The Next Generation of Project Management: How to Develop Technical and Leadership Expertise

Technical expertise is not enough to "win" in health care project management–leadership skills are key to project success.

Project management is fundamental to the success of any project. As the process of systematically planning, organizing, and executing a pre-determined set of steps to maximize resource use and achieve objectives, it is crucial to have an efficient leader guide this process. Without a manager overseeing sufficient planning and checking off milestones along the way, it is less likely that the goals of a project will be accomplished. Research shows, for example, that when organizations invest in project management capabilities, they waste 28 times less money because they are more successful at optimizing processes and completing projects. But what makes someone a successful project manager?

To succeed in today’s competitive market, a project manager must have the technical skills to understand the nuances of the project at hand. Leadership skills are also necessary to manage a team and ensure that project goals are accomplished. The ideal skill set is a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise that will allow project managers to understand all sides of a project.

Organizations that invest in project management capabilities waste 28 times less money.

And yet, according to Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report 2016, leadership continues to be the most pervasive human capital concern among business leaders, with 89 percent of respondents viewing building leadership capability as a high priority. It is particularly crucial for organizations to invest in developing leadership skills for project managers, who are the ones tasked with keeping projects on track to meet goals and help build for the future.

Merging Technical Expertise and Leadership Skills

The combination of technical expertise and leadership skills is an essential part of effective project management, according to Karen Curley, Instructor in the Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Program Director of Health Care Project Management.

“You can have all the technical knowledge in the world, but if you don’t have leadership capabilities it will be hard for you to reach your goals,” says Curley. “But you can only move a project so far if you only have leadership skills. Only in the intersection of these skills do you have projects that are technically sound so work can happen how it should and the planning and leadership skills to move the project along.”

You can have all the technical knowledge in the world, but if you don’t have leadership capabilities it will be hard for you to reach your goals.

Although having technical skills can help you establish your credibility in a certain area, it is difficult to carry out the project if you don’t also have the leadership capabilities to convince people of what needs to happen for success. For example, if you are leading a patient safety project, you might know what needs to be put in place to  meet your goals, but others can be resistant to change or insistent that their area is not the problem. Therefore, conflict resolution skills are necessary to work with individuals to overcome opposition and ensure success of your project.

“You have to be able to gain the respect of the people who are working with and around you,” says Vinod Sahney, PhD, Adjunct Professor of Health Policy and Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Senior Fellow at The Institute for HealthCare Improvement, and Distinguished University Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Northeastern University. “It’s a harder road if you don’t have any technical knowledge, but you also need to establish credibility as a leader. There’s an art and a science to having and utilizing both.”

 Developing Leadership Skills in Yourself and Others

As a project manager, it is important to maintain a strong balance of both technical expertise and leadership skills to best achieve your goals. Whether you develop your leadership skills through formal programs, by gaining a mentor, or by diving in and taking on leadership responsibilities, the most important step is to take charge of your own development.

“There’s real work and knowledge to be gained around leadership, but it doesn’t just happen by accident,” says Curley. “Self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses is a crucial first step, but then you need to put in the work.”

According to Sahney and Curley, there are a number of crucial components to effective leadership, including

  • Anticipating issues and resolving conflicts: As a leader, you should be able to look forward and understand where each team member might face challenges in the project. Whether an issue is anticipated or arises unexpectedly, you need to be able to work with their teams to diffuse tensions. Often, this work is done “offline,” rather than in front of other people, so that individuals can address their concerns clearly, without accusations. When resolving conflicts, a leader must also be able to maintain their composure and not be thrown off guard.
  • Understanding your team: In order to effectively lead a team, you have to understand each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. In addition, giving your team feedback on both their strengths and on areas in which they need to improve is crucial to encourage growth. While this may lead to difficult conversations, it will help both you and your team members succeed.
  • Having perspective: As a leader, you need to know not only what must happen in the moment, but also anticipate what should happen in the future. This will allow you to formulate a clear plan of action for your project.
  • Being able to negotiate: When issues arise, your role as a leader will entail convincing opposing parties to see the situation through each other’s eyes. It will be helpful to understand both positional negotiation, which is holding to and only arguing for a fixed position, and interest-based negotiation, in which parties collaborate to reach a mutually beneficial decision. These negotiation skills are necessary for effectively leading your team towards success and resolving any conflicts that may stand in the way. Communicating: Know your audience and vary your style based on it. For example, you should communicate with the board of directors differently than staff, and interact with the public in yet another way. By tailoring your communication to each audience, you will be able to increase your credibility and best showcase your technical knowledge.

If you are already a leader, you can also help cultivate these skills in your employees so they will be ready to take charge in the future. A crucial part of this process is being able to give useful and effective feedback to your team. Understanding your team members’ strengths and weaknesses will help you succeed, but ensuring that the team members know when they do well and where they need to improve will help them succeed in the future. You can then help them create a plan to close the gaps in their skills. You might take on the role of mentor to team members or help them sign up for a course than can address leadership skills and project management readiness. By investing in your team, you will help set your organization up for success now and in the future.


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Health Care Project Management: The Intersection of Strategy, People, and Process, which drives meaningful growth in project leadership abilities in health care settings. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.