As we move toward the end of the year and prepare our personal and professional goals for 2015, I’ve been thinking about how someone can go from being just a manager to being a leader.
Years ago, a big project I was working on with American Express and one of its partners ran into trouble. A lot of factors probably led to that, but one still stands out to me: I was succeeding as a manager but failing as a leader. And that was the project’s ultimate downfall.
Over the years, I’ve been able to reflect and grow from that experience. Here are three ways you can use my experience to help you become more of a leader in 2015.
1. Focus on the vision. Managers are, by their nature, implementers. We get tasked with projects that we may not have had a great deal of input into. But just because we’re helping our sponsors reach their goals doesn’t mean we can’t apply our vision as well. To focus on vision in your management and leadership, start by formulating what this project means to you, the organization, the team and the end users. Then, most importantly, personalize those aspects that are likely to inspire your team.
2. Focus on important conversations.I once read that a project manager spends 90 percent of his or her time communicating. To become a better leader, focus on the most important of these conversations: ones with your sponsor and your team. They are the people who are going to be able to inform you about changes in circumstances, troubles in a project or resource challenges. While there are lots of important people to talk with, the most important are the ones who have the most direct impact on the project’s success or failure — so prioritize those.
3. Look at the long-term.This advice ties into having a vision for your project and having conversations with your important team members and sponsors. But thinking long-term also means you need to infuse your vision and conversations with a future orientation. This might mean that you talk with your sponsor about how a project fits into a long-term strategic plan for the organization. Or, it might mean that you spend time during conversations with your team members asking about their goals and values. This can allow you to shift your actions and assignments in a way that delivers on the promise of the current project. At the same time, you will have built a stronger understanding and real relationship with your sponsors and teams that will transcend your current project and have lasting benefits for projects and years to come.
What are some of the ways you’ve helped make yourself a stronger leader, rather than solely a manager?
As much as we wish these things didn’t occur, we sometimes find ourselves having to leave a project early or terminate a business engagement. This is always difficult to do, and how you do it can help you maintain your integrity and credibility throughout the transition.
Recently, I had to terminate a business relationship myself. Here are a few lessons that I learned that you can apply the next time you are in a similar situation.
1. Place the blame on yourself. I know you wouldn’t be leaving a project or quitting a business relationship if it were all your fault, but the key thing here is that you need to buck up and take responsibility for the business arrangement ending. There are several ways you can frame it to take the emphasis for the decision away from the other party. For example: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the ability to deliver the work to you in a manner that you have grown accustomed to” or “I find myself at a point where I don’t feel my presence best serves the project, and I think a new set of eyes is going to be helpful to getting things back on track.” Or, you can come up with your own. The point is that you take a little of the emphasis off the party that you are ending the relationship with and place it on yourself. This will lessen any bad blood or negativity from the decision. It is important to note that you must cast the decision in terms of your inability to continue to serve the client in a manner that he or she deserves.
2. If possible, present options for replacements.If you find yourself at a point of no return and need out of a business relationship, you can soften the blow even more if you provide alternatives. The question you are probably asking yourself is, “If I can’t work with this person or on this project, why would I refer them to someone else?” But the truth is, we are all in different businesses and at different stages of our career — and while your threshold for some clients may be zero, someone just starting out or looking to find a different focus may be more than willing to accept a challenge that you consider unnecessary. This goes back to the first point: If you can’t serve the client in the way that he or she deserves, you are doing the client a favor by removing yourself from the project and helping him or her find someone who can do better.
3. Be prepared for blowback.Even when these things go great, there will be some sort of blowback or negative impact. You might have spelled everything out with as much tact as a veteran diplomat, but you are still leaving the business relationship with a jilted partner who may lash out to other members of your organization or other potential business partners. In this instance, you can try to contain any negative feedback or impact on you and your career by preparing a standard statement that you give to everyone that explains your role in the dissolution of the relationship. It should cast a bad situation in the most favorable light for you. One I have used is: “I am sorry the project didn’t work out, but I made a series of unwise choices that made my effectiveness impossible, and to best serve the project, I felt it was best for me to step away.” That’s it — it isn’t perfect, but neither is the situation you find yourself in.
How have you found success in ending business relationships?
Join meon December 4, 2014, in my upcoming seminar on leadership in project management.
Every so often, I hear theories from team members on how their project manager became effective at leading projects. Sometimes they say something like, "She was born to be a project manager."
This got me to thinking whether some people are naturally predisposed to be project managers, or if they have a specific set of experiences that shapes them to become project managers. It's almost a question of anthropological proportions: Are good project managers born or made?
To help answer it, let us look at some key competencies of project managers and see if these skills are innate or developed over time.
So coming back to the question of whether project managers are born or made, I think both are true. While nobody has yet found a project manager gene, we all seem to be born into a journey that leads us to being a project manager. This journey starts with the skills and behaviors we're born with, and continues with the functional knowledge, technical expertise and professional training we accumulate over time. This essential mix of what we are as well as how we grow is key to becoming an effective project manager.
Do you think you were born to be a project manager or became one over time?
Four years ago, I transformed from weekend warrior to running enthusiast. First, I started running short-distance races, a 5K here and a 10K there. Then I tried my first half marathon in 2009 and my first marathon in 2010. After those great experiences, running became part of my lifestyle.
People always ask me, Why do you run marathons? Are you a masochist? You really need to run the race and experience the challenge and pain -- as well as the indescribable sense of achievement when crossing the finish line -- to understand why I run marathons. The feeling is actually similar to when a project manager finally completes and delivers a project. And after running six marathons in less than four years, I have some lessons learned that apply to project management:
Hills happen. Up your strategy.
Hills complement the race and make them more interesting and challenging. At first sight, they impact the runner's state of mind and even consume his or her energy before the uphill trek. But I like to view hills as an opportunity to slow my pace and save energy that will be required in the final miles of the race.
As a project manager, you may face "hills" (i.e., project challenges). You may want to attack them, but I would recommend slowing your pace and regrouping with your team to define a new or enhanced strategy to address the hardship.
Stick to the numbers.
Marathon runners use gadgets to track time and distance. Sometimes the distance reported by the gadget exceeds the 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) marathon distance, which may be confusing, especially for first timers. But keep in mind that major marathons in the United States are certified by USA Track & Field, the sanctioning body that makes it an official race. The course distance is accurately measured and is the shortest route of the course.
Project managers should not attempt to create metrics or rules that may not be aligned with the sanctioning body. Follow the rules that are already in place and do not jeopardize your project.
Having run a marathon a couple of times doesn't make you an expert. Even when the course may not change, there are many external factors that can make it a very different race. I have run the Austin, Texas, USA marathon for three consecutive years, and every race has been a different experience.
As a project manager, you may have implemented the same enterprise resource planning or tool several times, but every project has its own twist. Do not be arrogant or a know-it-all, and take that new project as an opportunity to learn something.
Stop and smell the roses.
A personal record, the number of marathons run in a particular year or participation in a prestigious race -- these are all factors that motivate marathon runners. Whatever the purpose, these stakes tend to increase the runner's stress during the race. While running, I take some time to enjoy the scenery, high-five and greet spectators, say thanks to the volunteers at hydration stations or help a fellow runner in pain. All those things help me enjoy the race.
When managing a project, it is important to meet stakeholders' expectations. But it is also important to have the right work-life balance. Simple actions -- such as taking that training that you've postponed several times or simply going to the gym -- will recharge you and give you new ideas to tackle project challenges.
As both a marathon runner and project manager, I could say that the reason I run is to be able to combine my experiences in races and projects to strive for excellence. And that would be one of the reasons. But just between us, the top reason I run marathons is because I like to be cheered by people.
What hobby has provided you with valuable lessons that you have applied to project management?
During my project management career, I have experienced many culture shocks. But the one that changed my life happened when I joined a global corporation in Mexico in the mid-1980s.
I was a recent graduate and had just finished my internship with this organization when I got a job offer. During immersion training, all the new hires visited the boardroom, lined with awards and honors that the Mexican branch had won in the past. Most impressive was the mahogany table, where many major deals went down. It was cared for like a museum piece.
After several months, I adjusted to the corporate world with the help of a great manager and mentor. Soon enough, prep work started for the quarterly review meeting, when executives visited our office from the company's U.S. headquarters. To my surprise, my manager included me in the prep team, which meant I would be a presenter.
When the big day came, I arrived at the boardroom a few minutes beforehand to ensure everything was in order for my first presentation to senior executives.
There, I found one of the visiting top executives -- with both feet up on the mahogany table. When the meeting began, we commenced introductions. The visiting executives threw their business cards across the table as a casino croupier would, while my Mexican colleagues and I handed our business cards to them.
The meeting progressed, and when the time came for one of the visiting executives to present, he tossed a copy of a handout not only to me, but also to the general manager of the Mexican branch.
I was in total shock. I wondered, how could this be happening? They were high-level executives, and their lack of good manners -- by my standards -- took me by surprise. I also felt frustrated. This was not interaction I had hoped for with headquarter executives.
It took me some time to digest the experience. But by the next quarterly review, I was ready to take action. I tossed my business card at each of the U.S. executives during the introductions. Before my presentation, I slid handouts across the table at them but handed them to my Mexican colleagues. My actions raised a few eyebrows among the latter.
By the end of the meeting, the executive I saw with his feet up on the table months prior asked me to stay in the room. I expected to be reprimanded, or even fired. But he said: "Thanks, Conrado. Your actions during the meeting made me realize that business behaviors need to be adjusted according to location. What may be okay in my country may not be okay in yours. You taught me a great lesson. Employees like you make this a great company."
That was the "wow" moment that had an impact on the rest of my professional life. I'm not recommending such drastic actions, but I felt strongly enough about my experience to take the risk. The moral of my story: Culture shock does not have to be a negative or incapacitating. I used my experience as a source of motivation, introspection and change.
It led me to a lifetime of researching organizational and national cultures and sharing my experiences of working with multicultural and multigenerational teams.
As a project manager, how have you recovered from culture shock and turned it an opportunity for professional growth?
Share your thoughts below along with your Twitter handle, and Voices on Project Management will publish the best response as a blog post.