callahan, Ph.D., is a professor and head of the Department of Technology and Construction Management in the College of Business at Missouri State University. His specialties include project management, manufacturing systems, and quality control.

This article appeared in the February 11, 2017 edition of the News-Leader and can be accessed online here.
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