Project Management Institute

Project Leadership in Uncertain Times

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Great news for leaders struggling with their lack of control during this age of uncertainty. It turns out, striving for control was the wrong move in the first place.

PENNY PULLAN

You are not in control. Get used to it. What you need to do as a leader is not try and control people but engage them. Draw them in.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

If you’re someone whose preferred management style is to loom menacingly behind the swivel chairs of your team members, you’re probably not thriving in the age of the coronavirus. Many of the people on your team are dealing with unfamiliar work environments, not to mention fear of illness and the additional anxieties of widespread social and economic upheaval. They are already feeling anxious—they don’t need your help in that department—so now is probably not the time to rule with an iron fist.

The most effective strategies for leading remote teams now are the same ones that were the most effective well before the pandemic: things like building community and understanding different work styles.

We’re talking about leadership on this episode of Projectified®, but we want to take a moment to thank our sponsor, PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

We’re joined today by Penny Pullan. She’s the founder of Making Projects Work Ltd. in Loughborough, England and the author of Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Remote work and virtual teams aren’t new ideas, but what we’ve experienced this year has been a crash course, as this way of working has become nearly everyone’s normal. How severe has the culture shock been for team leaders who haven’t had much experience working in this sort of environment before?

PENNY PULLAN

There’s a lot more to virtual work than just being in live sessions, which I think is what people are doing all the time at the moment, back-to-back things all day. If you want to work virtually successfully, you choose what are the things that make sense to do together live in a virtual meeting and what are the things that make sense to do, if you like, asynchronously in between your virtual meetings. And then you spread things between those.

A lot of leaders like to see what’s happening. There are still people stuck in the old paradigm of command and control and very autocratic leadership and micromanaging, wanting to see everybody all the time, but actually once you move away from that to something much more 21st century, and during COVID onwards, much more facilitative style of leadership. When you’re trying to work virtually, command and control does not work. If you try and control people, they will check out. You do not have control.

I think project managers probably know a little bit more about that because you tend not to be a line manager of the people on your project. But other people are realizing you don’t have control—you might want control but you don’t. So you need to facilitate instead. You need to engage people, draw them in, motivate them, make them excited to be part of what you’re doing, and be clear on the outcomes and outputs that you want. Agree the piece of work, and then let people go away and get on with it without having to be in live meetings the whole time.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What can leaders do to build a team culture that translates well to asynchronous, offline work? 

PENNY PULLAN

Part of that is how we are going to work. What’s our working culture in this virtual world? What are our norms? How are we going to communicate? When are we going to check in? What suits us? Don’t just align it to what suits the leader, but how does each person work? What are their preferences in terms of communication? What’s going to work best for this particular group to get the most out of each other?

A lot of teams I’m seeing are doing very short check-ins at the beginning of the day. If they’re in the same place and same time zone, that makes an awful lot of sense. Let’s just have a quick, short check-in and make sure everybody’s got what they need, and then we’ll go and do our work independently.

How are you going to learn? This is a huge opportunity for learning together and improving. People have been chucked in the deep end. Are they going to swim? Carve out time to reflect as a team and say, “What’s working well for us? What should we do more of?” And also, not what’s going wrong, but what can we do differently? What do we wish was different so that we can do better the next day, the next week and so on. If you do that regularly, you’ll find that your virtual working will improve bit by bit.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Another aspect here: The virus has caused changes in work patterns that have led to an increase in stress and anxiety. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how best to lead given those circumstances.

PENNY PULLAN

Yeah, I think this is where knowing your people is important. Know them, build that relationship with them, ask them what they need, ask them what you can do to help. Be a caring human being. I think that’s really key. Take their preferences, their strengths, their skills and their weaknesses into account, and do what you can to connect the team up so that everybody’s weaknesses are covered and everybody can play to their strengths. And then as far as possible, you can meet people’s preferences.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

One of the additional dangers of not being co-located in the same space is that you can’t necessarily read body language in the same way, so that if these stresses are quietly building up within one person or another, it’s harder to speak into that.

PENNY PULLAN

It’s the same with conflict. If you’re in a room with people and there’s a big conflict, you can see immediately. If somebody’s sitting quietly in the corner, you can tell if they’re nearly asleep, if they’re bored, if they’re fuming and would like to thump somebody or whatever. Whereas if somebody’s silent in a video conference, and especially if they’re not sharing their video, it could be any. You don’t know. So as a leader, you need to ask, and probably not in a main meeting. You need to have those one-to-one sessions, and you need to ask people, but you need to be sensitive as well—and not probe too much—but ask what you can do for them. Ask how they’re doing, ask what needs changing.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Is this crash course in virtual work at the maximum possible scale teaching us anything about how remote work is likely to change either in the sort of technical day-to-day workings of it or will we either embrace this more fully or move away from it in the coming years?

PENNY PULLAN

I think that’s fascinating. I’m noticing a few things. I’m noticing that the people providing the technology have worked very, very hard to scale up and to deal with security issues that have arisen.

I’m also noticing a lot of people saying, “They said I couldn’t do it, but they asked me to do it when coronavirus broke out, and I’ve proved we can do this.” So I think it’s going to be much harder for employers in the future to say, “No, you have to be in the office. We can’t operate securely with you working from home.” So I think when we all go back when this is all over, we will have changed.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

COVID-19 has forced plenty of teams used to working shoulder to shoulder to function remotely instead. Luiz Dias, head of digital, portfolio transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions in the United Kingdom, shared his observations about leadership during this unique time with Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

You’re leading a portfolio during an uncertain time with the coronavirus pandemic. What’s this experience like?

LUIZ DIAS

It’s been a very interesting one because most of the workers in our time have never faced an experience like that. What we have done is we’ve set daily standup calls. So we are focused on the day, because that was what mattered the most in this situation. We also had daily standup calls with the wider portfolio teams so that the communication flow happens from both sides. We know what’s going on down, and we also make sure that what’s going up is communicated down.

We are living at the moment with a rapid response environment where, as I said, communication is important, more than ever. We want to make sure that everybody’s appraised with the latest and greatest information. And over time we managed to get a little bit more planning. So rather than doing the planning for the day, we do planning for the next few days and then for the week and so on, because it is important that we dealt with the problems that were faced that never existed before. But then we started to face the problems from a more forward-looking thinking. It’s interesting to note as well that the teams embraced the challenge in a very positive manner. Everybody was continuously up to get out of their comfort zone and do more and be more responsive.

HANNAH SCHMIDT 

Not only are you leading your team through uncertainty, but you’re also leading it remotely. How have you adjusted to meet the needs of your team as well as the portfolio you’re running?

LUIZ DIAS

We are all used to the channels that the organization offers. But we need to open the door above and beyond that so people can have confidence to know that you are there to support them. So we have opened WhatsApp groups. We have shared personal mobile phones, and we have created personal Skype. So everybody can know that we can speak to each other, and it’s a very important measure I believe because then we can reassure the team that we are all reachable. And as a leader I think it’s extremely important.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

And those different channels that you have decided to open up during this time, was that something that you had discussed with your team to see what different preferences people had?

LUIZ DIAS 

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean you cannot just create something without having the buy-in from them. So it was discussed with them. They thought it was the right thing to do, especially in the beginning because all the corporate channels are so much overwhelmed, and it was very hard to reach sometimes like in the middle of the day was very hard, so everybody thought it was the right thing to do.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How have you had to maybe adjust your leadership during this time, leading your teams during COVID-19 versus maybe a more certain environment?

LUIZ DIAS

Even though we are in a very challenging time, the adjustment is as well as in the environment that we face on a day to day, even outside of the coronavirus. We have to always reinvent ourselves in order to create the things that we want to transform, how we want to transform and to create the things that we want to make a difference for.

So in reality, there’s not much change in my view from the way that we’ve normally wanted it to be because it’s a constant transformation, at least from my point of view and the way that I have been dealing with the work and the transformation of this portfolio. It has been always: Every day is a new day.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Have you ever led a team through an uncertain time before?

LUIZ DIAS

Yes. In all of the occasions I have led teams through different situations such as economic downturn or, on the other hand, growth of an organization that was much beyond any expectations. Either way, my mantra has been that we should stay always calm and never lose positiveness. But like I said, you shall always be approaching things in different manners to reinvent yourself. So the positiveness is exceptionally important to support the uncertainty for the good or for the bad, but you have to keep yourself positive.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What separates a great leader from an average leader?

LUIZ DIAS

In my view, a great leader is a person that above all he or she is truly concerned about the well-being of his team. He’s capable of feel the pain and carry the load and work together with the team. Similarly, he navigates upwards in the organization, supporting the team objectives so that the teams can rest assured that they are doing the job and being supported by the senior leadership team.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Do you have any specific skills that you see like great leaders have versus average leaders?

LUIZ DIAS

I think that the great leader skills is someone that is compassionate, thinks about the person first and foremost. The person is also confident that the job that he’s doing is bringing the result that the organization is expecting. So everything goes hand in hand. But you cannot forget the person in detriment of the organization. It has to be a combined effort.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Whether your team continues to work remotely or has returned to the office or the field, this global crash course in virtual work promises to change all of us going forward. Best practices are a work in progress, and that can be really uncomfortable. Mastering the future of work is going to take special effort from a special group of people. Leaders, I’m looking at you.

This episode was brought to you by PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

NARRATOR

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