This past winter I helped coach a recreational league high school basketball team for my son. I am always up for the challenge of coaching a youth sport for our town. Over the years, I have coached lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and most recently basketball. There are many challenges to a successful season, and at this level success isn’t always defined as how many wins a team can get. It sure helps with morale, but the most important gauge of success is that a player has become a better player playing for the team I coached. That being said, I find myself pulling from my Project Management background in so many areas. Utilizing the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work has helped tremendously in making the whole experience for the other coaches, the players, and the parents a smooth and enjoyable one. I thought it would be fun to look at the areas that I have pulled from.
Initiating can be hectic. Luckily, most of the parents and other coaches also realize that the number of wins isn’t the only way to have a successful season. This all starts way before a team is actually put together. We need to meet with the full league, secure gym time, set up a way for players to sign up, and figuring out and coordinating the practice and game schedules.
Planning, for me, is the fun part. We finally are ready with lists of players and it’s time for tryouts. Similarly to hiring an employee that you are going to work with on projects, we always focus on how coachable the kids are. This doesn’t mean that they are the best at the sport, but it means that they are ready and willing to learn. The same goes for business. If everyone focused on all stars for projects, we may do well on that one project, but it is important to also train other players for other projects and for the future. A good project team is a blend of experienced, motivated individuals with multiple skills. On a basketball team, we want everyone to come to practice with an open mind. Sure, it helps to have teammates who can shoot and score, but it sure helps having someone that may be good at defense, or great at bench morale. These all make for a great team and a fun experience.
Executing comes in many forms, especially during a season. Each game requires execution; from the players and the coaches. On a project team, executing well allows the team to succeed at their ultimate goal of successfully finishing the project on time and on budget. Executing plays is what is required of the players, while figuring out player matchups and what the other team may be throwing at us is what is required of the coaches.
Controlling in terms of a sports team can be broken down in a couple of different parts. Off the field, there are a lot of moving parts, most of which are coordinating various schedules, vacations, carpooling, and the occasional sicknesses… making sure that we have enough players to play in each game. On the field, or court in the case of basketball, we as coaches must look at the players as individual parts of the team. We need to ensure that they are not getting worn out, not getting into foul trouble, and, ideally, trying to control the other team enough to win the game. I did mention that winning isn’t everything, but it sure is part of a competitive sport.
Closing the season out can be in the form of a playoff run. But, more than that, it is important to make sure that the team’s goals have been satisfied and hopefully a handful of them are willing to come back for another season. Having a team that has been together for one year can drastically help ease startup of the next season. On a project team, there will be turnover due to promotions, change of job, retirement, etc… but making sure that they are all motivated to be successful again on another new project is the ultimate goal.
In conclusion, project management practices help me make my personal and professional lives much easier to handle. If anything, from coaching a sport or being part of a project management team, it has allowed me to break down a sometimes daunting task to one that is much more manageable and enjoyable. Applied in judicious amounts, I believe project management practices will also help you: at work, in the community and at home.
“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.
But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).
And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.
As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.
Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?
That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.
Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.
Oh, this is such an illusion…
Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.
Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.
However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears: all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship; being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.
To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least, acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.
Are you up for it?
There I was, on the Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk just outside Privateers Warehouse, enjoying the beautiful, hot, sweltering day: the sort of day that made it difficult to lick all the drips of the Cows chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cone I had just salivatingly acquired as they began their rapid trek down the cone onto my hand, threatening to turn my arm into a sticky mess and prompting me to lament the fact that I had forgotten to ask for extra serviettes.
My colleague and I were out for a lunch time stroll, enjoying the cloudless indigo sky and the emerald water, passing Nova Scotia’s trademark Bluenose schooner at its usual dock and dodging tourists coming from the opposite direction, likely from one of the three gargantuan cruise ships that had docked farther down the harbour that morning at Pier 21. They were undoubtedly also on their way to purchase one of those delicious Cows delicacies, firm in their knowledge that the tourist brochure held rolled up in their sweaty fist was leading them to an unusual guilty Haligonian experience.
Since we both served on the same local volunteer board, we fell into a conversation about servant leadership and what it all meant. I expressed my belief that mentoring and coaching was a big part of being on any board, especially in volunteer organizations, due to the limited lifetime of a volunteer role. She conjectured that it didn’t really matter what happened after you left a volunteer organization, because you were no longer responsible, and it was up to those who stayed behind to do their part.
Well, that got me going. I posited that a volunteer board is exactly like an ice cream cone in the heat. The cone is the framework of the organization and the ice cream is its volunteer base, formed of board members and committees of the board. As volunteers finish their terms and leave the organization (those drips of ice cream racing toward their next role in life) they must leave something behind - a fresh scoop of ice cream that has been formed to fit the cone, and well prepared to withstand the heat of the day.
I have to confess my metaphor dwindled into indistinct mumbling at this point.
After gently informing me that my example was fraught with drips, if not gaping holes, my esteemed colleague agreed that one must leave something behind. I said, “Got ya! So you agree with me after all!”. Begrudgingly, she admitted that perhaps she was somewhat hasty in her previous rather heartless assertion and agreed that volunteer board members need guidance and succession planning to keep the board alive and true to its original mandate, providing continuity of purpose.
In our case, the mandate was to provide value to members through networking, professional development and certification. You probably have already guessed the organization in question. You know - the one that provides incredible value to its members and through them to the profession and many industries they serve.
So are volunteer organizations really like Cows ice cream cones in the heat? Of course not, but if that playful similie coerced you into reading this article, my purpose is served. I admit it. I am a shameless snake oil salesman.
But to get on with the real topic, the one that has you on the edge of your seat, seeking answers, allow me to suggest that in a volunteer organization servant leadership is indeed required. It is required in other organizations too, but in this one, because of the fluidity of the board and its committees, even more so.
As a president of a volunteer board or a director of a portfolio, it is your job to develop people to fill your shoes to ensure the organization continues to live on within its original mandate. Because board roles are often quite short, as normally dictated by some fairly stringent by-laws and articles of incorporation, replacing yourself with someone who has been indoctrinated into the volunteer culture of the board has to be a main preoccupation of yours. I’m sure you will agree that bringing someone onto a board with zero experience of the organization’s inner workings is not a way to do this.
So develop your replacement. Lend them a helping hand. Give them an opportunity to see how that finely tuned engine works so they can strive for the success you’ve achieved and learn from the failures you’ve experienced. Succession planning is crucial. Grooming your fellow board members for a leadership role, and encouraging them to also groom their committee members to step into their roles is one of your primary jobs as a volunteer board member.
As you ponder your role, always remember that as a steward of a volunteer organization, it is your job to leave it better than you found it. And what more effective way is there to do this than by preparing those who succeed you to reach for an even higher pinnacle of success than you and your colleagues achieved?
To those of you in the warm part of the globe, I wish you a fabulous summer season, and may you catch all those drips of delicious dairy confection before they leave the bottom of your cone. And to those of you who are not, enjoy your winter sports, resting in the certain knowledge that your ice cream will not melt.
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?
By that time, we knew Nasuh Mahruki as a mountain climber, who climbed the summit of Mount Everest and was the first ever Turkish Person to climb the Seven Summits. In interviews, he revealed that the story behind founding of AKUT was triggered due to another tragedy. In November, 1994, Nasuh and around 100 of the most competent climbers in the country were searching for two missing young climbers in Bolkar Mountains in Turkey. After 14 days of challenging searching, unfortunately, they could not find any of the boys - dead or alive. The body of one was found 8 months later by a villager and the second boy was still missing. Upon this upsetting event, Nasuh and a number of his, pioneering mountaineers friends thought about how search and rescue activities could be conducted in an effective and efficient manner. In 1996 they formed the AKUT Search and Rescue Association, a volunteer-based search and rescue team. The members received earthquake and flood training within the next year. It became the one and only Non-Government Organization that was organized on search and rescue, before the big Marmara Earthquake hit Golcuk in August, 1999.
Today there are more than 35 AKUT units and more than 1,600 volunteers all over Turkey and to date more than 2,200 people have either been rescued or moved to safe environments by AKUT. In 1999, the organization became a member of United Nations' Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG). AKUT was officially recognized in 2011 as a "mid-sized search and rescue team" by INSARAG. With the inspiration of AKUT, today there are several Search and Rescue teams in Turkey created by volunteers, military, private, and professionals which were all founded by following AKUT’s lead.
Nasuh created a big impact on society with his leadership of AKUT. He is a social entrepreneur and a leader in the citizen sector. AKUT is an innovative and much referenced organization among NGOs in Turkey with a powerful governance model and unique vision. Some personal lessons I learned from AKUT are:
Nasuh still inspires others with his books, public speeches and sharing. His book, Climbing to Your Everest, tells us that a key leadership aspect is to build a vision of the Everest you need or must climb, and to keep the goal in the forefront of your mind.
I will translate and share some quotes from this book to convey the messages to you.