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January – July 2021

Five project management skills that leaders can use for business recovery

By Michelle Wolfswinkel and Prof Salomé van Coller-Peter

  • OCT 2022
18 minutes to read

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The growing call for business leaders who can lead business recovery 

Business recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, or any other major crisis, calls for a set of critical leadership skills. But what exactly are these leadership skills?  

Various studies have suggested that project management skills can help leaders to facilitate business recovery after a crisis. However, there is limited guidance on how leaders can apply these skills beyond the project management domain. 

This article is based on a conceptual paper that looked to provide insight into how the acquisition of project management skills can help leaders guide business recovery after short-term crisis management measures have been taken to ensure the survival of the organisation and its people. In this context, business recovery may include disaster recovery mechanisms and risk management, compelling the adoption of business continuity planning, infrastructure rebooting, capacity building, and adaptive resource deployment.  

Business recovery is typically seen as a long-term project spanning at least two years. There is no script to guide leaders through this recovery project, as crises usually render existing business strategies and operational plans useless, and change all social, institutional, investor, customer and employee contracts. 

There is a parallel to be drawn between leading post-crisis business recovery and managing a major project.

After a crisis, leaders need to manage change at a scale and speed that are incomparable to the intuitive, linear change waves they have dealt with in the past. It is most likely that leaders will be unprepared for this. New mental models and skill sets will therefore be required to enable rapid decision-making and responses, and agility will be needed to navigate the new business landscape. 

A growing body of scholars, experts and thought leaders are calling for the development of a new leadership skill set aimed at leading business recovery. To help address this knowledge gap, which exists both in literature and practice, a critical review of scholarly and industry-related literature pertaining to the leadership of business recovery ensued. 

Various studies have suggested that project management skills can help leaders to facilitate business recovery after a crisis.

What did the literature review find? 

The following conclusions can be drawn from the scan of studies on business recovery and the leadership skills required to rebuild businesses: 

  • Business recovery does not happen in bits and pieces: Business recovery cannot be approached as a series of small and isolated change projects. Instead, it must be viewed as an integrated, multi-stakeholder and cross-functional project.  
  • There are no quick fixes: Business leaders may be tempted to approach business recovery as an internal project with quick fixes to ensure short-term gains. However, experts recommend a broad recovery plan that integrates all organisational functions, business areas, and stakeholders.  
  • Leaders need to take charge:  Leaders will have to break down silos, speed up decision-making, streamline processes, and eliminate slow-moving organisational hierarchies and bureaucracies.  
  • Collaboration is key: The technological infrastructure improvements and business innovation typically required after a crisis highlight the importance of collaborating with all stakeholders.  

Business recovery cannot be approached as a series of small and isolated change projects. Instead, it must be viewed as an integrated, multi-stakeholder and cross-functional project.

The link between leading business recovery and managing a project 

There is a parallel to be drawn between leading post-crisis business recovery and managing a business project. According to the Project Management Institute (2021), project management is concerned with the application of specific knowledge and skills to manage a change process using tools and techniques that will drive the delivery of change and improve value to project stakeholders. A project is temporary and is undertaken for a specific reason at a specific time in order to deliver change as a unique product, service or result. Similarly, leading an organisation through a business recovery phase is a time-bound project that drives change and improves value to business stakeholders. 

However, not all leaders have good project management skills, and not all project managers are good leaders. Some researchers have pointed out that organisational leaders’ lack of skills to manage change is the biggest factor contributing to project failure.  

Hence, the paper on which this article is based explored the project management-related skills required to lead business recovery after a crisis. This was also done to help human resources divisions and learning and development professionals design leadership development initiatives that incorporate project management skills.  

leading an organisation through a business recovery phase is a time-bound project that drives change and improves value to business stakeholders.

Five project management skills to move the world forward 

Current literature on leadership development, project management and leading business recovery was surveyed to determine the project management-related skills that could help leaders rebuild a business after a crisis. Here, reputable global sources such as Deloitte, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey and the World Economic Forum were consulted. This resulted in the identification of the following five critical project management-related skills that can help business leaders to lead business recovery: 

not all leaders have good project management skills, and not all project managers are good leaders.

Five project management skills to move the world forward 

Current literature on leadership development, project management and leading business recovery was surveyed to determine the project management-related skills that could help leaders rebuild a business after a crisis. Here, reputable global sources such as Deloitte, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey and the World Economic Forum were consulted. This resulted in the identification of the following five critical project management-related skills that can help business leaders to lead business recovery:

Skill 1: Project purpose and deliverables 

This leadership skill pertains to uniting people around a compelling purpose, clear goals and well-formulated objectives.  

Some researchers have pointed out that organisational leaders’ lack of skills to manage change is the biggest factor contributing to project failure.

Leaders need to inspire employees to imagine a new future beyond the crisis and build a relationship of trust to steer them towards this. Therefore, during the post-crisis business recovery phase, leaders must look beyond the short-term crisis towards the long-term sustainability of the business. Sustainability, social responsibility and caring for employees must also be foregrounded. Leaders therefore need to articulate a long-term vision that is aligned with the business purpose and includes goals that address financial health, the prosperity of the people, and responsible citizenship.  

Project management provides ample knowledge and practical guidance on how to develop this skill set. One of the key competencies of successful project managers is the leadership ability to get people to focus on a common goal and vision.

One of the key competencies of successful project managers is the leadership ability to get people to focus on a common goal and vision.

Skill 2: Project stakeholder management 

This leadership skill pertains to meeting the needs of business stakeholders. 

During the crisis response phase, leaders typically focus on internal business needs related to operations, profit and people. During the business recovery phase, they must look at the needs of all business stakeholders. The way in which business conducts itself during the recovery stage is pivotal, as the societal impact of business and the manner in which business contributes to the recovery of people, organisations and the community will have a lasting impact. Leaders need to re-engage with stakeholders to establish how their needs have shifted and what outcomes they desire for the future.

It is also important to obtain insights from the customer – a critical business stakeholder. Customers’ need for products and services are likely to have changed, given the potential socioeconomic impact of crises. Leaders therefore need to build what the World Economic Forum calls ‘stakeholder capital’.  

Fortunately, project managers can lend insight into the building of stakeholder capital. Project management is always informed by and orientated to the needs of stakeholders. Indeed, realising value and delivering benefits sit at the heart of project success. Project managers are accustomed to considering the needs of various stakeholders.

.Project management is always informed by and orientated to the needs of stakeholders.

Skill 3: Managing project teams 

This leadership skill pertains to leading people in cross-functional, remote teams. 

Before the Covid-19 crisis, team leadership was a desirable management and leadership skill, as was the ability to develop employee accountability, productivity and engagement. Now, post-Covid, a remote working culture has replaced office hours. Employment contracts and the monitoring of performance changed significantly.  

Managing remote employees requires the development of new leadership skills to replace any command-and-control leadership behaviours. Leaders now need to upskill, empower and encourage employees, while holding them accountable for work without traditional office hours. Leaders no longer have seamless in-person access to people either. This can turn team leadership into an overwhelming challenge.

To promote team cohesiveness and support people across various locations, projects and working schedules, leaders will have to develop a new skill set to lead teams in the digitally enabled world of work. This skill set includes focusing on outcomes and deliverables instead of on operating models and processes; enabling an inclusive and adaptive culture that supports remote workers’ varying needs and working styles; finding new ways to engage with employees; and finding suitable methods for digital record-keeping that allows asynchronous but central access to all relevant parties.  

Drawing on relationship-building and people skills, project managers have learnt to empower people to deliver and to hold them accountable for performance so that they can create cohesive and high- performing teams of people. Successful project managers understand how to lead engaged, cross-functional and dispersed teams. Project management principles and practices are rooted in a rhythm of project meetings that bring people together to schedule work, stipulate milestones, and communicate in order to provide structure and a sense of belonging to team members. 

To promote team cohesiveness and support people across different locations, projects and working schedules, leaders will have to develop a new skill set to lead teams in the digitally enabled world of work.

Skill 4: Project sprint cycles 

This leadership skill pertains to working in short, adaptable sprints, being open to emerging changes, communicating regularly, and providing feedback. 

Driving a pre-determined business agenda no longer works in an ever-changing world. This presents a unique challenge to leaders. While driving a long-term vision is critical to leading business recovery, the best way to approach operationalisation is to embark on a series of shorter projects, spanning no more than four weeks. This allows for the successful execution of quick wins while remaining open to accommodate emerging needs and trends, and new information. This calls for adaptive approaches, new methods and high levels of collaboration. This is also where small, agile teams can work as they can move fast and unencumbered in short sprints. Leading business recovery in sprints will require leaders to upskill themselves in this regard. 

Project management has embraced working in quick, agile sprints. Sprint reviews are essentially regular communication sessions focused on feedback about the success of the sprint, outcomes achieved, and obstacles encountered while also considering the latest information that has come to light. It is about progress rather than perfection. Insights from project managers are helpful as they know how to conduct fruitful communication sessions to align project stakeholders and keep teams informed.

While driving a long-term vision is critical to leading business recovery, the best way to approach operationalisation is to embark on a series of shorter projects, spanning no more than four weeks.

Skill 5: Agile project management 

This leadership skill pertains change and agility.  

Agility in the context of post-crisis business recovery refers to timely responses to sudden and significant change. This typically calls for the urgent implementation of innovative solutions, including new digital platforms and business models. Leaders may find it difficult to adopt agile ways of working as they usually need to consider organisational structures, policies and procedures.  

However, in the project management domain, agile leadership is a familiar concept.

How can these project management skills help? 

During the business recovery phase, there is a critical need to equip leaders with skills that will enable them to lead large-scale projects. Here, the five project management skills outlined above will stand leaders in good stead. Figure 1 shows the five project management skills and their relationship to the key leadership skills required to lead post-crisis business recovery. 

Agile project management offers critical skills that can be applied to leading business recovery.

 Figure 1: Five project management skills in relation to key leadership skills 

Better project management skills, better progress 

Managing the recovery phase of a business by drawing on project management-related skills holds the following benefits: 

  • Establishing clear goals and deliverables ensures that teams and individuals deliver outcomes that are aligned with the organisation strategy. It also unites team members and fosters cooperation.  
  • Stakeholder management facilitates the consideration of a wide range of stakeholders with a key focus on meeting most of their needs.  
  • Managing business recovery as a project ensures that leaders learn how to manage cross-functional remote teams with the focus on key deliverables within set timeframes and budgets.  
  • The upskilling of leaders to work in project sprint cycles will position leaders for the collaborative approach of executing work in shorter sprints, focused on iteration and continuous improvement. 
  • Agile project management offers critical skills that can be applied to leading business recovery.

In short, the five skills from the domain of project management that can help leaders to steer business recovery are the ability to unite people around a clear purpose, vision and goals; adopt a stakeholder approach; lead cross-functional and often geographically dispersed teams; work in short, adaptable sprints; and lead with agility. 

  • This article is based on a conceptual paper which is titled Five project management skills key to leadership development for post-Covid business recovery by Michelle Wolfswinkel and Prof Salomé Van Coller-Peter. 
  • Prof Van Coller-Peter lectures Stellenbosch Business School. Her fields of expertise are coaching, the management of transformation, and executive mentoring.

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