Just One Thing—Cultivate Your Project Leadership Skills

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around individually important topics. Use them in good health and great performance!

Increasingly, the work of organizations is completed in the form of projects. Strategy is executed in projects. Innovation efforts take on the form of projects. Quality improvement efforts start-out as projects. Even planning the company holiday party qualifies as a project, albeit, a particularly stressful one.

Understanding the discipline and tools of project management is now de rigueur for professionals with any intention of growing in their careers. Whether you are an individual contributor, a functional manager or an executive, it’s great to understand the issues, challenges and practices of delivering projects.

However, when I take a close look at project teams that struggle (and too many do), it’s generally not the misapplication of project management tools or practices that are at the source of the problems. Most often, it’s the absence any visible form of project leadership.

Consider: project teams are generally temporary groupings of individuals with different skill-sets but a shared interest in creating something unique. Often, these individuals have little experience in working with each other, and while they might share an interest in the outcome, it’s dangerous to assume that this group will magically or easily coalesce into a functioning unit capable of navigating all of the issues that arise on teams and with projects.

The Project Manger/Leader is responsible for guiding this team from selection and assembly through the murky woods of learning to act, decide, learn, argue, resolve, create and execute together. And for an encore, they have to coordinate the phases of the project, the use of the tools and the communication and coordination and general herding of cats necessary to move the team forward and keep the stakeholders appropriately informed.

The most successful project leaders I’ve encountered are lifetime students of human nature, relentlessly focused on engaging the hearts and minds of their team members and forming a team environment where the landmines surrounding human interaction can be safely navigated.

These individuals take the time to cultivate their leadership and coaching skills. They develop confidence in delivering tough feedback and they work hard to create visibility for and support the development of their high performing team members.

And along the way, they create remarkable value for their firms, rescuing troubled projects and safely guiding even the most challenging of these activities to success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Remember to put the “Leadership” into your firm’s project work. If you’re a project management professional, invest in your leadership skills development and put the tools to work to strengthen your performance and your team’s performance. If the project culture in your firm is more informal, remember to bring the leadership focus when it’s your turn to plan the holiday party or plan that new market launch.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Eliminate “I never heard that before” from Your Workplace Conversations

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I never heard that before,” or, its slightly more grammar challenged equivalent, “No one ever told me that before,” in response to performance feedback.

It’s sad and annoying all at the same time to hear those words. It’s annoying because it tells me that the managers charged with supporting, guiding and developing these valued individuals have shirked their responsibilities. It’s doubly annoying because the effort to deliver constructive feedback is minimal, the techniques to do so effectively fairly easy to learn and the results when done properly, priceless.

It’s sad, because the real victims are the individuals not receiving the feedback they need to grow and improve, and the firms and teams they work for and with who are indirectly penalized with suboptimal performance.

If you’re one of those managers who can stand to improve your frequency and comfort for delivering constructive (and positive) feedback, take the time to get some help. You’ll benefit and your team members will thank you.

The Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations books are excellent. Scan my feedback category, or check out the six part series which starts appropriately with:“Moving Beyond Fear and Anxiety.” And most of all, start observing and talking with your team members about the visible, business-related opportunities to improve or to do more of what’s working.

By the way, I’ve never met a high performance professional who didn’t want to receive feedback on his/her performance. A lot of feedback. Good professionals are always hungry to improve. If you run into someone who objects to it, either your approach is off or, they’re not the high quality professional you thought they were.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Paying attention to your team members is a high form of showing respect. Supporting their professional development through a variety of means, including but not limited to timely, high quality feedback, is the best way I know as a manager to show that I truly care. Take the time to master the tools and start supporting growth for your team members. You’ll grow a good deal as a leader along the way yourself.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

It’s Your Career: Learn to Embrace Ambiguity as Opportunity

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas and guidance on strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

One of the core capabilities of successful senior leaders and individual contributors is their ability to cope with and leverage ambiguity as a tool to create.

While many of us stop or even freeze when faced with unfamiliar situations, others recognize the opportunity to leverage uncertainty as a means to showcase our problem-solving and informal leadership capabilities while solving a vexing workplace challenge.

Instead of viewing the blank page or the empty picture frame in front of you as intimidating and a reason to grind to a halt, recognize that the right reaction is to do something to place words on the page or an image in the frame.

From defining and developing new strategies to creating new roles on your team to being tasked to create a new function and supporting processes critical for the future of the business, there are many tremendous opportunities shrouded in ambiguity, where the right moves will propel you forward.

5 Key Do’s and Don’ts When Faced with Ambiguous Circumstances:

1. Do Work to Internalize the Situation as Opportunity. For some of us, the lack of a template is intimidating and even frightening. While the reaction is understandable, it’s out of sync with the expectations of those around you. Your boss and team members are looking for forward progress and actions that begin to address the inherent problem(s). If solving this were easy, someone would have already taken care of the issue. Know that you’re being measured on incremental progress, not sudden magical answers.

2. Don’t Go to Ground. Your first reaction might be to don the cloak of invisibility and hunker down in search of solving whatever riddle is in front of you. Don’t. By disappearing into silence in search of answering the dilemma on your own, everyone else around you simple notices the disappearing act. Your perception that you have to go away until you have the solution is wrong.

3. Do Actively Build a Network of Contributors. Cultivating a strong advisory or problem-solving network in the workplace is a leadership power tactic. By connecting people with different skill sets in pursuit of solving a vexing issue, you’re improving the odds of success and you’re displaying effective informal leadership skills. Looking at it from another perspective, the most powerful people in a firm are the ones who get things done by bringing diverse talents to bear to solve a problem. It’s the friendly, ethical way to enhance your power and visibility, while doing the same for others who become attached to solving the issue at hand.

4. Don’t Ignore the Need to Make Noise. Silence is not golden in this case. The quieter you are about the work and progress on the initiative, the more you reinforce a perception that nothing is happening. Develop a communication program to keep stakeholders informed of progress, lessons learned and what to expect in the near-term. Also, know that sharing information on small victories reinforces the idea that something positive is happening. Your goal is to buy time and help, and the credibility gained from cultivating an accurate perception of your forward progress is critical.

5. Do Shine the Spotlight on Those Helping You. Nothing turns people off faster than obnoxious self-promotion. On the other hand, you can build goodwill by showcasing how others are helping YOU resolve an issue or create something new. Your team members will appreciate the limelight and you will be attached to the positive progress and the willingness to promote others ahead of your interests. Consider this an investment in your own future when you need to draw upon a broader or different audience for help with the next highly ambiguous situation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Situations ripe with ambiguity can be intimidating or at least unsettling. In reality, they are ripe with opportunity. Instead of focusing on the fear of doing something wrong, recognize that the one thing you can do that is absolutely wrong is to let fear paralyze you into inaction. Engage with others, build a problem-solving network and put those first brushstrokes down on the empty canvas.

Related Post: 5 Common Sense Ideas for Growing Your Power at Work

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.


Guest Post: The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

cover FlexNote from Art: I’m excited to feature author and global leadership strategist and consultant, Jane Hyun, on this highly relevant topic of managing and leading across differences. Jane’s latest book with Audrey S. Lee, Flex–The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, offers a practical and powerful guidebook on this important issue for managers and leaders at all levels.

The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

by Jane Hyun

The face of the global workplace has changed forever. Chances are good that your company is already comprised of workers from around the world as well as multicultural employees in North America; more women are in the workforce (about 50% in the U.S.) than ever before, and millennials are entering the workforce in increasing numbers.  No matter where you are headquartered, you are likely doing business with at least one partner or supplier in another country. Yet, despite this increasing diversity of our workforce, we have yet to unlock the keys to fully leveraging this rich talent pool.

Our Tendency to Minimize Difference:

When it comes to navigating across differences, managers tend not to have the conversation.  We recruit diverse people into our organizations and expect that they too, will figure out the rules. But goodwill and positive intent alone is not sufficient for tapping the potential of your multicultural talent.  Too often we expect that cultural outliers on the team will assimilate into the dominant workplace culture, and figure out the behaviors for getting ahead. Some companies even adopt a “sink or swim” mentality for new employees, and  managers who only see through one cultural lens (their own) force employees outside of the dominant culture to change. As a result, workers from other cultures have to adopt Western notions of acceptable behaviors and mannerisms, even those that clash fundamentally with their cultural values.

Without a more nuanced understanding of the differences between people, as well as tools to bridge the communication gaps, managers will be at a loss to bridge the distance between themselves and those who think differently.

Questions for Self Reflection:

  • How comfortable am I with people who are different from me?
  • What perspectives do my diverse employees bring to our business?
  • Are there management practices that I have been using that may be hindering my team’s development?
  • How have previous diversity training or the stigma of talking about differences impacted me as a leader?

 Talking About Differences is Hard

If left unattended, diversity can negatively affect team cohesion and increase miscommunication and conflict. Having a culturally adaptive leader at the helm can encourage diverse viewpoints in decision-making and give voice to the unique perspectives that will drive innovation and growth for your organization.

But talking about difference can be hard. We become so afraid of making the wrong statements that we end up not initiating the dialogue at all. We need a shared vocabulary for discussing differences in a productive way. The solution? To add “fluent leader” skills to your leadership tool kit. A fluent leader adapts his own leadership style in order to work more effectively with colleagues who are different from himself (culturally, generationally, and across the gender divide). He investigates, without judgment, the differences in order to achieve the optimal result.

Here are the stages that we’ve identified when managing people across differences of culture, generation, and gender:

The Blindsided Leader– To you, no news is good news. You are sometimes blindsided when things don’t always go the way you expect. When direct conflict or difficulty arises from differences, you may avoid it completely.

The Judging Leader – You find individuals who relate differently from you annoying.  You might resent a Millennial employee for over-using social media at work, and prefer that people should relate to each other the old fashioned way, or find that your colleagues in Japan tend to be too indirect. You tolerate some differences, but when push comes to shove, you have the right way of doing things and expect team members to conform to your style.

The Golden Rule Leader-  Diversity training has taught you that it’s probably safest to treat everybody the same. You de-emphasize differences and believe that most people will respond positively if you treat them the way that you would want to be treated.

The Fluent Leader -  You accept and are curious about differences across cultural, gender, and generational lines. Instead of resorting to stereotypes to judge these differences, you explore the differences on a one-to-one level.  You can adapt your style to be more effective with colleagues who are different from you.

 A Fluent Leader Creates Connectivity:

Kristin, a VP of Finance in the publishing industry, exhibited fluent leader traits while working with Rosa, one of the accountants on her team. While other team members actively contributed their ideas during their weekly in-person meetings, Rosa seemed hesitant to speak up, even though her written presentations were excellent. As a result, colleagues from other departments began to perceive her as ineffective and even disengaged. Kristin decided to investigate. She took Rosa to lunch and provided feedback about the impact of her meeting behavior.  Through that conversation, she learned that Rosa had been brought up in a traditional Mexican American family.  You show respect by letting your superior have the floor, and these values were deeply embedded from a young age. Since Kristin often led the weekly meeting, Rosa did not feel it was appropriate to interject. With Kristin’s guidance, Rosa shared her opinion once at the next meeting.  Over the course of the next 5 months she contributed her views gradually more each time, turning around how others perceived her in the organization.

The Wrap-Up:

Hiring diverse teams and then hoping for the best is not sufficient.  Motivating people who have divergent viewpoints and cultural styles requires an active dialogue to unearth optimal strategies for engagement. The fluent leader adapts his approach and management style to meet his team members partway to help bridge the gap between them. He is willing to re-think conventional ways of managing others instead of expecting newcomers to adopt the organizations’ norms. And the leaders who become adept at interacting across differences will ultimately win the global talent war.

Jane Hyun is a global leadership strategist and coach to Fortune 500 companies, MBA programs, and nonprofits. To learn more, visit her website: Hyun Associates.

She is the co-author of the book Flex/The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences (March 25) and the author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and NPR to discuss leadership, authenticity, and culture. To learn more about Flex, visit the site: www.flextheplaybook.com


Leadership Caffeine: Use Daily Conversations to Promote Development

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveToo many bosses leave discussions about professional development to one or two occasions during the year, usually syncing them with the annual performance evaluations. Follow this formula and you’re doing your team members and your firm a tremendous disservice.

Rather than keeping professional development talk locked to the calendar, I’m a big fan of frequent “on the fly” conversations that directly support an individual’s developmental needs and goals. Frequent conversations keep the topic front and center and allow you to focus on providing active coaching that transcends a task orientation. And importantly, the regular development discourse helps build trust between you and your co-workers. After all, there’s no higher form of respect you can pay to someone in the workplace than helping them work towards achieving their career aspirations.

6 Ideas to Help Strengthen Your Daily Professional Development Conversations:

1. Establish a Firm Foundation for the Discussions. Start the process by establishing a mutual understanding of your team member’s next step and long-range professional objectives. Armed with an understanding of personal professional goals, you can better assess and coach as well as design opportunities to support development of the needed skills and experiences.

2. Emphasize Strengths Initially. Our first reaction is to typically look at the weaknesses we perceive in an individual and focus our developmental efforts (training, feedback etc) squarely on those items. They’re weaknesses for a reason, and my encouragement is to look at the individual’s strengths and call those out (always with examples!) as they relate to the next step. If someone has shown success in informally guiding teams or serving as a trouble-shooter, those are great places to reinforce positive behaviors and link them to the individual’s position and career aspirations. I love building on strengths rather than preoccupying on weaknesses.

3. Treat this Work Like As If You Were Building an Apprenticeship Program. (You are!) In most environments, the higher one rises on the organizational ladder, the more the issues of leadership, strategy, presence and the ability to cope with uncertainty or ambiguity are relevant. Establish a common vocabulary around these somewhat squishy topics by using examples and encouraging external reading and study. It’s hard to grok professional presence unless you can point to examples, and it’s tough to talk about strategy unless you’ve built a common vocabulary and given it context. Invite the individual to a strategy session, encourage them to read on the topic and then provide opportunities for the individual to contribute to the process. It’s key to design assignments to expose the individual to these various areas of professional growth. Other ideas: identify an opportunity for the individual to informally lead teams or groups (projects are great for this!); offer an opportunity to help work on customer or market facing activities, and expose the individual to complex problem situations. Watch their performance and supply regular feedback during your daily discussions. (Feedback is best served warm.)

4. Yes, You Still Need to Mind the Gaps. While I emphasized focusing on strengths above, good observation over a wide variety of activities in your Apprenticeship Program will offer ample opportunity to identify critical gaps in knowledge or behavior. Ample feedback…always two-way, plus the identification of necessary training fits well in this stage.

5. Use Questions to Teach. Effective coaching is much about asking great, thought-provoking questions. No need to deliver monologues…ask people for their own reactions, perceptions and emotions based on their experiences with different activities. Asking an individual to assess his or her performance for a particularly challenging activity opens up the discussion and coaching opportunities. Reinforce where you perceive they get it, and help them see blindspots. All of this works better when driven by questions.

6. Create Opportunities to Link Daily Performance to Development. One of the great things of leading and supporting the development of others is that we have nearly endless opportunities everyday to observe and support our team members. While everyone is busy, adding a few minutes on to a status update, grabbing a cup of coffee once or twice per week or reaching out with that extra phone call as the week is winding down, are all easily accomplished.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deliberate development of your team members and teams is much about you cultivating the right presence of mind for this topic and then incorporating it in your regular discussions. There’s no rule against talking early and often about development, and in fact, it’s an ingredient in promoting high performance in your workplace. You have dozens to hundreds of interactions with your team members every week, start using them effectively.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.