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4 Pillars in the Leadership Stack

Project Leadership

Successful leadership relies on it on being distributed. We need leaders at all levels in our businesses. The days are gone when the CEO in the top floor suite was considered the only leader in the place.

Strategic execution – the process of getting your business goals actually delivered – also relies on leadership being distributed throughout the organisation. If you want to transform your business, deliver reliably and have successful projects, you need to understand the four pillars in the leadership stack.

What is the Leadership Stack?

Filling Execution GapsI first read about the leadership stack in Todd C. Williams’ book, Filling Execution Gaps. He sets out a model for distributing leadership over four tiers in the organisation:

  1. Executive management
  2. Middle management
  3. Project managers
  4. Project teams.

Leaders (and leadership) need to be embedded in every level in order to run projects successfully.

Benefits of Distributed Leadership

The leadership stack works because it moves decision-making to the right place. Middle managers aren’t trying to make decisions about project tasks, where they can’t possibly have enough detail to make the right call. Executives aren’t micromanaging middle management, making decisions at a lower level than is necessary.

There is trust, and people know that they have the information relevant to their area. With that information, they are empowered to make decisions.

The stack is effective because issue resolution is also as close to the area where the task is being done as possible. The tiers also make it easy to escalate decision-making should it be inappropriate to carry out at any level.  For example, if a project manager is facing a particularly tricky risk, with a costly proposed mitigation plan, the escalation route is there to middle management (the project sponsor).

Decision making and issue resolution can happen faster. There is no need to go up the chain for a decision, if the person at the level above you can make the call. There’s no need to wait for the next board meeting to get on the exec radar. When decision-making and leadership are distributed, you keep projects moving.

Project LeadershipHow the Stack Works

We’ve already seen a bit of how the leadership stack works in practice, by looking at the benefits of distributed decision-making and issue resolution. It’s really not that difficult to make this kind of organisational structure work.

  • Executive management sets the strategy, vision and goals.
  • Middle managers decompose these into manageable, deliverable initiatives – projects
  • Project managers take on the projects and lead the team to deliver the outputs
  • Project teams work together on tasks to deliver the components that make up the overall output.

And that’s how you go from strategy to delivery, in four easy steps!

Seriously, the leadership stack might look a little different in your business. In some small start-ups, for example, exec managers and the project teams may work closely together simply because the company isn’t scaled for middle managers and may not have enough project managers. Or the exec is performing the role of project manager as well. Or the team is a self-organising agile team, operating without anyone in the traditional project manager role.

At the other end of the scale, huge multinationals will have many layers of middle management and possibly exec management too.

You can see how you can flex the model to make it work in your organisation. As long as the core principle of moving leadership and decision-making as close to the action as possible is maintained, then you’re on to a good thing for strategic execution.

The Role of Middle Management

Middle managers get a bad rap. Having been one, I feel I can say what I imagine many of you are thinking. What are they for, exactly?

In organisations of scale, where project managers can’t report directly into the executive team, middle managers have an important function to play. They:

  • Receive the output of the project, so they need to have a say in how the project is progressing.
  • Act in lieu of an executive, as we saw above in the distributed leadership model.
  • Take responsibility for all number of things.

In other words, good middle managers help your organisation flourish. They lead from the middle, supporting project managers and ensuring the executive teams have the information they need. They connect the vision and strategy to the people doing the execution.

However, if your organisation struggles with poor middle managers, that connection between strategy and execution gets broken. There’s too much emphasis on poorly implemented process. Creativity is stifled. The feedback loop – which is so important in ensuring the actions taken actually do link back to strategic goals – is broken.

I think middle managers are often neglected when we talk about leadership, but, if your business has them, they are like a crucial lynchpin in the whole leadership stack. Information flows through them, they make decisions on behalf of the exec, and they make the right decisions because they have both the strategic knowledge of where the company is going and the ability to see first-hand the tasks it is taking to get there.

The PMO as Middle Management

And that brings us on to the role of the PMO. If you are a project manager, you are no doubt aware of the critical role that a PMO can play in supporting you while you deliver a project. They are often the link between the delivery teams and the management teams, providing sufficient, efficient reporting to connect everything together.

That puts the PMO firmly in the ‘middle management’ bracket. Your PMO may not report directly into the exec, but it still probably provides first-line support to project managers and their teams.

This middle management layer can be a huge help to project teams. The PMO can help resolve conflict, secure resources and manage dependencies between projects. It can connect you to the right people to resolve issues. It can track benefits and ensure strategic alignment throughout the project life cycle.

The PMO is just part of the middle management tier, which in turn is part of the overall leadership stack. Together, the four layers make up an effective and efficient way of distributing leadership and decision-making, helping projects get more done more quickly and ensuring strategic alignment all the way.

Can you see the leadership stack at work in your organisation? Tweet us @2080StrategyEx We’d love to hear about how you use this idea in your teams.


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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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