Top 6 Attributes for Complex Project Leaders

June 14, 2017 Share this article:

By Richard Sterling, Partner at AltoPartners Australia

A growing impact of globalisation and technology is that more and more projects are confronted with an increasing degree of complexity.

Imagine a project for the design and build of a jet fighter plane that will use state of the art technology and will be built with the effort of 7 countries for over $12 billion and have program life-cycle spanning decades at a cost of over $1.1 trillion.

The complexities in this project are staggering ranging from multi-jurisdictional regulatory issues to supply chains to industrial and sovereign secrecy through to changes in government(s) and of course, the impact of rapidly evolving technology.

what has been planned will be different to what will be delivered…

The more complex the project the more difficult it is to have complete control or the confidence that the outcomes will satisfy to all participants.

The leader of a complex project therefore requires attributes that allow for a confidence in ability to respond and adapt to the changing circumstances. These attributes revolve around creating a well-defined framework in which people and teams are empowered to play their part.

The Top 6 Leadership Attributes

1. Strategic and Critical Thinking

Strategic and critical thinking is important to the establishment of project systems and processes with the underpinning of understanding the objectives and abilities of all project stakeholders and participants.

In the absence of complete project control or in the face of chaos (for whatever reason) strategic and critical thinking becomes the crucial tool for a project leader. It is the only basis for achieving confidence as it helps to understand what really matters most and what must happen to re-claim (some sort of) control of the project.

Project leaders need to recognise that these skills cannot and should not be exclusive to them. When hiring talented people strategic and critical thinking needs to be part of the selection criteria. This will ensure that this attribute is populated throughout the project and provide a significant foundation stone for leadership succession and effective project continuity.

2. Technical Knowledge and Experience

The more complex the project the more the project leader will actually need to have domain knowledge and experience which incorporates specific intellectual property and the systems and technology that underpins it. Of course the project leader also needs a firm grasp of the business model and its various elements from budgets through to project governance.

Understanding the interaction between all of the elements of the project and how to incorporate them into a meaningful and workable collaborative relationships with supporting contracts which can be easily navigated, comes with experience.

3. Communication & Consultation

Project leaders need to foster an environment for the sharing of objectives, values and knowledge. In part, good governance and collaboration is the result of continuous communication.

Consultation, is about reaching out and seeking information and advice. It recognises that project management is not just about information flows but about having deeper conversations that can lead to insights which have the potential to facilitate improvements, great or small.

4. Outsight & Innovation

Project leaders who are able to explore different project concepts, methodologies, systems, technologies and talent networks especially those beyond their immediate profession and the industry in which the project exists are more likely to discover sources and opportunities for innovation.

Leveraging outsight as part of complex project management, especially a project that spans great lengths of time, is a significant step towards being able to articulate a view of the future and at a minimum, the nature of its uncertainties, while remaining firmly focused on the present day.

Providing people and project teams with the opportunity to innovate is a valuable aspect of the outsight attribute. Innovation needs time for thought, discussion and good old fashioned brain-storming. A project leader should consider what sort of environment and conditions are in place alongside formal structures such as workshops so as to encourage innovation.

5. Adaptability

The ability to adapt a leadership style to cope with the inevitability of uncertainty is an essential attribute. The greater the degree of complexity the more frequently project leaders will need to change their methodologies and even their strategy. Having a methodology for managing change is a critical element of this attribute.

Adaptability also means knowing when to change or augment your team or when to swap yourself out of a project as the different lifecycle stages are encountered or as previously unknown variables make themselves apparent. People change management is one of the most difficult aspects of this attribute but can be made easier through the alignment of effective talent management strategies with the culture, values and project objectives.

6. Empowering People & Teams

Building strong teams that are empowered and communicate well with each other and their stakeholders supports project success. Having a clear structure for the organisation together with well established values and culture within which the teams and the individuals function is a critical element of this attribute.

Culture and values play a significant role when working with the immense diversity of globalised talent and virtual teams. It is a major contributor to how a project is conducted and continued when people are swapped out or progress their careers in other directions.

As a part of empowering teams project leaders need to embrace diversity as well as have in place talent management and retention programs. This will help to realise a greater return on the hard dollars invested in the project. Paying attention to career development and mentoring as well as remuneration and reward components is an essential aspect of this attribute.

good leaders empower, motivate and engage but above all else good leaders nurture new leaders

The Prevailing View

The six attributes outlined above rank very highly when selecting a project leader. They bring into focus the prevailing view that a capable and experienced project leader is one who maintains a balance between technical ability and what is required to work with people and all that it entails.

This article was first published on Richard Sterling’s LinkedIn Pulse Blog here

Richard Sterling is AltoPartners’ practice leader for Contract and Commercial Management. He can be contacted via e-mail: or on +61 2 8007 5812, (Sydney Australia)

AltoPartners is the global provider of Executive Search and Leadership Advisory services to the members of The International Association of Contract and Commercial Management (IACCM).