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Developing Project Leaders


John Walsh

John Walsh

 “The Clock is Ticking Faster: Time is Compressed”

The aim of this discussion paper is to highlight the real differences between ‘Functional Leaders’ and ‘Project Leaders’ and debate how to develop the specific skills required of ‘Project Leaders’ that best equip them to survive and ultimately deliver safe & successful Projects to the satisfaction of all involved Stakeholders.


  1. Context & Background
  2. The real differences between Functional Leaders and Project Leaders
  3. How Breakthrough Change Management develops the Project Leader Skillset
  4. Summary

1.Context & Background:Projects have a limited lifespan namely a beginning, middle & the end hence it follows that a Project Team is a temporary organisation; it has one purpose to deliver the project (safely, to the quality & operational standards required, on time, on budget and to the satisfaction of all involved Stakeholders).

A typical project team is composed of many different disciplines, functional and specialist resources where the team members can originate from internal or external sources and can therefore come from different organisations (carrying with them different agendas, objectives and goals). Said resources would normally be experienced in the execution of their job/ role/discipline and will also bring with them their own & normally strong perspectives of how their role on the project should be delivered and what it should encompass (the ‘boundaries’) … basically as ‘Project People’ their professional ‘DNA’ has been modified by their experiences whereby their behaviours and their myopic focus on getting from the ‘beginning to the end’ is what drives them day in day out.


Unlike an Functional Leader, the Project Leader has many differing Stakeholders to satisfy and the ever evolving needs of Compliance & Scrutiny on Project performance adds layer upon layer of complexity and further demands on the Project Leader and her / his team.

Projects themselves fall into one of two categories namely:

  • ‘Greenfield’ where the ‘Investment’ is being made in 100% new facilities with no operational / product link to any existing facilities.
  • And ‘Brownfield’ where the ‘Investment / Project’ must coexist in the same operational space as established plant which brings additional interface management and a clear structure of business driven priorities which must be absorbed by the ‘Project’ in order that both the Capex & Opex components of the Annual Business Plan are met.

Given all of the above and more it is clear that a competent Project Leader must possess a very different capability / skills set than that required of an Organisational/Discipline Leader.

However, and paradoxically our industry tends to select Project Leaders from a single discipline background where the ‘business’ is often seen to be basing their ‘trust’ in delivering a Capital Investment, in demanding circumstances, on proven single discipline ‘technical know-how’ only and neither one who has been ‘driven’ by getting from the ‘beginning to the end’.

Now we are not saying that “everyone from a single discipline background will fail in the Project Leadership environ” … what we are saying is that the identification, evaluation, development and continuous investment in ‘Project Leadership’ is a unique discipline all of it’s own.

The Project Leader’s role is more Executive with a broader range of accountability both Technically & Commercially than that of the Functional Leader. Some (few) are born with the balance ‘created’.



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