5 Soft Skills Small Business Leaders Need to Master to Lead Project Teams

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It’s a unique challenge for business leaders that the entrepreneurial traits you leveraged to get to the top are the opposite of the soft skills you need to effectively lead a project team once you’re at the top.

Where self-confidence and the need for autonomy once served you, you now need to master empathy, consensus building, and servant leadership.

By some estimates, soft skills account for up to 85% of project success. And considering that C-level executives are responsible for strategy execution in roughly two-thirds of organizations, you need to get up to speed, and fast.

Small and midsize business (SMB) leaders who develop the soft skills essential for leading teams will not only achieve greater project success but have greater success helping their organization bridge the strategy execution gap as well.

project management soft skills essential for leading project teams

In this article, we’ll review the top project management (PM) soft skills found in high-performing organizations and recommend tools and techniques that you can use to develop these skills so you can effectively lead project teams.

5 soft skills essential for leading project teams

The five soft skills we’ll discuss are based on PM Solutions’ 2015 PM Skills Benchmark report.

The results of their research show that a project leader’s skill level directly impacts project outcomes. Additionally, they found that organizations with highly skilled project leaders are more successful at bridging the strategy execution gap than those with less skilled project leaders. (See “additional resources for project leaders” for more details on this report.)

As such, SMB leaders who take steps to develop these soft skills will be more effective at leading project teams, ultimately better positioning their organization to achieve strategic goals.

Let’s get started.

1. Communicate and listen

 Why this skill is important for PM:  Poor communication is one of the top five causes of project failure.

As the project leader, you’re almost wholly responsible for project communication: sharing the project vision with the team, coordinating with stakeholders, and—perhaps most importantly—keeping everyone on the same page regarding status updates, changes to requirements, potential risks, etc.

As such, it’s essential that you work to improve your communication skills.

While many people (especially business leaders) think they’re excellent communicators, the sad truth is that just 13% of employees believe their business leaders communicate effectively with the rest of the organization, according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report.

Part of the challenge is that effective communication involves listening, not just telling. When individuals view communication as a one-way transfer of information (as business leaders often do), they fail to check for understanding.

 How to develop this skill:  Practice sharing, listening, and then adapting as necessary.

Gartner recommends this practice to help connect employees to successful change outcomes, but this strategy can be applied just as easily to help connect stakeholders to successful project outcomes. Effective communication is critical for both. (Full report available to Gartner clients.)

Share: Address the vision for the project, how it connects to the strategic goals for the business, and how it will impact stakeholder priorities and day-to-day responsibilities.

Listen: Ask for feedback and ideas. Check for understanding and make sure stakeholders can answer the following questions:

  • What’s the project vision?
  • How does the project connect to the company’s strategic goals?
  • What is the timeline?
  • How will this impact me?
  • What’s expected of me?

Adapt: Build stakeholder commitment to the project by listening to feedback and, when possible, incorporating that feedback into the plan. This may mean making a modification to the project or its requirement or modifying the communication itself, i.e., more, less, or with different style, to avoid misunderstandings.

There’s a variety of tools you can use to help streamline stakeholder communication on your project including chat, activity/news feeds, surveys, and more.

2. Display integrity and honesty

 Why this skill is important for PM:  Integrity and honesty are qualities often used to describe someone’s character, which, to paraphrase John Wooden’s famous phrase, is how you act when no one is watching.

As a project leader, your teams need to trust that you’ll lead them to a successful project delivery, listen to their feedback, and adapt as necessary.

Integrity and honesty form the foundation for building trust and respect (see next section). These two abilities were rated as the most important PM skills by small, midsize, and large organizations alike in PM Solutions’ survey.

 How to develop this skill:  Show stakeholders their input is valuable and that you care about them as people, and not just “resources.”

When you’re a business leader and their project leader, employees may be afraid to voice opinions or concerns that contradict your own. You need to facilitate an environment where employees feel safe to speak directly and provide honest feedback.

It’s also critical that you respond to feedback and adapt as needed. When feedback is solicited but not acted upon, it comes across as insincere, which is the opposite of displaying integrity.

“We see many organizations soliciting input; however, without acting on it, this does little to promote understanding from stakeholder perspectives. Over time, this can create apathy and disengagement.”

Gartner VP analysts Christie Struckman and Elise Olding (full text available to Gartner clients)

Secondly, show project teams that you value them for more than their ability to deliver on tasks. This means paying attention to bandwidth—ensuring they’re working at optimal utilization—removing roadblocks, and providing support throughout the duration of the project.

“Support” here can mean making sure they have the tools they need, as well as saying no to additional requests or processes that would result in scope creep.

Much of integrity and honesty comes from transparency. Add transparency to your project with workflow management, task tracking, or requirements management software.

3. Build trust and respect

 Why this skill is important for PM:  Trust and respect are at the core of every successful relationship, including those that make up project teams.

As the project leader, you need to build and maintain trust with your stakeholders. Without it, your project may be doomed before it even gets off the ground.

 How to develop this skill:  Trust is built by three things: empathy, rigor in logic, and authenticity. You need to master all three to effectively lead project teams.

The component that most often makes or breaks trust, according to Frances Frei, professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, is empathy—your capacity to understand and share the perspectives and feelings of another.

Empathy requires time, and that’s often in short supply on projects, especially from business leaders doubling as project leaders.

Frei’s advice: Identify where, when, and to whom you are likely to be distracted (i.e., lack empathy) and give those situations and people the time and attention they deserve.

Next, up is rigor in logic. Specifically, this means your ability to communicate ideas and provide reasoning for them. Too often, people start with the “why” and then end with the “what.” Instead, Frei advises leaders to start with your point first and then provide supporting evidence.

The last component of building trust is authenticity—being your authentic true self. This can be difficult if your authentic self is “different” from the majority—which, as a business leader to the rest of the organization, you are. You’re separated from your project team, by age, wealth, power, experience, etc.

Frei’s advice is simple: Be you, be sincere, and create an environment in which authenticity is welcome and celebrated.

While building trust and respect comes mostly from personal interactions, there’s still a lot technology can do to help in your efforts. For example, you can use collaboration tools to interact with your staff, i.e., share news or ask about people’s weekends. Encourage participation by kicking off the conversation.

4. Develop relationships

 Why this skill is important for PM:  Managing stakeholder relationships is critical to project success. Your ability to get things done hinges on the relationships you have with stakeholders.

Stakeholders are anyone who impacts and is impacted by the project—employees, customers, executives, suppliers, etc. It’s critical that as the project leader, you know how to gain and keep their support in the project.

 How to develop this skill:  Learn how to work with—and lead—different personality types and social styles by figuring out what motivates them.

What “The 5 Love Languages” has done for romantic relationships, social style assessments are doing for work relationships. Both teach you that people communicate, collaborate, and respond to interactions differently.

Schedule a company meeting or workshop and have everyone take a social style assessment. Break people into groups based on their immediate teams so they can identify similarities and differences in their teammates, learning what motivates the people they work with most often.

Then, have people organize based on their primary social style. This can help employees identify coworkers across disciplines and teams who share the same social style, which can help with networking and encourage collaboration.

Well-known social style and personality-type assessments include:

Again, collaboration tools can be an asset here. Post the results of your company social styles assessment on a shared company forum or discussion board. Or, consider having employees include their primary style as their status in chat or in their profile on your internal company directory.

5. Lead by example

 Why this skill is important for PM:  “My manager” is the second most-cited reason why employees quit their job at small businesses.

According to Capterra’s senior HR analyst, Brian Westfall, “One manager has the power to make a worker’s life easy and fulfilling, or overbearing and miserable.”

This is true for every manager/employee relationship, including that between the project manager and project team.

Simply stated: Incivility and disrespect wreaks havoc on teams and could potentially cost your organization millions of dollars each year.

A study by Christine Porath, professor and researcher at Georgetown University, found that when dealing with incivility, 66% of employees cut back work efforts, and 80% lost time worrying about it.

What’s more, she found that the detrimental effects of incivility extend beyond the intended victim. Witnesses to this behavior have a 25% decrease in performance and contribute 45% fewer ideas.

 How to develop this skill:  Be the change you want to see in your team and model the behavior you want them to emulate. Lift people up by thanking them, acknowledging their contributions, sharing credit, and showing empathy.

“Being civil doesn’t just mean that you’re not a jerk. Not holding someone down isn’t the same as lifting them up.”

Christine Porath

Social learning theory tells us that people model behaviors and attitudes after what they observe around them. This means if leaders are responding to emails at 10:30 p.m., employees will think they need to as well. If leaders are stressed and frustrated, employees will be as well. If managers don’t put in the effort, employees won’t either.

As a rule, never say one thing and then do another. This erodes the trust and respect you’ve built with your team.

And if you’re going to ask for honest feedback (as you should if you’re following the “share, listen, adapt” model for effective communication), be sure to acknowledge it and take corrective action, otherwise you’re teaching your project team that you don’t value their opinions.

There are various tools you can use to support your leadership efforts. If you haven’t formally drafted your company values, start there. Then, share them internally and check in frequently with staff using surveys and other feedback tools to check how you and other leadership are living up to them.

Additional resources for project leaders

As a small business leader, you’re responsible for overseeing strategy execution at your organization. Your ability to bridge the strategy execution gap depends on your ability to master the soft skills we’ve reviewed above.

While these PM skills may seem at odds with your entrepreneurial background, with some work (and by following our recommendations), you can develop these soft skills and become an effective project leader.

For more tips on leading your teams and your organization to excellence, check out our Process with a Purpose roadmap. This roadmap outlines four key initiatives that you can take to better position your SMB to achieve strategic goals:

  • Create a high-functioning workplace that motivates and engages employees
  • Develop accidental project managers
  • Improve stakeholder management
  • Promote change leadership—not just change management

To keep up with our latest research in these areas, be sure to follow our blog.


More information on PM Solutions’ 2015 PM Skills Benchmark report:

PM Solutions surveyed business leaders and project professionals at over 300 organizations to identify the leadership, technical, and general business skills that project leaders need to be effective.

They found that a project leader’s skill level directly impacts project outcomes. Meaning, a lack of PM skills resulted in poor project performance, whereas a higher level of skill resulted in stronger project performance.

They also asked respondents to rate eight measures of organizational performance—strategy execution, shareholder satisfaction, financial success, schedule/budget performance, customer satisfaction, resource allocation, strategic alignment, and project prioritization—on a scale of one to five.

They found that organizations with project leaders at high skill levels outperform those with leaders at low skill levels in the extent they realize their organizational goals (high performers had an average performance rating of 3.7, while low performers had a performance rating of 2.48).

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Eileen O'Loughlin

Eileen O’Loughlin is a Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra. Her research helps small businesses leverage the latest technology and trends to solve key business challenges and achieve strategic goals. Her work has been cited in various publications, including CIO.com, ProjectManagement.com, ProjectsAtWork and DevOps Digest.

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