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How To Be A Leader During The Project Kickoff: Expert Tips & Process

If you don’t get started on the right foot, your project team and project success are already at risk. That could be this entire article, summed up in that one sentence. Kickoff meetings are essential. Kickoff meetings need to be done well. If not, you erode trust instantly and at the most vulnerable moment in the entire project life cycle

Use this article as a guide for setting a stellar meeting agenda, for how to lead a project kickoff meeting, and to show everyone you are the right project leader for the job!

This article gives you end-to-end project initiation best practices which serve not only newer facilitators but anyone at any point in their project management career.

Kickoff meetings ensure that the team knows what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to be successful. Without surfacing and aligning on what makes a successful project from the get-go, you miss the opportunity to show your key stakeholder and partners that you and your team are competent and capable.

You also miss the opportunity to build trust, you miss the opportunity to gain clarity where it may be needed, and you miss the opportunity to celebrate the start of a great partnership!

I’ll cover:

Leading The Sales To Project Management Handoff

Before the project kickoff meeting, the project manager needs to read the scope of work thoroughly to understand what it is that we are obligated to deliver. When you read the contracts, look out for the deliverables, any project timeline drivers, and any budget or schedule constraints that the team will need to know about.

what to look for in project contracts infographic
Here are the four main things to look for when reviewing project contracts prior to the kickoff.
  • Are there any assumptions about guidelines or research that the team needs to leverage? Make sure you include that in the kickoff meeting details.
  • Are parts of the project scope unclear or incomplete? Write out questions and schedule a meeting with the salesperson.

Not only do you want to use this time to get your questions answered, you want to use this time to understand any client dynamics, expectations, or risks that revealed themselves in the new business cycle. 

You also need to learn who your stakeholder group is going to be. Oftentimes people who are in the sales process are not the people who will be on the core delivery team. You want to determine how ready they are going to be to get this project started alongside you. 

  • Is the client team co-located in an office or are they a virtual team?
  • Do they have their project team assembled? 
  • How quickly can they deliver brand guidelines or any artifacts that we need to get started quickly and on the right foot?
  • Can the salesperson introduce you ahead of the project kickoff meeting?

It may be a productive idea to have you meet the project sponsor ahead of the extended team project kickoff. When a client signs a contract with an agency, it is a time of maximum vulnerability: their salesperson tends to go away and a new team emerges. 

It's a great trust-building moment to have the sales person introduce you to the key stakeholder, demonstrating that you have already understood the scope, what is being asked of the agency, and that you're excited to build this partnership. 

This is also a great time to request any artifacts or access that your team might need so that you can get started quickly and on the right foot. Gather any materials you can ahead of the project kickoff meeting so that your team can come to those meetings prepared with thoughtful questions for the client team.

Preparing For The Project Kickoff Meeting

If your team comes to the client kickoff meeting with thoughtful questions, the client will know that they are in good hands. It’s your job as the project manager to get your team to that place.

Good project initiation has both an internal kickoff and an external kickoff.

Internal Kickoff Meetings

Some agencies may prepare an internal project brief. Typically, this is a narrative around what the client is asking us to do, why we're asked to do it, and what materials you have at your disposal to execute successfully.

Other agencies will develop Google Slides or a PowerPoint presentation with roughly the same information.

At a minimum your team needs to know:

  • What is the project goal 
  • Who is the client 
  • Why did the client ask us to do this project 
  • What is the client expecting at the end of this project 
  • What are the deliverables
  • What is the budget 
  • What is the timeline or schedule

Other helpful information to provide in a kickoff meeting includes:

  • Who is the internal team?
  • What is everybody's role? 
  • What is the project budget and how many hours does each person have for the project? 

You can also provide information on the client, like what their website or what you know about the core client stakeholder team.

You should walk through the project schedule with the team and collect any out of office or conflicting projects that may impact your team's ability to deliver on time. If you need to adjust the schedule, now is the time to do that.

Your role as a project manager is to create an environment that allows the team to collaborate and deliver successfully. They need clarity on their role, they need an explanation of what they are to deliver, and they need the time and the space to be able to do that well.

If possible, invite the sales person to your kick off call so that the internal team can ask questions of them, too.

Read more about internal project kickoffs here.

Client Kickoff Meetings

Client kickoff meetings are incredibly important. If they are not facilitated well or do not have a clear productive agenda, then they are a waste of everyone's time.

Put yourself in the client's shoes. They may have been researching or pitching this project for funding for months or even years, and now the time has come to actually start their project. They may be investing a small amount of money or millions of dollars. 

Regardless, they are investing their time and their resources into a project they've been looking forward to. Your team has been entrusted with this project. Do not squander this kickoff opportunity.

Begin by reaching out to your primary point of contact at the client, asking for availability for the most critical team members to attend. If you need to delay it a little bit to make sure that the right voices are in the room, you should do that. 

A big risk during kickoff is not having the right people in the room and not getting the right information, which in turn can cause you to get started on the wrong foot.

It's also incredibly important that the right people are in the room because, as I mentioned before, the folks who may be responsible for working with you on this project may not be the people who scoped the project during the sales process.

It's very important that during the kick off you have alignment with your day-to-day client team on what is in scope and what is not in scope to make sure that everybody is on the same page.

I had an experience once where I got into a kick off meeting and I explained what we understood the project to be. After explaining the type of system we intended to design, one of the members of the client’s team spoke up, saying they expected we were going to deliver something far more robust. 

Their expectations were far outside our scope. If that should happen to you, you should engage your sales team and your primary point of contact and have a sidebar conversation to resolve the issue. 

Moral of the story: get the right people in the room.

Setting the table

A good client project meeting includes an opening and a warm welcome. If you can have your salesperson on the call, have them open the call and say hello to any familiar faces, let them explain the history and how we arrived at this meeting. Then they can pass the virtual baton to you and the rest of your team.

You should start with a round of introductions so that everybody understands who is on the team and what their roles in carrying out the project plan will be. Now that everybody knows each other, you can walk through project details.

Aligning on specifics

Moving on, the second part of the agenda is where you explain—in your words—how the agency interpreted the project scope, what your team understands the project goal to be, and what the project considerations are.

One suggestion is, after you have explained what you understand the project goal to be, it's nice to break up the conversation and hand it back over to the client. 

Ask the client team if you understood the project correctly and if there's anything additional that they'd like to add, perhaps about the RFP process or the business problem that prompted this RFP to be issued. Sometimes RFPs and contracts can be really dry. The team may benefit from hearing, in human terms, the nuance of why a project is needed.

Once all of the teams are grounded in what the project is and what everybody's role is, it is very  important to go through the logistics of the project. Everybody needs to understand what the project timeline is, and what the budget is, too.

Getting ahead of risk

A good partnership is built on trust. Good project management is built on planning and risk management. Start building a relationship of trust and transparency by asking for what they perceive to be project risks. 

Surface any out of office time, collect any secondary stakeholders that you need to be mindful of, understand from them if anybody's schedule is tough to get on, so you can get ahead of these things now.

A former client of mine called out in our kickoff meeting that our launch time frame was scheduled during peak hurricane season, which may mean out of office or technology risks. That was so helpful to know and discuss contingency plans for.

Beginning the collaboration

One of the better agencies I’ve worked for used the kickoff meeting as the first working session.

The first half was used to get to know each other and ground the team in critical details and the second half was for questions and education. It was a great way to capitalize on the excitement and eagerness of the client team. It shows them that your team is ready to roll up their sleeves. 

If your team is inclined and prepared, you can start the project right now. Use this first meeting together to begin some of your initial discovery and fact finding. 

If your client team has never undertaken a project like this it also might be helpful to include a walkthrough of what the deliverables will look like and what your clients can expect to see throughout the workflow process. Use this time to set expectations for how they could be a productive engaged partner and give constructive feedback on those deliverables.

Wireframes for a website are sometimes a confusing deliverable for a client who may not be familiar with digital design processes. They are intentionally vague, only communicating content hierarchy in navigational strategy. 

Clients who are not familiar with wire frames may get confused at why they aren't seeing real copy or real pictures. Use the kickoff meeting to get ahead of that.

Closing out the meeting

Every good meeting opens with the agenda and expectations and closes with a summary and next steps. 

Now that you've aligned on what the project is, what the constraints are and what the drivers and motivating factors are, and ou have educated the client on your workflow and what they can expect to see and participate in, you should walk through next steps and task owners.

  • Do they still need to grant your team access to anything?
  • Are there some follow ups coming out of your Q&A agenda items?
  • Do you need to send kickoff materials to the client team, or invite them to project management tools?
  • Don’t forget to share meeting minutes and action items after the call.

You’re Off And Running

With this three-part kickoff practice (the sales to PM handoff, internal kickoff, client kickoff cadence) and meeting agenda template, your internal and external teams will be well informed, already building trust, and ready to deliver a wonderful project together. 

For more, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter.

Happy planning!

By Sally Shaughnessy

Sally Shaughnessy has been a Project Manager since the early 2000s with both global ad agencies and smaller startups. She is a Director of Production for New York-based marketing agency Code and Theory. Code and Theory lives at the intersection of creative and technology to build immersive experiences for the world’s biggest brands. Sally thrives on helping makers do what they do best and mentoring other PMs to excel in the world of client service.

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