The Charismatic Project Manager

Great project managers need to be great communicators and influencers. Learning and practicing the art of charisma can help us be more effective in managing our projects and teams.  I just finished this book called The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane and it immediately stood out to me that the work I do as a project manager could be greatly improved by applying some of the very practical tips that were provided. Charisma isn’t a dirty word; it’s the exact opposite! Anything that helps us become better communicators, better influencers, and better people managers and motivators is something we need to learn about.

However, instead of just taking my word for it, let me highlight those same three areas and you can judge for yourself if there is something to be said for working on our charisma as a means to improve our effectiveness.

1. Conveying “bad news” – status reporting when the news isn’t great
Few projects, no matter how great the efforts of all team members, stay green 100% of the time. In certain environments, even the slightest dip beneath green has all alarms ringing and as project managers we are the “voice of the project.” What type of voice would we want to have? Would it not be one that adequately calms concerns and allows us to continue to have the latitude and space we need to navigate that project back to green? How would charisma help in a situation like this?

The book provides us a great example on shifting our focus from what to say and to how to say it:

  1. Do we leave a voicemail for our project sponsor that is vague and hints at bad news, but lacks specifics and so gives our sponsor room to imagine the worst?
  2. When are we reaching out to sponsor to give a heads up? Late at night when there’s little time to gather facts or have a detailed discussion? Or first thing on a Monday morning when we a limited view into our sponsor’s mood?
  3. Are you attempting to share this information while your sponsor is on the move between meetings, distracted, or otherwise in an uncomfortable environment?
  4. What’s your mood? Are you stressed out and projecting that with your tone and body language?

Individually, these may seem to be minor things, but together they certainly are not. They are critical to how we are heard. Be mindful of all the pieces in play and where possible, adjust them so that our message is received in the best possible light.

2. Corralling wet cats AKA stakeholder managementLead and Influence
Have you ever tried to bath a kitten or a cat? You will not get away unscathed! They will screech. They will howl. They will bite and claw—they just don’t like it! Now imagine attempting to do the same with multiple cats.

While our human stakeholders are, thankfully, very unlikely to attempt to scratch you, figuratively, they can be equally challenging. So when it comes to major decisions where we need our stakeholders onboard, together, to move the project forward, where could charisma play a role?

  1. “Divide and conquer.” Each of your stakeholders is an individual. They each specific ways they like to be spoken to, and specific needs and concerns. While it could appear some stakeholders ‘vote together’, it is still important to address each stakeholder individually before major decisions, especially in private!
  2. Ask your stakeholders for help or at least their opinion on getting the decision through. Why? Well, think to when someone asks for your opinion, how do you feel? Even if you may not be too not too fond of them, doesn’t it make you feel respected? Would you potentially become invested in the outcome? Similarly, when dealing with opposition to a decision, enlisting the naysayer may turn that nay to a yay.
  3. “Express appreciation.” Often your stakeholders may have a day job, which is to say that your project may not be their primary function. Reminders never hurt and it is neither tricky nor manipulative to express appreciation for their hard work. It can help them to re-invest in keeping your project moving forward.

There are many more exercises and tips you can find about charisma and herding cats, so I won’t dwell much longer. However, is it starting to become clearer how this is valuable tool for you to have? Let’s get to the last area I would like to share with you today: the people part of project management.

3. Reinvigorating the Tired, the Burnt Out, and the Disillusioned.
Whether you are early in your career as a project manager or if you have been around the block a few times, it’s only so long you can go without encountering a severely challenged or even failing project. A survey by Innotas said that 50% of respondents said that they had a project fail in the past 12 months. That same survey pointed out that 74% said that they did not have enough resources or staff to manage their project demand.

What does that mean? Remember, projects are merely objects. They setup certain boundaries and limits, but it is people who do the actual work. When they are on a failing project they are likely overworked and as the atmosphere starts to become gray, the state of mind can quickly turn negative.

“Charisma is particularly effective during times of uncertainty, ambiguity, or crisis.”

This is the time when, as project managers, we must step up. Our project teams will look to us to set the right tone, to maintain the team’s focus, and to plan a way forward. How can we do this?

  1. Take care of yourself. Check your body language, what is it saying? Attitude: negative, positive, or distracted? Stay focused on the positive, stay healthy, keep yourself at an even keel. Your team is looking for cues on how they should feel and act.
  2. It is when things are tough that a project team needs to dig in. As a project manager, you can help them do that by maintaining high expectations and sharing those expectations with your team, on an individual basis. Why does this help? Put yourself in the same position. When someone we respect and look to for direction has a confident and positive view of our abilities, how do we feel? What do we do? We do our best to live up to it. We find the extra juice, the extra oomph to meet those expectations.
  3. Have you ever heard the phrase “keep your eye on the ball?” It easy to lose focus of the why we’re doing a project, but that’s where as a project manager you can step up and articulate that vision. You can tell what the path to that vision should be and when your team gets onboard with that, it will motivate them to keep working.

Charisma and the project manager, perhaps a perfect match?
So, what do you think? Is there something here for us? Is practicing the art of charisma something that we as project managers need to do? I would think so and here’s why: project managers are leaders. We rarely get to do work ourselves and we, individually, can’t do a project on our own. We work with others and the stronger our personal charisma coupled with a genuine interest in the people we are working with is probably one of the most powerful ways for us to be successful, together. 

The Charisma Myth. I highly recommend it or any other book or class you find which will teach the skills we all need to be more effective and powerful leaders.

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