Built Intelligence

The challenges of the past year have made you stronger By Susanne Madsen

The challenges of the past year have made you stronger By Susanne Madsen

What a couple of years it's been for all of us! We have experienced large amounts of change, uncertainty and - of course - remote working! For teams who had never worked remotely before, it's been a steep learning curve. But even for teams who were technically well placed to deal with the new situation, it’s been challenging. Businesses have had to reprioritise projects, introduce new ways of working and ask employees to go above and beyond. But the most difficult aspect has been the emotional turmoil due to the pandemic. Fear and anxiety have been widespread and so has anger and loneliness. 

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and to only see the negative in our situation, but when we look back at the past year and consider how much we have grown, the taste in our mouth can quickly change. Even if you feel nothing much happened apart from sitting in front of your screen, you've probably grown leaps and bounds. Stress and adversity can be a great teacher even if it's initially hard to see. 

With the new year upon us, I encourage you to look back and ponder all the things you have learnt in 2021. In which ways have you had to adapt and expand due to adversity? How have you progressed and how can you continue to develop going forward?
Review the past year
Let's examine what happened last year. Take a notebook and make a list of everything that went well on your projects in spite of the challenging circumstances. In which ways did you successfully collaborate, lead and navigate uncertainty? What achievements are you most proud of? What personal attributes did you develop at work and outside of work? Take time to savour these moments and pad yourself on the back, as you can’t be sure that anyone else will do it. Looking back through your calendar and noticing all the things you did, will remind you of how far you have come and what you have learnt. It will make you stand taller and give you renewed energy for the year ahead. 
Also take time to consider what didn’t go so well in 2021. Perhaps some of the challenges were too great for you to handle. That’s okay. Take a deep breath and accept it. There’s no need to beat yourself up about it. Also consider what feedback you received from clients, colleagues and managers. Be careful not to see critical feedback as something negative, but as an opportunity to grow and continue to develop. We all have areas we can improve on. When they are brought to our awareness, at least we can do something about it. 
To continue to develop your personal leadership skills in the new year, have a look through the eight topics below. They are grouped into the categories of leading self, leading others, and leading the project. Read through each of them and assess which ones you need to pay the most attention to going forward.
Leading self

1. To what degree are you able to control your impulses? 
There are many situations on a project that can trigger your emotions, and if you’re not careful they can cause you to overreact and to do or say things that you will later regret. When an unexpected issue or challenge crops up, when a stakeholder changes their mind about a requirement, or when a team member hasn’t completed the work they said they would, it can cause you stress and trigger an emotional reaction. Noticing and expressing your emotions is a good thing, but reacting unduly – or overreacting – because you feel angry, upset or afraid should for the most part be avoided. Form the habit in the new year to become aware of how you feel about a situation and consciously choose how you want to respond. Never send an email or give instructions to a team member when you feel angry. First find a way to calm yourself down so that you can think clearly. You can do that by taking a short time-out, breathing deeply or going for a walk. 

2. To what degree do you have a mindset of success?
Are you able to focus all of your energy on being the best leader you can of your project, or do your thoughts side-track and sabotage you? What are some of the stories you are telling yourself? Perhaps a little voice inside of you is saying that you are not experienced enough, not technical enough, not old enough or perhaps too old to effectively lead a project? Studies show that up to 75% of people’s thoughts tend to be negative, which means that we are our own worst enemy. To be a successful project leader you have to manage your thoughts and remove the negative ones as you would weeds in a garden. If you feel your knowledge is not up to scratch, sign up to a course or find a mentor, but don’t beat yourself up with self-deprecating thoughts. Simply become conscious about what you are thinking and deliberately substitute any limiting beliefs with a set of more empowering ones. If you’re unsure how to do it, find a coach who can help you.
3. How good is your ability to manage time? 
Are you working proactively and do you get through most of your scheduled tasks during a working day? To be as effective as you can in the new year, take control of time and manage it well instead of letting time manage you. If you feel that you’re not getting enough work done, block out some time in the morning where you work uninterruptedly on your most important tasks. Resist the temptation to clear the small items first and be careful not to multitask, as it will dramatically lower your focus and productivity. If you manage to get most of your big tasks done early in the day it doesn't matter that the remainder of the day is consumed by interruptions, meetings and urgent issues. 

Leading others

4. To what extent are you able to fully engage and motivate others?
Are you paying sufficient attention to how you motivate your team and make each member feel appreciated and included? Studies show that high performance occurs when all members of a team communicate and contribute in roughly equal amounts – something which is made possible when people feel safe to express their views and ideas without being criticized or dismissed. During team meetings, encourage people to share what’s on their mind and close the meeting by inviting those who haven’t yet contributed to share their ideas, thoughts and feelings. You can also encourage team members to speak up during your one-to-one’s. These meetings shouldn’t be spent just tracking progress and talking about tasks and assignments. They should also address how they feel and how you work together. Ask the team member if they feel that the delegation and escalation process between the two of you is working and if they are getting the support and guidance from you that they need. In the new year begin to initiate these kinds of honest and direct conversations and really value your team member’s input.
5. How good are you at holding people to account?
As much as you need to support, encourage and listen to your team members, you also need to challenge them and hold them to account. Otherwise, high performance is unlikely to happen. It can be truly motivating to have clear performance targets, so mutually agree measurable goals and objectives for all assignments. Remember that it’s not your role to singlehandedly set the targets. Ideally targets and SMART measures should be set by the individual team member based on their own analysis and estimates. When team members set their own targets regarding when a task will be delivered and how quality will be measured, it’s much easier for you to hold them to account. On the contrary it’s almost impossible to hold someone accountable to something they have not been part of agreeing.  
6. To what extent do you tailor your communication?
Do you understand who all your stakeholders are and do you tailor your approach and method of communication to each of them? Some people say that you have to treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself, but it’s far better to treat people the way they would like to be treated. Everyone has different communication preferences. Some of your stakeholders would like you to drop them an email to inform them of what is happening. Others would like you to inform them at your regular face-to-face meetings – or they want you to escalate to them via a weekly status report. Don’t make the mistake of treating everyone the same. Instead ask your most important clients and stakeholders how they would like you to keep them informed. Some may need a bit of time to consider your question, as they may never have been asked that question before.

Leading the Project
7. How good are you at scheduling retrospectives?
Do you regularly take time out to validate that your project is headed in the right direction and to assess what you can improve and change going forward? Having regular retrospectives is an essential part of leading a project because it enables you to course correct and engage the team in the process. Some of the questions you can ask of the team are: 
  • What is working really well for other teams that we can replicate? 
  • What does our gut tell us about the project? 
  • Which bad decisions have we made that need to be reverted? 
  • What would we do differently if we bet our own money on this? 
  • What do our customers and executives keep complaining about? 
  • What are we not seeing that is new or different? 
8. How certain are you that the project has a strong business case? 
The purpose of your project is to deliver specific outputs and outcomes to your client or project sponsor, right? Well, that’s partly right. The ultimate purpose is for those outputs and outcomes to add value and deliver the business benefits. Many project managers conveniently forget this last step as they believe that it’s the sponsor’s or client’s responsibility to ensure that a valid business case is in place. But great project leaders are happy to co-own the business case and actively take an interest in helping to realize it. How good are you personally at understanding the project’s ultimate purpose and the wider business context? If you feel that this is a weak spot, make it a priority for 2022. Few things are more powerful on a project than understanding the business aspect. 
Now that you have carried out your review, choose three areas to work on in 2022. Don’t overcommit yourself by setting too ambitious goals. Small, steady steps is the best way to move forward and set yourself and your project up for success.

About the author

Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and facilitator. She is the author of The Power of Project Leadership (now in 2nd edition) and The Project Management Coaching Workbook. You can read more about Susanne's coaching, training and consulting services on www.susannemadsen.com

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