Tag Archives: leadership

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in theĀ evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading

Leader, be worthy of my trust

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters (source: CIA Headquarters virtual tour)

Earlier this week, in the Project Management section that I teach as part of Duke University’s Technical Communication certificate program, I told my students that trust is the currency of project management. In fact, trust is the currency of all leadership.

You can coerce people using brute force alone. But to truly lead, you have to earn your followers’ trust.

How does a leader earn trust? By showing that he or she is trustworthy. By never pursuing hidden agendas. By being truthful.

Yesterday John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, held a press conference in the lobby of CIA headquarters. Engraved in the wall next to him, according to the New York Times, was a verse from the Gospel of John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I wonder if Brennan thought about that verse of scripture as he stood there, defending his predecessors at the CIA who’d covered up the horrifying truth that its agents — agents of my country, the United States of America — had tortured and abused human beings as part of the “war on terror.” Continue reading

Career Tips from the Old Ballpark

This weekend marks the anniversary of the best baseball game I ever saw in person, at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. It taught me some lessons about handling tough situations on the job.

Baseball card of Lenn SakataAfter rallying to tie the score in the ninth inning, the Orioles had no one left to play catcher. So in the top of the tenth, they put utility infielder Lenn Sakata into the game at catcher — a position he’d never before played in the major leagues.

That’s Lesson 1: Be flexible. You never know what need might arise. When it does arise, strap on the catcher’s gear and perform with as much grace as you can muster. Who knows? It might turn out OK. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll know that you gave it your best shot.

Toronto Blue Jays’ batter Barry Bonnell reached first base and, no doubt thinking it would be easy to steal second with the inexperienced Sakata behind the plate, took a big lead. Pitcher Tippy Martinez picked him off.

The next batter, Dave Collins, walked. He took a big lead off first base, and Martinez picked him off too.

Then Willie Upshaw singled. As he took his lead off first base the fans began chanting “pick him off.”

Which brings us to Lesson 2: Don’t be overconfident. Having seen two of his teammates get picked off and hearing the crowd chanting, why did Upshaw wander so far off first base? He must’ve been thinking It can’t happen to me.

Baseball card of Tippy MartinezIt did happen to him.

A successful pickoff in baseball is fairly rare. Picking off three in one inning, as Martinez did, is extraordinary. And of course it’s a record that’ll never be broken.

In the bottom of the tenth, Sakata came to bat with two outs and two men on base. You can guess what happened. Sakata, who weighed 160 pounds soaking wet, hit a three-run homer to win the game.

I was already a baseball fan for life. That night, watching from the upper deck in Memorial Stadium, I became an Orioles fan for life.

And so Lesson 3: You never know who might be watching. The Orioles gained a fan that night. Your handling of a tough situation might gain you the respect and even the admiration of a client or colleague — which will pay off later on.

Use the comments area to tell me you might’ve learned from this story. Or just tell me about a good ballgame you’ve seen.

Originally published, with slightly different content, on the SDI blog, 24 August 2010

When Your People Go their Own Way

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

– Attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

"Make way for Ducklings" statue showing ducks in a rowYou’re a good leader. You can explain how to get things done. You can persuade when necessary. Above all, you excel at leading by example.

So everyone on the team is in lock-step, working in perfect harmony and at maximum efficiency, doing things exactly as you envision them being done. Right?

Wrong. It doesn’t always go that way. If you’re like me, it hardly ever goes that way.

People have the darnedest habit of doing things their way instead of your way. It’s not because they can’t take direction or because they won’t take direction. It’s because they’re people.

So what does it mean when your people go their own way? Continue reading

Tempted to Say “I’ll do it”? Don’t Do it!

Mary Jo Asmus recently wrote a great piece called A leader fills the spaces, in which she asserts that strong leaders take action whenever they see:Horse and rider

  • A leadership void — no one stepping up to take responsibility
  • Damaged or broken relationships
  • Lapses in ethics or integrity
  • Team members who are suffering

It’s great advice — and a great reminder that I, as a leader, don’t have the option of sitting back when something is missing within my team.

For me, however, a big temptation is simply to say “Step aside — I’ll do it.” A task has to be done quickly, and with my years of experience it’s easier just to do the task than to try and explain to others how to do it.

Continue reading

Leadership keys to a great season (Opening Day special)

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

I wish I was here today: Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s baseball’s Opening Day: Fanfare, flags flapping, and plenty of excitement. It’s just like the start of a new project, when optimism abounds and the future still looks just like you drew it up in the plan.

Here are some Opening Day tips for project leaders. Continue reading