Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

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I'm all about Building Thriving Leaders™ This blog is based on over 35 years of project management and leadership successes and failures. Get practical, concise nuggets on both hard and soft skills to help you deliver projects successfully with minimal friction.

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Intentional Trust

The Scenario: 

Sean, a new leader of a small team of experienced project managers, shows up for his weekly 1:1 with his manager, Annette.

“Sean, you look really tired.”

“Yeah, a late night.”

“Why?”

“I was working on the Artemis project plan.”

“Isn’t Artemis Jac’s project?” Annette asked.

“Yup.”

“Why are you working on Jac’s plan?”

“Well, Jac isn’t doing it the way I’d do it, so I told Jac I’d take a cut at it.”

“Jac is really competent, what’s wrong with her plan?”

“Well, it’s…” Sean fumbled for words that would justify his action.

“Sean, do you trust Jac?”

“Of course I do.”

“Really?” Annette asked.

“Um, yeah.”

“Sean, I’m not sure that your words match your actions.”

The Message:

You’ve likely known a Sean (or are a Sean yourself)--a leader who believes he can do things better than his followers and, rather than trusting his followers to get things done, will burn the midnight oil doing it himself. “I can get it done by myself faster,” “I understand the problem better,” “I know what management is expecting,” are all common excuses as to why a leader does work that his or her followers could (and should) be doing. Sure, there may be some truth to each excuse, but there’s a massive problem for those leaders looking to grow.

It doesn’t scale and your upward mobility as a leader will be limited.

Leaders are in leadership roles for a reason, to deliver more results with a team than the leader could do alone. Crucial to making this happen is the leader’s ability to trust his or her followers. Trust more and you get more done, have a happier team, and achieve better life balance. Trust less and, well, you get the point.

Think you’re struggling with trusting your followers? Look at these 12 intentional trust tips and see if any of these resonate:

  1. Be intentional about your starting position – Some leaders take an initial position of assuming trust, while others take the position that trust must be earned. Neither is particularly good or bad, but be honest with yourself about your position and be open with followers about whether you trust is assumed or it must be earned.
  2. Be thoughtful about changing your position – Your trust in followers can change based on actions. A follower can start in a more trusted relationship but do things that erode the trust; similarly, trust can increase when actions that enhance trust occur. Observe recent actions and take them into account when assessing your degree of trust in a follower.
  3. Guidance follows trust – You can trust a follower but if the follower is new in a job, it’s your responsibility to ensure the follower has commensurate guidance to help him succeed. Confusing trust and guidance is a recipe for setting an inexperienced follower up for failure.
  4. Intentional empowerment helps right-size trust – In my intentional empowerment model I talk about four steps to empowerment: defining the problem to be solved and the owner, articulating guiding principles, ensuring agreement on key dates, and establishing a follow-up cadence. Someone still climbing the trust curve may be given a smaller problem to solve, more guiding principles, and a more frequent follow-up rhythm. Practice empowerment, but right-size the problem, your involvement and guidance.
  5. Trust doesn’t mean you relax accountability – While you can give followers latitude on execution, you need to ensure there is clear accountability for what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done by. Also remember to put a mutually understood follow-up rhythm in place (see point 4).
  6. Lean in more when you need to – When a crisis hits, the team needs to benefit from your experience. A follower who’s not well-equipped to manage through the crisis will need your wisdom to help navigate it, chart out a plan, and drive accountability. Also, you don’t want to have to explain to your boss why you didn’t engage more to prevent the crisis from escalating.
  7. Align on the what, advise on the how – Having a trusting relationship with your followers means you have clarity on what needs to be done but you don’t get dictatorial about how it needs to be done, unless there is a policy or regulatory reason that dictates the how. Usually there is more than one way to address a problem, and someone choosing a different path doesn’t make it wrong. Depending on the follower’s experience level, your degree of guidance might vary, so make the guidance commensurate with experience.
  8. Sometimes you have to let followers touch the stove – A huge component of the growth experience is failure, particularly with a follower who may have an unrealistic view of her capabilities. Be prepared with a teachable moment when you see a mistake coming to fruition. Then give the follower an opportunity to put the learning to use on future assignments.
  9. Trust doesn’t correlate to superiority – Being the leader doesn’t mean you necessarily know best about what needs to be done or how to do it. Be open to views that may be counter to yours and be thoughtful about the viability of alternate points of view. Do be cautious of extremes where you always or never accept alternate points of view. Always accepting other points of view can cause others to question your competence; never accepting other points of view can brand you as stubborn.
  10. Stay aligned on expectations – Maintaining trust means there is intentional expectation alignment. Both you and the follower need to keep in close communication when a change occurs which can impact current work. Neither leaders nor followers like to be surprised; your job is to establish an “early warning” culture where anyone can see something going awry which could cause expectation alignment. Don’t create an environment where followers avoid bringing issues to you that can impact expectations.
  11. Make changes when trust isn’t going to happen – Despite a leader’s best intentions to trust, some followers just never earn a leader’s trust. It may mean removing a project manager from a project, reducing his or her responsibilities, placing the follower on a performance improvement plan, or if all else fails, separation. Just remember that other followers are watching your actions, so being indecisive could erode your credibility with the rest of your team.
  12. Model the behavior – Building a trusting relationship means that you not only trust your followers but they trust you. If you want to build your trust in others, make sure you’re building your own trustworthiness and not doing anything that would cause others to be hesitant in trusting you.

The Consequences:  Not practicing intentional trust with your followers can lead to these consequences:

  • You’re more likely to micromanage – Not trusting followers means that you’ll likely over-function and do the job your followers should be doing.
  • You’ll frustrate your followers – Not demonstrating intentional trust means followers will be frustrated by your unwillingness to trust and will be less likely to want to follow you.
  • You won’t scale – Your lacking trust in followers means you’ll take more on yourself because you believe no one could get something done better than you, even if it means you’re chronically burning the midnight oil.  

The Next Steps: 

  • Review the above 12 tips on intentional trust.
  • Think about prior situations where you might have fallen short on any of the tips.
  • For any tips you’ve identified as needing work, put an action plan together to address those trust areas.
  • Use a trusted advisor to keep you accountable.
Posted on: July 08, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Is Your Leadership Style Like Making Sausage?

I’m a huge fan of sausages. Whether it be Italian, bratwurst, chorizo, kielbasa, or andouille, I love the seasoning and the snap of the casing when you bite into it. Now I know that the stuff that goes into sausage is of the most undesirable parts of the animal including organs, guts, head, and other parts that I prefer not to think about. I have never had the opportunity to see sausage being made, and as a matter of principle; I don’t want to because I know I’d be grossed out and it would ruin my appetite each time I enjoyed a banger. I choose to remain blissfully ignorant about the sausage making process.

As this relates to leadership, I’ve seen many leaders who are able to get things done but the process in which they do it is ugly. The end result may be positive, but how they got there was filled with unnecessary stress, drama, rework, and wasted energy along the way. In fact, I’ve even seen some leaders who thrive on the chaos; working around the clock, napping in a sleeping bag in their office, surviving on coffee, Cheetos, and Coke. With a successful delivery, the leader rewards and gets rewarded for their delivery heroics and the personal sacrifices made. Now sometimes there truly is a need for participants in a well-planned and run project to burn the midnight oil. It’s not those situations I’m talking about; it’s when the leader fails to deliberately plan and execute the work, resulting in wasted energy, lost productivity, and frazzled nerves. Let me be extremely clear on this: It’s not enough to consistently deliver results but leave a trail of dead bodies in your wake; you need to deliver results through deliberate planning and execution. Now it could be that planning needs to happen concurrent with some execution; I’ve certainly done that when having to work to tight mandated dates from my leadership. When someone says to me, “Well, we got it done,” I ask, “Would your team follow you into battle again?” The answer to that question is a direct reflection on the leader’s ability to deliberately plan and execute the work. I’d love for someone to challenge me on this.

Are you a leader who gets things done but creates unnecessary friction with your team, manager, or stakeholders? Give these four tips a look to help you be a leader who executes without the drama and stress:

  • Deliberately plan work in what/who/when format – When outlining the work to be performed, be precise about what needs to be done, who needs to do it (no assignments to “team”), and when it needs to be done (no “asap” or “tbd”). If there is a tangible work product associated with the what, ensure clarity as to what the work product needs to include.
  • Empower wherever you can – I wrote a book and an article on what I call Intentional Empowerment, which outlines four clear steps on what a leader needs to do to create empowered followers. Empowering your team not only enables more to be done; it also creates a happier and more productive workforce.
  • Establish a clear communication cadence – Develop a communication plan for team members, your manager, and stakeholders to keep them apprised of progress and minimize work disruptions due to confusion or misalignment of work. Be clear about what is communicated, its frequency, and the mode (email, meeting, etc.) the communication occurs.
  • Be available and responsive to requests for help – Things happen which can impact planned work, delivery dates, or participation of key team members or stakeholders. Whether they be issues (something bad is happening now and needs to be addressed), or risks (something might happen that you want to avoid coming true), your job is to be there to help the team when they can’t resolve something on their own.

A leader who gets things done without regard for the chaos he or she creates along the way won’t be a leader for long. Be a leader who deliberately plans and executes and you’ll establish a reputation as someone people will want to follow.

Posted on: September 11, 2020 08:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sometimes it’s Best not to Offer Your Feedback

Despite my very best intentions, there are some people I have encountered throughout my life who simply are not interested in and do not want my feedback.   I would spend a lot of time writing behaviors down, focusing on how I thought others perceived their behavior, and desired changes to behavior.  I would focus on facts and keep things as unemotional as possible during the feedback session.  Even with doing all the right things, my feedback sessions would go bust.

In looking at what went wrong in my failed feedback sessions, I was able to bring it down to several key factors, as follows:

  • My relationship with the recipient wasn’t trusting to a point where I could provide feedback safely.
  • My perspective on the situation was wrong and I provided feedback inappropriately.
  • I hadn’t learned how to give good, constructive, empathetic feedback.  

When I was a young manager, I had a very experienced administrative assistant who worked with me. The person was very competent in the job and did everything I needed very well.  One thing that bothered me, though, was the person's workstation.  There were stacks of paper all around the workstation.  I, in my own naiveté, couldn’t understand how the person could get things done with all that clutter so I offered  some feedback to clean up the workstation to be more effective.  Bad move on my part.  The person got pretty ticked with me and asked me whether the workstation was affecting an ability to do a job. The person was dead right and it took me a long time to re-build our relationship.   My feedback was not steeped in fact, it was based on my perception of what I thought was right.  Painful lesson.

Before you offer up your feedback, think about some of the following things first and then decide: 

You already have a strained relationship with the recipient – As desperately as you may be to provide feedback to a recipient, you may not have a trusting relationship built with the recipient to provide effective feedback.   If you don’t have that trusting relationship, clam up on the feedback.  If you’re not sure, ask a colleague who knows both you and the recipient and get his or her opinion.  

You’re unsure of the facts – You may feel compelled to offer feedback, but if facts are sketchy do your homework first.   You may find the feedback is legitimate, but you may also find the feedback isn’t warranted because the facts don’t support the need for feedback.  Get clear on the facts before you formulate your feedback. 

You’re not in an authoritative position to offer the feedback – A number of years back I offered some feedback to a colleague on his attitude in team meetings.  He in no uncertain terms told me to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine and that because I was just a peer he wasn’t willing to listen to the feedback.  My error in the situation was that I offered feedback to a colleague who didn’t see it as my place to offer the feedback because I wasn’t in an authoritative position and didn’t have a good enough relationship to offer peer feedback. 

You’ve received feedback that you don’t give good feedback – You may feel compelled to offer feedback, but if you’ve received feedback that you aren’t effective at offering constructive feedback, resist the urge.  Work on your own ability to give feedback with a colleague or friend first in “practice sessions” using some of the techniques I’ve highlighted in this book. 

Sometimes the best feedback you can provide is no feedback at all.  If your feedback will only be putting fuel on the fire because of strained relationships, unclear facts, or your own ability to deliver effective feedback, hold your tongue and let someone else do it.  You’ll save yourself and your recipient a lot of stress and will keep from further deteriorating a relationship.

Posted on: September 06, 2020 10:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Intentional Empowerment in Four Easy Steps

Empowerment.

One of the most over-used, warmed-over leadership terms uttered daily. Leaders high and low espouse their expertise in empowering teams to deliver. Some are very good at it, fostering high-performance teams who deliver great results. Others, though, only think they are good at it but frustrate teams with micromanagement, apathy, vagueness, and randomization. Most anyone who has been around the block has seen both good and bad empowerment examples. As for me, I’ve not only seen it, I’ve committed both the good and bad. It took me years to understand that empowerment isn’t just about delegating tasks to be performed. True empowerment is about entrusting individuals with problems to be solved and supporting them in the process. A high-performance empowered team owns problems or missions and is supported by a leader who provides clarity, gives guidance, and resolves only those issues the team can’t resolve on their own. To put some meat on this, I like to think of empowerment as systematic, with four critical steps needed to ensure its success. I call this intentional empowerment.

Intentional Empowerment

Step 1 – Define the problem to be solved and ownership

The first step in intentional empowerment is the clear articulation of a problem statement. The size of the problem doesn’t matter, it can be something that will take hours, days, or months to solve. What matters is a clear understanding of the problem statement, as well as ownership of the problem statement and the resulting solution.

Here is a good example:

  • We need to reduce our invoice processing costs by 15% to align with mandated cuts across the organization. I would like you to take point on creation and execution of a plan to achieve the 15% cost-reduction goal.

And a bad one:

  • Go develop process flows on our invoicing process so we can look for cost reductions.

While process flows may be a necessary step, you as the leader have delegated an errand to someone else and retained control of the problem. The person will run the errand, give you process flows, then await your next instruction.

Step 2 – Articulate the guiding principles

Articulating guiding principles is about policy, legal, regulatory, or other guidelines which the solution needs to adhere to. Note this is not about telling the problem owner how to do something, it’s about ensuring the problem owner knows the boundaries that he or she needs to abide by in solving the problem.

Some good examples of guiding principles:

  • All invoices must be paid within ten days to ensure we get a 2% trade discount.
  • Any personnel hire/fire recommendations must be first discussed with HR and kept strictly confidential
  • Ensure the solution has the buy-in of the purchasing director.

And a couple of bad examples:

  • Here is how you should go about solving the problem.
  • Go talk to the purchasing director, interview her on what she thinks should be done, and tell me what she says.

Guiding principles aren’t about controlling how something gets done, they are about the problem owner knowing what latitude he or she has in solution definition. 

Step 3 – Ensure agreement on key dates
Knowing when something needs to be done and any key interim milestone dates enables the problem owner to figure out tasks and resourcing needs to hit the dates. It’s crucial here to get crisp on a specific date, not an “ASAP,” “immediately,” or “yesterday” date. It’s important for the leader to have his or her key dates thought out to ensure alignment with the problem owner. A good example:

  • We need the plan done by April 15 in time for our annual review with the VP with subsequent implementation complete by fiscal year start of July 1.

And bad ones:

  • I need it yesterday.
  • I need it ASAP.

It may be that a problem needs to be resolved urgently; if that’s the case then stress the urgency to the problem owner but put a date on it. Don’t leave the when up to interpretation.

Step 4 – Establish the follow-up cadence
Key to intentional empowerment is an agreed-upon and timely follow-up cadence that both the leader and problem owner understand and agree is appropriate. When done well, the leader and problem owner stay aligned on execution and can fulfill project “asks” on a timely basis. It also minimizes surprises and frantic rework when expectations aren’t met. Just as importantly, though, is the leader staying in his or her lane by serving as a resource for the problem owner. An impatient or meddling leader can start micro-managing or dictating how something should be done. The problem owner turns into errand runner, with the leader hijacking problem ownership. Empowerment gone bad.

The cadence frequency should be appropriate to the problem and its due date, whether it be monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, or some other increment. As a leader it’s important to work on the frequency right-sizing with the problem owner; too infrequent can communicate disinterest, too frequent can communicate distrust. Here is an example for a project with a due date of one month:

  • Schedule 15 minutes each Friday for both of us to go through status, issues, risks, and any help-wanted requests.

For the same project here are a couple of bad examples:

  • Check in with me every day to tell me what you’ve done and what you’re going to do.
  • I’m very busy, just let me know when it’s done.

There’s no one-size-fits-all follow-up cadence, what’s important is that the cadence exists, and both the leader and problem owner agree it’s appropriate. Again, too-infrequent follow-up communicates disinterest, while too-frequent follow-up communicates distrust.

I want to leave you with one last thought. Empowerment is a privilege, not a right. Those who are empowered have to earn and keep the trust of their manager, peers, and employees. Ensure when you are empowering someone to solve a problem that you are doing so because you trust him/her, and that if the trust is breached the willingness to empower diminishes. With that being said, take the time to understand intentional empowerment and use it to create high-performance teams that deliver value to your organization.

Posted on: August 16, 2020 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)
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"I'm sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites. All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth."

- John Lennon

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