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Ben Aston So according to PMI research, over 80 percent of high-performing organizations report that the most important skills for project managers to successfully manage complex projects are leadership skills. Now the iron triangle traditionally associated with project management, managing and controlling cost schedule, and performance. They in and of themselves are insufficient for success. So what does project leadership mean? What are these skills? What do they look like? How do you develop it and what does a leadership success look like? Well, keep listening to today’s podcast to discover how to lead projects and teams better so you can deliver more successful valuable projects.
Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Digital Project Manager. Welcome to the DPM podcast. We are on a mission to help project managers succeed, to help people who manage projects delivered better. We’re here to help you take your project game to the next level. Check out thedigitalprojectmanager.com to learn about our training and resources we offer through membership. This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise projects and portfolio management software. Visit Clarizen.com to learn more.
Today, I’m joined by Susanne Madsen. And you can check her out at susannemadsen.co.uk. Susanne is an internationally recognized project leadership coach, trainer, and consultant. She’s the author of The Power of Project Leadership. Now in its second edition and the Project Management Coaching Workbook. And she’s working with organizations across the globe to deliver leadership development programs and exact coaching to help projects and change managers step up and become better leaders. So hi Susanne. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Susanne Madsen Hello, Ben. Thank you so much.
Ben Aston So I want to start by kind of digging a bit into your story. I know you’ve had stacks of project management experience. You’ve evolved from the role of a project manager to a project coach and a leadership coach. But can you tell us how that evolution happens, how you started out as a PM in the first place? And knew that was a good fit and then evolved into this leadership coach role.
Susanne Madsen Yeah, sure. So basically, I’ve got now over between 20 and 25 years of experience. I’ve stopped counting. And back in the days, this was before 2000, I can reveal there wasn’t a big focus on studying project management. So those people who went into project management like me, they kind of fell into it, as we said, the accidental project manager. And at the time, there was a lot of focus on what we called new media, not so new anymore. So companies wanted to, you know, get their own Web sites. There was a lot of commerce going on. So when I graduated, that was where the roles were. So I ended up in a company where I was helping organizations get online. And that’s how I fell into project management. And that just evolved. I became a consultant in technology and I don’t have a technology background. So that was interesting. But always I had that product management role. From there on, I was placed as a consultant into an investment bank and some point. I thought, you know, as a consultant, even if you’re a project manager, you’re kind of being looked down on a little bit because consultants, you know, they go from one thing to the other. So I thought, I’ve got to choose my own at the direction I’m going into actually joined. I joined a bank. And I think most of my project management experience is from finance. But I was still in technology working in between technology and the business. So that’s kind of the first part of my career before I ventured into coaching, as you said.
Susanne Madsen And so obviously, you develop your project management skills to the extent where you felt confident to become a coach. I’m curious as to the Internet, your professional development, as you became a project manager and you developed your skillset, Who were you inspired by or who were you coached by? And what did that coaching look like as you developed in your role in your early career?
You know, it’s a good question, because I remember in my very early career, I went on a traffic management course and there was nothing about scheduling. It was all about people. And I was so disappointed. Whereas now in the latter part of my career, I find the opposite. Do you know? I get disappointed if there’s no oh, got disappointed if there was no focus on on on the people side. So it has definitely evolved and there is a lot more focus on it. Back in the days, I didn’t know about PMP. I didn’t know about prints too. So I was initially learning from people I was working with. But I was always being told so saying you have the black belt in project management. We need to learn from you. You are the expert. Even after three years and project management, I became an expert. So I had to kind of draw. And maybe this is why I got so interested in coaching leadership. But I always drew from other disciplines because I didn’t have any role models in project management. But I remember at one point when I was working for the bank and I never thought what do I need to do now? And I got really good at asking what was the head of the department do right now? So I couldn’t so much draw from other project managers because, as you know, you actually can be a lonely job to be a project manager. So many took direction from other people who were in the organization but who had other roles.
Ben Aston Right, were you working within a team of other project managers or in the bank particularly? Did you find yourself? Were you a bit of a lone wolf in terms of the discipline of project management?
Susanne Madsen Because it was obvious it was not obvious, but it was bigger you know, there were several hundreds of hundred people. And then later I joined, actually Citigroup, which has hundreds of thousands of people. So. But initially, I would say that there were obviously a number of property managers around, but we didn’t work so much across the projects together. So at one point, I was running the largest project in the place where I worked and it was a multi-year with about 50 developers at one stage involving the business as well. And we had about five different. I think sub-teams involved with just technology teams because five different parts of technology were actually involved, and then on top of that, there were the business teams. So there was a lot of collaboration across the different departments, but I was the only project manager. On that project.
Ben Aston So that’s a pretty challenging place to be in where it’s difficult either saying, you know, you’re recognized as the blackmail in project management and you’ve got no one to draw from. Other than maybe other heads of department or discipline leads to a kind of inspire and lead you. So in terms of you developing, then your own project management practice and I guess this philosophy or mindset of project leadership, I’m curious what kind of sparks that for you of the leadership is obviously a big deal from you maybe. Is it because you were drawing from other leaders? I’m curious where that kind of spark of project management versus project leadership came from.
Susanne Madsen So I had a big, big aha moment. And I know exactly when it was was in 2008 and it was actually the week when Lehman Brothers went bust. I remember it so clearly because up until that point, what we’re talking about here, the earlier part of my career. Yes. I was drawing from other people and I was also Googling and I was I think I had I just had an affinity for it. I was passionate. I had some natural skills in the area of project management, but were really what really switched me on was that I was invited to attend a leadership program and I had a complete aha moment because I was a coached for the first time. I was actually officially being taught different models of leadership. Would it self-assessments? We did the whole thing that you have a classic leadership program. And because I was coached for the first time within an hour, I felt completely empowered because I came to that coaching session. You know, you have to choose a topic to be coached on. And my topic was, I’m overwhelmed as a project manager. Help me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to leave my job because I quite enjoy it. But something has to change because as you said before, I had no one really to look to who was also leading big projects and how did they manage all the stress and all the tasks. I became the super project manager who tried to do it all because I hadn’t seen good examples of perhaps delegation or something like that. It did happen, though. I did learn a lot about that, but initially, I didn’t really understand it well. I hadn’t been taught it properly and as a project manager delegate too. So what really happened during that first coaching session was that I realized that all the answers were inside of me and that if I decided to do something different, I could do it. I didn’t have to wait for permission for somebody else. I didn’t have to wait for somebody else to tell me. I could go home at 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. I could actually design it the way I wanted to. It might sound quite simple, and I think in principle it is simple, but it just hasn’t. It was a level of empowerment that I hadn’t felt before and it was like my cloud lifted. And dare I say.
Ben Aston Right. And so I guess maybe yours is something of this transition from me, you fell agency. Yeah. As an individual to make decisions outside of the structure you are working within that you didn’t have just to be carried along by the stream or carried on by the project. But you ask the ability to shape and lead the projects in such a way that you could architect it in a way that worked for you as well as the team to ultimately deliver value that you weren’t beholden to the project itself. You could lead it.
Susanne Madsen No, I always felt like that it was more an internal shift on my own beliefs, in my own head about stress, about how difficult or not it was to be a project manager because I always felt my organization was empowered me to run with it. I had never any constraint. And I think that’s actually what enabled me to develop so much. I could literally experiment and it was a huge project, and the two project managers before me on the same program had lasted for like three, four years. They’d been fired. So I was like, petrified. And the project sponsor, she kept saying to me, Susanne relapsed, not gonna get fired. I was like, well, this easy for you to say. So there was a lot of pressure on me. But I don’t know, something just went really well. I mean, it was a very challenging project, but I was given the freedom to experiment. And as I said, I think that’s what I learned so much from. So I always had that. It’s difficult to explain the switch that happened. It was more like a level of consciousness. It was like I woke up to the fact that I could decide how I wanted to feel, not just think, but whatever I feel. So if I decided not to vote, then pressed about the project when I went home, I could decide not to be stressed.
Ben Aston Yeah. Yeah. And so, I mean, can you help us understand? I mean, you’ve written a book about it, but what is project leadership?
Susanne Madsen So project leadership, I normally contrast it to project management. And there is obviously a big overlap. And when I contrast the two, what does it deliberately. So I see project management or the management side as more like the task-oriented doing. Things, right? Taking the boxes. Perhaps it is very rational, logical that it can be right or wrong. It’s planning as risk management. It’s all that estimation that we do need on a project and in that box as well because it is a bit of a box. I would also classify leading or managing with authority. So if I have that management view, a project management view, I might have a bit of a transactional relationship with people. So I might tell them what I want them to do. Or it’s just more mechanical. So now to your question of what is project leadership? It’s easier now to sit and contrast. So it’s much more visionary, people-oriented. It’s much more transformational when I relate to people and it is not so much of doing things right as it is doing the right things. So I know this is a very black and white way of contrasting it, but it’s kind of helpful. The other thing I would say is that most managers can be cognitively quite intelligent, but they may lack a bit of emotional intelligence. Now, if you think about some of the leaders and if the listeners think about some of the leaders they have looked up to or who they admire. I can guarantee you that those people have a high level of emotional intelligence as well. So for me, that’s one of the big differentiators when we are leaders. We can engage people and we have that emotional intelligence piece because it’s about because projects and leadership are about people. You need to mobilize somebody to help deliver the vision.
Ben Aston Yeah. And so, I mean, let me let’s talk about vision and you know, you touched on that. Peter Drucker quote where he talks about, yeah, management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things. He says that an effective executive. And obviously we have his implementer and visionary role as a project manager. And what you’re talking about is this visionary role is super important. So how do you keep that balance of doing the right thing and doing the thing right? Because we can we can’t just be visionary. We have a leadership role and we have a management role. How do you strike that balance and when do you decide, okay, now we’re just going to deliver that thing that we’ve decided is the right thing?
Susanne Madsen Yeah, I think actually it comes down to each individual conversation we have. We may need both elements because if you sitting with a team member or in a team meeting, what am I now? I’m a project manager. I’m a project leader. Right. I think most conversations require a bit of both. So we need to focus on the tasks. We need to be hard on the output rate or the quality. We need to be able to measure that we have delivered what we need to deliver. I think that’s quite a management like. But there is a whole piece in most conversations about. How do we mobilize the team or what do you guys think? You know, because just because I’m the product manager does mean that I come up with all the ideas. So there’s a whole piece on how we relate to each other, how I speak to people, how I lead the project. So I think it’s in every single conversation that we need to get the balance right. And I’m not saying it’s easy.
Ben Aston Yeah. So there are two hats. But we were both at the same time that leadership and management and we need to be conscious of both. So one challenge I know I have is when we ask project managers, we can kind of get bogged down in the details. And I think the challenging thing can be to be strategic, to be leadership orientated when we are conscious that maybe if we take a step back, we might be creating more work for ourselves or we might be creating more work for the team. And sometimes it can be easier to just focus on delivery because we know that in some sense we will take the box if we deliver the projects on time, on budget, on scope, because that’s what, you know, we’re project managers. But how do you keep yourself out of the weeds? How do you stay strategic and keep the team focussed on that big picture view in terms of delivering value, delivering the right thing, and not being compromised by your maybe tendency to be focussed on? Well, you know, this might not be quite right, but we’ve agreed on it now. So let’s just do it.
Susanne Madsen Yeah. And most project managers are very comfortable doing that as you set perhaps your own challenge, there.
Ben Aston Yeah.
Susanne Madsen Now, first of all, I think the thing is the civil aspects to question one is how do I focus the team but also about myself, because if I want my team to think more strategically and think big picture and I’ll be doing the right things, I need to, first of all, prioritize that myself as a project manager or leader. How do I do that? Because this always issues and stuff to sort out. And my inbox is full, right. And I think the only way is to make it something that is as important as all the urgent emails. It has to be prioritized. And typically, this is the non-urgent but important stuff. So. There need to be some time boxes around, how can I sit and think about. Are we going the right direction and actually having I think one of the ways to do that is to sit and schedule time with the client or whoever the client is, whether they’re internal or external, to understand what is going on for them. Because ultimately that’s the only way I can keep the vision alive for me and my team is to keep walking in the shoes of those people who we are delivering to and for. So I need to do that as a project manager and leader, and I need to involve my team in that because otherwise and I’ve experienced this, the team becomes too disconnected from why we are doing this. So it’s continuously remembering why. And also the closer we all are to the client or the end-user, the more we will be able to understand if the vision needs to change a bit. If the product needs to change a bit because things do change all the time as we know. So in summary, I would say it’s about setting the time aside and involving the end client and making sure that my team is in on that, and actually for me to do that personally, another thing is delegation, because if I’m too much in the weeds because I am a micromanager and I’m making all the decisions on my project, I will have no time to look up and to look ahead. So delegation is very important.
Ben Aston Yeah, I think I think that’s great advice. And I think, yeah, the more that we can understand the why of the project and understand that user needs and be really focussed on those when we’re briefing, that’s a more experienced team. Okay. This is what we’re doing. But let’s start with why we’re doing it. And when we’ve got that said, understanding of the value that we’re trying to deliver, we can get a lot more alignment around value delivering value early, often iteratively, which ultimately is going to deliver success at the end of the day for the project. You know, we’re trying we’re doing a project because we’re trying to generate more value at the back end of the project than the value that we’re putting into it. That’s what makes the project worth doing the first place. And I think sometimes we can get caught up in, okay, well, we just need to get these deliverables out the door and then we’ll be thought sorted. But it’s not about the deliverables, it’s about creating value and creating more value out than goes in. So I mean you talk about your team and delegating.
Susanne Madsen I’m sorry to drop. I might just add something to your previous point. If you were about to go on to another point, I’m not sure. However, I want to say something about purpose because talking about why? Why are we delivering something? What I see a lot when I’m out there is that yes, it is, as you’re saying, easy to get into the task and get task focussed. But every single person and every single team member are driven by purpose and they want to know that they’re contributing. And one of the best ways to connect each team member’s purpose is to have the conversation about how are you helping fulfill your purpose by seeing that we’re delivering this piece of work for this client. And some people like me maybe they don’t see the link, but it’s a very important conversation to have because every single project adds value. As you’re saying, there should be value in every single project. And that in itself has a purpose. And project managers are not very good at talking to the teams about what the purposes of what we’re doing and how it can link to each team member’s purpose. So I think that’s another big piece of leadership that certainly many project managers are not comfortable getting there or going there because leadership is really also understanding what motivates each individual. So sorry, that was what I wanted to say.
Ben Aston Yeah one we let’s talk about leading the team because I guess there is leading the project in terms of vision casting, in terms of making sure big picture we are delivering value. But there is also leading the team in terms of helping the team understand their role within the project, why their role is important, motivating them in that. What does that project’s leadership look like for you in terms of serving the team and taking ownership of the team in terms of making that team? Team’s engine hum. And I’m working as effectively as possible.
Susanne Madsen You know, early on, like years ago, I used to think that this of this ultimate project management leader, I think as the super project manager, somebody who would make many of the decisions and who would make the team comfortable and protect the team. And I’ve really, really changed my view on that, because that’s just a superb manager. That’s not a leader. So in leading the team, it is really about being able to be, well, sufficiently visible, and make some difficult decisions sometimes. But it is not on the leader’s shoulder, on the project leaders shoulder to do all of that and to make all the decisions and to have all the knowledge, because we live in a time now when it is not possible for that person to make all those decisions. So it’s really about the collective. That’s where the team comes in. So it’s very interesting to look at what makes a high performing team. So a high performing team is actually a team where everybody within the team contributes in roughly equal amounts. So if you have 17 members, you would expect each of those seven team members to be communicating, speaking, and delivering work in roughly equal amounts. So it means that you don’t have one team member who is like a half-half utilized engine to use a very technical word. And you can say, well, how do we get to a point? Because I’m sure that every single listener now who thinks of a team, they will say, oh, it’s like three or four people in the team who are doing most of the communication, most of the decision making. So how do we get to a point where we can fire up all of these engines? And a big piece of what the research shows is that we need psychological safety to get there. So some people who are more introverted, they’re not just going to come forward with their ideas are not going to challenge decisions because they’re introverts. They need to feel psychologically safe in order to do that. And this is a big piece and a big part of what a leader needs to do to not blame people, to not criticize people for their ideas, because if he or she does that, the team will stop contributing and coming forward. So creating space can be vulnerable. And where we are allowed to make mistakes is one of the key pieces here.
Ben Aston And so when we have when we’re thinking about our team, we’re allowing the team to contribute to making mistakes. How do we measure effectiveness in that? I mean, there’s. There’s the team contributing, there’s them being this collaborative effort about harnessing the power of the team. Both, where does the where do you see the kind of leadership role in providing direction within that? Because I know from my experience, once you throw everything open hands and then say, okay, this isn’t just about me, I’m not going to dictate the path here. I want this to be a collaborative effort. You obviously start getting then you’re opening yourself up to, you know, the tech lead saying one thing, the creative leads saying another thing. The user experience person saying another thing. Everybody’s got different ideas. And we start making the project more complicated because instead of casting a really, really clear path of, okay, this is the direction and here’s why we’ve then thrown everything back open again. So any tips for kind of drawing the team together to agree on, hey. Well, this is the solution that we can go to.
Susanne Madsen Mm-hmm. I think there are some pieces on a project that are non-negotiable. And then there are pieces that are negotiable. So how I write and how we work together should be a negotiable item. And the project manager, stroke leader here needs to be, I think the facilitator. So the facilitator can be hard as well. So I sometimes talk about the yin and yang of leadership, the ying leader is this very accommodating, very understanding, very listening, nurturing person who we need, because otherwise we’re not gonna make the team feel psychologically safe. But we also need the yang side, the demanding, the challenging side. And again, we need both at the same time, we need both in the same conversation, ideally. So I think where we need to be hard, we need to be hard on our expectations of each other, how we relate to each other. So I like to be hard on, as I said, how we are interacting. So if you say you’re going to do something, I will hold you to account. That is me being hard on you, but I can be soft by asking you so I can be more like the ying leader by asking you what support do you need from me? When do you feel you can commit to this piece of work? How often are we going to check in with each other? So I will ask all the questions to make sure that you are committed to delivering the piece of work and that I’m not telling you what or how to do it. You are telling me how you’re gonna do it, but I’m absolutely gonna hold you to account for it because this is your piece of work. You need to own it. And I think junior project managers have difficulties holding people to account. And one reason they have difficulties holding people to account in the team is that they feel may be them or junior whatever. But the other reason is that they never agreed on what the ground rules were. They never agreed. Those are the many words for it. You know, engagement. Terms of engagement. Whatever you want to call it. But how are we gonna work together? So when we go into a meeting, as you just said before, and we are discussing what piece of technology we’re gonna use or what’s the best solution here? Before we even get to talk about the topic of conversation, we got to talk about how we’re gonna do this. Are we going to go around the table for five minutes and then we’ll left? I will make the decision as a project leader. I’m not saying the team needs to decide everything, but I’m saying the needs to be some rules of engagement and I can be the facilitator that conversation. And once you agreed on how to interact, I need to uphold it and hold people to account. So I’m curious if that made any sense.
Ben Aston Here. Yeah. Now, I think I’ve been getting a commitment from the team that is super important. And I think yeah, I think you’re totally right. When we where projects tend to go off the rails, Virginia project managers tend to be because no one ever actually agreed on anything. It’s like we had a conversation. But yes. Did you actually agree at the end of the conversation while everyone was gonna do and when they were going to do it by and how they were going to do it. What the deliverables were gonna be. Exactly. And that tends to be the point where things fall apart because that’s the most difficult part of the conversation. Were saying, okay, well, to close the loop here, this is the plan. We all agreed on that. And that’s the key part, I think, for thinking of project management, not just us. We’re not just going along for the ride. We’re not just administrators, but this is where we can actually step up and show leadership is by calling people to account and at the end of the conversation, summarising clearly and setting a clear direction for the team so that everyone’s got this shared understanding. And that is that’s providing leadership, that’s providing vision. It is providing these. Yeah, there are the boxes for the project to work within and for everyone to understand. Okay. Well, you know, Susanne expects this of me and I’m comfortable with that so I can deliver it to it. And having that closing that conversation is super important.
Susanne Madsen But also, you said are we all agreed to this plan at the end of the meeting? And that’s good. But an even better question is, which part do you not agree with? Because when we ask these close questions is easy for people to say, show we agree. But if I explicitly ask you now, hands up now, if you feel like anything in here that we haven’t estimated right. Or that you don’t. That you feel is too risky or whatever it is. But asking the open question, because, again, I’m asking you if you have an issue with it, tell me now, don’t tell me in two weeks when you telling me you underestimated it. Tell me now what you need. So those open questions are something that we need to get in the habit of asking. And another point of what you said before, why junior product managers may not want to hold or not so good of holding people to account is also because they don’t have the subject matter expertise. And I’m always in two minds here because I’m not advocating that product managers need to be subject matter experts because then they might just rely on the knowledge, but they need enough knowledge that they are comfortable holding people to account and that they know enough about the solution, that they can have those challenging conversations.
Ben Aston Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s why subject matter expertise. I think I always say like the extent to which you need it is the extent to which you’re able to ask appropriate questions. So you don’t need to know how to do it, but you need to know what a good question is to ask someone around it so that you can help them understand. You can help them estimate. You can help them understand the risk. That’s a good level of expertise, too, to aspire to develop. So. We are obviously in an era of remote leadership for project managers, which is maybe unprecedented, the extent to which project managers are now expected to be remote. Project managers, I’m curious as to how you think that role of project leadership evolves or changes in an in-person context vs. remote and if there are any tips that you have for leading projects remotely effectively?
Susanne Madsen It’s interesting because I had this experience 15 years ago when I was working with teams. I was located in London. I was working with teams in the US and in India and in other parts of Europe and. We, I mean, it was. And I guess it’s more and more common and is even more common in the US and it is in Europe today, irrespective of the current crisis as it’s becoming more common to work remotely. And I remembered at one point, so we had a daily touchpoint, you know, midday for me because we could both get ingenuous on the court at the same time.
And I remember at one point some of my product sponsors, they said, you know who all these developers in India. Can we not just cut some of them? They have no relationship with them. And what I did not just for my sponsor, but it was an added benefit. I asked everybody and we were just short of 30 people. So it was quite a big team. I asked everybody to send me a picture, a photo of themselves and a description of what they did in their spare time. And I put together this PowerPoint presentation because all the people on the call, they didn’t know each other either. We have some satellite offices. Some people knew each other in smaller pockets. And then we had a few people who were completely remote. And this PowerPoint presentation. I’m not saying it’s the silver bullet or anything, but it did change something because we had a talking point. So whenever we came to our course. Well, back in the days 15 years ago, we didn’t actually have many video conference calls. So today is different, but it gave us a point of a talking point because we knew so much about each other. And I still remember one person could play 27 instruments and we had two people who wanted to cross the Atlantic. And there were just so many unbelievable things that were interested and interesting and we would have never found out otherwise. So make it personal. I know what some people do on remote calls. They take turns. So one person brings a picture from anything that could be anything they bring and they talk about something that they are passionate about. And not everybody talks at every call, but they take turns. So what I’m trying to explain is that as a leader, if we don’t see our team, we still need to try to create that connection. That personal touch and personal stories are some of the ways we can do that. But it needs to be like cut down versions because we don’t have that much time either. So that’s just one aspect of it. And then obviously, I think as teams become more remote, we still need to put into our budgets that the team needs to meet occasionally, at least for the project kick-off ideally because when you know, somebody in person is much easier to be remote afterward.
Ben Aston Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think there are those tips for humanizing one another I think are super important. And I think when we become faceless or the I guess the room where there’s not a relationship there because we don’t understand people. Trust doesn’t exist. It is super hard to lead. And I think making time as a remote project manager to allow the team to get to know one only one another to bond with one another and doing simple things like hey, let’s have a show and tell every time or let’s go-rounds quickly and tell the team. Tell everybody one thing that we did at the weekend, even those small things incrementally will over time build trust, build relationships. And as a leader, that’s well, that’s what we need for our teams to function. Well, it’s there needs to be trusted to exist between the team members and further team members to, you know, believe that other people in the team are, you know, have their best interests at heart and aren’t. It helps prevent some of this internal infighting that can happen where people just don’t know each other very well. So putting additional emphasis on it and making time for it, I think is super important as project managers. I think sometimes we can tend to go towards, okay, well, we’ve got 30 minutes for this meeting. Let’s get this done. But actually just making five minutes, in the beginning, to be really deliberate and intentional about building relationships within the team, I think goes a long way to help oil the wheels of a project where or a team that might not know each other or trusts each other very well.
Susanne Madsen My colleague Peter even off for talks a lot about virtual teams. He always has a story that I love because he used to run that project many years ago with remote team members. And what they did was they created a common goal so that because they had a very tough deadline and come and Goldman that each team member needed to deliver their particular tasks at a certain time. They all committed and only if they all did it. Would they get the bonus and the bonus was actually a trip? It was a physical trip to a part where because this was an Eastern Europe and it was kind of a trip that many of them wouldn’t have been able to afford. But by creating this common goal, he convinced the client, the sponsor of the project, that it would be cheaper to send all of them on this one week holiday if they all delivered on time rather than being 2, 3, 4 weeks late, which would normally happen. And I think we all know that this happens. We get a little bit late and actually the run rate, the burn rate of team members. It’s very expensive. So create common goals like that where there is a bonus and it doesn’t have to be as major as that one. But we are all in it because otherwise we become just individuals and there’s no link between us. We’re not a team. Then we could just individual contributors.
Ben Aston Yeah, definitely. I mean, we’re talking about remote leadership. But right now we’re combined with that’s combined with the additional stress of crisis leadership as well, where not only has the nature of our projects changed in that we tend to be now working nearly all remotely, but we’re working through a crisis as well. I’m curious as to if you’ve got any insights on leading through turmoil or leading through a particularly challenging part of a project. What are the things that you do to kind of stabilize the ship? The ship being a project hands older team and help. Helped drive the project and the team forward, even in the midst of a storm around you. What are the things for you that are important to put in place to enable the team to do their best work and to keep keep the projects on the rails?
Susanne Madsen So first of all, I would say to stabilize emotions and this is a piece we didn’t talk so much about, but this is where we really need our emotional intelligence. If I have team members who are fearful because fear is one of those dominant emotions that crop up during a crisis at the moment, obviously there’s fear around contracting the virus or it could be fear around anything else. You know, even if we moving offices, I’m fearful because I don’t know what it means to me and my desk space. So any change? And change project, there will be any crisis, there may be some fear involved. Not from everybody, but from some people. Now, if I’m trying to speak logic to somebody who is fearful that they can actually not hear me because they’re physically in a different part of their brain, they’re in the fight or flight brain, which is that middle part of our brain. So first of all, we need to calm ourselves down. And the leader has a big role to play here in listening, understanding, empathizing. So this is where things side of leadership comes in. And then after people begin to calm down a bit and they will only calm down as if they feel they’ve been listened to. Then we can begin to speak more logic. And that’s where the next piece data comes in because, in a crisis, we need data. And I think that’s so interesting with the current crisis. And I don’t want to turn this into a political conversation, but I think the problem is, as so many of the world leaders, they haven’t had the data because they didn’t have the test results. They didn’t really know how deadliest this virus. So without clear data sets, it can be quite it’s more challenging to lead and to find the right strategy. So we really need to focus on data where we can and to get accurate data where we can focus the team on it. What do we know? What do we not know? And to take those deep breaths and make sure we’re managing our emotions. And then perhaps just the third thing I’d mentioned here is hope because whenever there are a crisis and this fear and this change, people need hope. They need to know that there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel. And the leader may not be able to say when it is or what it is, but they can at least kind of say that it will be all right no matter what. We got to get through it. You know, there will be an offer at a crisis point so that probably the three elements I would highlight.
Ben Aston Yeah, I think that hope one is so powerful and I think there’s something that we can do as project managers, as project leaders to help the team feel hope, and that is to help the team win. And I think when a team feels like they’re winning, the team begins to develop some momentum. And then things there’s a snowball effect. There’s a winning. There’s a hopeful snowball effect. So as a project leader, one of the things that we can do is help the team to win more and help the team find hope through winning. And the way that we do that, I think, is by creating small finding some low hanging fruit, finding an easy win, and then and then winning, achieving it and then celebrating that win. And through that process of the team feeling like, hey, we just did that. We may not have been in a big thing, but it could just be. Okay, well, let’s just finish this number of tasks before the end of the week. Let’s celebrate it. And actually then the team feels like they’re winning. They feel some hope that the team begins to feel some momentum.
Susanne Madsen Yeah.
Ben Aston And I think that is really powerful in helping people stop being so focussed on failure and then begin to actually think, hey, you know, we might be able to do this.
Susanne Madsen Yeah. Yeah, definitely, and that’s true whether it’s a crisis or not. You need to build that faith-based on based on real deliverable deliverables, small, small achievements, as you’re saying.
Ben Aston So one thing I’m curious about is fruitfulness. Or how do you know? What are the signs of a good leader? How do you know if you’re leading well and if all your projects are a disaster? Does that mean it’s your fault? Or is it the team’s fault? As often as project managers, we’re dealt a bad hand with a team. Jim Collins often talks about having the right people on the bus. And, you know, you can do anything with the right people. As project managers, we don’t get a say in that. So how do you know if you’re experiencing project failure or at least it seems that way. How do you know if that’s you or how do you know if it’s your team? And how do you kind of take responsibility and take ownership of improving yourself and the way that you lead? But also, you know, before we talked about keeping the team accountable. So how do you decide who’s at fault or how do you measure your fruitfulness as a project leader?
Susanne Madsen He’s almost always probably going to be a mixed bag. And I’m not a big fan of placing blame. But then we do need to understand where things went wrong as well. Right. So I think it all comes back to what were the objectives of the project? What was so did we fail on objective measures or was it just that we delivered what we were contracted to deliver? But it was a mess internally because that to me is also not a success. Now, I talked before about setting some ground rules in the team so we can do that with a team charters. This is not a project charter. This is a team charter. How are we gonna work together? And for me, this is a key element in looking at. Where did we go wrong? Is it me or is it you? What did we agree? How did we agree to work together? What were my roles, responsibilities? What were your roles and responsibilities? And I don’t just mean the job roles. Because that doesn’t say much. It’s more how, how are we going to make decisions? What did we agree about decision making? What do we agree about meeting culture? What did we agree about how to handle conflicts? All of those difficult things. I would if I run a product today, I would sit down, have those challenging conversations so that we know what good looks like without knowing what good looks like. It’s very difficult to evaluate if we got there or not. So there are the objective measures of a project time cost quality. Then there is a business case aspect of a project. Did it add value? Did it at the businesses as strategic objectives, which is a longer-term measure? And then there is this whole piece about how did we gel together in the team. The thing is, only when you look at all those measures, you can read it as you can really understand with data again, what where did it go wrong? And another piece that we haven’t touched upon is feedback because I might think that it all went very well. But if you ask my team, they’re going to say something else. So asking for feedback is one of those things that we can do and we should do. And that is probably the most important thing we can do to improve our leadership skills.
Ben Aston Yeah, and I think those retrospectives are super helpful when we think about, and sometimes making them anonymous can be useful, at least in the initial stage send just asking our team to fill out a survey. Hey, what do you think went well? What didn’t go so well? What should we do differently next time? How did I do? Making that anonymous might help people say things that you need to know, but they’re scared to tell you. But getting feedback is going to be the only way that we are going to personally improve. And Iterates is unlikely that we suddenly have a spark of inspiration that suddenly makes us change and improve the way we lead. But for someone who is thinking, oh well, I was always content with just being a project manager, now you’re talking about project leadership. What advice would you give to someone who has who now has an epiphany? Oh, okay. Well, actually, I understand project leadership is important and I need to do more than just deliver the things I need to deliver the right things. So where would you suggest someone starts on their project Leadership Journey? What for you are some of the I mean, your whole book is about 7 things that people need to know, need to think about the keys to how we transform from project manager to project leader. But where for you is an important starting point in that journey.
Susanne Madsen Yes, you said there are seven keys, so it is quite comprehensive. I would say start with emotional intelligence and asking more open questions because if I am a good project manager. But I’m very much of the task-oriented side. Chances are I’m going to. I’m telling you more that I’m asking. And this superhero project manager is not a project leader. So we might confuse the two. I know that I did originally. So ask more questions, asking more open questions of the team. Also about innovation, how could we do this differently, what if we were to start all over? What would happen then or what? Just any kind of open question, which is basically a what question or a how question I think is a really good place to start. And looking at emotional intelligence or emotional intelligence is a huge topic, but it’s split into my knowledge about myself and my own reaction patterns and my knowledge about others and how good I am. That said, understanding and empathizing with others. So redeveloping those two areas, because as a project leader was leader, I am good at monitoring and managing my own emotions. So if I get angry at a team member who hasn’t delivered their stuff, maybe it’s not a good idea that I start yelling at them. I’m picking an extreme example, but managing my own emotions. And it doesn’t mean suppressing them. It just means being conscious about when I do what and the other end of the spectrum is then understanding others and beginning to empathize with my client. What’s going on for my client? What’s going on for my team members? So that’s a huge step. So. Reflection Journalling is a good places to start.
Ben Aston Yeah, I think that’s pretty powerful advice. First understanding and then seeking to be understood. But it comes from a place of empathy and understanding our team, understanding their motivations. Being aware not only of how we react, but how our team is likely to react to them and why they’re reacting in certain ways that can help us provide the leadership for the project to deliver success. So thank you so much for joining us today. Susanne, it’s been great having you with us.
Susanne Madsen You’re welcome. I really enjoyed it.
Ben Aston So what do you think? What are your tips and tricks for project leadership? Do you consider yourself a project leader or project manager? And does it matter? Tell us what works and what doesn’t work for you in the comments below. I’d love to hear your fail stories, your wins. Tell us all. And if you want to learn more and get in your head in your work, come and join our tribe with DPM Membership. Head to thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership to get access to our Slack team. Templates, workshops, office hours, ebooks, and more. And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe and take a couple of minutes to leave us our view on Apple podcasts. But until next time. Thanks for listening.