Building the authority of the project leader – part 1

Should a good project manager have leadership competences? How to make project team members, busy with their own duties, consider participation in a project a priority? Building the authority of the project manager helps to inspire commitment and convince the team that the project will be well managed and successful. And whether a manager builds authority in a new team depends to a large extent not only on how he starts the project, but also on what he says and how he says it.

The Warsaw-Katowice train stops among picturesque meadows. It stands like this for 10, 15 minutes. Impatient passengers look nervously at their watches, while the lack of information and the heat increase their irritation. Suddenly, a man enters the compartment and announces: Gentlemen, we are taking our suitcases and leaving! With a relieved look on their faces, the passengers take their luggage, walk out into the meadow and head in the direction indicated by the stranger. At that moment, the train starts moving…! A moment later, the bewildered passengers ask themselves: who is this stranger? It turned out that he was also a passenger on the train who knew that it was possible to reach the nearest station in 15 minutes. And he decided to take the initiative.

This is a story about how the situation created a leader. At least a temporary one – the moving train must indeed have undermined the confidence of the hastily formed group in him. But the whole situation was also temporary, and the leader was apparently satisfied with the short-lived cooperation of the passengers.

In large organisations that combine formal and project management, team members are often involved in several or more projects simultaneously. In addition to this, they carry out their job-related tasks. This raises the challenge: how do we convince them to be fully committed to our project?

Contrary to some political declarations, a true leader is recognised by the way he or she starts. How a manager speaks, how he or she conducts the first meeting with the team, how he or she handles difficult situations, all determine whether the team members will find it worthwhile to get involved or whether they will place participation in this project somewhere down the line.

Interview with a project sponsor

How do you get a project off to a good start? How do you build unwavering confidence within the team that the project will succeed and is worth participating in its success? First and foremost, you need to be prepared. A good meeting with the team starts much earlier – with a good conversation with the project sponsor, i.e. the person who commissions the project. What to ask? The golden rule is to ask about any area that is unclear.

Always ask about the purpose: what is the project intended to achieve, the wider context and why the project was set up. Establish indicators of success, a way to measure outcomes.

Ask which parameters: time, scope, budget or quality are negotiable. A project understood as a unique, new venture in a company is fraught with many risks. It is worth determining which of the parameters is crucial and cannot be exceeded, and which can be negotiated in an emergency situation. The most common parameter is time – e.g. the offer must appear on the market on a certain day, as a marketing campaign has been planned for this date, or the product must be physically on sale on a given day. On the other hand, in case of unexpected problems, budget or additional resources can be negotiated (especially in larger organisations). On the other hand, in projects, it is common for companies to cut the budget, further extending the scope. It is worth remembering that a change in one parameter implies changes in other areas: by reducing the budget, we may have trouble delivering a product of a previously defined quality.

Agree with the sponsor on how people will be selected for the team – negotiate your real influence on the formation of the team.

Establish the scope and method of reporting. There are some sponsors who expect weekly reports and others who need information at milestones. There are also those who wait only for an announcement of success – in which case, take special care to checkpoints with the sponsor. Remember that his or her personal involvement is your legitimacy of action in the eyes of the rest of the organisation.

An important topic that should be agreed at the meeting is how to influence employee motivation. It is the project manager’s role to motivate the team, but he or she can agree with the sponsor that on a successful project, the budget saved can be spent on a motivational event for the team or another activity to thank them for their success. It can be agreed whether equipment used during the project can continue to be used after the work is completed, by whom and how. Any material ideas for rewarding the project team are worth agreeing with the sponsor before the first meeting, you then have another motivational tool in hand.

Another point worth raising is the identification of further possible projects that could be a continuation of the current one, e.g. it is sometimes possible to implement the same scope in the company’s foreign subsidiaries after a successful project. At a time when many employees feel at risk of losing their jobs, the prospect of continuing similar projects in the future can be an important motivating factor.

Although the above areas seem to be obvious issues to agree with the project commissioner, many questions about them are not asked. Often, project managers explain that they do not get important information because the sponsor did not have time, did not know themselves or the assumptions seemed obvious. Only after time it turns out that they were obvious to everyone differently.

When you have problems getting answers…

What to do when the sponsor does not answer the question or answers curtly, e.g. “You are the project manager, manage it!”. There are at least two techniques that can be used:

“Don’t pester the king”

If you suspect that the project commissioner doesn’t know the answer to the question asked or doesn’t have time to develop the thread, ask a question such as, “Who else could I elaborate on this issue with if necessary?”. The question can give you a clue as to who else in the company has information on the subject, while also giving you the green light to talk about the project.

The “because” technique

Refers to justifying why you are asking such detailed questions. It refers to Ellen Langer’s famous experiment with a photocopier set up in a library1. She asked people waiting for their turn to let her photocopy a few sheets of paper, justifying the request with the words: “Let me through, please, because I am in a hurry”. When the request was justified, the success rate was 94 per cent; when there was no justification, it was only 60 per cent. In a further attempt, the request contained only the word “because” without any reasonable justification: “Let me through, please, because I want to copy”, and in this case 93 per cent of people let the requester through. The experiment showed that it doesn’t matter how reasonable the explanation is, what matters is that we use the word ‘because’ – it increases the chances of getting a response.

As in the experiment, in a conversation with a sponsor it is useful to add a justification to the question, such as: “I am asking because this is the first time we have worked together and I want to make sure I understand the assumptions correctly”. Will this ensure full success? Probably not, but you will increase your chances significantly.

And what to do when, despite justifications and requests, you don’t get a response? Well, seek your sources of information and address the initial findings with the project commissioner as soon as possible to confirm whether the direction is in line with their vision. It is often easier for a sponsor to refer to finished material – if only by criticising it – than to take the time to dictate their own expectations from scratch.

First meeting with the team

Based on the first meeting, the participants of the project team decide whether to commit to the project or whether to work in such a way that they do not overwork themselves. So how do you build an attitude in the team during this meeting about a certain quality of work, timeliness and speed of completion?

Be in the room in front of the participants. You will feel much more confident if you are the one to greet the participants, showing that you are in your territory. By dropping in at the last minute or late, you may give the impression that you are not in control of the situation. Also, if you are in the room earlier, talking to people and waiting for the meeting participants to gather – you can lower stress levels – a condition that often gets those who are starting out as project managers.

The first five minutes of a meeting is ‘power time’. This is the time when you introduce yourself and the agenda for the meeting, and in it: the goals, the objectives of the project and all that non-negotiable information you have gained from the sponsor. That is, all the most important facts.

Why? Group dynamics mean that most people in a new group and in a new situation are listening at first, curious about the rules and how to work. This is also a good time to talk about the principles that are important to you in your future collaboration.

Welcome the participants to the meeting and introduce yourself. What should you say about yourself? Not too much. A few sentences about your experience lending credibility to you as the manager of this project, you can add one private thing about your interests or a recent holiday. Don’t overdo it by going too far off topic.

Recall the agenda for the meeting and ask if participants want to add a point. The agenda is usually sent with the meeting invitation, but many people do not read emails carefully, so it is worth reminding them.

Introduce the project. It helps to prepare according to Rudyard Kipling’s so-called question star, who once poetically stated: “Six servants devoted to me I keep; from them I know what I know. They are called: What, Why and When, How? Who? and Where? “2:

– Why did we start this project?

– Where are we today?

– What do we intend to achieve?

– How will we determine that the goal has been achieved?

– How and by whom will this goal be realised?

– What will be our next task under a successful project?

All these points prepared on the basis of a conversation with the sponsor will help to convey the most important information about the project in a clear, concrete way, building the belief in the meeting participants that the project manager is a concrete, competent person and that there is a good chance that the project he or she is leading will succeed.

The form of the message matters

Even more important than the words themselves is the form in which the project manager conveys all the information.

Start standing up. Assume a confident posture: weight resting evenly on two legs, upright posture, hands bent at the elbows and gesturing naturally between the hip and chin area, lowered tone of voice. This posture can be adopted by doing the ‘wall test’ before entering. Lean against a wall before entering the room so that your calves, hips and head touch the wall. Enter the room upright in this way. This posture gives the impression of confidence and stability. A lowered, firm tone of voice is the voice of authority, and the project manager is supposed to lead, delegate and control the tasks assigned. So in the beginning, it is not advisable to smile excessively and socialise with the group, but to start seriously. It is easier to start from this level and then move to the relationship level than the other way around: start the meeting too friendly and casual and then climb to the level of enforcement and seriousness.

Next, you should take care to introduce the team. You can ask each of the meeting participants to say something about themselves. It also works well if the project manager, while preparing for the meeting, also gets to know the team members and introduces them as experts in their field, suggesting how they can support the project activities.

And if the sponsor wants to be present at the first meeting? Great, he or she should open the meeting, say that the project is important to him or her and counts on the full involvement of the whole team (this is especially important when senior managers are involved). Then he should hand over the floor to the project manager, because if the sponsor steps into the role of project manager and starts talking about the goal, the objectives, there is a good chance that he will be the one recognized by the team as the leader. And it is, after all, the project manager who is supposed to be the most articulate person in the team – someone who has real decision-making power. Remember to establish this in advance with the sponsor.

Responding to difficult situations

Let’s return to the train story. The passenger, leading the voluntary travellers out into the meadow, had a vision and communicated it, exuding unwavering confidence. The lowered, firm tone of voice sounded like assurance: I have verified information, I know what to do and where to go. He was the most articulate person in the setting. This was enough to make him the leader in the situation. Was it enough to make the venture a success? How did he respond to the outcry of the passengers and how did he deal with what were probably difficult reactions?

This is an important point in building a leadership position – how he reacts in difficult situations. That’s what the next article will be about, the difficulties awaiting the project manager during the first team meeting and ideas on how he or she can react to keep people engaged and strengthen his or her leadership position.


Author: Sylwia Gutkowska


Sylwia Gutkowska

Development Manager at HR Development Sp. z o.o., ICC coach and trainer with many years of experience, specialises in the development of managerial competencies



1 R. Cialdini, Influencing people. Teoria i praktyka, Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, Gdańsk 1999.

2 R. Jones Project management. The art of survival. MT Biznes, Warsaw 2009, p. 81.


The article was published in the monthly magazine “Personel & Zarządzanie, Number 8/2015, Infor Publishing House.