6 Tips for Leading Teams that Don't Report to You

By Veronica Thraen / September 16, 2019

A project manager’s job is to successfully lead teams to an end goal. But the teams are often geographically and functionally dispersed and can include multiple vendors or external contractors. While these teams may take direction from the project manager, they do not directly report to them.

How does a project manager – or any manager responsible for delivering projects on time and within budget - effectively resolve conflict, build consensus and get everyone to the finish line when they do not have authority over the team?

Here are some tips to help set expectations and boost team confidence in your leadership abilities:

Step 1: Discuss expectations with team managers

Scheduling a one-on-one meeting with team managers before the project starts provides multiple benefits. First, it will provide the opportunity to discuss their expectations for handling any conflict or issues within their teams. Some managers may ask the PM to escalate directly to them; others may authorize to the PM to handle issues on their own. Whatever the decision, just make sure that the team members are aware so there are no misunderstandings.

Secondly, establishing a good business relationship with the team managers—who are also project stakeholders—keeps them apprised of project status, risks or scope changes, ensuring project success and establishing trust for any future projects.

Step 2: Reach out to the team members before the project starts

It’s always a good idea to meet with team members beforehand, especially if the PM has not previously worked with them. It can be a casual introduction at their desk, over the phone or via web conference. I find that this helps to better understand personality types and the team dynamic/environment ahead of time so that you can prepare.

Next, rallying all the troops at a kickoff meeting will allow the PM to discuss the project in more detail and give the team the opportunity to ask questions or get clarification on the objectives, scope or timeline. The teams should clearly understand their roles and why the project is being introduced.

Step 3: Understand the environment and adjust management style for success

Once you’ve met with the managers and their teams, you should have a pretty good idea of the environment and how they operate. A PM may need to adjust their management style depending on a specific methodology they will use for the project or based on the type of working environment.

As an example, the team may run their projects using an Agile methodology. This methodology requires the PM to take on a servant leadership role, assisting/coaching the “self-organizing” team and focusing less on a rigid project plan and heavy documentation. There could also be a situation when a project requires a combination of methodologies. The teams can complete work iteratively, but documentation and an overall implementation plan may be required, if there are many moving parts.

Whatever the methodology or process used, a seasoned project manager – one that has worked in a variety of environments – will have the knowledge and flexibility to adapt to what’s best for the team and project.

Step 4: Communicate frequently and throughout the project

As the popular saying goes: “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  Lack of communication is a huge risk to project success. A project manager must ensure that the teams doing the work have the information they need to deliver what is expected and stakeholders need to know status and any issues or changes that may impact the project. 

Collaboration is also key. Teams should be working together and not in silos – especially if they are in different departments, working remotely or are third-party vendors. Discuss as a team at the beginning of the project the best communication methods for everyone, best time for meetings and working agreements (how to escalate issues, how to handle changes, etc.). 

Step 5: Be available when the team needs assistance

Most project managers have multiple projects going at any given time and could be in back-to-back meetings throughout the day. It can be very frustrating when teams cannot get questions answered or urgent items escalated. The PM should be removing roadblocks, not creating them.

As a servant leader, in general, the needs of the team come first. The team must be able to trust that the project manager will be available to assist when needed, follow up on items and limit distractions.  The team should not have to work around him/her in order to get stuff done. 

Step 6: Make performance improvements as a team

Any successes or areas for improvement should be discussed as a team throughout the project. If something is not working quite right (process or other), then brainstorm with the team on an alternative solution. The team will respond more positively with this approach versus a manager telling them at the end of the project what went wrong and how they should fix it. 

It is possible to be met with some resistance or skepticism at the start, particularly if the team does not know you or they are not used to working with project managers. Using these six tips to gain their trust and respect will make it easier to lead them to project success. And when they tell you, “we couldn’t have done this without you,” you will know you’ve done your job well! 



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