Savvy Organizations are Developing Leadership Talent with Special Projects

One of the most effective developmental practices to develop leaders is to assign them special projects. Leaders who can achieve financial and organizational goals garner the most respect and are one of the top priorities for global organizations. These findings come from a 2005 study by Development Dimensions International (DDI), Inc., on best practices for tomorrow’s global leaders.

The implications of these findings are significant for leadership development programs. In addition to the known importance of developing people, making tough decisions and creating a vision and strategy, having knowledge and experience in the management of projects is a critical leadership competency for many global organizations.

A research report published by Business Improvement Architects, “From Crisis to Control: A New Era in Strategic Project Management,” identified that while organizations are looking to develop leadership talent with special projects, in fact, the lack of project management competency is a huge concern for them as individuals are asked to lead projects without any tools or processes to validate their skills, knowledge and experience. There is also a lack of process to identify developmental opportunities to increase the competency level of these leaders and of their team members.

The assignment of a special project is a valuable strategy to develop a leader in a number of key competencies because a project manager must act as a leader of the project team. However, organizations must also ensure they have the tools and processes in place for project management and identify developmental strategies to increase competency of the project manager. Managing a project requires strategy and planning, decision-making, interpersonal skills, customer and team focus and financial management. These competencies would support the leader’s ability to achieve financial and organizational goals.

Strategy and Planning

The management of a project requires that the project manager be clear on the goals of the project and its’ importance to the organization. Project managers must be able to clearly define the goals and objectives and project priorities. They must also understand both the business and technical requirements for implementation and select a team with the right competencies and experience for the project. They learn to adopt a business-like mindset that allows them to evaluate their procedure, systems and overall approach from the perspective of their internal customers. As well they learn the importance of evaluation and assessment through their experience with closing projects; where they evaluate each project and document the lessons learned for future benefit.

Decision Making

Regardless of the size of the project there will be times when the project team will encounter problems. The project manager will have to analyze the problem’s impact and systematically deal with its resolution by collecting adequate facts in a timely manner and investigating the cause of the problem. They will learn how to anticipate, manage and resolve differences of opinion and conflict and also how to analyze the impact of the different alternatives and solutions, considering time, cost and resource implications.

Interpersonal Skills

Undertaking any project is a team effort. Working with and through others is a breeding ground for potential communication challenges and conflict because a number of personalities make up the team. Managing a project is a perfect opportunity to learn interpersonal skills and develop more effective communication skills. Through the management of team conflict, presentations to stakeholders and reporting summaries, the prospective leader learns how to actively listen to determine the needs of the sponsor, customer, team members, department managers and other stakeholders, openly share information, opinions and ideas and tailor all verbal and written communication appropriately.

Customer and Team Focus

A project manager learns quickly that the success of the project requires a focused team effort. At the very beginning, a project manager must develop a scope statement for the project and ensure that team members are clear about their roles and responsibilities. The scope statement will define the parameters for the project including: the project goal, deliverables, constraints, assumptions and risks and, once approved, will provide clarity for the project team. Furthermore, detailed project plans that include task dependencies, resource allocations and milestones will crystallize the implementation.

Focus also requires that the project team maintain good administrative procedures to ensure reports and communications are accurate and timely. They learn how to manage aspects of a project that may require specific expert knowledge and work to build relationships with other department heads to ensure that staff reporting challenges do not interfere with project success.

Financial Management

Any project comes with its unique resource constraints including budget, schedule and scope. It is unlikely that a project that has overrun its constraints will be deemed successful. Therefore, prospective leaders learn about financial management as they deal with changes to projects, do risk assessment and develop their work breakdown structures. They learn how to establish controls by setting budget and schedule parameters in accordance with approved scope and by holding regularly scheduled meetings to review and compare schedule and budget performance actual versus planned.


Developing the competency levels of leaders through their involvement in leading, directing and managing projects is clearly seen as a path towards success. This benefits both the individual leader and their organization. It is most important for organizations to have the tools and processes in place for the management of projects. The key project management processes which contribute to the success of projects must be understood and used by leaders in order to ensure their own growth and knowledge development.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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