Project lead: Role, responsibilities, and the skills you need to succeed

project lead role

If you’re new to project management, it’s likely that you’ve come across roles and titles that sound very similar. Between project leads, project owners, project managers, and aaalll the other roles on the list, we know—it’s easy to get confused. 

So let’s get some clarity once and for all.

In this article, we’ll take you through the definition of a project lead, clarify the difference between a project lead and a project manager, and outline the responsibilities and skills of a project lead.

At the end of it, the previous confusion will be a distant memory. 

Project lead synonyms

First things first, we wanted to clarify that there are a few (very similar) titles to project lead that you may have encountered. 

They are:

  • Project leader
  • Project team lead
  • Project team leader
  • Project management lead (or leader)

These are typically used interchangeably with the project lead title, and will be used throughout this post. 

Project lead definition

A project lead can be defined as someone who has similar responsibilities to a project manager (PM), but they don’t have the qualifications to step into an official PM role. 

In practical terms, that means they can do everything a project manager does, but they’re not as experienced and they don’t have a PMP certification.

Now, while that’s the official story, the definition might vary from company to company and industry to industry. Like any other role, it can evolve, grow, and be refined over time.

While there’s no official definition for the role, and it can seem (too) similar to the role of a project manager, there are some important distinctions.

Project lead vs. project manager

While we know that the role of the project team roles can differ depending on the business, there are typically some key differences between a project leader and a project manager.

What is the role of project leader?

  • A project lead is often responsible for leading a specific aspect of a project or a smaller project
  • They may be responsible for developing a project plan (or parts of one), managing a small team, overseeing specific tasks, and reporting on progress to a project manager or higher-level management
  • The project lead may not have the same level of authority or responsibility as a project manager, but they still play an important role in ensuring project success
  • As we already covered, project leader role may be the same or similar as a project manager’s role, but they don’t have the official qualifications (a PMP certification) 
  • In bigger organizations, a project lead typically reports to the project manager—we’ll come on to PMs next

What is the role of a project manager?

  • The main difference between leading and managing a project, is that the project manager has more authority and responsibility than a project lead
  • A project manager is responsible for managing the entire project life cycle, from initiation to closure, rather than just one specific part
  • They are responsible for developing a project plan, managing the whole project team, coordinating with stakeholders, tracking progress, managing the project budget, and ensuring that the project is delivered on time and within budget
  • They have the ability to make decisions that impact the project as a whole, and are ultimately accountable for the success or failure of the project

Now, let’s take a closer look at the potential project lead responsibilities.

Project lead responsibilities

Are you ready to become a project leader, but want to know more about what the responsibilities are?

Again, yes—this depends on the company. But each project team should clearly outline the project lead roles and responsibilities upfront. 

On a high level, and similar to a project manager, the responsibilities that might be included in a project leader job description include:

  1. Project planning: The project lead works alongside the project manager to develop a comprehensive project plan that includes project scope, timeline, budget, and resource allocation.
  2. Team management: The project lead is responsible for managing the project team, assigning tasks, and ensuring that team members are working effectively together.
  3. Risk management: Identifying potential risks and blockers to a project is a huge part of project management. Depending on the type and size of the project, you’ll need strategies in place to mitigate risks.
  4. Communication: The project lead is responsible for communicating with stakeholders, including clients, team members, and senior management, to ensure everyone is kept up-to-date on project progress.
  5. Quality assurance: The project lead should ensure that the project is meeting quality standards and that deliverables meet the requirements of stakeholders.
  6. Resource management: Resource management may not be sexy, but it’s what keeps projects moving forward. If you don’t get your resource scheduling right, worst case scenario—you put the entire project at risk.
  7. Budget management: The project lead is responsible for managing the project budget and ensuring that costs are controlled.
  8. Reporting: The project lead is responsible for preparing project reports, including reports on project progress, resource utilization, and ultimately the final project closure report.
  9. Problem-solving: Problem-solving may be part of any job, but in the world of project management, it’s something we take very seriously. In fact, it pretty much is the job. The project lead should be able to identify problems and find solutions to overcome them
  10. Leadership: The project lead should be able to motivate and inspire the project team, and more importantly, enable collaboration. 

Now that the responsibilities are clear, we can dive into the next section—project leader skills.

10 essential project leader skills and characteristics (your team will love you for)

Whether you’re starting off as an assistant project lead, an associate project leader, or going into a more senior project lead position, your purpose is to support and enable your team, facilitating the route to project success alongside the project manager. 

So what does it take?

1. Strong leadership skills
Every team needs a leader that’s able to inspire and motivate them, set clear goals, and provide direction and guidance. No matter the size of the project, leadership is essential to success.

2. Great communication skills
Communication is critical in project management, and a project lead should be able to communicate effectively with team members, stakeholders, and other parties involved in the project.

Sounds easy enough, right? But communication breakdowns happen all the time, especially in bigger projects where it’s easy for information to get lost between people, processes, and tools. For bigger projects, you’ll want to have a communication plan in place for everyone to adhere to. That way, you can make sure nothing falls between the cracks.

3. Impeccable organizational skills
A successful project lead should be able to plan and organize the project, set deadlines and milestones, and manage the resources and budget effectively.

4. Creative problem-solving skills
As a project lead, problem-solving is part of the job. You should be able to identify potential problems, analyze them, and come up with effective solutions.

5. Solid time management skills
A project lead should be able to prioritize tasks, manage time effectively, and ensure that the project is completed within the set timeframe. Whether you carry out time blocking as a team, or let team members choose another time management technique that works for them, your job is to make sure things get done on time.

6. Technical expertise (when needed)
Depending on the type of project, a project lead should have the necessary technical expertise to understand the project’s requirements and specifications.

7. Adaptability and flexibility
Projects can be unpredictable, and a successful project lead should be able to adapt to changes and be flexible enough to handle unexpected challenges. Whether it’s about workloads, resource allocation, or something else, flexibility is essential to help rework or rethink plans as projects change.

8. Team management (and interpersonal) skills
A project lead should be able to manage the team effectively, delegate tasks, provide feedback and support, and ensure that the team works together toward the project’s success. But interpersonal skills are just as important to help team members develop and grow independently.

9. Great at compromise and negotiation
In project management, it’s very likely that you’ll find yourself in negotiations on a daily basis. Whether it’s about prioritizing tasks, getting a client to budge on a project timeline, or something else, learning when and where to compromise and when to hold your own, is essential.

10. Attention to detail
The devil’s in the detail couldn’t be more true than in project management, where things seemingly simple can quickly spiral out of control (and that’s how you end up with scope creep). So with the finger on the pulse of the project, no detail should get past a great project lead.

Now that you know how to be a good project leader, you might think hey, I don’t have all those skills. That’s totally fine. You can develop and build on existing skills.

If you really want to take it to the next level, you might want to explore becoming an agile project leader.

Agile project leader skills

Now we’re talking about some serious project management leader stuff. Agile project leaders not only have all the skills we’ve just covered, but they can also practice the following:

  • They’re aware of their own bias—confirmation bias is everywhere, the best leaders challenge themselves and their views
  • They recognize that team members need different things to be successful in their roles and when doing their tasks
  • They know how to create a diverse but balanced team that works well together, whether they’re technical experts or creative thinkers

A bright future for project leads

Recent years have posed new challenges for project leads everywhere. Whether it’s moving to a hybrid or remote project management model, preventing team burnout, or figuring out how to build your PM tech stack, project leads and managers sure have a challenge cut out for them. 

But a bright future lies ahead. 

According to a report from PMI, the demand for project talent is huge, and by 2027, almost 88 million people will be in project management roles.

So if you’re thinking about a career in project management—no better time than the present.