6 Truths About Project Leadership Learned from Trial & Error

By: Kari Vondracek | March 17, 2020

When I was a young, know-it-all, 25-year-old, I was put into my first managerial position. I was a fresh college graduate with no little to no experience, and I received no training on how to be an effective leader.

It didn’t go well.

As a young leader, I made a lot of mistakes. But I’d like to think I have learned and grown over the years. Let my learnings from a journey of trial and error help you become a more effective leader.

1. Do Not Let Other People’s Perception Become Your Reality

One day I had to go to a parent teacher conference for one of my kids who had undiagnosed ADHD and other issues for a while in elementary school. The teacher told me he never reads the child’s file until the day before conferences. He does this so that he can learn and know these children without the added noise of other people’s opinions. When he read that file, he said he was amazed. The kid that was described in that file was NOT the same kid he was with every day, and he was certainly glad he allowed himself a clean slate because he may have approached things differently.

When you are just starting out, you will often find that people will want to give you a “heads-up” on specific concerns they may have about a person. When that happens, WALK AWAY! One person’s experience does not equal another’s. Rather, take the time to meet your team, learn about them, and form your own opinions through your own experiences. 

2. Be An Advocate For Your Team

That young 25-year-old kid never stood up for her team. They didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them. I certainly wasn’t going to get in front of a speeding bus on their behalf. They knew this and reacted accordingly. I worked with another manager that people absolutely loved. She was fair but firm. What I learned from her over the time we worked together was:

  • Know when to stand in front of your team and when to stand behind them. Be their shield when someone is trying to get in their way but give them the spotlight when things are going well.
  • Appreciate the time you have with people. Time is our most valuable asset, and you should never take for granted that people are using their most precious commodity on you.
  • The team is not there to serve you. You may have the conversations with the leadership team, and you may be the face of the project, but without your team there is no project.  
  • Ask how you can help and ask again. Look for ways to remove impediments to their progress.
  • Listen to what your team is NOT saying. Sometimes people don’t like to complain. Odd right? Some people are just good with the status quo. Get to know them and be able to read a situation. This will help you earn their trust and remove impediments that may be making them unhappy.
  • Be the dumbest one on the team and embrace it.
  • Take action when action is warranted.
  • Hire your replacement and teach them to succeed.

3. Value Your Team as Much as You Value Your Stakeholders

Often, it’s easy to focus on making your stakeholders happy at the expense of your internal team. At one point in my life, I was working in a position at a Fortune 500 that allowed me to set my hours. I was working 6:00am-3:00pm daily. As a busy mom of 3, this was a perfect setup because it allowed me to be there for my family and work full-time.

There was a stakeholder in our company who would send out a recurring meeting invite for Monday evenings at 6:30pm. Coincidentally, this was right at the time of my kid’s swimming lessons. I declined and said I would be there if the agenda required my attendance, but that I couldn’t commit to a weekly meeting at that time. The next day, one of the Vice Presidents was at my boss’ door. I was in trouble. How dare you make yourself more important than that of my stakeholders? Change the time of your kid’s swim lessons if you must but go to the meeting.

Within weeks, I left that company.

The moral of the story is to understand that the people on your teams are just that: people. All your decisions impact them in some way. This ties back to be an advocate for your team. If you are not going to work for them, then they are not going to work for you.

4. Do Not Be Afraid of Difficult Decisions

Embrace them and the opportunities they bring. Don’t sugar-coat your conversations. They should be real, and they should be honest. Have the difficult conversations based on facts and leave emotion out. Offer multiple options when delivering less than desirable updates. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5. Let Them Lead Themselves; They Are Professionals

Micromanaging is one of the biggest turn-offs for a professional (and who really has time for it?). One of the best leaders I have had let me spread my wings and fly. She trusts me to do the job I was hired for, provides coaching when I need it, and celebrates my successes. She supports my goals and helps me understand how to achieve them.

6. Relax, Joke, and Have Fun

Remember the small things like birthdays, kids’ names, vacation themes, etc. When you care enough to learn about your team, they will care about you.

Kari Vondracek (MBA, CSM, PMP, PSM I) is a project manager at Core BTS. Since 1996 she has been leading projects in a variety of industries.

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