23/11/10

By Bob Wagner, MD of DPG Plc

Week by week, in the boardroom showdown, we watch Lord Alan Sugar fire the next unsuccessful Apprentice candidate. But inevitably, it is not just their ability to sell sausages, make croissants or advertise a multi-purpose cleaner that counts, it is their ability to project manage and work effectively with other team members that matters most.

The Apprentice is obviously a highly dramatised and surreal example of business life, but there are similarities to be drawn to the real business world. For example in The Apprentice, the project manager is ultimately assessed on their ability to manage a team of people - and usually one which contains strong and conflicting personalities and agendas. If they let members run riot, like the door-to-door sausage selling debacle, the task at hand is likely to fail.

The key to a successful project is having a strong leader at the helm. A leader that remains calm under pressure, explains their logic with a firm but fair attitude, treats team members with respect and doesn't - as we have seen on several occasions this series - shout orders and ignore team members' advice.

Project managers need to be able to assess the requirements and desired outcomes of a task effectively and put the relevant people, with the most suitable skills, into position quickly. Giving individuals clear outlines of what is expected from that role helps them to stay focused and avoid getting embroiled in activities that are not conducive to the project's success.

But as we've seen during The Apprentice, a sales director, despite their job title, might have a weakness when it comes to pitching for business. Therefore project managers need to take stock, get feedback from the team as to whether this observation is correct and if so take action. However, this has to be managed very carefully and sensitively. Rather than telling that person that they've done a bad job, feedback needs to be given constructively - identifying other areas where their skills can be used more effectively.

There will always be team subversives - those looking to sabotage projects to expose weaknesses or capitalise on failings to enhance their own personal position. This is often a feature of the boardroom finale when those in the firing line criticise the project manager, rather than having a positive explanation of what they did to help the team succeed.

These individuals have to be treated firmly, but again with care. Allowing them to continue with such behaviour will bring down the morale of the team or divide it in two.

Listening to other people's opinions, and then giving constructive and balanced feedback - especially if an idea is not going to be adopted - will be time well spent and hopefully keep the team together, all pulling in the same direction. Pleasing everyone simultaneously is an impossible task, but project managers should listen to individuals regardless — as it will help to keep them on side and focussed on winning, rather than on sabotaging the task and exploiting perceived weaknesses.

When a team does work well together and exceeds targets and goals, they should be rewarded. Few businesses and project managers will be able to lavish the winners in the same way that Lord Sugar does, but simple rewards will help to show appreciation goes a long way. Even a simple thank you in recognition of hard work can go a long way to making a team feel valued.

Watching The Apprentice, it is easy to berate the candidates and marvel at their poor decision-making and lack of management skills. But are any of us in a position to criticise? Take a few moments to look at how you have managed projects or situations in the past, especially where the outcome was not as desired, and see how a different approach could have led to a different result. So often we blame failure in a task on someone else, or an external factor, but it is the way we, as project managers, deal with other individuals, or the circumstances we find ourselves in, that can make or break a project.