Three principles to successful project management

Respect, praise, and embracing grace is the foundation of effective leadership.

By Rebecca Delaney, PE, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago May 16, 2017

An entire industry peddles advice on how to perfect the art of project management—as a new project manager, it’s tough to know where to begin. Through experience, I’ve found that three principles form the foundation of being an effective project manager and leader:

1. Give respect to get respect.

As a new project manager in the earlier stages of your career, how do you get team members to respect you in your role? Show respect.

You can learn a lot from more seasoned co-workers if you choose to listen. Successful teams are made up of people with a wide range of skills and personalities. Some have qualities that make them strong contributors, while others have skills more suited to management. Experienced team members have seen what it takes to thrive in an organization and have a depth of technical expertise you may not have. Respect their opinions and experience, and you’ll find your team is much more willing to follow your lead on projects.

For example, I’ve found that when inviting team members to be my partners in the process, and soliciting their thoughts, projects have proven to be less stressful and more rewarding for everyone.

2. Be generous with praise.

Positive feedback is encouraging to team members, affirms good behaviors, and keeps you focused on the many successes of the team.  A recent article published in the Harvard Business Review suggests the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio is approximately 6:1. For every negative comment, at least six positive comments should be provided to keep the team member encouraged. A survey completed by the Boston Consulting Group noted that “appreciation for their work” ranked No. 1 among the top 10 motivators for workers, with salary ranked eight.

Delivering all positive feedback in person is a meaningful, bonding moment. In practice, that sort of communication becomes difficult due to busy schedules. Nowadays, using whatever mode of communication is most readily available—a quick email to say “well done,” a quick “great job” at the coffee station, or a “thank you” text—is more practical. It doesn’t matter how the praise is delivered, just that it’s delivered. I always ask myself: What team members do I need to praise today?

3. Embrace grace.

This one is a lifelong pursuit if you are a perfectionist, but learning to extend grace not only to yourself but also to team members is critical to being successful. It seems natural to remember each failure, because it’s important to learn from missteps and grow. However, if you begin to dwell on failures or allow the past to define the future, this becomes a problem. We’re not the same person we were yesterday or the person we’ll be tomorrow. Mistakes will be made, and there will be moments when we feel we haven’t succeeded. To counter this way of thinking, it’s important to show sufficient grace to let it go and move forward with a clean slate (and a little extra wisdom). The same applies to your team members. Extending grace means you forgive past conflicts and look forward.  This isn’t to suggest themes of poor performance should be overlooked, but rather that giving second chances acknowledges and accepts that none of us are perfect.

It is easy to be hesitant around a co-worker after a conflict, but as the project manager, it’s your role to define the relationship in a positive way. Extending grace to individual team members will have a lasting and significant impact on the whole team. 

Building a foundation on these three principles will not prevent you from making mistakes, but will foster a positive culture and make the journey more enjoyable.

Rebecca Delaney is the mechanical team leader at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s sustainable engineering studio. She is a hiring manager and engineer recognized for her industry leadership in mentoring students and sharing her passion of engineering around the globe. She was a 2016 40 Under 40 winner.