What you Don’t Know About Project Management

Projcect Management - Chess

As we work our way through the professional ranks, some may aspire to become a project manager. The thought of managing million-dollar projects, meeting with customers, developing schedules, and hiring the right people for the internal team seems exciting. Often, project management seems like a “well-oiled” machine to the outside observer because the process may seem systematic and one step leads to the next, which culminates in a final product that is delivered under budget and ahead of schedule.

When in the role of project manager, it quickly becomes clear that the machine is frequently in need of oil in so many places and there is no time to stop and fix it. Yes, projects are completed at or under budget and we definitely deliver each one on time. However, to meet these goals, we spend a lot of time doing everything we can to keep the machine moving forward.

Often, project management feels like being an expediter.

We simultaneously focus our attention on the needs of team members, customers, scheduling, deliverables, “pop-up” tasks, and those tasks that only the project manager can perform. On slow days, we may only touch two or three areas listed above but we may touch these areas on several different projects. During the weeks when every day is a Monday, we touch all areas on all projects that we manage and some areas that we do not even anticipate. We have to keep products moving, the team members tasked, and emails answered while attend kickoff meetings, update meetings, project meetings, and staffing meetings.

Then, there are the unanticipated tasks and meetings that start 15 minutes after the invite arrives.

The unanticipated requires a project management style that is flexible, responsive, thoughtful, proactive, and versed in all areas of the project. It is not necessary to know every detail of each project, but it is important to know enough about the work that is being done and the status to be able to respond to any request that the customer presents.

When not responding to customer requests, the expert project manager is anticipating “what’s next,” to determine risks and potential schedule overruns and adjusting resources to minimize the event.

The initiative-taking project manager is checking with team members to determine their needs and providing solutions to their questions. In addition, this project manager is alerting the customer to upcoming project phases and scheduling planning meetings to discuss processes, approvals, and other actions that may be required in the future, which ensure the project continues moving forward because the way forward has already been discussed and approved.

Project management is not always as organized or structured as it might look to the observer. Project management, even in the best organizations, often resembles a chess match but at a much faster pace. A good project manager must be proactive and strategic when deciding what must be addressed immediately and what can wait. The ability to communicate effectively with a variety of personalities, use critical thinking skills to solve complex, multilayer problems, have the foresight to identify potential risks and manage them before they jeopardize the project, and to let the experts on the team take control of their work without micromanaging are just some of the traits of a successful project manager.

What’s the Formula for Success?

Formula for Success

In speaking with potential clients, I often get a question like the title of this blog. Questions abound, in fact, including: “Are there steps I should take to change?” or “What should I do to succeed as a leader?”

As a coach who deals with unique individuals (and, of course, we’re all unique), my responses are filled not with answers, but with curiosity and interest in the personal and professional journey of the other person.

There have been thousands of books written on leadership. Every succeeding year brings even more. While each has value and can offer perspective, books alone cannot provide the unique approach that a unique individual needs to support their life’s journey. This is where individual one-on-one coaching enters the picture. Though I have not authored a “how-to” book of leadership, I can provide tools and approaches that will help individuals become aware of their own areas that are well-developed, as well as those that are developing or less developed.

Here’s the thing. A coach can provide a “safe container” in a confidential setting, inviting a client to celebrate their skills and strengths. I help clients look at what they do well or what they do often to help them realize that the capabilities they use are a part of who they are and have, no doubt, helped them succeed. I also explore with a client the times they may have overused their strengths. This can be illuminating when they realize that there may indeed have been a cost to leaning on one or two attributes most of the time.

It is powerful when my clients devote time to appreciate how areas that are well-developed have supported them and when they recognize that the use of what we call “developing” attributes or capabilities are also a very real part of who they are.

Carl Rogers once wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” A curious paradox indeed. It begs exploration.

By knowing when well-developed areas are effective and when they aren’t helps build awareness in a client – and from there each individual can do something powerful: Make a choice and do something different – effectively to “expand their range” of possible approaches and actions.

Each client is different. Each client is unique. Each approach with them varies.

And yet each needs that safe place to talk and explore their personal and professional growth.

I have been a certified ICF executive coach for nearly ten years, after a three-decade career in corporate leadership positions. Working with high performers at all levels in management has shown me that everyone enters the world each day doing the best they can. Helping them build awareness about what they can add to those capabilities – to expand their own range– that is where the power in coaching lies.

What is the formula for success? Perhaps it’s about the tools of curiosity, listening, inquiry, and the power in pause that help each unique human discover where they are strong, where they want to grow, and then exploring how to do that.

It’s less about being formulaic and more about a roadmap, exploration, and what we find along the way.

Indeed, perhaps that is the formula for success.

Learning to Lead With a Canoe on My Back

What determines great leadership? When does someone become a great leader? I’ve pondered these questions often as an I/O Psychologist and an aspiring leader. Here is my journey.

I started to see myself as a leader during an Outward Bound excursion. Outward Bound is a nonprofit that provides “hands-on” education in the most literal way – through outdoor adventures that are designed to test your resiliency. This group adventure was the Pathfinder Boundary Waters Canoeing & Backpacking expedition in Minnesota; basically, you pay $8,000 to suffer for 300+ miles in under 30 days. This “adventure” is brutal to the unprepared and forces the individual to build a strong will. To give it a better visual, you are balancing a huge canoe on your back or a huge backpacking bag, both weighing between 50-125 lbs.

During my time in the Boundary Waters, I was a source of positivity and motivation for the group. Luckily, I was already in decent shape because of a consistent exercise routine. Some of my group members were not so fortunate and were having a difficult time carrying their share. Doing well on my own developed me into one of the leaders of the group. I was someone people could lean on when the rough got…well, rougher, and as much as I could, I provided support physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We were a team and I wanted everyone to have an enjoyable experience.

We were not completely on our own; this Outward Bound course provided us with two leaders who were trained specialists and have completed this course multiple times. The goal of the expedition was to develop everyone’s resiliency and to develop leadership skills by rotation. Most of the time on the expedition, I found that sharing experiences and telling stories was a great module to get people motivated.

Pursuing these large goals is certainly more attainable with a team built around a belief, value, or concept. High motivation, success, and perseverance are common qualities of a leader. Good leaders are examples for the team. As I can quote from one of my class readings, “A compelling purpose energizes team members, orients them toward their collective objective, and fully engages their talents” (Hackman, 2012, p. 437) To be a leader, one must understand a multitude of solutions; to reach a goal, leaders provide paths for followers to trek. Great leaders teach people how to be good leaders. Read More…

The Power of Caring For Your Team

Caring for your team

Nowadays it’s almost impossible to visit any business-related website without seeing headlines about the great resignation the great reshuffling the great reevaluation or some other term that’s being used to describe the rapid changes in employment happening around the country. Authors, consultants, and business leaders are all offering opinions and solutions for improving recruiting and retention that can help organizations react to the increased competition for talent. And there is an abundance of really good advice on improving employee experience to drive retention. Increased flexibility in work locations and hours, more autonomy and better professional development offerings are frequently recommended as necessary approaches for organizations navigating the current turbulence.  While all of these actions will certainly help, recent research by McKinsey suggests that there may be another, more important factor at play in retention decisions of your employees.

According to the McKinsey survey, the number one reason people are leaving jobs when they don’t have another job to go to: uncaring leaders. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the pandemic has ratcheted up stress levels and challenged even the most resilient employees to balance perceived threats to their physical and emotional wellbeing with personal, family, and job expectations, we should expect that individual’s need to feel seen and supported by their supervisors and leaders throughout their organization would also increase. And as such, a key responsibility of any leader must be to demonstrate that they genuinely care about their teams. If you want to amplify the care you have for your team, here are a few strategies: Read More…

Ways to “Find Your Voice”

Finding your voice

In my work with leaders, a very common theme is the desire to enhance communication. This feeling often emerges from their own awareness and desire to improve the ability to have meaningful conversations with others

In essence, it involves finding their voice.

Finding that voice is not as easy as just speaking up. Nor is it staying quiet, or deciding that a conversation can wait. And most certainly it is not the act of simply connecting the brain to the tongue and letting it go to work.

Speaking is, actually, the last thing you do in the steps to find your voice.

So how do we find those steps? In coaching, we use inquiry to help the client discover the actions that might work for them. It’s a process of awareness-building and is dependent upon each person’s experience, capabilities and perspective – effectively, the client’s “reality” in relationship to others. Read More…

How Do We Know What We Don’t Know?

What we don't know

Did you ever contemplate what you know?

How about what you don’t know?

What tools do you use to build awareness in order to decide between the two?

I worked with a client a few years ago. Words come to mind to describe him, including cheerful, bright, and caring. And there was one other: Certainty.

For he was almost inevitably certain about the things of which he spoke.

Over time my client came to realize that certainty was a well-developed attribute that had often served him quite well – and that he had become so accustomed to using it that it became a habit, often using it outside his own awareness. When he did so, it cost him in a number of ways. But by expanding his range to sometimes opt for uncertainty as a choice, he became a better leader.

We all have times when we assume we know something when we actually do not. It can be through certainty or perhaps overconfidence in our own knowledge or abilities. And sometimes it even stems from our own ignorance of actually not knowing or admitting what we don’t know (Dunning-Kruger comes to mind here, but that is something to discuss another day).

“I don’t know,” is a phrase that takes courage to say, and yet it is so very liberating. For it allows us to be open to other ideas, new perspectives, and a new way of seeing the world. And it allows for learning and growth and also models a behavior for those around us.

Adam Grant in his work “Think Again,” challenges us to “Rethink” and to be curious about what we don’t know, not relying on our previous knowledge or biases.  “Rethinking” is described in the book as “the process of doubting what you know, being curious about what you don’t know, and updating your thinking based on new evidence.”

The challenge for each of us in our personal and professional life is to first realize that we can’t know everything. Despite continuous web-searching and media bombardment, the enormity of the material in existence simply does not make it possible. And yet we often fall into the trap – especially as a leader in a work setting, when we feel compelled to nod knowingly or express an opinion that comes across as a “fact.”

It might be ego. It may be that we are arguing against someone and want to be “certain.”  And it may well be that we fear being unknowledgeable to the professionals around us.

Yet when admitting that we don’t know, we can actually appear to be something else – curious, inquisitive, always learning, and vulnerable in admitting that we don’t know it all.

We have the ability to know what we don’t know.  It’s just a matter of saying it to ourselves with the confidence that comes from courage and vulnerability.

What a great step for each of us!

The “How” of Working Together

teams

As leaders, we can sometimes overly focus our days on what we and our teams should accomplish.  We create strategic plans and then we devise action steps that will allow us to accomplish them.  Myriad “tasks” emanate downward to our teams and the work gets assigned and executed at the individual level. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

And yet so often we hear from clients words like “But something is missing – my direct reports and colleagues just don’t seem to understand what we are trying to accomplish.”

I spoke to a client a few weeks ago who expressed frustration with the progress of his team.  “They know what to do, but I can’t figure out why they aren’t getting it done.”

We spent considerable time talking about the “what” he wanted his people to do.  He had repeatedly given detailed instructions to various team members, and yet the work, he felt, wasn’t fully embraced, understood, or ultimately accomplished.  I queried him about what each of those words meant to him and his team. Read More…

The Observer Effect and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Observer Effect

My apologies to the physicists who might be reading this. I’m no expert on quantum mechanics. But I am a lifelong learner.

So when I saw an article recently on “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” I read further and learned about what is called the “Observer Effect,” which, in physics, is described as the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation. I was fascinated that by trying to observe and measure particles or waves we actually change them.

I sat with that knowledge for a while and realized that it has applicability to how each of us interacts with others, with our environment, and even with our technology.  We human beings are always part of a system or systems. And when we enter a system, we change it. Sometimes that is with real intent but so very often it just happens without us noticing it.

We can’t change the Observer Effect, but knowing about it can help us understand how our teams, as systems themselves, function – with or without us.

A client was speaking with me the other day about developing his subordinates and the Observer Effect came up. He acknowledged that it existed and realized that any time he entered the system he would be changing its dynamics. That knowledge helped him as he talked about how to approach a goal of eliciting more independence from his people. The first step was to invite them to host their own meetings.

My client discussed a number of approaches: 1) He could attend the meetings and teach the individuals how he wanted them to work together; 2) He could invite everyone and then just sit in the background and watch; and 3) Alternatively, he could ask everyone to be there and not attend, providing some outcomes in advance that he’d like to see.

As we talked about his approaches, I asked him what he had done so far with his ideas. I was curious about his intent.

He thought about it for a while, paused, and said, “My intent is not to be so involved in every level of information and the decisions surrounding them. I want to be liberated from being the person who always has to be “in the know.” Instead, I’d like people to come to me only when they can’t solve the handful of dilemmas that they haven’t been able to work out together.”

The client went on, “If I can harness that intent, then my team grows in their capabilities and I get to expand my range in the process.”

“So, which of your three approaches do you favor?”, I asked.

“Well, probably a combination of the three because I need to set the stage for my people, communicate my intentions to them, and then be ready to accept the outcomes they achieve.

Being in the room will affect the system, that I know, and then leaving them to work by themselves will let them achieve results without being observed.”

I paused for a moment and smiled, noting, “I think I’m hearing you say that you are seeking growth in those you work with so that you can become a better leader. You’re setting the stage within the system and then sitting back and letting it function on its own!”

It is instructive for each of us to know that there is such a thing as the “Observer Effect,” and it helps us realize that we have the opportunity as leaders to know and act upon it. We can’t be in the room – or “in the know”- all the time, and we can also set the stage at the same time without being there.

People are not exactly like waves or particles in quantum mechanics –we can adapt and change based on very real intentions – and yet knowing the Observer Effect helps us understand a bit more the wonderful complexity and diversity of this world – and ourselves.

Taking Command – Your Turn at the Helm

Every leader experiences that first adrenalin rush – tinged with a bit of uncertainty – when we first take command of a department, a company, or a military unit.

Part of the mixed emotions we experience can be linked to the very real feeling that we have finally achieved a career ambition – we are in command – or, as the Navy calls it, we have taken the helm.  And when we take the helm it is our job to make it our own, using our experience, knowledge, and leadership capabilities to the utmost for the benefit of our team members and our organization.

In speaking with clients new to leadership, they often open up about what they are experiencing, feeling constraints they might not have anticipated and freedom of choice that can sometimes be almost unnerving. Read More…

“Hold It Like a Feather”

One of my favorite coaching mentors often said “hold it like a feather,” as he held his hand out and demonstrated the lightness he was describing.

He was teaching us that our questions as coaches can often land in ways we might not have imagined.  And that our job is to assure the client that we are purposely not giving extra “mass” or “gravitas” to our thoughts or questions and giving permission to the client to let the idea just float off like a feather.

With care and intention, it is relatively easy to give that type of permission to others.

It can be equally useful and perhaps even more powerful, though, if we as individuals make a choice and give permission to ourselves to do much the same– to hold the thoughts, ideas and questions of others “like a feather.”  In effect, to choose to give less weight to what others say or do.  Especially when working with a boss. Read More…