I’ve always thought that any failure is a waste unless one learns something from it.
But when K-Mart sank under the weight of a $1.8B IT infrastructure project in 2017, it seemed that the lessons learned from it would be bitter ones.
K-Mart began a $1.8 billion dollar IT infrastructure modernization project that ultimately bankrupted the company. When Sears Holdings bailed them out, they closed over 600 stores and laid off 67,000 employees.
In 2018 Sears Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In 2019 CNN Business made the point that they believed a major key was the 12 months the organization went without a CEO.
The failure that taught me a huge lesson about absent leaders came when I worked on a team where the ‘project manager’ was present in a physical sense only. Tall, with the stance and stride of an athlete, he was charming, almost always smiling slightly. He had made a science – a lifestyle! – of putting off making decisions. In several cases, indefinitely. Frustration was a constant companion to the three smaller teams responsible for more than 75% of the work. The other two team leads and I did our best. The project manager had been decisive about and micromanaged only 1 area – the communications channels with the senior leadership team. The three of us strategized about solutions. In the end, having inadvertently given him just enough rope, he hung himself.
Leadership from anywhere at the table (or on the Zoom screen) does not negate the need for the final voice. Together with my colleagues and having built a team culture of open and safe communications, we knew we would get the best information from our teams. We had also learned the bitter lesson about the impact of avoiding the responsibilities of leadership. Getting that lesson this way was powerful. Not one of us has ever forgotten the cost of being unwilling to make a decision, communicate it and execute on it.
Sometime I get to witness a really interesting range of behavior.
A particular example is stuck in my mind.
At the rental car return in Los Angeles a group of us – growing from 7 to 12 in 20 minutes, waited for the shuttle to take us to back to the airport. One of the twelve was quite vocal about the annoyance. Her tone, her complaints, did resonate with most of us. She kept demanding answers from a manager who didn’t have any answers.
Another car rental company’s shuttle driver approached the drop off area for a second time, and assessed the situation. He chose kindness. He chose to extend himself.
“I’ll take you,” he offered. “Come on – I have a couple of people that I need to pick up around the corner then I can take all of you.”
We swarmed down to his bus, many calling out ‘thank you!’.
Along the way, the same vocal traveler from the curb suggested he change his route. It would, she asserted, be faster. He politely declined; he had a route mandated by his boss. On the third time she tried to redirect him, he asked, looking up at the ceiling of the bus, ‘Do you want to drive too?’
I was one of the last people he dropped off. I gave him a tip as a thank you for going out of his way. He was pleasantly surprised and, almost as an afterthought, mentioned that this was the only tip he had been offered.
I was embarrassed on behalf of my fellow travelers. I muttered something about how I appreciated what he did and walked into the terminal.
Many of the travelers that driver helped out were easily wearing more on their backs than he would make in a week. But that was not the heart of my distress.
What really bugged me was this:
Have we become so entitled that we believe saying ‘Thank you’ to people covers it? Even when people go out of their way to extend a helping hand?
Today, in this economic reality, more and more people struggle to get to the end of the month – often facing hard budget choices. I mean hard decisions like “how much can I spend on groceries without having to arrange a payment schedule for my utilities?”
Not choices of ‘I really wanted to buy those shoes, that suit, that backpack, but I’m also saving for a Caribbean cruise so maybe I should hold off’.
When you choose not to be kind or generous in return for treatment that has been kind and generous it is a sign. It suggests that you are pretty sure that you are more important than they are.
Are you just in too much of a hurry to turn your attention to a gesture of appreciation towards someone else?
What is it that keeps civility and good behavior going? Sometimes it’s the way we were raised. Sometimes it’s the surety of a ‘heaven or hell’ type of faith. Sometimes it’s being aware that the focus on whatever we care about in that moment might be blinding us to our fellow human beings. Sometimes it’s our mirror neurons kicking in when we are around civil and well-behaved people.
Unfortunately, those mirror neurons also pick up on patterns of behavior that we don’t want to adopt.
I won’t waste time and energy being frustrated by people who are self-centric, dismissive of the needs of others, or simply oblivious to the guidelines of ethical and humane treatment of others. I have decided to view those experiences as object lessons. Here’s why:
Your example reaches further than you may realize – you don’t get to choose how many people your behavior will affect but you do get to choose what effect you make. The behaviors you exhibit anywhere give me – and everyone else – important cues to how you will also likely lead.
It only takes a moment to show appreciation for service you’ve received -especially when it is ‘above and beyond’ service. Think about your answer to this question: Do you think your people – your team – feel overappreciated?
Reach for an ‘anti-goal’ approach. Take it as an example of what you do not want to become – not even accidentally.
I commit myself, as I will likely have to do a number of times, to this mindset: It is worth it to maintain a standard of kindness and generosity I can be proud of.
Busily 'clipping' articles I found interesting, an article on managing contacts from last year caused a pause. As project leaders, especially in this environment, it can be easy to fall back on a communications plan. But is that a really human way to manage expectations and relationships? What is your favourite way to keep the 'relations' in 'relationship management' lively, connective and useful?
The broad scale of loss is becoming painfully evident. Loss of those who have succumbed to the C-19, loss of a sense of safety, loss of workplace and team identity, and loss of an understanding how our world works.
As team leader, you can help. Here are a few key points:
No one deals with grieving in exactly the same way. Our personal frame of reference can get in our way, if we let it. Each of us recovers our new level of equilibrium in different rhythms. That rhythm might include circling back. That’s okay. That’s human.
‘Let’s help!’ Perhaps, yet perhaps not now. Loss is intensively personal. Who and what we grieve for can’t always be understood by others. A suggestion: Let them know you are there, ask them about specific tasks that are due and whether or not they would prefer to set up a temporary task share. Acknowledge their grieving, let them guide the pace and topic of any further chats.
Your team’s culture can support the members if that culture continues to be carefully tended – perhaps even deepened. What suggestions will you share about how you can lead the way?
Have you ever accidentally gotten in your own way? Every project manager, every project leader balances the wants and needs of their clients. Sometimes, though, we forget that what we’re making, all respect to the pride of professionalism in our team members, doesn’t actually belong to us! So a shout out to my wonderful colleagues – how do you keep your team’s focus on what the customer needs?