Project Management in Practice

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Can you get the right reaction with the occasional verbal spray?

I was reading an article in the Harvard Business Review regarding the appropriateness of yelling at employees. It was quite an interesting article in which Michael Schrage gives examples as Steve JobsBill GatesSir Alex FergusonVince LombardiArturo Toscanini in various professions as those not averse to a bit of verbal spray. He makes an interesting point that while yelling does not make one a better manager, at the same time it does not necessarily indicate managerial weakness or failure of leadership.


Scharge seems to have taken quite a hammering if you read some of the comments on the article. However, I am sure he was playing the devils advocate and wrote the piece precisely to get this reaction. Indeed in some cases managers or leaders get away with the occasional hair dryer treatment. Let us have a think about what it is that their employees are letting them get away with and why. I will use some of the gentlemen mentioned in this very article.

The likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates built or ran organisations that generated a lot of wealth within its employee ranks. These are also organisations that employ some leading minds and have made a lot of employees rich through stock options. People work in these organisations for various reasons. Some are after the intellectual fulfillment, others for monetary reward, some purely to enhance their resume. Same is true for the likes of Ferguson and Lombardi. Players play for their teams for a mixture of lure of winning trophies, play with other great players, the salary or adulation from the fans.

For every Gates and Jobs there are multiple Kevin Rudd, Mark Pincus. For every Ferguson and Lombardi there are many more Buck Shelfords. The Shelford example is quite striking. He was known as the hardest rugby player. He once played on against France despite an act of foul play resulting in his scrotum being split. Bring back Buck signs are still visible today from fans cherishing his demeanour. Yet, when he took to coaching, he relied on the same “hard man” persona and foul mouth. His teams were unmitigated disasters.

What does that tell us. It is not these leaders’ yelling at their charges that got the results. Instead it was their other attributes of vision, planning, development of individual capabilities and sense of pride in work that were the key contributors for their success. In my view their sometimes tempestuous behaviour actually got in the way to diminish their other qualities. There would be a level of tolerance for everyone. Exceeding those would lead to people abandoning even the most decorated leaders.

Most people are not the special ones mentioned here. If leaders are to take cues from these well known figures, they should instead concentrate on their other qualities. I have found even small things like acknowledging good efforts from individuals and thanking them for those goes a long way than anything else. I struggle to think if yelling would ever give me the same reaction. Everyone is different in how they react to volleys of verbal spray. You have to make sure you get the right reactions from people.

Yelling is a sign of control lost. More credibility you have built over time will dictate how soon your people abandon you as a result. Even if you find it works from time to time, don’t get too fond of it.

Image Credit: Daily Mail

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Project Managers … visionary leaders or shepherds?

I was having an interesting philosophical discussion with some peers. Opinions were expressed on how project managers need to be visionary leaders. Most project management courses do not cover much on the art of leadership. I tend to think if you have to teach leadership, then it is already a lost cause. Although leaders are not necessarily born, they see an opportunity and make their mark. Those that wait to be taught or asked by definition are not suitable leaders. But this was an interesting discussion. Do project managers need to be visionary leaders?

Let us look at the traits for leaders. If you look at any leader, what is the one thing you remember about them? I am not old enough to remember many contemporary political leaders – Gandhi, Churchill etc. The one that I do remember is Mandela. These people have a vision of the future, have the courage to express it when it may not be the orthodoxy and have the ability to project their vision even through difficult times. It is the same in business. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not get Apple and Microsoft to where these companies are on a bed of roses. But neither the political or business leaders actually organized the mass rallies or the next version of the software.

The case of business leaders is even more interesting. The reason they are the leaders is because they see a gap in the market and have ideas to fill it. They want to be the first to market. They do not always appreciate what it would take to get there. They are also wired to see many possibilities and constantly thinking about the next big thing. They utilize people with the right knowledge to analyze which of these have wings and will fly, and which ones are likely to sink. The ones that fly then need to be managed to successful delivery.

Is project management the same? Well … part of it. The emphasis on vision and leadership is more appropriate at the top management level of the organization and even maybe at program or portfolio management level. Once these are defined into projects, the emphasis on leadership is different. I think of that leadership more akin to a young military officer. If you have seen the mini series Band of Brothers, I say Major Winters is the project manager. The role itself comes with an expected level of respect. But it is not given by default. You have to earn it by your track record.

Once you win over people by showing your aptitude they are willing to go beyond the call of duty for you. This is also a type of leadership, but different to the one that one that we had been talking about earlier. The goal is to win the individual battle, rather than focus on the overall war. He takes lessons from his team’s engagement and those that he sees of the other units. He marshals his resources to achieve his objectives. If he worries more about how the battalion is running its affairs, his troops will be left to fend for themselves. This is the type of leadership that can be applied to project management.

In project management, you provide leadership by understanding the context of the project and good communication, recognizing efforts and ensuring single purpose. When you have achieved trust of your project team, you have successfully become a leader.

Major Image Credit: PhotoBucket

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