Effective Project Leadership in Economic Development

When I worked in the private sector, the roles and responsibilities of different Departments were fairly well defined, and the priorities of the Organization were articulated in a Corporate Strategic Plan understood by all managers. In the public sector though, things are far less clear and the need for strong leadership in managing economic development projects feels even more critical to success.

My first challenge in economic development was to lead the creation of a globally competitive Ohio brand to strengthen the state’s competitive position in attracting, retaining and expanding capital investment. I was initially taken aback by the confidence shaking feedback I got indicating the objective was impossible to achieve. Fortunately I didn’t listen and plunged ahead with unbridled enthusiasm.  I had supreme, and admittedly untested, confidence that the skills developed during my P&G career could be leveraged for success.

As they say, ignorance is bliss.  In my case it was absolutely true. The Ohio branding project was a success thanks to the collaborative efforts of a wide range of leaders and great Agency partners.

A year later I had an opportunity to take on another challenge that was similar. This one was to brand Ohio’s Appalachia Region. This time though I had the confidence of knowing my P&G training could be trusted. And, I was excited to prove to myself that the first success was not a fluke.  Despite the perceived magnitude of this particular challenge, Enterprise Appalachia was launched. Evidence to date suggests it is a success as well.

As a result of leading two high profile economic development initiatives, people have been asking me for advice on how to lead their community branding projects. Their questions have encouraged me to reflect on the private sector project leadership principles that when reapplied led to a successful outcome. Hopefully these insights will be helpful to you in leading your own local economic development projects.


  1. Have a clearly articulated and aligned objective. It is best if you can state it in one sentence. And, it is important that your key private and public sector leaders are aligned with the statement.
  2. Don’t let changes to the project objective happen without great difficulty. The value of an aligned objective is to ensure people can execute their part with confidence. Upon reflection, in a world where politics often creates big swings in alignment, having an unwavering North Star was a big contributor to ensuring the project focus needed for success.
  3. Develop a plan that is capable of delivering the project objective. It is important to think the steps through in advance and provide realistic estimates of time required and costs involved. If you need more staff or budget, ask for it. Don’t expect an underpowered project team to deliver the results required.
  4. Be flexible by having contingency plans. Recognize that even the best plans will need to change as new information becomes available or inevitable roadblocks are encountered. Blindly driving to execute the original plan will cause failure. If there is a major scope change in the project, recognize it and incorporate the ramifications in the project delivery expectations.
  5. Establish major project milestones to help ensure on-going alignment. It is important with long-term projects to create opportunities to celebrate success. Without a reason to acknowledge progress, constituents will lose interest and their attention will refocus on the crisis des jour. By celebrating milestone achievement, it helps retain interest and provides an opportunity to reinforce commitment. Everybody wants to be associated with a winning project. Consequently, as milestones are achieved the positive emotion around the project will gain momentum.
  6. Involve the right people on the team. If you need experts to get the job done right, then drive hard to get the experts assigned to your team. This doesn’t always mean hiring a consultant. You may be amazed to find that much of the expertise you need is available in the private sector and can be made available to the Team.
  7. Know what is going on. Communicate frequently with the people doing the work.  Identify barriers and help get them removed. Pay close attention to morale and constantly reinforce the benefit of successful project completion when you speak with them. If the project runs into a problem, have your team help solve it so they will deepen their personal commitment to a successful outcome.
  8. Tell people what is happening. Produce update reports, have meetings to review projects. Let people stay current on the story of your success as it is being created. Use these opportunities to give public recognition and credit to team members who are contributing at a high level.


It is obviously easier to explain how to successfully lead projects than it is to actually lead them successfully. Leading complex projects in economic development is messy in practice. Politics are real and tend to act as unwelcome wildcards that can quickly and often irrevocably derail a project. Experience in leading initiatives certainly helps. But, even without a lot of personal experience, if you stay focused and understand the process the challenge is a little easier and your odds of success increase. Don’t lose confidence and try not to over complicate the leadership task.

I tried my best to reflect on my experience and capture it in the above tips. I hope you find them helpful. When you feel overwhelmed, reread the tips and determine which area you need to focus on to get back in control.


Your perspective helps enhance the educational value of the discussion. Share your best project leadership tips. Collectively we will create a wonderful primer to help everybody be even better leaders.


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