Project Lead vs. Project Manager: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated October 6, 2022

Published November 5, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Envisioning, carrying out, and completing projects successfully are hugely important in business. Properly executing projects often requires many people working hard in a variety of separate roles, two of the most notable being project leaders and project managers. If you aspire to establish a career working in projects, it's important to understand both positions, what each does, and what role they play in completing projects. In this article, we provide some basic information on both roles, look at the responsibilities of each, and compare project leads vs project managers.

An overview of project lead vs. project manager

Before going into a project lead versus project manager comparison, it may be helpful to briefly identify their roles. Both project leads and managers do similar work, though there can be some key differences. It is important to note that different companies have different definitions for their roles. Some businesses may even use both terms interchangeably, but even in workplaces that differentiate between the two positions, there is still often a lot of overlap. They both work to make projects successful endeavours for their employers and they each take on different responsibilities to achieve this.

Related: Project Manager vs. Project Coordinator: What Makes Them Different?

What are the responsibilities of a project lead?

A project lead is ultimately responsible for the team, or teams, working on a project. They lead a team, motivate them, and try to establish a welcoming and pleasant work environment to maximize efficiency. Project leads spend a lot of their time in meetings with other project leads, team leaders who are working on their projects, and project managers. Project leads are also responsible for keeping others up to date on how their projects are going. They prepare progress reports and may also be in charge of testing product prototypes.

A lot of what a project lead does relates to their team. Successful project leaders can inspire their teams to foster a more collaborative and creative environment. Project leads are responsible for making sure their teams meet the goals outlined in the project, devise strategies to support project objectives, and lead their team to perform efficiently. The best project leads have excellent interpersonal skills. They are receptive to the feelings of their team members and they know how to overcome challenges their teams are facing to keep them motivated.

Related: How to Be a Successful Team Lead: Roles and Responsibilities

What are the responsibilities of a project manager?

A project manager supervises a project and ensures that it is on track to meet various deadlines. To accomplish this, project managers oversee the tactical duties related to a project. They largely centre their interactions with teams around organizing them and informing them of their next steps. Helping to define the scope, goals, and deliverables of a project is a big part of project management.

Managers also look after documentation and the project's budget. They ensure staff knows what to do and that everybody has an appropriate role in the project. They may also deliver updates and progress reports. Good project managers can identify potential obstacles and risks, and create plans to solve challenges and resolve issues. Managers may also communicate with stakeholders and teams regarding the project and they are often responsible for providing quality assurance tests on the end product.

Related:

  • Essential Project Manager Technical Skills

  • How to Become a Project Manager (With Salary Expectations)

Examining some key differences between project leads vs project managers

Overall, project leads tend to have more creative control over a project and can define where the project goes by leading their teams in different directions. Project managers oversee how the project is being undertaken and look at delivering tangible results. Some key comparisons of how the two positions operate include:

Project leads envision how they want the project to go, while project managers coordinate projects

A good project lead has a vision for their project. They focus on what they want their project to accomplish and they work with their team to pursue this vision. Project managers help project leads realize their vision by coordinating work and actions. Leads guide team members on how to follow their vision, while managers focus on more practical matters.

Project managers focus on results, while project leaders focus on experiences, teamwork, and creativity

Project managers typically concentrate on finishing the project in the allotted time and within the provided budget. No matter how a team finishes a project, if it's on time and under budget, then the project manager can consider themselves to have done their job. Primary leads can have more intangible goals. Of course, they also want to finish on time and within the budget, but they may focus more on the experience and how their team works. A good project leader is always looking for ways to increase their team's efficiency.

Related: How to Write a Project Manager Resume (With Template and Example)

Project leads focus on their team members while managers approach the project as a whole

Every business and every project is different, but generally, project managers spend a lot of time looking at budgets, spreadsheets, and other documents, while project leads spend a lot of time working with people. It is the leader's job to ensure a motivated team is accurately and effectively following their vision for the project. Managers are more focused on meeting the project's goals and, for them, numbers and statistics are usually more important than visions and creativity.

Interpersonal skills are often more important for project leads

Having good people skills can help you no matter what your position is, but in terms of working on a project, it's more important for leads. Good leads are friendly, empathetic, and inspiring. They want to encourage every team member and give them work that aligns with their interests and skill sets. Making sure their team members understand their vision and understanding how their team members work is very important for a project lead.

Project managers rarely interact with team members in this way. Their communication with team members can be much more direct by assigning them different tasks, instructing them on different approaches, and informing them of objectives and milestones. When necessary, a manager may issue a hard deadline and require a team to complete a certain task by that date for the project to stay on schedule.

Both leads and managers solve problems, but they do so differently

Project leaders spend a lot of time thinking, strategizing, and planning. Good leads innovate long-term plans and proposals that stimulate their team members to achieve their goals. Many of the challenges they face stem from their teams, and learning how to get the best out of their teams is always crucial. Project managers often solve unexpected issues that arise during the process. While they have an outline for what they can do, it might be necessary for them to save time or money on one aspect of the project to make up for lost time or money elsewhere.

Project managers focus on details while leads embrace big-picture thinking

A good project manager is capable of good analytic thought. Whether it's analyzing the budget to discover what aspect of the project is taking up too many resources or looking ahead on the schedule and pinpointing potential risks or bottlenecks, a good manager is detail-oriented. A good manager focuses on details and organization so that the lead can focus on the big picture. It can be challenging to focus both on organizational details and big-scope ideas and visions, so that's why many projects have both a manager and a lead. While a manager is paying attention to the details, the leader focuses more on creativity and team inspiration.

Related: Top 12 Project Manager Interview Questions and Answers

Where a project manager might be happy maintaining the status quo, a project lead might want to take a risk

Project leads and managers work together to create and execute great projects, but that doesn't mean they always agree on everything. Once they have laid out or received a plan, project managers usually just want to ensure everything follows the plan. They are typically happy with the status quo.

Project leaders want to experiment and take calculated risks. They commonly set new goals to motivate their teams and strive to innovate new ways of doing things to be more efficient or creative. A project manager may not always want to try novel approaches if the project is already on pace to be completed on time and within the budget. That is why the lead and manager must communicate with each other openly and respectfully.

Project managers have a higher average salary

According to Indeed Salaries, project leads make an annual average salary of $65,304, while project managers have an annual salary of $75,825. This suggests that, while creativity and leadership are important, many companies especially value people who can manage practical issues and get projects finished within a budget and schedule. Every business has its values and priorities, so salaries vary.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organization‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌, ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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