Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer, consultant and author. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach, an NLP Practitioner, a regular contributor to the Association for Project Management (APM), and is DISC accredited. She provides executive coaching, leadership development, project management training and consults with organisations on how to improve their project leadership capabilities. Aside from her work as a coach and trainer, Susanne is also a global speaker on conferences where she speaks on topics such as leadership, emotional intelligence and stress in project management.

Susanne is the founder and director of Susanne Madsen International Ltd, where she provides executive coaching, leadership development and project management training. Prior to setting up her own business, Susanne worked in the corporate sector leading high-profile programmes for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. In 2017, she co-founded The Project Leadership Institute, a world-class learning organization aiming to build authentic project leaders by engaging the heart, soul and mind.

She published her very first book The Project Management Coaching Workbook back in 2012. The first edition of her second book The Power of Project Leadership was published in 2015 and the book is now in its second edition.


PMTips: What is your view on the project management profession? There are many responsibilities that come with it, but what do you think are the greatest benefits of being a project manager?

Susanne Madsen: The project management profession is growing. More and more projects are being initiated due to a higher rate of change. That presents a great opportunity for project managers – not just to improve their skills and further their careers – but also to have real impact in the world we live in. Many changes are needed to create a smarter and more sustainable way of living. That’s the real opportunity for project managers – working on projects that make the world a better and healthier place to be.


PMTips: Considering that you have worked as a consultant on large projects for a number of organizations can you tell us if there was a project that left a strong impact on your understanding of project management? Is there one project that you cannot help but recall each time you start working on a new one?

Susanne Madsen: Between 2006 and 2008 I was leading a large strategic project for one of the banks in London. It was a highly complex and business critical project, that had 50 people working on it during its peak. To say that I learnt a lot during this project is an understatement. Because it was such a substantial and lengthy project - with a boss who just let me get on with it - I was fortunately to refine my skills in everything from planning, risk management and estimation to effectively managing a complex stakeholder set up and steer clear of political games. It was all good fun – but hard work - as the executive sponsor was one of the most senior directors in the firm. This was probably the first time in my career where everything came together and where I became conscious of the differences between project management and project leadership.

Towards the end of this challenging project, I was invited to attend a leadership course where I was coached for the first time. The coaching I received had a profound impact on me. Firstly, I understood the power of coaching, and how it can make us see our projects and ourselves in a completely new light. I know that is what happened to me. Secondly, I had the epiphany that project managers need leadership. This was the point in my career when everything shifted. I began to study coaching and leadership and started to practice my newfound skills on the project managers I was working with. This lead me to write my first book (The Project Management Coaching Workbook) and after a few years I decided to set up my own company – fully dedicated to coaching and training project managers in leadership. I have been running my own company for 6 years now.


PMTips: The project kickoff meeting can contribute enormously to the success of a project, but if not done the right way it can destroy any chance of success before the project has even started. Can you tell us what makes a good project kickoff and how to avoid the bad start that threatens the overall success of a project?

Susanne Madsen: We all know that defining the project is an essential starting point for running a successful project. We also know that the project definition should be created with the team members for maximum buy-in as opposed to just presenting it to them. But there is more to kicking off a good project. We need to bring in the softer aspects too. Individuals are complex beings who have different ways of approaching situations and different ways of dealing with problems. During a project, tough decisions will need to be made and difficult situations overcome. It takes time for team members to get to know each other and to build up the kind of trust that’s needed for them to gel and deliver a great project.

To create the best possible kick off and the best conditions for the team to deliver, the project manager needs to assist the team in finding its feet and agreeing how its members will work together. To do that I would recommend the project managers and their teams complete a project charter. The charter clarifies the make-up and direction of the team and establishes boundaries. It is developed with contributions from all team members and should answer the following questions:

  • What is our purpose? Why does the team exist?
  • Which decisions and activities are inside the scope of our team?
  • What are the measurable outcomes that we will be held accountable to?
  • How will we treat each other? Which ground rules are important to us?
  • How will we make decisions, resolve conflict and communicate?
  • Which strengths and skills do we have?
  • What are our weaknesses?
  • What is each team member’s role? How will they contribute?
  • How will we celebrate our successes?
  • How can we summarize our ethos and purpose in a sentence or phrase?

You can download a free team charter template by registering on my website.


PMTips: You are the Director and Co-founder of The Project Leadership Institute, a world-class learning organization aiming to build authentic project leaders. The leadership programme at the institute begins with the Personal Deep Dive module where you invite the delegates to look in the mirror. Can you tell us about this technique and its effects on the participants? How can the learning methods and practices applied at the institute benefit the leaders of today?

Susanne Madsen: I’m incredibly proud of the work we are doing at the Project Leadership Institute. This is real transformational work that creates more self-aware, authentic and effective project leaders. One of the big differences between management and leadership is emotional intelligence. Managers can be cognitively very sharp but may not have the kind of insight into the behavioral and emotional side of people as leaders do. The most fundamental aspect of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, and that’s what the first module of our leadership programme is all about. Before a project manager can effectively lead others they have to be able to understand and lead themselves. During the Deep Dive module we guide our participants through a process of identifying the key events that have shaped them as the leader they are today. We also examine why some people and situations trigger an allergic reaction in them and we practice those behavioral patterns with actors in a live environment. This is a very powerful intervention, which is usually outside of most project manager’s comfort zone. The three-module programme has proven very effective and has enabled our participants to develop in all sorts of ways. Some become better and more empathic listeners, others become more outspoken whilst others again become less reactive and better able to handle conflict.


PMTips: In your book The Power of Project Leadership, you have dedicated an entire chapter to empowering the team. What is the importance behind the creation of an empowered team and how can it best be accomplished?

Susanne Madsen: The problem many project managers have is that they feel it’s their role to know it all and do it all. They see themselves as a problem solver more than someone who empowers and enables the team to come up with the answers. Project managers who play the hero are trying to do the right thing and be of service to others. But they rarely are. When PMs put too much pressure on themselves to figure things out they will invariably invest less and rely less on the team. Numerous studies show that a high performing team is one where all team members are equally active and engaged. Creating such a team requires a certain kind of leader and leadership style. It requires a project leader who asks the right questions and who supports the team in providing them. Team members will only come forward and contribute with their ideas if they feel psychologically safe. If they are being criticized or sidelined when sharing what’s on their mind they will begin to step back and disengage. To create a fully functioning team, project managers need to make use of their emotional intelligence and learn to access their supportive style at the same time access their challenging style.


PMTips: How can professionals that work on projects manage the stress that comes with their everyday responsibilities? Are there tactics that they can use to reduce the stress or maybe even entirely prevent it?

Susanne Madsen: You are right that on many projects stress is a topic that looms just below the surface. It can be a good thing to be stretched in our work, but chronic stress is dangerous and can lead to burnout. To keep negative stress at bay, project manages must set boundaries at an individual level and be honest about the kind of work-life balance they want. Each person has to check in with themselves and notice how they feel in their body, mind and spirit. Are they operating within their zone of peak performance or have they got to an unhealthy place, where stress has become chronic? Perhaps they have aches and pains, are unable to sleep at night, they are irritable, feel overwhelmed and constantly worry. If a project manager recognizes any of these symptoms it’s time to take action. They must scale back on the amount of hours they work, make time for friends and family and not take work home. They would benefit from focusing on a few activities or hobbies in their spare time that give them energy. These activities don’t have to take up a lot of time. I know people who have successfully lowered their stress levels by walking their dog more regularly on their own, by playing the guitar or by taking out a few minutes to sit in stillness and focus on their breathing.


PMTips: If you could give yourself advice, look back and talk to a younger version of yourself, let’s say right when you started working on your very first project, what advice would you give? Also, is there any advice you would give to young professionals who wish to become project managers?

Susanne Madsen: The advice I would give myself is the same as I would give to other project managers: work with a personal coach! If I had worked with a coach in the early part of my career it would have saved me much frustration, stress and avoidable mistakes. I believe that my self-awareness and people-skills would be developed at a much faster pace, which in turn would have allowed me to lead my team and serve my clients more effectively at a younger age.