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Top Three Things Project Managers Need Coaching On

Let me first stress that I find project managers pretty remarkable and courageous people.

Being a project manager isn’t an easy job.

Projects need to be delivered on time, to cost, to the required quality AND deliver the expected benefits.

During the course of the project, PMs have to be mindful of the big picture and at the same time keep an eye on the detail – without micromanaging anyone. They also need to be skilled at leading and motivating the team and gaining buy-in from stakeholders, whilst juggling a multitude of tasks so that the project isn’t stalling.

All in all a tall order, but also a great learning ground. Having trained and coached hundreds of project managers I know that most of the challenges they face can be turned into opportunities with the right mindset and focus.

Three areas in particular stand out as challenging where PMs can benefit from coaching.

1. Managing a demanding workload and leaning to delegate

One of the greatest pain points that I observe amongst project managers is that many of them find their workload overwhelming. The overload can stem from running too many projects at once or not having enough support when managing a big project.

The problem is that most project managers don’t want to appear “weak” by saying no to more work or asking for help. So instead they try to run faster in order to get it all done. But overwhelm doesn’t serve anyone.

When we take on more than we can cope with, not only do we let ourselves down. We also let our clients down, because we aren’t able to give the project the attention it needs.

A coaching conversation can help project managers evaluate the situation in an objective manner and come to understand what the right way forward is. If we want to run great projects that succeed and add value, we have to accept that dedicated management effort is a requirement.

Instead of seeing it as a weakness, asking for help should really be considered a strength, because it helps us stand up for ourselves and safeguard the quality of our projects.

Project ManagementAnother great way to avoid overload, is to learn to delegate.

This will almost immediately free the project manager up to focus on the most important aspects of their project. The only way to grow and expand the number of projects we run is to delegate, and the beauty is that if done correctly it will develop the team members in the process.

If for instance a project administrator is added to the team, they could help with low-level tasks such as time sheet approval, financial tracking, weekly reporting, and managing specific work streams. It is essential work, but it isn’t essential that the project manager do it.

Through coaching the project manager can come to understand who to delegate to and what to delegate based on the 80/20 rule.

According to the 80/20 rule (also referred to as Pareto’s Principle) 80% of our results stem from just 20% of our effort and activities. It is these high-value activities that we should maintain focus on, whereas we can look to delegate the remaining 80%.

Coaching can also help project managers understand how to delegate in the right way – maybe even in an elegant way.

Elegant delegation is when we’re able to delegate a task that frees us up to focus on higher value activities whilst at the same time we provide a stretch for the person we delegate to. An example could be tracking the project’s budget. To the PM this might be just another task, but to a junior member of the team, who has never been trusted with tracking a project budget before, it might be both motivating and enlightening.


2. Improving emotional intelligence


Emotional intelligence is another important area, which project managers, often unknowingly, need coaching on.

EQ or emotional intelligence encompasses the ability to recognize and manage our own and other people’s emotions, which for a project manager is imperative, because it’s people who make projects happen. It’s essential that project managers know how to motivate a team member, handle situations of conflict and build strong relationships of trust with the stakeholders.

Coaching is a great tool for helping people increase their emotional intelligence, because it helps to raise awareness of how they feel, how they behave and what effect they have on others. An important part of emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize and being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. To strengthen this ability, project managers must make it a habit to see the situation from the other person’s point of view and to ask “what does it feel like to be the other person right now?” If in doubt, there are neat ways in which they can ask.

To further strengthen their emotional intelligence muscle, project managers must practice the art of rapport building with the people they work with.

As the deepest rapport comes when interests, beliefs and values are matched, they should find out what they have in common with the other person and engage at that level. This is best done through one-to-one conversations, which are much more personal than group meetings. Not only can coaches help project managers free up time to build relationships, they can also help them to connect better with the person in front of them. One of the ways to do so is to match and mirror a person’s body language, but the most effective way is probably to learn to listen.

The ability to build rapport and understand people will get easier if project managers learn to tune into people and to focus on what they are really saying. In contrast to hearing, which is an automatic reflex, active listening takes effort and requires that people put their own internal mind-chatter aside and concentrate on the person who is speaking.

To practice listening at the highest possible level, we have to fully focus on the person in front of us instead of considering what we want to say next. In this state of heightened awareness it will become much clearer what the person is really trying to say. We can further maintain our focus on the other person by repeating and paraphrasing their words and by avoiding interrupting them.


3. Learning to engage the team through collaborative planning

Many project managers feel that they have to know it all and do it all, and that it’s their job to instruct team members and tell them what to do. But we live in a world where no one can know it all and where it’s not the job of the project manager to simply instruct others.

collaborationTheir primary role may well be to enable others to do their best work and to access their genius. One of the best ways to achieve that is to engage team members through questions. When we ask questions we show people that we value their opinions and that we want them to contribute. That’s the core of collaboration; involving others and enabling them to help define the work they will be doing. Project managers have to ask lots of ‘how’ and ‘what if’ questions and find out how they can best support the team in working collaboratively.

The same is true when it comes to project planning. There is a widespread belief that because it’s the project manager’s responsibility to plan and track the project they have to do it all on their own. But planning a project in isolation is inefficient and can create an unrealistic schedule that no one has bought in to.

Collaborative planning, on the other hand, is one of the most engaging activities of all, as it invites the team into the planning process, gives them a role to play and promotes a shared sense of responsibility. Coaching can help project managers understand the importance of collaboration and assist them with the practical steps of doing so.

One way to plan collaboratively is to get everyone together in a room with whiteboards and sticky notes and creating the product breakdown structures and milestone plans as a group. As a first step they should agree what the end product looks like. Then the group needs to brainstorm everything that has to get done (one item per sticky note) and from that agree on 12-15 milestones to track throughout the project. Finally they should discuss who owns each milestone, instead of the project manager determining the responsibilities.

Even if the team is remote there are ways to plan collaboratively, for instance with stickynotespm.com or trello.com. Collaborative planning tools can also help to ensure that the plan is continuously updated with information from the team once the implementation phase is in flight. The chosen tools must be flexible enough to allow the team members to maintain the plan collaboratively and take joint responsibility for the execution of it.



For project managers to be successful in their roles they have to continuously learn and grow from the challenges they face. The three things in particular stand out as challenges for PMs that they need coaching on.

1. They need to learn to delegate and ask for help so that they are able to effectively manage their workload.

2. They need to strengthen their EQ by getting better at walking in other people’s shoes and really listening to the people they want to build rapport with.

3. They need to improve engagement levels on their teams by planning collaboratively and involving team members in the work they will be doing.



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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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