Adam, an individual contributor, just finished project-managing another successful project at his company, Conset.
After the project ship party, Adam’s manager asked him to take on a people-leadership role.
Adam was very reluctant to take on a people-leadership role. He just wanted to keep delivering great projects as an individual contributor and didn’t feel comfortable taking on the cultivation of followers.
Adam finally relented, feeling the pressure to fit into the mold of “You must aspire to be a people-leader.”
Six months into the job, Adam was the most unhappy he’d ever been at Conset. He couldn’t spend time delivering great projects like he loved. He was mired down in management meetings, addressing people issues, and trying to craft the vision for his organization.
Adam’s followers grew increasingly disgruntled with Adam’s leadership style and began leaving for other jobs inside and outside of Conset.
Nine months after taking the job, Adam had had enough and left Conset; taking a project manager job at a competitor.
Before we get any deeper into this, I want to make something painfully clear: There are leaders I would never ask to project manage a mission-critical initiative, and there are project managers I would never expect to be inspirational people leaders.
There are plenty of project managers who also aspire to be great people leaders. They can paint an inspiring vision and cultivate a high-performing organization to achieve results. They actively understand the goals of their organization’s followers while equipping them to achieve those goals. They excel as inspiring people leaders.
At the same time, I’ve worked with some outstanding project managers who can paint a very straight line between the current and future state, and effectively drive team execution to successful completion. They aren’t particularly charismatic or good at imagining a tomorrow, and they aren’t especially good people cultivators. They are simply good solid project managers.
And that’s completely OK.
All too often, leaders expect that others, particularly project managers, should aspire to be inspirational people leaders. It’s as if being “just a project manager” is somehow less important or doesn’t utilize them to their full potential. Putting (or even worse, shaming) a project manager who just wants to manage projects in an inspirational people leadership role is not only potentially damaging to delivering results, it also carries the potential to adversely impact careers. Not every inspirational people leader wants to be a project manager, and not every project manager wants to be an inspirational people leader.
Project managers and leaders share many of the same attributes, such as great communication skills, removing roadblocks, providing clarity, accepting accountability, sharing praise, and problem-solving. At the same time, I see three key areas where leaders and project managers have different but complementary skillsets, as follows:
Assigning an unequipped or unwilling project manager to a people leadership role can result in the following:
The Next Steps:
Are you a project manager who is contemplating or being asked to take on an inspirational people leadership role? Consider the following next steps:
Effective project managers are highly sought after and can be worth their weight in gold in driving on-time, on-budget, and within-scope delivery. If you just wanna be a PM like Adam, then don’t fall victim to thinking “you need to be a people leader.” You don’t. Just keep delivering great projects.
Vera and Tam have just left their manager Walt’s office.
“Did you get what Walt wants us to do?” Vera asked.
“Nope, as usual. We must have asked him five times to explain what he wanted and why it was important. Just got word salad. Again.”
“And were we supposed to do something? He just kept saying ‘the team’. That could be any of several of us. Are we supposed to communicate it out to everyone else?”
Tam smirked. “Then he launches into a diatribe of how we’re supposed to do our jobs. And I’ve got no idea not only of what he wants but when he wants it by, or even how to prioritize it with the 30 other things on my to-do list.”
Vera nodded her head. “You know how it is, he blathers for a while then forgets he even asked for something. Just stay low and do nothing, this too shall pass.”
“Agreed,” Tam said as he pushed the elevator button. “Thai for lunch?”
“Yup, then it’s back to getting real work done,” Vera said as the elevator doors opened.
You may have been in Vera or Tam’s situation; a leader who isn’t clear on what he or she expects followers to do, why it’s important, appropriate advice on how to execute, when it needs to be done, or who is expected to do it. Worse still, perhaps you recognize some of yourself in Walt; a leader who gives fuzzy direction and leaves his followers wondering what in the heck he is talking about.
Through the years I’ve made many mistakes with how I lead others; either being overly prescriptive and turning followers into errand runners or being so vague that followers couldn’t pin me down on what was needed. I’ve learned that good leadership means ensuring clarity on why, what, how, who, and when and ensuring you as the leader don’t over- or under-function in how you lead followers. To that end, I have developed a simple rule I call The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership, as follows:
Articulate the Why
Following the straight A rule helps ensure leaders and followers understand why something is important to do, what needs to be done, what constraints need to be considered during execution, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done. Embracing the straight A rule won’t guarantee great leadership skills, but it sure as shootin’ will help the leader be a better leader and scale up into an intentional leader of leaders.
Interested? Read on for a more thorough explanation of each:
The Consequences: Ignoring the 5 A’s when leading followers can mean the following:
Missed or delayed dates – Misaligned expectations on the five A’s can lead to deliverables that are late, not done at all, or need rework to meet the need.
Follower frustration – Followers will get frustrated with a leader who doesn’t provide clarity on the five A’s. While it’s incumbent on the follower to ask questions if unclear, the leaders should be proactive in providing clarity in the first place.
Poor leader work/life balance – Deliverables missed by followers could spell late nights for the leader to make up for any expectation shortfall.
The Next Steps:
Next time you have a deliverable needing to be done by followers:
Frank and his new boss Phil are discussing an upcoming major project that Ann, the CEO, has tagged Phil to own.
“Frank, we need to talk about Apollo. Ann is very focused on its delivery and has specifically asked me to be the project sponsor.
“OK,” Frank said confidently, expecting Phil to empower him to lead Apollo.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m going to ask Beth to lead Apollo.”
Frank’s heart sank. “Beth?”
“That’s right,” Phil said. “I know that you’ve been wanting to take on something big like this, but I just don’t think you’re ready for Apollo.”
“What do you mean?” Frank asked.
Phil leaned forward. “Frank, I’ve got no doubt that you’d burn the midnight oil to deliver Apollo. The truth is that I just don’t think your team is ready for it.”
“My team? How so?”
“Apollo is huge and it’s going to require a strong team to get it done. Beth has done an outstanding job of investing in her team and growing them to be able to take on challenges like Apollo.”
Frank tried to appeal. “But you know I’d put everything I’ve got into delivering Apollo.”
“Frank, that’s exactly the point. I believe you’d put your all into it. It’s not about just you, it’s about the team you’ve been entrusted to grow. They’re Just not ready for Apollo. There will be other big projects in the future; let’s work to help you get your team ready for them.”
Perhaps you know a Frank (or maybe are one yourself); a leader who will work himself to the bone to get something done but fails to grow and leverage a team of followers to help deliver results. Common excuses like, “I’m the only one who can do it,” “My team doesn’t have the experience,” or “It’s quicker if I just do it myself,” may be true in the moment, but they do nothing to build and leverage the skills that the leader’s team can bring to the table. This is a primal failure of what I call followership stewardship; the cultivation of followers to help them grow into leaders so you as a leader can scale into a leader of leaders. It’s every leader’s responsibility to acknowledge that a core purpose of being a leader is delivering results and growing followers. A leader who isn’t intentional about both delivering results and growing followers won’t scale into a leader of leaders. At some point the leader will not be able to deliver on bigger problems because he lacks the leverage of well-equipped followers to deploy. Sadly, this usually becomes evident when a leader fails to solve a problem that is too big for him or her to solve.
Do you need to work on being a better followership steward to deliver results and grow followers? Here are ten nuggets to consider:
The Consequences: Not being an intentional followership steward can lead to the following:
The Next Steps:
Alberto has just been hired to head up the program management office for Aspiron Group.
Alberto prepares a 30-minute presentation to replace the organization’s status reporting system for his vice president, Irene.
Alberto and Irene will be meeting each other for the first time.
At the beginning of his presentation, Irene gets an urgent phone call and apologizes to Alberto saying she only has 15 minutes.
Alberto presents slide 1, his view of why the organization needs a new status reporting system.
Irene immediately starts questioning Alberto about his reasons for wanting to replace the current system and why money should be redirected from other priorities to the new system.
Alberto, unable to satisfactorily answer some of Irene’s questions, fumbles for answers and gives a lot of “I’ll have to get back to you on that” statements.
After 15 minutes, Irene again apologizes for having to cut the meeting short and leaves the room. “What is he talking about?” Irene thinks as she leaves.
Alberto is left alone sitting in the room, having never gotten past slide 1, feeling as if he’d blown setting a positive first impression with Irene.
Poor Alberto. Not only is it less likely that he will get the new status reporting system, but he has also failed to establish credibility with Irene. Rather than starting from a positive or neutral credibility position, he’s now operating from a deficit position, making it more difficult to influence Irene in the future.
As a leader, there are two vitally important concepts you need to clearly understand when influencing up and out. The first is the five tollgates that I believe leaders must successfully pass to effectively influence up and out (who I will refer to as recipients):
With tollgate 5 comes the second important concept, which is about decision ownership. There are four decision ownership scenarios, as follows:
I can’t over-emphasize enough the importance of these two concepts when influencing up and out. The first ensures alignment with how a problem needs to be solved and what you expect the recipient to do, and the second articulates the roles you and the recipient play in any decision-making.
Do you need to be better at influencing up and out? Here are ten points to consider:
The Consequences: Being ineffective at influencing up and out can lead to the following:
The Next Steps:
Miguel and Carol, two executives who retired from MilanCo last year, are having coffee.
“Miguel, what have you been doing with your time since MilanCo?” Carol asked.
“Oh, get up, watch the news, play a little golf, run some errands. How ‘bout you?”
“Gosh it’s so much fun. Some travel, seeing the grandkids, and I’ve got five women execs at MilanCo that I’m mentoring.”
“Really.” Miguel said.
“Most certainly.” Carol took a sip of coffee. “I’ve learned so much in my career, had some successes, and certainly some failures. I didn’t want all those learning opportunities to stay only with me, so I took it upon myself to reach out to HR and volunteer my time mentoring.”
“You volunteer your time?” Miguel asked.
“Sure do. It’s such a wonderful feeling to hear someone say, ‘Thanks Carol, you really helped me.’ More fulfilling than a paycheck. Have you considered doing something like that?”
Miguel looked down at his coffee. “Nah, my working days are over, time to let the younger ones rise up.”
“That’s exactly why I’m mentoring these women, Miguel. I want the younger ones to rise up; I’m just helping them rise up faster and with a greater likelihood of success.”
After a few more minutes of chatting Miguel looked at his watch.
“Well, gotta run Carol; was great catching up with you.”
“You too, take care Miguel. I’m meeting up with one of my mentees in a few so I’m just going to hang out here.”
“OK, bye,” Miguel said as he got up and left.
“Same selfish Miguel,” Carol thought as she watched Miguel leave the coffee shop.
Carol’s view of Miguel’s selfishness was formed years earlier. They shared many similar leadership characteristics except for one; Carol intentionally sought to give back and grow younger leaders (who I will refer to as mentees) while Miguel did only what was required of him by his management. Half the time Miguel canceled mentee meetings last-minute because of some crisis; for those that he kept he appeared preoccupied. Word of how Miguel and Carol viewed their responsibility to scale leaders through giving back got around among the younger leaders, with many of Miguel’s mentees seeking out Carol as a mentor. While Carol wasn’t surprised with Miguel’s attitude during their coffee chat, she was disappointed that Miguel, with all his years of learning, still chose to keep things to himself versus helping others.
Want to be less of a Miguel and more of a Carol? Give this baker's dozen of tips a look:
The Consequences: Hoarding all that wisdom and not giving back by growing future leaders could lead to the following:
The Next Steps: