PM-Foundations – “H” is for Humble

A few weeks ago I listened to the eulogies at my father-in-law’s memorial service and reflected on the fact that it was not what he had accomplished in his lifetime that was so important, but rather how he accomplished it. My father-in-law was an accomplished mechanical engineer who during his time a McDonnell Aircraft was involved in testing the first Mercury space capsule prior to its flight. He moved with his family to Dayton in 1960, and was employed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he spent 30 years as a Structural Test Engineer. During his career, he was responsible for conducting full-scale tests and is the author of many technical reports describing these tests. He received numerous awards and letters of commendation for his work during his career. During all his years as an engineer, he was most known for the dedicated and unassuming manner in which he led these mission critical tests. This humble and committed approach carried over to his personal life as a husband, father, and grandfather. He was the person that would quietly “step up” and solve problems, whether it was finding the missing homework, or picking up the grandchildren from a band competition.

I share these thoughts about my father-in-law because I think they are very relevant in the context of the role of a project manager. The project manager role is responsible for leading the team to achieve specific project goals and objectives. Team members tend to more clearly remember and describe how the goals and objectives were achieved, vs. if they were achieved. Traditional project leadership involves a command and control type of approach, with the project manager monitoring and directing activities. In contrast, the servant leadership style puts the needs of the team member first, and the project manager’s role is focused on supporting project activities and removing roadblocks. I am not saying that there is one “right answer” to the appropriate project leadership style, but I do believe I would prefer to be remembered as a hardworking and humble project leader, than a hard-driving and demanding project leader. The servant leadership style creates a high degree of engagement and participation of team members in decision-making, as the project manager encourages and supports team members to leverage their full potential and abilities. Below I highlight several ways that a project manager can take a more humble and supportive approach, while still leading the team to successful project outcomes.

7 ways to be humble while leading a project team

As a project manager, there are a number of tangible things that you can do to establish a servant leadership approach to project management. This approach places heavy emphasis on creating a fully engaged team, establishing a positive project environment, and focusing on supporting vs. directing project activities. These 7 tips represent a combination of applying servant leadership based skills, and implementing practical techniques to enhance the project environment.

1. Articulate the Vision & Emphasize Teamwork – I spend a lot of time making sure the project team understands that they are a team working towards a common objective, and not a bunch of individuals assigned to a project. Establishing a group that works as a team starts with making sure the team understands what we are trying to accomplish, and what success looks like. It also includes ensuring that everyone has internalized what their role is on the team, and how their role connects with the success of the overall project. There are things you can do to make sure the group feels like a team. Schedule regular team interactions (team meetings), provide meaningful project updates, and promote collaboration / interaction. Unless this group has worked together before, it takes some real work and focus on your part to make the group feel and interact like a team. Do not be discourage or give up as the team traverses through the forming and storming phases of creating a team. Your leadership can make a significant difference in terms of how the team works together.

2. Focus on Facilitating vs. Directing – Much of what a project manager does involves facilitation – enabling project teams to collaborate to get work done. Project managers facilitate meetings, decision making, and issue resolution (to name a few). Effective facilitators understand the impartial role of the facilitator, ask good questions to promote meaningful discussions, and leverage facilitation tools to achieve the desire results. Facilitation encourages team members to perform project work in a highly collaborative manner.

3. Exercise Active Listening – Active listening is required to understand what people are working on, identify challenges team members have encountered, and capture ideas to improve project performance. Active listening also provides the project manager with better “peripheral vision” (things that are not in the project manager’s direct line of sight) to identify potential problems or risks. Many project managers feel that leading involves a lot of talking, and I would argue that leading involves much more listening.

4. Leverage the Talents of the Team – As the team is forming, it is important to get to know the individual team members. Not only do you need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, but also what are the things that motivate and energize them. If you have insights into team member’s professional development path, you can help align work with the areas where they have talents, are excited about, and/or desire to learn. Aligning work and responsibilities in a manner that gives people a chance to “step up” on the team goes on a long ways towards building a highly motivated team that delivers positive results. The opportunities on the team can be both in the form of specific work assignments, as well as roles (e.g., facilitation of team meetings, coordination of team events).

5. Be Accountable to the Team –The servant leader will quietly take accountability for actions required to remove roadblocks encountered by the team. You complete these actions with the same diligence and urgency that you would expect from other team members. You don’t want to become the “weakest link” that is responsible for an open issue that blocks progress, and impacts project success.

6. Recognize Contributions – It is extremely important to recognize people’s contributions on the team. There are two categories of contributions that I recognize on the team – (1) efforts that help the team achieve its goals, and (2) efforts that demonstrate or promote teamwork. As the project manager, you are recognizing contributions that helped drive positive project outcomes based upon either the work that was performed, or the way in which it was performed. A significant amount of positive energy can be created on the team by recognizing the right efforts at the right time. The recognition does not need to be elaborate, but it must be sincere, and a bit of creativity helps generate a fun atmosphere on the team.

7. Close the Project – When you have come this far with the team, do not forget to bring appropriate closure to the effort. Effectively facilitating the lessons learned process helps the team reflect on what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and what would the team do differently on the next project. This is the opportunity for the team to have a real impact on how projects are completed within your organization in the form of implementing continuous improvement actions. The other important element of project closure is celebrating success. Facilitate a project celebration that helps team members feel good about was accomplished before they rush off to their next assignment.

This blog post is dedicated in loving memory of Murray N. England (May 7, 1930 – January 24, 2013).

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