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Episode 406: Leading Projects Without Authority (Free)

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Jeff and Cornelius
Jeff Kissinger and Cornelius Fichtner

You've been there, right? You've managed a project where nobody on the team reported to you. But what can a project manager do to succeed other than beg borrow or steal in this situation?

This interview with Jeff Kissinger (LinkedIn Profile) was recorded at the superb Project Management Institute (PMI)® Global Conference 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. It is based on his presentation "Leading Without Authority: The Project Manager's Dilemma" and looks at what project managers can do to successfully deliver their projects even in situations where they have little or no authority at all over the people on their project. Here is what Jeff wrote about his presentation:

Leading project teams without direct authority is a dilemma that many project leaders face. Doing this well is an art. And, like art, it’s often practiced using a mixture of skills, techniques, and tools. Attendees will learn how to identify and resolve authority issues quickly that adversely affect their projects and learn how to lead their project teams successfully without direct authority.

You can find the Unified Vision Framework discussed in the interview by visiting PMO Brothers [Update: The web page is no longer available so we removed the link].

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Male Voice:   In this episode of the Project Management Podcast™, we discover how to lead project teams successfully without direct authority.

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner:   Hello and welcome to the Project Management Podcast™ at I am Cornelius Fichtner. We are coming to you live from the superb 2017 PMI Global Conference in Chicago. And with me right now is Jeff Kissinger. Good afternoon, I think it is. Hello Jeff!

Jeff Kissinger:   Good afternoon. Just turned afternoon. How are you today?

Cornelius:   I am doing very well. How is everything going for you, so far? I understand this is what—your eighth day in Chicago?

Jeff:   Yes, it is. I’ve been here since Monday. I was here for the PMI Master Class and I graduated with 34 wonderful people that I can see again soon.

Cornelius:   Congratulations!

Jeff:   They’re all over the world. I hope to see them again, if not next year, sooner.

Cornelius:   Yeah. The Master’s Class is a PMI-sponsored program. I think it takes four years in total, right?     

Jeff:   Well, it’s one year—they take you, they start you at the LIM. Others at class 2018 started at this LIM that we had—that Leadership Institute Meeting and they had their classes before the LIM and then they have group projects they do and they meet again next year, March or April and then they’ll meet at the next one in Los Angeles for the final classes but they work throughout the year. They’re constantly doing work challenging each other, connecting with each other, learning –it’s intensive. And I really feel grateful I got to go through it.

I put my information against all these other people who applied for it and I feel fortunate to have been chosen and I can’t stress enough to anybody who’s a PMI chapter leader just volunteering for the first time if they have an opportunity to apply for the Master Class to go for it.

Cornelius:   How are you enjoying the conference?

Jeff:   I’m enjoying it. I met a lot of people here that are just very kind, interesting, willing to talk about what they do. That’s amazing when you put a bunch of people who have a lot in common together how much—whether it be commiserating together about things about projects or sharing ideas that I’ve never heard of before but doing this for a while but I can always learn something. It’s wonderful to meet these people and talk about it whether it be at the conference or the LIM or the Master Class.

Cornelius:   So, the people who are listening to this, they are sitting at home and weren’t here—they’re missing out?  

Jeff:   Yes, they are.

Cornelius:   Hear this, listeners—you’re missing out.

Jeff:   [laughs]  

Cornelius:   I sincerely hope that many of our listeners are going to consider to come next year. Los Angeles, I believe. 

Jeff:   Yes, it is.   

Cornelius:   And it’s going to be just another great conference that we’re going to have there.

Jeff:   Absolutely.

Cornelius:   The topic of your presentation is “Leading with Authority: --Without—Oh my God, I can’t even read. It is “Leading Without Authority: The Project Manager’s Dilemma”. There’s always a story behind the title. What’s the story behind this presentation?

Jeff:   Well, I’ve been involved in Project Management for many years. As a volunteer, I’ve led projects for over 25 years and as an employee whether it be in a commercial or an academic setting, I’ve done it for 17 and in almost every case, I have not had authority—direct authority, but I’ve also worked for people who had authority that had misused it, abused it or they used it well. But knowing that I have to go out there and do—sometimes it seems like the impossible without authority, I know I had to develop influence and I have to drill up skills that I had to learn from people.

So, it goes back for me 20 years ago. That was 20 years ago this month that my wife broke her foot. She was cleaning something and she fell off the couch and she broke her foot. Now, that may not seem like a big deal or how this even relates but she was earning most of the money in the house and I just graduated from college back in December 1996. I was 28 years old and I never had a real job that didn’t fold the nametag or something like that and I was going up there applying for jobs and trying to get something going on and I finally got a little contracting gig that I was doing.

It was working out pretty good but it wasn’t making the kind of money she was making because she’s a hair stylist and we’re living in Las Vegas, which is vanity capital of the world. And when you’re a hair stylist, you make decent money. When she broke her foot, she had her foot up for four weeks, she couldn’t work. And we had to depend on my income which really wasn’t enough. Two days later, I got a contract. A pretty big contract because I was doing technical writing, consulting services with another person.

I went into that project ready. No one to help you —I’m going to make some money but this thing doesn’t come right away, it was just contract money, not 30 net 60 whatever they tried to throw at me. I decided that I’m going to do whatever it takes. I’m going to get this done. And the project manager for this was somebody who was given quite a bit of authority and there was about eight of us on this team. Real smart people, real good people. And we were subcontracted as part of the contractor who was working for Hewlett-Packard. It was during the net server days.

We went at it but I was given—"Here, take these Lotus notes slides and convert them to PowerPoint slides”. And it wasn’t really easy because they all just disintegrated and I had to reintegrate them together and I did all this and the project manager said, “Ok, we’re getting ready to put our output for the training together. So, he prints off a few of these slides I did—I did 2000 of them. He prints off maybe 20 and he faxes them up to Hewlett-Packard and we all just looked at each other and went: “Oh my God! We’re going to die. This is awful. This isn’t an output. This isn’t what I signed up for!”

But I had to keep working because I needed to make money. I didn’t feel I wanted to be a part of this at all. This thing had no vision, does have no direction, doesn’t have nothing and we’re going to get beat up. And then this guy, who I’ve known for a while now, brises up out of it and says: “Look, we have a deadline. We got to get this done by January. We have these things I got to get done. Let’s forget about him. Let’s get to work”. So, he gave me very clear direction what he wanted me to do, what he wanted me to write, some website, stuff he wanted me to develop. Other people working on their parts. He organized it all, he did his part and we came in, we delivered on time and got it done.

He had vision, he had clarity, he had reason, he defined what needed to be done, he got us to agree on what we’re doing, he got us flowing in the right direction and we executed it and we stayed together as a team for a while on other projects. He was really good and that taught me that he didn’t even have any authority. He had no authority on this thing but he was a leader and it taught me that I need to be a leader. I don’t need authority to be a leader and that’s the whole point of the whole talk that I did.

Cornelius:   So, let’s take a step back. How do you define authority?  

Jeff:   Authority is having the jurisdiction, the power, the ability to control the granted as managers typically have over reports and to make decisions and to say this is what I get to do and we’re doing it this way. And some people that have authority, when put in the wrong hands, is like a nuclear weapon. They can go out and just ruin people with it. “I told you to do that because that’s the way it’s got to get done. Now go do it”. Micromanagement –an authority like that. Or somebody who has authority but doesn’t use it properly in the sense that they’re too afraid to use it.

But somebody who is balanced, somebody who is humble, somebody who’s principled, having authority, they use it judiciously, they’re very careful about it, they don’t try to tell people what to do but to show people what to do. They have a clear vision of what it is they need to do. They break things down into small batches and they allow people to have the autonomy to do it as they need to get it done and they lead them through it. They listen to the ideas of others. They tell people that I can’t do this without you. We can’t do this without each other and they bring them in as a team. They create which is essentially a clear flow of information, a clear flow of ability and a clear flow of productivity.

Cornelius:   You sent me your presentation before the conference here and I printed it out and I looked at the first page and the one thing I was immediately thinking was “Leading Without Authority: The Project Manager’s Dilemma” but wait a minute, purely theoretically, the project manager’s name should be mentioned in the charter so the project manager has the authority—the formal authority.   

Jeff:   Yes. Well, they do and they don’t. Depending on the organization. I’ll give you an example. I always put the project charter out front. I talk about that right in the beginning of the presentation. One of the ways that I can try to gain authority is by including it in the project charter and also having a sponsor that I work with who trusts me and the people that report on the team also are connected to that sponsor—that makes it easier. But the person who gives me that authority, so to speak, in the project charter, I had them take it back, whether they write it down or not, it depends on what kind of leader they are and the charter, again, it’s provisional, at best.

It’s not something that I get to take with me. I don’t have direct reports. This person, yeah, they are my team and I’m given this provisional authority but that person reports to somebody else and they’ll do what that other person tells them. But when I can work with somebody and do the things that I talked about in this discussion, they commit to it. Their enthusiasm, what they want to do is attached to the reason why they were doing this. It’s attached to the vision of a project which is attached to the vision of the organization.

Cornelius:   What are some authority issues that we should look into at the beginning of the project?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

PDUs: Power Skills, Project Communications Management, Influence without authority, PMI Global Conference, PMI Global Conference 2017

  • Last updated on .
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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