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Top Tips For Coaching Project Managers - Susanne Madsen


Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to coach a project manager and you wish you had some great tools you could use to help them move forward more effectively? If so, Susanne Madsen offer her top tips.

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to coach a project manager and you wish you were able to better relate to them, or that you had some great tools you could use to help them move forward more effectively?

Well, let me try to provide you with some insight into the world of project management and give you some hints and tips which you can use if you encounter that situation again. As a professional project manager, who has spent 15 years leading large technology projects in the financial sector, I understand the most common challenges that project managers face – and it has become my personal mission to help them overcome these challenges.

When I qualified as a coach over 4 years ago it was an easy decision for me to choose project management coaching as my niche. I wanted to continue working within the corporate arena and I had a desire to help people move into leadership and to build on the credibility I already had. Hence I stuck to my field.

What is so special about project management?

Although project management coaching is tailored to project managers it is not fundamentally different to other types of coaching. I always make use of best practices such as pre-coaching questionnaires and the GROW model and a large part of a session is often spent on topics such as confidence, overcoming procrastination and helping people clarify what their true needs and desires are. But there are also differences.

Most project managers are very diligent and control-oriented and prefer to be on time. Many of them have great attention to detail and their primary focus is on the harder aspects of the job, such as tracking tasks, processes and budgets. They are less mindful of the people-side and they often lack the confidence, interpersonal skills and impact which is required to effectively lead a big team and move into more senior leadership roles. Most of them feel stressed; trying to do everything on their own. They work long hours, but are not getting the results they want.

This reality presents a couple of themes which are essential to address when coaching project managers:

1. People focus versus task focus

One of the main aspects to enquire about is whether the project manager is sufficiently aware of and tuned into people as opposed to tasks. Do they relate to their team members at a personal level and seek to inspire and motivate them based on the individual’s needs? We call this a pull approach. Or, on the contrary, do they use a transactional way of managing people where they rely on their authority and simply expect someone to do as they are being told? We call this for a push approach. Do they build strong relationships of trust with their clients and stakeholders or do they mostly communicate via email? To support your coachees in this area, help them strike a healthy balance between people and tasks and assist them in using a more consultative coaching style where they listen, and empower people, instead of simply telling them what to do. If you sense that they have a tense relationship, maybe with a senior stakeholder, help them to address it rather than ignoring it. I often refer to it as “walking into the lion’s cage”.

2. Proactive versus reactive

Another major aspect to look out for is whether the project manager is being proactive and looking ahead; envisioning the project’s end goal and planning for it. Alternatively it may be that they are getting side tracked with day to day issues and are too busy to focus on the activities that really matter: defining the project, identifying and mitigating risks, building strong working relationships and taking a big picture view. To best support your coachees in this area, help them identify how much of their day they spend on a) proactive activities, 2) fire-fighting or 3) timewasters such as conference calls or procrastination. Look at how they can reduce the time wasters and gradually find more space for the important proactive activities by delegating and by prioritising better. It’s incredible what people can achieve by just spending the first 90 minutes each day nailing the most important activities.

Asking insightful questions

A list of the most effective questions to ask your coachee, when you have established great rapport and trust, is outlined below. It’s a good idea not just to ask these questions as a one off exercise, but to encourage the project manager to regularly take a take a step back to enquire and observe – and to ask their team members to do the same.

• What is not working optimally on the project? • What do your customers, boss or team members complain about and what can you do to address it?

• Who do you need to spend more time with?

• Which important activities do you procrastinate on?

• How can you improve your relationship with your customers and more frequently ask for feedback?

• What is your unique contribution to the project and how can you accentuate it?

• How can you better motivate and utilize the strengths of your team members?

• How can you be more proactive? • What tasks can you start to delegate and to whom?

• How can you more frequently take a helicopter view of the project and suggest meaningful improvements?

• What are the 20% of activities that add to 80% of your results?

• How can you work smarter rather than harder?


Additional tools

When I started coaching project managers about 5 years ago, I quickly realised that there were no tailored tools on the market as I was the first to focus on this niche. Of course that also meant that I had to create my own toolbox – something which ended up with my first book; “The Project Management Coaching Workbook –Six Steps to Unleashing Your Potential”


Susanne Madsen