Just One Thing—Hug a Project Manager

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

My wife informed me that June 4 was officially, “Hug Your Cat Day.” (Who decides this?) While dog lovers everywhere were likely nauseous over this seeming waste of energy, it was a nice sentiment, albeit, one wasted on a creature that would clearly let you know if and when he/she required you to extend a hug. When it was darned well ready of course.

Perhaps a better use of this date and gesture might be to encourage those of us in our jobs and firms dependent upon big things getting done to seek out and either genuinely or metaphorically hug a project manager.

One of the core takeaways my MBA students express after investing 10 weeks immersed in the art and science of this discipline is new found appreciation for the role project managers play in our organizations. Few come into the course understanding the importance of the role; the complexity of the people and process challenges and the nature of the leadership and execution challenges faced by these individuals.

They leave understanding that innovation occurs in the form of projects…as does strategy execution, new product development…new infrastructure implementation…and the reality that almost everything we depend upon to do our jobs originated in the form of one or more projects. They develop an appreciation for the tools of project management…not as magical answers to our problems…but literally as tools to help us get work done.

They also leave the course understanding that project managers are the consummate integrator leaders…working across boundaries, often with little authority but much of the accountability. It’s a role that is perpetually on the hot seat…often with little support.

Firms that get project management use it as a tool to pursue competitive advantage…to spearhead innovation efforts they can commercialize and to ensure they are able to deploy the latest and best technologies to serve their customers and optimize their efficiencies.

In my travels across firms large and small, it’s common for me to encounter situations where the role is poorly defined…the practices loose with little leveraging of the tools and methodologies available to support project success.

And all too often, I find over-worked, under-compensated and under-developed but well-intended people fighting an uphill battle for resources while navigating too many initiatives. Sponsorship and career or skills development are often absent. This is wrong. A great project manager is a difference maker and project competency is critical to organizational success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

So instead of waiting for your cat to decide it needs a hug, find a way to support your project manager. Work on serving as a better team member. If you’re an executive, figure out what it means to be a sponsor for projects and invest your energy in getting it right. If you’re a manager or someone responsible for project managers, ensure that you are investing in and supporting the development of these critical resources. If you’re firm is operating in an ad hoc mode on initiatives, you are leaving money on the table. Fix this.

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Leadership Caffeine™—Ask, “How Can I Help?”

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.

One of the more powerful leadership learning moments in my career occurred when I was part of project team that was struggling to find traction around an important and complicated strategic initiative.

The team was flailing. The first leader, an autocratic, my-way or the highway type, had been replaced with a committee of three senior executives as co-leaders. After all, this was important and what could possibly go wrong with a group of senior executives leading the charge?

That failed. It turns out putting everyone in charge isn’t a great game-plan.

Following a contentious project review meeting the sponsor suggested a well-regarded mid-level manager as a solution to the project leadership challenge. While some voiced concern over her lack of title and senior level heft, the sponsor suggested the core team members meet with her one-on-one before making a decision. It would be their choice.

Her reputation was great. She was respected for her ability to work with others and she had helped groups navigate some sticky topics on numerous occasions. After the “interviews,” the core team members agreed unanimously that she was the right person for the role.

The time for her first official meeting with the extended team arrived and within the first 10 seconds, we all knew this was different and that it would work. She led the meeting off with two powerful sentences: “I’m here to work for you,” and, “What do you need from me to help you succeed?”

After a few seconds of silence from the extended team members who likely were expecting the “here’s how we’re going to do this…” speech, the suggestions started flowing.

She listened carefully, took notes, asked clarifying questions and after a few minutes of “what not to do,” the comments turned constructive. The next day she came back with what she described as her Leadership Charter. It was, she offered, “her new job description.”

  • Regularly remind us of the true purpose of our project.
  • Respect us by holding us accountable to our best work.
  • Demand that we operate as a true team.
  • Protect us from distractions.
  • Support our learning and development.
  • Hold us accountable to making decisions and correcting mistaken decisions.
  • Keep us from beating ourselves.

Powerful words…yes, but it was what she did next that brought them to life.

She established a series of check-points where she requested the team provide input to keep her focused and help her improve. The every-other-week status meeting would include 10 minutes to discuss her leadership effectiveness. Input was to be frank and constructive. Additionally, she issued a monthly blind survey seeking anonymous input and she reviewed the input in the next status meeting. It took just one cycle through the status meetings and survey reviews for everyone to understand she was serious about serving the team and constantly searching for input on improving her own performance.

This leader served and the team prospered. She was demanding…after all, you cannot hold people accountable to being their best and not be demanding. She made mistakes as all leaders do and when told of them, she quickly apologized and redoubled her efforts to improve.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The team won. The initiative succeeded. This wonderful professional is now leading a successful start-up as CEO. She taught all of us what it means to lead by simply asking, “How can I help?” And then doing something about it.

Starting today, instead of telling, try asking.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.

Just One Thing—Push Beyond “M” for Mediocrity

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

Why do we fail with our initiatives (projects, strategy, leadership) in the workplace so regularly when the causes of failure are well documented and the practices to minimize the chances of failure so well identified?

A student exploring project risk management was perplexed when she compared the data on project failures to the literature on risk management, only to see that the causes of failure and ideas for reducing risk were clearly identified over and over again in a nearly endless stream of articles.

I see this same situation play out repeatedly in leadership and strategy work.

The formula for leading effectively isn’t a secret kept locked in a vault with the combination known only to two people. In fact, the principles have been understood for a few millennia. And for us today in our firms, the behaviors of miserable managers and lousy leader are well understood and at last count, there were seemingly 4 quintillion resources offering input, training and help on how to lead effectively.

For strategy, too many of these programs fail not just because they were poor ideas (usually not the case), but rather because the process of execution broke down. People fail to coordinate the work necessary to properly and effectively bridge ideas to execution. While not to minimize the complexity of executing on strategy, the issues of communication, coordination, feedback, adaptation and so forth are fairly easy to grok.

Finally, when I work with people and teams in troubled organizations, I always figuratively scratch my head over the juxtaposition of relatively smart people who understand what is going wrong with the reality that few are doing anything about it.

It’s as if we have a default gear labeled “M” for mediocrity in our organizations and in ourselves. It’s the acceptance of this gear inside organizations along with the perpetuation of practices that reinforce “M” that governs our consistent and repeated sub-par performance.

However, not everyone or every team is held back by the tractor-beam pull of mediocrity.

In troubled organizations, I look for the individuals who fight back and rail against the tyranny of something that screams less than excellent. These people fight mediocrity with all of their energy and while they are often laboring in relative isolation, I strive to place them in positions of power for getting things done. From leading change initiatives to managing projects to owning big chunks of the coordination of strategy execution, these individuals have an extra gear or two beyond “M” that allows them to move people and teams faster and more effectively than the norm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For all of us, we have a choice to make. We can either be part of the problem or we can push ourselves to shift out of “M” and fix what’s broken and quit perpetuating the mistakes that give rise to the same advice over and over and over again. The choice is yours on what gear governs your performance. But be careful, once you shift away from mediocrity, the side effects are quite rewarding. You feel great about yourself and your work and someone somewhere who chooses people to be successful will want to create a whole new set of opportunities for you.

Is it time for you to shift out of “M” and fix what you know is broken?

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.

Leadership Caffeine™—Letting Go of Your Need to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

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!

One of the most common and damaging of a leader’s blind-spots is the compulsion to regularly provide evidence that he/she is the smartest person in the room.

Many well-intentioned leaders are adversely impacted by this bad habit without realizing it. The impact of what is often not much more than one or more behavioral tics includes stifling creativity and innovation and derailing any hopes of developing a high performance environment.

The challenge is to learn to recognize your own smartest person in the room behaviors and to replace them with a few simple but not simplistic habits that focus on drawing input from team members instead of stifling input. While blind-spots are by definition difficult to see, I’ll make a reasonable assumption that your desire to improve your effectiveness as a leader can help you both self-diagnose and take some simple but powerful corrective actions. (For those too smart to spend time thinking and working on their own performance and behaviors, now would be the time to write a comment suggesting why you’re right.)

3 Common Smartest Person in the Room Behaviors:

Do any of these feel familiar?

  • The Final Word Habit. Leaders who struggle with smartest person in the room syndrome often operate with a false belief that being in charge means always having the answer. This drives the individual to assert his/her opinion as the final word or last word and it teaches people to suppress their own ideas and wait for solutions from the person in charge. If you’re frustrated with your team’s lack of creativity or active discussion about ideas, you might be someone who has taught them to wait for the last word.
  • The Eyes…and Face and Voice Say it All! Some leaders telegraph their smartest person in the room persona through their verbal and non-verbal responses to the commentary or ideas of others. I’ve observed senior managers who portray what is perceived as disinterest or disdain for the commentary of team members by interrupting them in mid-sentence or maintaining a facial expression that seems to ask: “Why are you using up my valuable oxygen with this stupid idea?” Of course, the leader may not be intending to communicate disregard or disdain however, we impute this less than noble intent based on our interpretation of the visible and audible cues. If your team members are less than enthusiastic about sharing new ideas and approaches, perhaps you’ve inadvertently shot them down too many times.
  • I’ll See You and Raise You. A closely related cousin to the behaviors above is the leader who listens to the input of his team but fails to acknowledge good ideas or threads of their good ideas. One top leader had the unique habit of responding to input with his own input in a seeming point/counter-point battle that was interpreted as either arguing or trumping the ideas. In reality, she was using an unrecognizable form of active listening to translate what she was hearing into her own words, however, it was interpreted very differently.

3 Approaches to Combat Your Own Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome:

1. Ask More than Tell. Questions are powerful leadership tools…much more effective than orders in most circumstances. Train yourself to respond to ideas with questions to help you and others better develop their ideas. Strive to understand before offering your own perspective.

2. Cultivate the Courage to Shut-Up and Let Others Decide. While you never have to cede your right to veto an idea or an approach, use this veto power sparingly. Most of the time through questioning and the technique of “building upon the ideas of others,” you can promote a modification or adaptation of someone else’s approach without throwing your weight around. If you must, use the “line item” veto

3. Work Hard to Look for the Beauty in Ideas, Not the Flaws. Some people look at a scene and see the beauty in it and others find the gaps…the faults. Frankly, those who see the flaws are significantly less interesting and enjoyable to be around. A micro-managing boss sees the flaws and hammers people for changes to minutiae. The effective manager acknowledges the beauty inherent in ideas and focuses questions and efforts on realizing that beauty. Discussions about flaws can be isolated to a simple discussion around risks.

And a Few Ideas If It’s Your Boss Who Doesn’t Recognize Her Case of Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome?

If you are working for someone suffering from this syndrome, you have a number of options…all with pros and cons.

1. Resist the Urge to Argue. It’s tempting…it’s one of my own challenges and it is often wrong. Take a deep breath…close your lips and think. If you must talk, ask clarifying questions. It never hurts anyone to seek first to understand.

2. Manage Upside Down. If your boss is generally well-intended and receptive to input from team members, construct an effective feedback discussion with behavioral examples. Indicate the business or performance consequences of the smartest person behaviors and offer one or more of the techniques above as suggestions. Offer to observe and look for opportunities to apply the techniques. Agree on a mechanism to signal an improper behavior and suggest a different course on the fly. It takes your own personal courage to offer feedback to your boss. Remember, my operating assumption is that your read on him/her is that they are interested in strengthening performance and growing as a leader. There are some who will not take kindly to your feedback. Tread softly and if the ice is firm, proceed. If not, move to number 3.

3. If the Boss Isn’t Approachable, Use Judo on the Situation. Reinforce the ideas from the boss as positive and suggest approaches to strengthening those ideas. Of course, the approaches match your original suggestions, however, you’ve re-framed the idea as his/hers. A little bit of child psychology can go a long way with a difficult boss.

4. Facilitate His/Her Idea Development and Proactively Raise the Risk Discussion. Your calm facilitation of the discussion will allow you to both ask clarifying questions and at the appropriate time, suggest that you explore the risks. List them on a board or flip-chart. The act of highlighting risks may be enough to gain cooperation from a boss who views himself as always right.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are a number of powerful internal drivers that push some people to assert their opinion as the right one. From compensating for a lack of self-confidence to falsely believing that being in charge means being right, this need to assert is a performance and environment killing habit. Learn to recognize your tendency to do this and use discipline to resist the temptation. Like reaching for the donut instead of the handful of almonds on the snack table, it’s difficult to do at first. If you work for the smartest person in the room, strive to be just a little smarter…by managing the psychology and resisting the urge to argue. In all cases, the effort is worth the potential improvement.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.

Leadership Caffeine™—To Be Effective, Your Do Must Match Your Tell

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!

And no, I’m not talking about hairstyles. The phrase, your do must match your tell was offered up by an interview subject in response to a question focusing on developing credibility as a leader. It’s memorable, it’s quotable and it is spot on accurate.

No creature on the planet destroys credibility faster than a pontificating blow-hard of a boss who is great at turning oxygen into over-heated carbon dioxide, but not so great at overcoming the gravitational pull of his posterior to the chair and putting his own words into action.

Looking for some blunt advice? Here you go: Don’t be that person! If that’s not enough, here are 7 ideas you can put into action today to begin strengthening your credibility as a leader.

7 Tips to Help You Build Credibility as a Leader:

1. Model the Behaviors You Are Preaching: if it’s hard work and commitment to excellence, then you best cultivate an unimpeachable reputation for working hard and pursuing excellence. If it’s focus on the customer, then you need to be logging some significant quality time in front of your customers. Don’t demand it if you’re not living it.

2. There’s Only One Set of Rules: accountability for effort and outcomes must be applied evenly, without exception. It’s the exceptions you make (and that everyone sees) that kill your credibility.

3. The Big Issues Cannot Wait: there’s no getting away with, “that’s an important issue and we should talk about it at the right time.” It’s always the right time to tackle the tough ones.

4. Don’t Pollute the Environment with Dissonance: if you encourage people to make decisions, then let them make and learn from their decisions. The boss who laments that no one makes a decision and then metaphorically clubs anyone over the head who makes a decision without consulting her is polluting the environment with dissonance.

5. Run, Don’t Walk to Admit Your Mistakes: there are few better teaching moments when you as the leader take responsibility for a poor outcome. Admit it…share your lessons learned and how you will attack this type of an issue in the future and move on. Our instinct is to feign invincibility and omniscience when the right thing to do is admit that we are human and imperfect. Awkward…yes. The right thing to do: absolutely.

6. The Blame is Yours and the Praise is For Your Team: never put yourself in the spotlight, unless you are defending your team. When it works…it’s all them. When it doesn’t, it’s all you. No exceptions.

7. If You Want Someone to Trust You, Trust Them First. Too many shallow managers require that their charges earn their trust. Flip it around and offer your trust first. While someone will eventually abuse it, the many who thrive because of your upfront offer outweigh this risk.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Credibility is the leader’s currency. Without it, you’re effectively bankrupt. Making certain that your do matches your tell is a great place to start accumulating this precious asset.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.