Friday, 4 April 2014

So you think you're a leader . . .

I get a lot of my inspirations from others' articles and blogs. Bruce Kasanoff and his article 'How Do YOU Bring Out Talent in Others' on LinkedIn is no exception. After all, one of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received is 'to read'. So when I read this article and Bruce asked his readers how we lead I had to contribute.

For me, leadership is about establishing clear accountabilities, boundaries, and letting them know I am there to care about (protect) them. And doing that as concisely as possible. For me, these are the ABC's of leadership.

The accountability part; I think that's the obvious part - I hope so anyway. Just in case I need to clarify; my expectation is always for people to make commitments and then adhere to them. Yes, this must be done in a way that is commensurate to the level of maturity and skills of each individual. And yes, people either know or learn that if they don't hold themselves accountable, I will. To clarify perhaps a bit further, two of the US Marines mottos are also two of my favorites. 'Semper fi', short for semper fidelis, latin for 'always faithful. And 'Adapt - Improvise - Overcome'. Life whether in business or elsewhere will introduce hurdles we'd rather not have to deal with. Omission to make a decision (or commitment) is still a decision.

Boundaries - for me it's never ever okay for anyone to deflect responsibility for their own decisions onto others people, or hold onto critical information that impacts other people and their commitments. You know something is up and coming that other people will care about? Figure out who those people are and get that information to them ASAP in a clear and concise way. Part two of that, only make decisions within your realm of authority and responsibility. An in-the-weeds individual contributor should never presume to know more about the business than a Director or VP on the leadership team.

Protection - I expect everyone to 'man/woman up' when they screw up; admit you messed up, honestly apologize to those you impacted, make a commitment to not repeat the behavior, and then move on. If someone wants to lord over you that error; that's when the very pointed, gorilla-in-the-closet, in-your-face me comes out towards that person. In short, don't mess with my team; period. I will eat you alive. 

That's the launch pad. 

The execution is for me to be consistent with myself and everyone else in applying that. 

Accountability -- something I've noticed a lot of over the years is that a lot of very smart people are very dumb when it comes to the cost of doing certain things. I'll offer a couple of examples because this is so important. 

1)     Everyone at the company where you work is there because someone higher up in the chain of command (relative to you) believes the role is needed and that person has the skills needed for that role. I've witnessed people who regularly step on the proverbial toes of others and then loudly complain (sometimes back stab) when others do the same to them. I always set expectations right out of the Ontario Labour Code and a lot of very good books to minimize the occurrences of this happening -- i.e.:
a.     speak to the other person(s) about the concern; and do it respectfully because sometimes some people just didn't realize what they were doing,
b.     if you are not comfortable doing that on your own for some reason; come see me and I will assist you, and finally 
c.      if you've already tried a) and b) more than once and it is still happening, we will all sit down together -- NOTE: this does not mean I will carry your burden (see more below).

2)     I've seen groups of 8 people spend 2 weeks developing huge, detailed, documented plans that other than them, no one will ever look at. And think themselves oh so wonderful for doing it. The cost: $40,000. Now, if you were writing the cheque for that document, would you think it's worth $40k? We all need to be good stewards of not only our own wallets but of our company's wallets too. That is, If we really want the company to be successful.

Boundaries -- in the high tech realms, thinking outside the box in a lot of cases is a really good idea. There is rarely if ever the case when only one right way exists to do a task. That said, if it's not part of your role, collaborate with someone you trust whose responsibility it is to do that. If there is no one who does that (and you've actually checked to confirm) and you're not putting your own job on the proverbial back burner to do that task it may just be a good idea to proceed.

Protection -- I will protect you in public but I will also punish you in private. Sadly in my travels I have encountered some people who define integrity as "it's okay if we can get away with it" and "lying is a valid negotiation tactic". To me, outright lying is just plain disrespectful, and will hasten the severity of that punishment. If Harry or Sally keeps repeating the behavior they've been told to stop, it'll become public when they are no longer present. NOTE: we will go straight to DEFCON 1 in instances where the law has been broken -- e.g.: workplace harassment or bullying.

The results: the teams I mange are filled with a lot of highly motivated people that do a lot of very good and productive work. And yes, over the years, I've also had to fire some people and ignore others. I've also had many different people I haven't worked with in years stop me in the street and in stores to say hello.

Everything else is filling in the cracks; the details that pop up here and there that are just parts of reality because you're dealing with people - not machines. Remember two things -- 1) "because I said so" is always the weakest form of leadership (even if it is sometimes necessary -- usually only in a crisis), and 2) you can't be a leader if no one is willing to follow you. They may follow you because they have to, but that's a boss; a manager, and always temporary.  

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Perspective is everything

The other day I was speaking with a group of people who thought it was so horrible that their executives look at the contents of the project tracking system. And worse, that they challenge the project managers when their status updates and the contents of the tracking system don't appear to match.

My first response to them was to ask "How so?"

They elaborated about their belief that they should just be trusted to deliver to what is described in the project plan at the start of the project.

I countered saying my perspective is actually the complete opposite of that. A couple of people just walked away. The smarter people looked at me like I was nuts, and the even smarter people ask "How so?".  I elaborated with the following justifications.

1) Want to know whether or your project is really important to the bottom line? Listen to see whether or not they are talking and asking about it. Seriously, if they're not, it's not.

2) Executives have people they have to report to too. Executives seriously do not have time to ask about the minutea of your project. However, if they can't get the information they need AND the project is important don't expect them not to. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter -- re: see point 1 above. That's one of the great things about burndown charts that are embedded apps within the tracking system being used. It gives a snapshot view of what the status is at any point in time, if it's embedded well, the extra effort to create those charts is somewhere between negligable and nil.

3) It's NOT micromanaging if all they're asking for is progress updates and quantifiable information to substantiate what you are saying. It's called 'trust but verify' and any manager that doesn't do that is either incompetent, a fool, or both. From a financial perspective it's also a SOX compliance issue. To you, it's an 'oops'. To them, it's a potential legal matter and in the most serious cases possible jail time. Blind trust is a fool's overture.

4) EVERYONE wants to go home at night and into the office in the morning with the warm and fuzzies. Executives are no different. 
So reminder to smile, say thank you, and offer a concise and direct answer the next time you get asked what is going on.

Oh, BTW, those people that stayed engaged in the conversation? We all learned something those who left figuring they already knew everything that mattered. We're all further ahead in the game than them. Now also recognize that these are all start people; some of them wise. Yes, there is a difference, but that's for another post.

And when it comes to career management it tends to be those who know the most and work the best with others who tend to start in the game the longest. ... of course there are exceptions. And the companies where those expectations tend to apply also tend to be the companies on the way out.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Like riding a bike

Eric Barker's  blog is on my weekly must read list for what I do during my Sunday morning coffee and before the household gets too active. This blog holds incredible wisdom and insight, and has the ability to get that communicated without the purple prose of similar blogs.

This week's post I thought was a great reminder about how great leaders remain great leaders and riding a bicycle are quite analogous. Remember when you were first learning to ride a bike? Pushing the pedals forward to move forward; esay. Push back to brake; cinch. Balance? Well that something else entirely.
It's easy for us to believe at some point that we've mastered riding a bicycle and we don't have to think about it any more. The reality though is that the task has just become rote. We're still thinking about it; just not consciously. And when we stop doing that? That's when gravity kicks in and shows us who the real boss is.

Managing or leading people is in many ways the same thing. It means keeping everything in balance, making well found decisions without waiting too long to make them, and making sure you don't allow yourself to get carried away on the shoulders of the sycophants.

A few quotes from this week's article:

"Egos expand faster than waistlines."

"The irony of leadership is you need to speak with certainty to be taken seriously. But if you take yourself too seriously, you end up in the hubris trap."

This week's must read article sums up with a statement that "denial, ego and hubris are all parts of human nature. They are like gravity. We don’t defeat them. To move forward we must actively resist them every day."

Want to see the whole article or subscribe yourself? . . .

Friday, 29 March 2013

Soft skills -- Vision – having one … to a detailed level

Having and being able to share a clear vision; being strategic in your purpose. I believe this is what people are talking about when they refer to needing someone who is “details oriented”. It’s also widely recognized that having one is important. I did a Google search just a minute ago and it responded with about 57,300,000 results in 0.17 seconds. And yet having a vision is rarely listed when people are asked what the most important characteristics are for being effective. For example, it was listed only once in a recent LinkedIn PM Community group post.

Now, before I go any further, I’d like to repeat and clarify that the following is focused on those in the project management profession. I and many others have been inspired by leaders over the years. JFK’s vision of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him the Earth by the end of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Those and many other leaders had a very clear vision of what they wanted to see happen. They did not, however, have the skills to technically know how to achieve it. Still, both these and other visions were achieved and the world is a better place for them being achieved. Would they have made great project managers? Probably. JFK was the captain of a PT boat during WWII. Do all great project managers possess the skills to become leaders of industry, government, and causes that will change the course of history? Probably not.

Now, with that out of the way, the clarity of a PM’s / PgM’s vision and level of detail that can be discussed are very much inter-related in my opinion. It is the ability of this person to:
  • get into the weeds with the team if and when needed and
  • commensurate to their role and
  • for the teams they are managing and
  • for whom they are reporting into.

Where this seems to go off balance in many cases is where people (both individual contributors and those already in leadership roles) sometimes have a perception that you must be able to do to lead. This, depending on how extreme this position is taken, can be a promotion of individualism over teamwork. It is also the downfall of many people new to management roles. That lesson being to learn to delegate rather than do. Toyota and many other companies almost always promote from within. And this makes a lot of sense in most cases. A project or program manager really should understand what a group of computer science professionals need to do and why to develop and deploy a complex software application. Do they need to hold a B.Sc from a prestigious university to be effective as a PM/PgM? I doubt it. I don’t have that degree and I’ve really done quite well over my career. By the same token though, I equally believe my hands on understanding and experience of software development and the IT infrastructures that software needs to be deployed on has contributed to that success.

It’s also those “and”s that really make a difference. As systems theories seek to promote, it’s not so much the individual components as the interrelationships among them that really make the difference. They are very important because the vision needs to be shared at the level of your audience, and as a PM/PgM I believe we all know that your audience consists of management teams, vendors, customers, and other stakeholders in addition to your core team. Making anyone feel stupid at any time at any place is just plain wrong. It may be immediately satisfying to put a bully in their place in a public way; and I admit that in the past I have been guilty of doing that myself. However, the loss experienced doing that also meant losing the skills that other person had to offer. Yes, sometimes it’s worth it but that should never be the first option. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy statement to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ can equally be applied today. And as he also said during his presidency, the objective should always be to never have to use that big stick. On a lighter note, even in the Bugs Bunny – Yosemite Sam cartoons of my youth Bugs never sought out to humiliate Sam. I think that was a good life lesson.

Finally, if people perceive you as making it up as you go you’ll very likely be perceived as flaky, insincere, not credible, whatever; and that’s regardless of how clearly, concisely, … you communicate. And they won’t follow you. As the old adage goes, you can’t be a leader if no one wants to follow. Someone once said to me a few years ago in a moment of frustration, “It’s not about you! And what makes you think you’ve got all the answers anyway?!” My response was simply, One, I don’t think I have all the answers. That’s why I’ve built a strong team around me. And two, I was put in that position because of the vision I had and communicated to the executives;  on what we needed to do to both resolve existing limitations/gaps, achieve stated strategic objectives, and how and what we should do to go about doing that. If you think I’m completely wrong and the wrong person for the job, take that up with our executives.

I never did find out if I was the source or just the target of that person’s frustration. I do know thought that person was able to convince our executives that the gloss and polish they offered actually made them the right person for the job (not me). I wouldn’t take too much stock in their decision making skills though. I got a call from a recruiter about 18 months later telling me who had been ‘let go’ and asking me if I would consider coming back because the project still needed to be completed. This was a project that should have and could have been completed in less than a year. Yes, karma does exist. A favorite analogy of mine for this event is a beloved children’s game, King of the Castle. The specific analogy being that others may and will knock you off that heap (out of your position) but without possessing the depth of your vision they won’t stay there too long themselves either.

In closing, I’ll offer to you the request and hope I have for you, and why I am writing this post. If you’re going to have a vision, share it. If you want to take over someone else’s vision, I hope you actually have the depth of understanding to actually carry out that vision through to fruition.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Soft skills -- Honesty and Integrity

A senior manager I had a few years back introduced me to a very successful salesman. In that encounter he suggested to me that if I wanted to be really successful I needed to start following the platinum rule instead of the golden rule. He defined the ‘platinum rule’ as treating others as they wanted to be treated regardless of how they treat you or anyone else. I’ve never been really able to apply the platinum rule perhaps in no small part due to the fact that I am a very big believer in karma. What goes around eventually and always comes around. I have learned though (the hard way) that viewpoint makes many of the more politically motivated individuals out there very nervous.

And when it comes to motivating people . . . well lets just say I’m of the school you can’t actually motivate anyone. You can only leverage the motivations people already possess. The other half of this picture that tends to get lost on a lot of people after they’ve been doing a certain job for a long period of time is humility, and offering credit where credit is due is part of that. And yet some people want to receive kudos just for showing up. Still others’ have perspectives that taking the credit as the leader is just how things are supposed to work. If you don’t do that yourself, they see you as weak and not a leader. As the old adage says “provide goes before the fall.” One person said to me in my travels that “it’s only arrogance if you can’t back up what you’re saying with results.” That never really sat that well with me that well either. It seems contrary to sincerity and self-respect / confidence / efficacy. That said, I also know that I’ve been accused of being arrogant. Luckily (for me) there’s been some one else close by in most cases to challenge that accusation. And yes, I can fight my own battles. It’s just that this is one of those situations where the more you protest your innocence the more it looks like you’re not innocent at all. It’s like being called a guru. It’s great if others give you that label and much less so when you do it yourself.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Soft skills -- Communication skills (or BLOT)

For today’s post, a big thanks to one of my readers who suggested I follow the BLOT (Bottom Line On Top) principle on this topic since ‘communication skills’ is so widely viewed as the paramount skill required of all people who are in leadership roles. And I agree; so with that some of you may be asking ‘so what gives?!’

Communication skills in and of themselves are subjective to the environment, and thus generally not a personal characteristic on that basis. If you take any individual and change their environment that person may do equally as well communicating with those they interact with, or they could do better, or they could do worse. It’s the same person, only their environment and the audience has changed. Likewise, you could take a poll at any public speaking event and find people that span the bell curve regarding their perception of the speaker and their topic. Let’s use TEDx as an example. I generally look forward to hearing about the latest speech available on-line because I thoroughly enjoy most of them. You may feel the same way but TEDx, some other speeches, or disagree with me entirely. Now in any of these examples if you had a negative perception of the speaker’s communicative skills and mine was positive the speaker’s skills are not lessened just because your perception is more negative than mine; or vice-versa for that matter.

Saying that, some of you may say “yes, but if they were a truly great speaker then everyone would think they were wonderful.” And again I would agree with you, and I would offer that rising to the level of Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Mandela, and others may be desirable and yet unattainable for the vast majority of us. Does that mean the rest of us are then poor communicators? Of course not, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Across my career I can come up with multiple examples of people who perceived my communication skills as abhorrent, average or exceptional. It’s like a bell curve like anything else in life. If everyone you meet tells you you’re an exceptional communicator then you’re either a very unique individual on par with the examples above. Either that or they are blowing smoke up your tailpipe because they perceive value in doing so because of your status or position relative to theirs in whatever situation that discourse took place.

Okay, time to wrap this up. Possessing cultural awareness, being perceived as an honest person with a high standard of moral integrity, having a vision you want to share, and being self-aware are all factors that play into how any of us are perceived  regarding our individual communication skills. And that, my friends, is why I have listed ‘communication skills in 5th place out of 5.

Oh yes, and those on-line discussions that started all of this? I’ve posted the links to a couple of them below.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Soft skills -- Cultural awareness

I believe this characteristic is very high on the list of required characteristics if not in the number one spot.

One of the benefits I’ve received from being a contractor and working in numerous businesses is the awareness that one size definitely does not fit all. What I mean by that is that having a keen awareness of both the personal cultures of the people you work with and the corporate culture in place will do more than anything else to determine where you and your projects will ultimately sit on the ‘over the top wildly successful’ – ‘absolute failure’ performance scale. This is especially important when there is already a dichotomy between management and worker views on the value of a particular strategy, communication needs, readiness for change, risk tolerances, etc. Depending on your perspective, the same situation or even a single conversation could be positive, neutral or negative. Of course, this also presumes you’re coming into the position with at least a minimum baseline of technical skills.

The most valuable piece of concise advice that comes to mind at this moment is ‘Go slow to go fast’. This tidbit of wisdom is one of the things I think that took me a relatively long time to truly appreciate. Personally, for me, it says so much more than the expression of ‘a bull in a china shop’. Sure, for those of us who have been around for even a while have all seen this situation play out at one time or another, and it’s not pretty. Some newbie PM or high priced consulting firm that should really know better comes riding in like the cavalry to the rescue and the smart ones of us sit back and watch until they either smarten up or fall on their faces.

This is why I truly love the workplaces that have already done some kind of True Colors exercise and everyone has their primary colors posted at their desks. They may as well have a sign up that says “Hi, I’m so-and-so, you can best interact with me by . . .” and you fill in the blank part of that line. Of course, if they appear to be stressed for whatever reason (most of us are at some point or another) you’d probably do best to be observant (aware) and proceed with the color that person has when they’re stressed. By then collectively leveraging and offsetting each other’s weaknesses and strengths and enabling your team with this awareness you then create synergies. And that synergy of awareness to cut a long story short then creates highly productive project teams.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Project Management Soft Skills

I’ve seen what seems like a lot of on-line discussions lately about the level of arrogance of people who choose project management as a profession, soft v. hard skills required to be effective, what qualities make a good program/project manager, etc.

Using definitions as my premise, …

‘Quality’ is an essential or distinctive or distinguishing characteristic or attribute with respect to level of excellence in personality and traits.

‘Character’ is the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person and the moral and ethical qualities and reputation.

These factors are the two sides of the same coin that help me differentiate between Bob, Mary and Bill. Just to be clear; these are made up names referring to no one in particular.

Arrogance, however, is the offensive display of superiority or self-importance; including overbearing pride.

The following five factors listed in order of importance I believe are deterministic for predicting the level of success achievable for a program/project manager; or for any leader for that matter.

1.      Cultural awareness
2.      Honesty and Integrity
3.      Vision – having one … to a detailed level
4.      Self-awareness / wisdom / insight
5.   Communication skills

I will elaborate on each of the above points over the coming days.

I will also say at this point that this list may differ from yours. That’s okay. It’s our unique perspectives that make this world an exciting and enjoyable place to live. And yes, I’m very much aware and excluding the more negative issues that exist in this world; there’s enough of that on the news already.