I was fortunate to begin my career on the most expensive highway project in the United States, The Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also referred to by the Boston locals as the Big Dig). For those that don’t know, this was a mega-project in Boston that rerouted the major Interstate from above ground to below ground. The final costs to complete exceeded $16 Billion. Indeed, with a project of this size there was bound to be at least some problems. Most of these issues led to escalating costs, schedule issues, and questionable execution. However, after all was said and done, it has led to much more enjoyable harbor front views, public parks and allowed the interstate to run underground throughout the city. Back then, I had very little appreciation for what I was learning and what I was a part of.
When I started working, I had an eyes wide open approach to everything at all times. However, even though this project was the most expensive in the US, I knew nothing different in the Engineering and Project Management world. I thought this was normal and would be like the rest of the projects that I would be on. Twenty years later, I look back and realize that I probably won’t be on such a project again and if one comes around, I probably will treat it a bit different with regards to my appreciation for it. However, I also remember that I wanted to learn. I wanted to get the most out of it. So, I steered towards the people that had been on the project a long time and felt I could learn the most from them. By definition mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge and support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development. Little did I know back then that this would be my first opportunity to have many mentors. I didn’t know what a mentor was back then. I guess I thought that a mentor would be someone who would come to me in a graduation cap and gown, sit with me, teach me the ropes and not let me fail.
Within my first month, I started asking more questions. I remember sitting in my first large program level meeting and being in awe of the knowledge the team members had. While I was nervous, I learned quickly that these people… these mentors... were all around me and wanted to help me be all I could be. That being said, I was very fortunate to have an amazing boss at the time. His name was Al and while I had no idea at the time what he was to me, looking back he was the first mentor to whom I always found myself turning when I had questions or concerns and wanted to seek his approval on what I was doing.
My first recollection of finding out that a 20-something didn’t know-it-all was on a simple task of providing a construction overview schedule for Al for an executive meeting he was going to be attending. I was so proud of myself. I was ecstatic that I had completed this task with little or no help and thought what I had done was perfect and required no editing. Little did I know, that was one of Al’s first tests for me. I handed over my printout the morning of the meeting thinking I was all set. Al thanked me and said he would review it. I thought to myself, “Review it?!… It’s perfect. It shouldn’t need any review. It’s ‘good-to-go’”. About an hour later he called me over to his desk. He had markings all over it. The one comment that has stuck with me out of all of the edits was that the coloring that I had chosen was all wrong. He then explained to me that the executives would think it was too busy and would not be forceful enough for the message that it was portraying. Now, he didn’t make me feel bad or feel like I failed, but he made suggestions on the basis that I could improve my messaging. For years after I left that first job, I turned to Al for direction and even approval on my career decisions. To this day, whenever I provide a dashboard or report I think back to this comment and still try to improve upon my deliverable.
Mentoring can come in all shapes and sizes. It can occur when you least expect it or when you have signed up for a mentoring program. Our local PMI Chapter has a great mentoring program of which many people take advantage. When they are done they are so glad they went through it. Many of the mentors and mentees are first timers. They also don’t have to be mentors who are perfectly aligned with the mentee’s main line of duties. I am currently mentoring a handful of supervisors. I find that while they can run circles around me on many of their day to day responsibilities, I am able to provide them with some guidance, more specifically in the Project Management profession since they have no formal training or formal PM education. They find out about things that may help right away or even a year from now, much like Al did for me.
In conclusion, I urge any and all of you to get involved with mentoring, either with your own company, with your PM organization, or even with old colleagues. Mentoring entails communication which we all know is usually the area of breakdown in most conflicts.
What do we need to make things work?
In any field, any job, any team, any country - what must we have in order to be sure we are heading to success?
Ask these questions to different people and, for sure, you will get different “ingredients” that are mandatory to complete any task/project/endeavor/work. But, at the same time, in 90% of the cases, one element will always be on the list.
And that element is leadership.
Immaterial and shapeless, always there, but not easy to find, leadership is seen as the panacea for every major challenge. Of course, we don’t ignore the small “pills” from the soft skills batch (e.g. negotiation, motivation etc.) or from the technical assortment (e.g. project management, business analysis etc.). But, every time (lately, at least), the general impression seems to be that they work only in combination with leadership.
According to every (major) “business” book, in order to be successful, you need skills, luck, stars to be aligned correctly and so on. But, apart from all of those, you need leadership!
Every successful recipe and every successful story is not about the despair, the stress and the sick to the stomach that burden the hero before triumph. It’s about how he or she grabs his or her own destiny with bare hands and seizes the right moments, overcoming the challenges. It’s about how he or she exhibits true “leadership”, most of the time, despite the opposition, resistance and/or lack of trust coming from the team or any other stakeholder.
Again, the leadership-panacea worked. The hero-leader “administered” it to the team and it brought results. It doesn’t matter that some of them didn’t respond to this “treatment” or just showed “side-effects” (like demotivation, low efficiency etc.). What matters is that we have another successful story about another “great” leader, ready to share his “unique” example. We have another example of “I did it my way and it worked, thus I am a great leader!”.
And... the tragically comic part is that most of us want it this way. We like the lonely hero (leader?) who manages to get himself or herself “reborn” and wins against all odds, despite the ultimatums.. We are fine with “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” as long as we aren’t the “eggs”. Ultimately, we savor the “winning” stories and most likely, picture ourselves in the same situations, showing the same power, pushing everybody until their last drop and succeeding no matter what.
Then, in this “power-hailing” environment, what are my chances as a Servant Leader?
Servant Leadership is all about promoting a virtuous cycle “serve<->lead”, focusing on the people and not on self and leading with authority, not power. It’s about patience, kindness, respectfulness, commitment, sacrifice. It’s about finding and understanding the “WHY?” for every one of your followers so you can contribute to his or her development. No universal recipe, no panacea and, most important, no you or we but they.
And, even if it is about others-focused, the change has to start with you, as a Servant Leader. It’s not about what I can do with you or to you (as it was in the hero stories mentioned above). It’s about what I can do for you. So, is there any room for Servant Leadership?
We (meaning our two servant leadership trainers from my company) had recently a workshop with several leaders (CEO, CFO, CTO etc) coming from different companies. They wanted to get acquainted with Servant Leadership and see if this can be a good approach for them (they lead teams with 10 or more people). We did an experiment at the beginning and asked every each one of them to tell us their leadership challenges from both directions - as a leader and as a follower. And, for the follower part, we ask them to make an effort and tell us also what they believe the challenges are for their team (their followers). The list that resulted in the end was impressive but, at the same time, pretty common for this level of management: making people understand the vision and becoming more independent, eliminate fear of outsourcing, having people assuming responsibility and ownership and so one and so forth (on the leadership part) and fear, lack of trust, lack of vision etc. (on the follower side).
We asked also for some solutions to attach to this list. And here we had the most interesting revelations:
1. All of the solutions were focused on what to do TO and WITH the people in order to tackle the lack of vision or bringing independence. “FOR the people” was completely ignored.
2. None of the solutions were actually related to the leader himself - what he needs to change in his behaviour and/or his approach. Everything was meant for the other side - the followers
3. None of them even remotely considered the possibility of understanding WHY the people in their teams behave in such a way that they bring these challenges on the table, WHY they express fear, lack of trust etc.
Even more, when we suggested going back and find out the WHY (the root cause, if you like) for each one of the team members, some of them smiled ironically. In their opinion, that “Why” mumbo jumbo is just about motivating and engaging people. And they already did that ONCE in the past! At this moment, they wanted a clear solution (“pill”?) on how to make them independent, on how to eliminate fear and lack of trust. They needed to take action and show the direction to the team. A suggestion to serve by exploring the needs of each member seemed rather ubiquitous, time consuming and useless (as they already did it ONCE).
Basically, the conclusion was that this is a “tough world” and the leader needs to take action now and to decide what’s best for the team. Competition is fierce, results are needed so we don’t have time for “mellow” stuff like concentrating on meeting people’s needs, finding the why, serve and make sure that the team members perform at their highest potential.
Interesting, isn’t it? There were about 15 companies represented there, with more than 1500 employees (all together). For all of them and for all of us looking for great leadership, I keep and convey my message that closes every presentation I do on Servant Leadership: Anyone can be a Servant Leader.
But are we ready for Servant Leadership?
As I was walking through Logan Airport on one of my many monthly commutes to/from various places throughout the US, a billboard advertisement caught my eye for one reason or another. It could be because it was 11:30 PM and I was doing everything to keep my eyes open long enough to find the nearest open Dunkin’ Donuts. Anyways, the billboard simply stated, “Arrive Curious, Leave Inspired” and in the background it showed many nice scenes of Boston to visit. In full disclosure, I do not remember the company or organization that was the advertiser, but I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. It made me think about how I try to handle each and every situation this way. Sometimes I am more successful than at other times. I mean, if we weren’t curious, why would we go to most of the destinations where we end up?
I want to share with you my experience with the Leadership Institute Master Class (LIMC), Class of 2015. My curiosity for this amazing experience started in 2011. A former Mass Bay Chapter president met me for lunch at a little Mexican restaurant in Dallas, Texas, immediately after his first LIMC session. I happened to be there because I was just about to attend my first Leadership Institute Meeting (LIM) and of course wanted some comfort food. However, instead I listened to a person who had a new appreciation for Project Management and Leadership. He also had a new appreciation for how much he was learning about himself, and how the program enabled him to find out about so many other cultures and parts of the world! To say I was curious at this point would be an understatement! Due to various circumstances and timing of everything, I ended up having to wait until 2014 just to apply to be a part of the experience.
When I was accepted to be in the Class of 2015, I was amazed at how nervous I was at first. I didn’t think I would be, but I immediately thought maybe I was under or overqualified for this type of class, or wanted to make a name for myself and only had a short few months to “rid the world of project management disaster!” Slowly, this nervousness led to being curious about the whole process. I reassured myself that I was qualified and ready to attend (and that I had no chance to rid the world of project management disaster in the remaining two months)!!!
When I arrived, I immediately met those same people that I was told about back in 2011. Right away I felt connected in a way I hadn’t felt before. I was curious again, but now a completely different type of curious. I wanted to learn. I wanted to ask questions. Most importantly, I wanted to listen to everyone and soak everything in as much as I could! I was in a place where their language was the same as mine. It didn’t matter whether it was spoken in one of the17 different dialects in our class of 34 people from around the world.
Over the next 12 months, my curiosity never wavered. We had numerous phone calls, webinar sessions, weekend discussions, and three amazing in-person classroom type sessions. I left with a lot of different feelings. While I was sad it was over, I was happy that I had met so many new friends and colleagues.
But, what stays with me each and every day is that I “Left Inspired”. I knew there was never going to be a chance I could even possibly try to rid the world of project management disasters on my own, but with effort my new friends and colleagues would be putting up a heck of a fight! Who knew a Mexican restaurant lunch, an application, and a walk through Logan Airport looking at a billboard in order to stay awake would have opened up so many thoughts and realizations!
I leave you with one thought… go into every situation, whether at home, work, or through your project management organization with the Curiosity and open mindedness that is required to Leave Inspired. You will be amazed at where it can lead!