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Showing Up on Your Projects: You Have to Be There

I closed December’s article by writing: Another important thing about managing projects [is] you have to be there. Projects don’t manage themselves. As Woody Allen said, “90% of life is just showing up.”

But what does “showing up” as a project manager mean?

Three facets of showing up bear examining. The three related to each other, but although there is overlap, each has key characteristics worth understanding separately.

Presence

Consider the lawyer/project manager who spends most of his time in his office, sending emails to the team from time to time. When he does walk around, the team feels just the slightest bit nervous about the way he looks over their shoulders.

He’d likely say he was present as part of the team, but what would the team say? We’ve all worked for people like this. Indeed, sometimes we’ve remarked facetiously – though not always inaccurately – that the team functions better when he’s not around.

An effective team leader finds a good balance between being visible in support of the team and staying out of their way, between offering help when people need it and making them feel good rather than on edge when she walks into their workspace. Read the body language of the people you work with as you approach them on their “turf.” Do they welcome you, or is there just the slightest hesitancy, a subtle feeling of “Uh-oh, what did I do now?”

Accessibility

Lawyering is hard. It requires deep concentration and focus. So does project management. (Project managing lawyers is harder yet.)

So of course you want to find a comfortable workspace, minimize interruptions, get “in the zone” to maximize productivity. Indeed, when I teach courses and seminars, one of the things I do is to help free attendees from the tyranny of always-on email-everywhere. (See my book The Off Switch for details.) How do you square increased productivity with remaining accessible to your team? After all, you not only have to be ready to help them when they need it, but they have to know that you’re ready to help them.

I detail a number of strategies in The Off Switch. Different situations – and different physical layouts – require different approaches. At the heart of all of them, however, lie two concepts: working in at least twenty-minute sprints on a single task without self-generated interruption such as checking email, and helping the team understand your work habits and boundaries. For example, I would tell my teams that if my door was open – which it always was unless I was in conference in my office – they should feel free to stop in with any sort of question. If it was both important and urgent, I didn’t mind if they stuck their head in and checked to see when they could meet with me. Otherwise, they should email me… or simply walk by my office window and catch my eye, and I’d get back to them quickly. I’m not saying you should adopt my personal strategy – which by the way made sense only for my local teams, not those across the country or halfway around the world. Rather, there are numerous way to flexibly balance getting your own work done with being accessible to the team.

The best way to find out if you’re truly accessible is to tell your team what you’re trying to do, ask their help in implementing it, and request they tell you when they’re having difficulty connecting with you.

(Oh, and tell them it’s okay if they don’t check email every sixty seconds as well.)

Responsibility

As a leader, you must take responsibility for what your team does and the work they produce.

If something goes wrong, take responsibility. Accept that you and your team have been a part of whatever has happened. If blame is being apportioned, take the blame for your team. That’s the price of being a leader.

I’m not suggesting that you not hold people accountable for their work. Of course you need to do that. But that’s something you do with individual team members in private. (If the work is consistently bad, then you need to involve HR and your manager, but most of the time you’ll be dealing with hard-working, productive people who occasionally make mistakes. Which, by the way, is likely how your own manager sees you.)

Everyone makes mistakes. The team looks to a leader to shield them as individuals from the public admonishment of clients or senior managers. You’ll likely find that once you’ve established that you’ve “got their back,” not only will the work improve and fewer tasks produce suboptimal results, but they’ll step up to ensure that you don’t wind up with all of the blame when a task does come up short.

Don’t confuse responsibility with authority. You are given a certain amount of authority, and you accrue more by your actions, but you actively take responsibility.

Summary

Maybe, as Woody Allen said, you can cover a lot of life’s ground by showing up. As a project manager, showing up isn’t enough, but it is an essential component of your success.

Don’t be afraid to show up on your projects.

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