A Level 5 Leader (L5L) is an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will. The characteristics and success of these leaders were first identified by Jim Collins in 2001. They formed a central plank in his best-selling book Good to Great.
The discovery of Level 5 leadership derived from a research project that Collins began in 1996, when he set out to answer one question: Can a good company become a great company and, if so, how? The answer was the concept of a Level 5 Leader.
The L5L sits on top of a hierarchy of capabilities and is, according to Collins’ research, a necessary requirement for transforming an organization from good to great. Individuals do not need to proceed sequentially through each of the lower four levels of the hierarchy to reach the top, but to be a full-fledged L5L requires the capabilities of all the lower levels, plus the special characteristics of Level 5. The characteristics are:
When Good to Great was published in 2001, the concept of Level 5 leadership was counterintuitive, even countercultural. People generally assumed that transforming companies from good to great required larger-than-life leaders with big personalities like Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch, who made headlines and became celebrities. And while Level 5 leadership is not the only requirement for transforming a good company into a great one—other factors include getting the right people “on the bus” (and the wrong people “off the bus”) and creating a culture of discipline—Collins’ research showed L5L to be essential.
Thirteen years later, what’s this got to do with project management?
The answer is that rather than focusing on being the “project management hero,” project managers can apply the lessons of Level 5 Leadership to take a project from good to great!
Some of the key traits of an L5L are:
Becoming a L5L is not easy. But rather than being a hero fighting to make your project a success, shifting to Level 5 leadership allows you to be successful while benefiting your organization and team.
By Conrado Morlan
It was a cold and windy morning in Chicago as I lined up among more than 40,000 runners from all over the world. I was ready to start my seventh marathon.
I had set five hours as my target finish time, and I joined a team of runners with the same goal. Before the race at the assigned corral, I met my fellow runners and the pacers who would keep us at the correct speed.
After running the first mile with the group, led by the pacers, I inevitably started to think as a project manager. I realized the race mimics an agile Scrum project, and I began to identify roles and responsibilities based on the context of the race.
The pacers played the Scrum master role. At the end of every mile, they confirmed that the runners’ cadence was right, providing feedback on speed and recommendations on hydration. At the same time, they led the stand-up, checking with every runner on how he or she was doing and if anyone would need additional support. Pacers also kept updating the backlog to ensure product increments were delivered by the runners on every sprint.
The group of runners was the self-managed development team. We had acquired the skills and abilities required to run the race after weeks of training. Our project was set to be completed in eight imaginary sprints of 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) each and would deliver the final product — the ninth sprint. It was our task to keep the cadence and burn rate constant.
As in any project, issues cropped up. On my fifth sprint, I had to make adjustments to my race plan and update my “backlog.” Around mile 15 (kilometer 24), I detected a blood stain on my left foot that kept expanding as I tried to keep my time under 11:30 per mile, so I decided to slow my pace and let the five-hour group go ahead. By mile 19 (kilometer 30), the situation was under control, and I set my new pace. But between mile 24 and 25 (kilometer 40), I had to stop at the aid station for pain reliever ointment to alleviate the discomfort of cramps in my quads.
In any race, no matter the distance, spectators and volunteers are key. They are the stakeholders of the runner’s project. Their function is to provide support along the race with signs, words of encouragement and refreshments. Spectators and volunteers’ commitment to the runners is unconditional.
An important part of the agile approach is the retrospective. For my marathon project, here’s how my retrospective would look:
What went well?
· Enjoyed the experience of running with a pace team
· Finished my seventh consecutive marathon and my first World Major Marathon despite a few problems
· Improved my strength, endurance and recovery time dramatically
What didn’t go so well?
· Not taking advantage of the resources provided at the aid stations
What have I learned?
· Running with a pace team lessens race stress
· The importance of listening to my “brain/body” and paying attention to its signals from the very first step
What still puzzles me?
· After finishing seven consecutive marathons, why do I still want to run more?
· Why do challenges pump adrenaline into project management professionals and runners?
This marathon gave me valuable lessons that will be applied at my next race, the Dallas Marathon, where I look forward to improving my performance.
Do you inevitably start thinking as a project manager when performing non-project related activities? If so, share your experiences.
As we move toward the end of the year and prepare our personal and professional goals for 2015, I’ve been thinking about how someone can go from being just a manager to being a leader.
Years ago, a big project I was working on with American Express and one of its partners ran into trouble. A lot of factors probably led to that, but one still stands out to me: I was succeeding as a manager but failing as a leader. And that was the project’s ultimate downfall.
Over the years, I’ve been able to reflect and grow from that experience. Here are three ways you can use my experience to help you become more of a leader in 2015.
1. Focus on the vision. Managers are, by their nature, implementers. We get tasked with projects that we may not have had a great deal of input into. But just because we’re helping our sponsors reach their goals doesn’t mean we can’t apply our vision as well. To focus on vision in your management and leadership, start by formulating what this project means to you, the organization, the team and the end users. Then, most importantly, personalize those aspects that are likely to inspire your team.
2. Focus on important conversations.I once read that a project manager spends 90 percent of his or her time communicating. To become a better leader, focus on the most important of these conversations: ones with your sponsor and your team. They are the people who are going to be able to inform you about changes in circumstances, troubles in a project or resource challenges. While there are lots of important people to talk with, the most important are the ones who have the most direct impact on the project’s success or failure — so prioritize those.
3. Look at the long-term.This advice ties into having a vision for your project and having conversations with your important team members and sponsors. But thinking long-term also means you need to infuse your vision and conversations with a future orientation. This might mean that you talk with your sponsor about how a project fits into a long-term strategic plan for the organization. Or, it might mean that you spend time during conversations with your team members asking about their goals and values. This can allow you to shift your actions and assignments in a way that delivers on the promise of the current project. At the same time, you will have built a stronger understanding and real relationship with your sponsors and teams that will transcend your current project and have lasting benefits for projects and years to come.
What are some of the ways you’ve helped make yourself a stronger leader, rather than solely a manager?
My father spent decades working for a telephone company. When I was quite young, he took me to see a large centralized telephone switching facility. I was amazed and enthralled at seeing all the technology it took to carry a person’s voice over a telephone line between houses on a street or across oceans. Leaving the facility, he told me, “You know, all of what you saw here doesn’t matter unless we can get the last 100 feet of a person’s phone line right.” Although the end-user experience back then consisted of selecting numbers on a rotary dial, there were still many technological considerations in getting things to work in the last 100 feet from a telephone pole to a house.
Over the span of my project management career, I’ve realized the wisdom in getting those “last 100 feet” right for an end user — and how doing so is an essential part of the success of a project. Here are important components for getting those last details right:
1. Find end-user stakeholders. It is very common to have one or more stakeholders who are leaders in an organization. Stakeholders who are leaders provide essential strategic direction to a project. However, it is equally important to get the perspective of the people who will eventually use the outputs of a project. In addition to leadership stakeholders, create a group of end-user stakeholders that can provide a detailed perspective on these outputs. This balance of stakeholders between leadership and end users will give an all-encompassing view to help the project meet objectives.
2. Mind location. Quite often, a project manager is physically located near the project’s leadership stakeholders. However, certain types of projects that involve the creation of new processes and products would be better served if the project manager were located closer to the team serving end users, or the end users themselves. Doing so provides additional visibility to factors affecting the project that may come up in formal meetings. For example, the president of a global automobile company prefers to be located out on the design floor so he can have clearer communications with his designers, which results in higher-quality automobiles.
3. Develop functional success criteria. Much of our project management time and efforts focus on meeting functional requirements. But it’s also valuable to know how well we are meeting these requirements. To improve the quality of the outputs of a project, document functional success criteria for each requirement. For example, if a requirement states that a process is intended to produce a certain product, also specify performance criteria for the product. This can include functional success criteria such as: “Billing information must be displayed within two seconds for a customer inquiry 99 percent of the time.” Adding functional success criteria will promote end-user satisfaction and overall project quality.
4. Measure outcome-based metrics. We all know the value of measuring our project performance with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)metrics such as schedule performance index (SPI) and other useful progress indicators. While these measurements are important, we also need metrics that measure the performance of the outcomes of the project. These can include adoption rates of a new process, evaluating end-user satisfaction with a survey and analysis of labor costs to complete a task. As these measurements typically occur near the close of the project, they can be conducted by someone other than the project manager.
It has been many years since my father took me into the telephone switching room. However, his comments about the importance of getting it right to the very end have stayed with me throughout my own decades-long career.
Do you have any tips on managing the “last 100 feet”?
You want your projects to get off to a good start and end without major glitches. However, what typically happens is that projects begin with many unknowns and continue to progress with more unknowns. Not only that, projects hit many bumps along the way — and you are constantly addressing problems, attempting to resolve issues and rallying to minimize risks.
Faced with this, I recommend approaching projects with a “project network diagram” mentality. (A network diagram is a planning tool that shows sequences of tasks, dependencies on tasks and impacts on a project.) Here are tips on using a network diagram mentality for managing project schedules:
1. Count backward. There are tasks that inevitably depend on each other and have specific time frames. For example, it might take 10 days for one task to be done and 15 days for dependent tasks to be complete. So right away, you know you already need 25 days for that project. So these start-to-finish and other connecting relationships matter when building a schedule, as do float, slack and critical path times. These are all time factors you consider when doing backward counting. The technique of counting backward helps define the schedule because you focus better so as not to miss a number or a task.
2. Look in other directions. A horse can see in one direction with one eye and in the other direction with the other eye. A project manager needs to do the same and constantly be aware of the surroundings. A network diagram offers this peripheral vision by encompassing all the aspects that matter to the project — and helps you set boundaries. A view in one direction can focus on what’s happening in the project. The other direction could be the bigger picture of your project. Let the boundary be what could potentially surface from either of those directions. For example, say your company has a portfolio of projects it has to complete. So at the same time you’re keeping an eye on the spending on your project, you also want to be aware of whether the company will be able to maintain your resources over the length of the project, especially in an economy in which layoffs happen all the time. If your company has to release some of your resources, what then would be your contingency plan to still make sure your project can be completed?
3. Keep the end in mind. Have an idea of the goal the project should achieve. Encourage team members to maintain a layout of their tasks in a way that identifies and prioritizes what must be done and can be done to reach that goal. Then, inspire your team to approach all tasks with confidence. In a network diagram, after having laid possible connections together, the project manager sets controls in place, giving him or her the capability for more optimal opportunities of project success. Manage your time and your project team’s time based on making it to the finish line.
What method do you use to help you prepare for and better manage project schedules?