Supporting Your Project Team: How to Lead as an Unofficial Project Manager

As a leader, guiding and supporting projects is a key way you can support project success—whether you’re coaching team members or serving in an unofficial project management position yourself. While understanding the process and factors that go into running a successful project is helpful, teams also need collaborative, supportive leadership to set goals effectively.

Often, a leader’s most important role in a project is to serve as coach and cheerleader. With a clearer picture of how healthy projects function, leaders are better equipped to direct day-to-day operations toward a target destination. Being a proactive, supportive coach and cheerleader often means providing encouragement coupled with informed guidance—to infuse teams with optimism, keep project teams on track, or course-correct if outcomes aren’t as expected or new information arises.

Regardless of a project’s purpose, effective leaders have ample opportunity to step in and support the people managing and executing the work—whether those people are on their direct team or not. Here are a few ways leaders can help project teams succeed throughout the process.

Be a Conduit of Communication

The variety of perspectives and experiences in a high-performing team makes it powerful. This richness also ensures there will be inevitable communication misses. Even the most talented teams will misunderstand or make assumptions during a project. Keeping an eye on a project as it unfolds prevents miscommunication between team members and with external stakeholders. Having a policy of over-communication and checking assumptions will keep teams on track and help bridge communication gaps.

Leaders can ensure smooth and seamless collaboration within and across teams by creating a supportive, inclusive atmosphere where people feel safe enough to communicate problems directly when they arise. Creating a dedicated space to listen and coach your team members will build trust and cohesion—and help team members see you as an ally, mentor, and cheerleader.

In a distributed work environment, it’s even more important for team members to have access to technology and frameworks that help them communicate clearly and often with other project team members—ensure paths of communication are open, functional, and easily accessible. Encourage team members to check with clients and stakeholders often to maintain visibility and alignment with project aims, and to adjust with agility to any changing inputs or requirements.

Make sure guiding documents and updates are shared regularly with both project team members and stakeholders to address and resolve any misalignments—and build in the expectation of these bidirectional check-ins through effective channels.

The Most Trusted Leadership Company

Learn how your organization can use our people, content, and technology to create collective action and meaningful change.

Tie Project Activities Back to Value

As a leader, your role as a coach is not only to understand where value fits in the success equation—it’s also to communicate the purpose behind the project at every opportunity. Create connections for team members between the work they’re doing and the project’s value proposition. “Communicate that the project’s value is its contribution to the goals of your organization,” says Kogon. “Leaders should be proactive in responding to the projects that are going on in the organization and ensuring that those projects align with what’s most valuable to their internal teams and customers.”

Communicating a value-oriented approach empowers team members to understand the meaning behind the project and contribute more creative solutions to problems or roadblocks that arise along the way. This value-focused communication might look like a question during regular team meetings to prompt ideas about whether the work and results are staying on track with the project’s intended purpose. Prompting a personal understanding and ownership of value in this way makes work more personally rewarding, increases investment, and supports authentic team development because members understand the impact of their contribution.

Protect Your Project Teams

As a leader who may be in an unofficial project management role or guiding projects at a higher level, providing consistent support to both your teams and potential project managers is key. Protecting both dedicated and unofficial project managers from feeling overwhelmed and distracted while demonstrating sane boundaries is a crucial leadership skill. “Everybody’s making something, whether they’re making a new system, a new product, a new marketing program, or creating a leadership training program,” says Kogon. “Part of a leader’s responsibility is to really mitigate pet projects, things that don’t really make sense” in the context of the broader value proposition, she says.

Supporting collaboration across team members and functional areas, centering teams around business value, and opening channels of communication as a leader will foster a healthy work environment, drive project engagement, and help teams work effectively together to deliver high-impact results for your organization. 

The ever-changing nature of modern organizations means leaders often play the role of unofficial project manager. Strengthen your skillset with a solid project management framework, supportive team coordination approach, and tools to eliminate friction.