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In the dynamic world of project management, there's a whole cast of characters (aka the project team) that come together to bring our project story to life. Two roles that often get swapped or mixed up are the project lead and the project manager. 

If you're anything like me when I first entered this arena, you might be thinking, "Aren't they just different names for the same job?" or "How do their job descriptions actually differ?

Well, it's time to get some clarity! In this article, we’ll explore the distinct roles of project lead and project manager, and get to the heart of what sets them apart. By getting a better handle on these roles, we can ensure that each player nails their part, leading us to a smoother, more streamlined path to project success.

What Is A Project Lead?

In the grand theater of a project, the project lead is like the lead actor. They're often a subject matter expert who provides technical guidance and makes key decisions related to their area of expertise. They're typically deep in the day-to-day activities of the project, playing a crucial role in the technical development and execution of project tasks. 

What Does a Project Lead Do?

You can think of a project lead like the star of our project show. They set the pace and tone of the project. As a project leader, they have a firm grasp on the project schedule and milestones. They need to have an array of motivating characteristics, including communication skills, soft skills, and project leadership skills.

A project lead's job often includes steering the team in carrying out project tasks, motivating the team and improving team performance, solving technical issues or bottlenecks, making key calls about project design and execution, and often getting their hands dirty with the tasks themselves.

They make sure the team's work and the team goals are in line with the project's goals and are the go-to for any technical questions about the project.

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What Is A Project Manager?

On the flip side, the project manager role is like the director of our project performance. They keep an eye on the entire project, making sure all the different parts come together to deliver a successful project outcome.

What Does a Project Manager Do?

The project manager is in charge of plotting out, executing, and overseeing the project to make sure it ticks off its goals on time and within budget.

Their role usually includes defining the project's boundaries, drawing up the project plan, managing the project budget and schedule, coordinating teams, and chatting with stakeholders.

Unlike the project lead, the project manager isn't usually knee-deep in the technical side of the project. Instead, they focus on the broader picture, making sure all team members and project elements line up with the overall goals and timelines.

As the project team leader, they're the skilled directors who make sure our project performance runs smoothly, guiding us towards a successful project finale.

4 Key Differences Between Project Leads & Project Managers

Now that we’ve defined the roles, let’s dive into what the main differences are between project leads and project managers. 

1. Skills

Project leads are like experts in their field, armed with in-depth technical knowledge, which enables them to steer and participate in the project tasks. They're top-notch problem solvers with a knack for technical work. 

Project managers, however, are like strategic masterminds, proficient in planning, coordination, risk management, and playing the communication bridge with stakeholders. They're all about looking at the project from a bird's-eye view, making sure all the puzzle pieces fit neatly together.

2. Qualifications

Typically, a project lead comes from a technical background, sporting qualifications that directly tie into the project's field. For instance, a project lead in a software development project might have roots in software engineering. 

In contrast, a project manager usually boasts a background in management or business, often adorned with project management certifications like PMP (Project Management Professional) or PRINCE2, testifying to their project management prowess.

3. Responsibilities

Project leads and project managers have vastly different job descriptions. A project lead is in the trenches, tackling the daily technical work of the project, while the responsibilities of a project manager include surveying the entire project scope, directing resources, schedules, risks, and handling communication with stakeholders.

4. Authority

Project managers generally have the reins of the project, as they're held accountable for the success or failure of the entire endeavor. They control all project aspects and make the big calls that influence the project's path. Project leads, however, hold sway in their own domain, making key decisions tied to their technical specialty.

Similarities Between Project Leads & Project Managers

Despite their differences, project leads and project managers share a common goal: the successful completion of the project. Here are some similarities that both these roles share:

  • Team collaboration: Both roles require exceptional collaboration skills, as they need to gel with team members to bring the project goals to fruition. This includes communicating with project stakeholders, project coordinators, and senior management across the organization. 
  • Problem-solving: Be it a technical snag for the project lead or a resource crunch for the project manager, both roles call for top-tier problem-solving skills.
  • Goal-oriented: Both roles are laser-focused on the project objectives. Although they might approach it differently, their eyes are on the same prize—a successful project.
  • Leadership: Both project leads and project managers have leadership roles. While the project lead provides technical leadership, the project manager steps up with strategic leadership.

Understanding these similarities and differences can help us value the unique roles that project leads and project managers play in our project journey—steering our projects more efficiently, crafting a smooth symphony of success.

What’s Next?

That's a wrap on our deep dive into the roles of project leads and project managers! Remember, we're all key players in this game of project management.

Whether you're a project lead or a project manager, you've got a special part to play in this intricate dance, contributing your unique project management skills to the overall success of the project.

Knowing your role—and the roles of your teammates—is the secret recipe to a seamless project execution, hitting all the right beats along the way.

And this is just the beginning. There's so much more to discover and learn about the dynamic field of project management. If you're up for continuing this thrilling adventure with me, sign up for The Digital Project Manager newsletter

Get the freshest insights, handy tips, and engaging discussions about project management delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe today, and keep your finger on the pulse of the ever-changing beat of project management.

Ben Aston
By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedpm.com. I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. I'm a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut!