Project Management – Coaching success  By Susanne Madsen

Project Management – Coaching success By Susanne Madsen

There is so much more to Project Management than just managing your projects! Susanne Madsen sets out ways that coaching can help Managers to

  • understand behaviours and identify challenges
  • deal with demanding workload
  • improve Emotional Intelligence
  • and finally, how to engage your team through collaborative planning

What is coaching?

Coaching is essentially a way of helping people make progress and overcome issues without directly telling them what to do. A fundamental belief in coaching is that people are resourceful and can generate their own solutions. In other words, coaches refrain from simply giving advice and instead empower people to find their own answers. They do that by engaging in structured conversations, asking insightful questions and exploring the situation without judgement.

In coaching we say that the client (or the coachee) holds the agenda. What that means is that the only agenda is to move the coachee forward. This is different to managing, because the manager often has an agenda and will try to steer the employee in a certain direction.

Mentoring is different from coaching

Many people use mentoring and coaching synonymously, but although there are overlaps, there are also differences. A mentor is typically someone more senior within the organisation who has been there, done it and got the t-shirt. They haven’t been formally trained in how to ask questions and understand limiting beliefs (like a coach) and are more likely to give advice based on their own experiences. 

A mentor can be of great help for someone who would like to network within the organisation, find out more about the business or learn a specific skill that the mentor is an expert in. Coaches aren’t experts in a particular business area, and are more valuable for people who would like to develop their leadership and interpersonal skills – for instance getting better at resolving conflict, motivating the team, or being more assertive.  

How is coaching relevant to project managers?

Most of the training project managers receive is focused on hard skills such as project planning and risk management. Whereas this kind of training is necessary, it won’t make project managers better leaders or excellent at juggling everything that’s on their plate. It’s not the technical skills that project managers tend to struggle with the most, but the “softer” side of the job of how to have challenging conversations and overcome the stress that’s inherent in their roles.

Having trained and coached hundreds of project managers, I see clear themes regarding the areas that they tend to find most challenging. These areas are good examples of topics in which project managers would benefit from coaching. Let’s look at three of them in more detail.

  1. Managing a demanding workload

One of the greatest pain points that I observe amongst project managers is that many find their workload overwhelming. The overload can stem from running too many projects at once or not having enough support when managing a big project. One of the problems is that most project managers don’t want to appear “weak” by saying no to more work or asking for help. So instead they try to run faster in order to get it all done. Another problem is the tendency to avoid conflict and standing up to a demanding client. The result is emotional and physical overwhelm, which doesn’t serve anyone. When we take on more than we can cope with, not only do we let ourselves down. We also let our clients down, because we aren’t able to give the project and the team the attention it needs.  

A coaching conversation can help the project manager evaluate the situation in an objective manner and come to understand what the right way forward is. If we want to run great projects that succeed and add value, we have to look inwards and evaluate our own thoughts and emotions. Instead of thinking of it as a weakness, we should consider that asking for help and setting clear boundaries is really a strength. It helps us stand up for ourselves and safeguard the quality of our projects.

Another great way to avoid overload, is to learn to delegate. This will almost immediately free the project manager up to focus on the most important aspects of their project. The only way to grow and expand the number of projects we run is to delegate, and the beauty is that if done correctly it will develop the team members in the process. If for instance a project administrator is added to the team, they could help with low-level tasks such as time sheet approval, financial tracking, weekly reporting, and managing specific work streams. It is essential work, but it isn’t essential that the project manager does it.

Through coaching the project manager can come to understand who to delegate to and what to delegate.  According to the 80/20 rule, 80% of our results stem from just 20% of our effort and activities. It is these high-value activities that we must maintain focus on, whereas we can look to delegate the remaining 80%.  Coaching can also help project managers understand how to delegate in the most elegant way. Elegant delegation is when we’re able to delegate a task that frees us up to focus on higher value activities whilst at the same time providing a stretch for the person we delegate to. An example could be tracking the project’s budget. To the project manager this might be just another task, but to a junior member of the team, who has never been trusted with tracking a project budget before, it might be both insightful and motivating.

  1. Improving emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is another important area, which project managers, often unknowingly, need coaching on. EQ or emotional intelligence encompasses the ability to recognize and manage our own and other people’s emotions, which for a project manager is imperative, because it’s people who make projects happen. It’s essential that project managers know how to motivate a team member, handle situations of conflict and build strong relationships of trust with their clients.

Coaching is a great tool for helping people increase their emotional intelligence, because it helps to raise awareness of how they feel, how they behave and what effect they have on others. An important part of emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize and being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. To strengthen this ability, project managers must make it a habit to see the situation from the other person’s point of view and to ask “what does it feel like to be the other person right now?

To further strengthen their emotional intelligence, project managers must practice the art of rapport building with the people they work with. As the deepest rapport comes when interests, beliefs and values are matched, they should find out what they have in common with the other person and engage at that level. This is best done through one-to-one conversations, which are much more personal than group meetings. Not only can coaches help project managers free up time to build relationships, they can also help them to connect better with the person in front of them. One of the most effective ways to do so is learning to fully listen.

The ability to build rapport and understand people gets easier when project managers learn to tune into people and to focus on what they are really saying. In contrast to hearing, which is an automatic reflex, active listening takes effort and requires that people put their own internal mind-chatter aside and concentrate on the person who is speaking. To practice listening at the highest possible level, we have to fully focus on the person in front of us instead of considering what we want to say next. In this state of heightened awareness it will become much clearer what the person is really trying to say. We can further maintain our focus on the other person by repeating and paraphrasing their words and by avoiding interrupting them.

  1. Learning to engage the team through collaborative planning

Many project managers feel that they have to know it all and do it all, and that it’s their job to instruct team members and tell them what to do. But we live in a world where no one can know it all and where it’s not the job of the project manager to simply instruct others. Their primary role may well be to enable others to do their best work and to access their genius. One of the best ways to achieve that is to engage team members through questions. When we ask questions we show people that we value their opinions and that we want them to contribute. That’s the core of collaboration; involving others and enabling them to help define the work they will be doing. Project managers have to ask lots of ‘how’ and ‘what if’ questions and investigate how they can best support the team in working collaboratively.

The same is true when it comes to project planning. There is a widespread belief that because it’s the project manager’s responsibility to plan and track the project they have to do it all on their own. But planning a project in isolation is inefficient and can create an unrealistic schedule that no one has bought in to. Collaborative planning, on the other hand, is one of the most engaging activities of all, as it invites the team into the planning process, gives them a role to play and promotes a shared sense of responsibility. Coaching can help project managers understand the importance of collaboration and assist them with the practical steps of doing so.

One way to plan collaboratively is to get everyone together in a room (real or virtual) with whiteboards and sticky notes and creating the product breakdown structures and milestone plans as a group. As a first step they should agree what the end product looks like. Then the group needs to brainstorm everything that has to get done (one item per sticky note) and from that agree on 12-15 milestones to track throughout the project. Finally, they should agree who owns each milestone instead of the project manager determining the responsibilities on their own.

Even if the team is remote there are ways to plan collaboratively, for instance with Trello or Miro. Some collaborative planning tools can also help to ensure that the plan is continuously updated with information from the team once the implementation phase is in flight. The chosen tools must be flexible enough to allow the team members to maintain the plan collaboratively and take joint responsibility for the execution of it.

About the author

Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and facilitator. She is the author of The Power of Project Leadership (now in 2nd edition) and The Project Management Coaching Workbook. You can read more about Susanne's coaching, training and consulting services on


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