There comes a point in almost any project professional’s career when they are faced with the realities of project delivery and managing stakeholders. As project leaders, we have to know just how capable we are of influencing both upwards and outwards.

In the fast-paced, dynamic environment that so many of us work in today, the ability of a project professional to use their skill and experience to influence positive outcomes is directly linked to how well they are able to engage and influence others within an organisation.

A lot has been written about the typical stakeholder avatars that project teams are likely to encounter, the traits they exhibit depending how mature their experience is in delivering projects, and of course, how they should be engaged. However, there is a question that many project professionals need to ask of themselves, which is this: “How influential am I—or can I be—in this organisation?”

It’s a question that was explored recently at a Quay breakfast roundtable for senior project leaders, as SBS Head of PMO, Andy Almenara, led a discussion about the perceived value of the PMO whilst zeroing in on how to develop influence as a critical enabler of being able to speak truth to stakeholders leading projects within their organisation.

The ability to be influential at both an individual and group level is a critical part of either delivering successful projects or leading wayward ones out of the wilderness.

Perception is reality. Aspiration is not.

One of the key points from the discussion was that if PMO leaders aren’t at the steerco, there may well be a perception at C-level about its ability to be effective. If the executive believes that the PMO has become a gatekeeper rather than an enabler, it’s time for a hip check about just how influential its leaders actually are within an organisation.

There’s a truth for project leaders that requires ego to be set aside: In projects, perception is reality. A project management office, for example, will only remain valued and valuable when it is perceived by stakeholders to be a safe pair of hands that are contributing to the business’s ability to deliver successful projects. The same holds true for project managers.

Whether we like it or not, perception is more important than aspiration here.

Conversations in peacetime … And war

Being able to influence outcomes requires strong relationships with stakeholders and people within the organisation so that when the need for robust and straight-talking conversations come—and it invariably will in project delivery—the foundation exists for those tough, brave-smart conversations.

Don’t wait until a project has started to seek out conversations with stakeholders … and don’t be afraid to seek out the opportunity to connect and build a working relationship with people who will be owning the work.

It’s not enough to aspire to be influential; building relationships takes time and effort to get to know the stakeholders, what drives them, and what matters to them. Being able to engage and communicate becomes much easier after that. This is insight that becomes incredibly valuable when things are going well and critical when things start to go awry.

Minimising the gap between the desire to be influential and the stakeholder’s perceptions should be the goal before the project gets going. There is little value for anyone trying to influence a stakeholder in the heat of battle when a poor perception of what project leaders bring to the table already exists—whether it’s right or wrong.

Developing influence

There is an art to developing influence, but it first requires a reality check about your current standing in a project or organisation and how possible it is to gain both access and opportunity to engage with stakeholders.

Understanding your own mission statement as to the perception that you want stakeholders to have is particularly important here:

  • Do you want to be the ‘safe pair of hands’?
  • Do you want to be an advisor that stakeholders come to for guidance on how to set up a successful project rather than having to inject yourself—unsolicited—into the project when you see issues?
  • Do you want to be the trusted voice in the room when war has broken out and a decision needs to be made to remediate or kill off a project?

These are all great aspirations, but they won’t become reality if you aren’t able to properly position yourself within an organisation as someone who is capable of delivering.

Know where you stand professionally

Developing influence means knowing that you need to park your ego at the door. It may well be that your belief systems may need to change or you’re in the wrong gig i.e. what you believe to be true vs what is actually true is perceived differently by those you seek to influence.

How might this look? An example may be that you believe you do not tread on others’ toes i.e. something needs fixing in an area that is not your accountability so you acknowledge it and try to influence it but do not intervene even if it is not being fixed. However, the stakeholders may perceive you as disingenuous or paying lip service—or worse, playing politics—as it is not in your scope so you are not helping solve the issue.

It may have been well-intended, but the result is a negative perception that’s very different from your reality and your aspiration to provide value. It will not be easy to influence these stakeholders in this state or shift that perception.

Spend time with these people outside the battlefield

Taking the time to meet the people in and around the project you are joining is valuable for understanding what they need and expect from your role in terms of time, communication, expectations and raising issues. This is crucial to understanding what works for them and what doesn’t, and it will enable you to form a picture of your stakeholders.

Don’t waste time or opportunity. Acknowledging their perceptions are actually their reality and their concerns about what needs to change are important. Demonstrating your willingness to provide value is important but so is understanding that the stakeholder may have expectations of you and your role that are not within your capabilities to provide.

This is the opportunity to flag that and do something about it. The goal is either to shift perceptions of what you do and don’t do or build a case to provide those capabilities where it makes sense. Either way establishing a rapport and a clear understanding of what you bring to the table is critical.

Watch the influencers

There are always people within an organisation that have gravitas and insight and if you watch how they operate, there is a lot to be learned about how they use their position to influence both stakeholders and their project teams.

If you can get time with them, more often than not, there are deep insights and knowledge to be gained by asking the right questions about how they view the issues they deal with, what they see as the real and superficial challenges, and how they have developed their ability to influence.

The important thing is to observe how they are motivated to serve the project as well as what they bring to the table that captures the attention of their stakeholders.

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