In a corporate situation or even in a startup, many things come into play that are simply beyond your control. Given this, it is inevitable that from time-to-time, chaos may occur. Consider the following two examples:
Passion for a company is contagious—especially when it emanates from the CEO or business owners. As a result, employees often feel energized about the goals of the company and its direction.
In a previous article, I discussed the importance of creating holistic objectives for your business. When setting goals, the business must be ready to track the efficacy of efforts towards the desired outcomes.
The success of the implementation measures and overall progress can only be tracked by measurable benchmarks—data points that indicate whether or not the needle is moving in the right direction when compared to an initial baseline measurement.
The title of manager does not necessarily a leader make. In other words, the terms are not interchangeable. I’ve encountered many managers leading large projects or teams who struggled to garner support or bring their visions to life. Those leaders expected staff to fall in line or simply follow because they were in charge. They underestimated the fundamentals of strong leadership and the importance of leading by example.
Women in the workplace have been a recent focus in the media, bringing to light broadscale inequities and archaic (and often dangerous) practices and cultures that need to shift.
Change hardly ever occurs without challenges—and women are facing them head-on in order to ensure progress. Given this, I felt it was important to connect with these events by sharing four influential contributions from women in leadership that have greatly impacted my life.
Personal resolutions are the focal point of the new year. For businesses, the first quarter of the new year is a great time for goal setting—creating objectives that are measurable, actionable, and will drive forward motion.
As a business leader, you’ve embraced change within your organization. But a big question remains: Has your staff done the same?
Staff buy-in is a key component to change implementation. It is important for staff members to not only understand how the business will benefit from the changes, but they also need to understand how the changes will affect them personally.
There's an old adage that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This well-known phrase is poorly applied to business. What should a business owner do if the “it” is not broken per se, but merely status quo?
Larger companies generally have a hierarchy of managerial staff who understand how to preserve the health of the business—involving the CEO in decisions only when necessary. These individuals are trusted resources that allow the CEO to focus on the big picture.
Businesses can always benefit from simple ideas that result in increased productivity. This is particularly true in a startup environment where a vast amount of work needs to be accomplished in a very short time frame.
As a lifelong New Yorker, I have always had a great love for my city and its iconic skyline. Growing up on Staten Island I had the best of both worlds – a safe, quiet suburban environment juxtaposed with the excitement of the big city. It was a satisfying blend of chaos and calm. As a teenager I would take the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan and bop around Greenwich Village going to the record and vintage clothing shops. The Ferry was the best tour, a free trip past the Statue of Liberty and a dramatic approach to the buildings that made up downtown Manhattan. No building was more awe inspiring to me than the World Trade Center. Even as a young girl, making that approach by boat, I knew then that I would make Manhattan my home and that I would someday “make it there”.
After earning my MBA, I moved into Manhattan and began to build my adult life. A life that included a significant other who was a stereotypical Wall Street Warrior. Working hard and playing hard was an understatement. We had a lot of highs and lows during our relationship. We led a life that was very pretty looking from the outside but from the inside it could be very dark. While my personal life was fraught with chaos, I had my rock – my job. My one companion that was stable and true. I was again living a life of contrasts – one part was very secure and the other was the opposite.
Work for me had always been a great escape because it was a place that was, for the most part, emotion free. Throwing myself into work brought good things. I gained recognition and was rewarded for my hard work. The more I put into it the more I got out of it. Personal unrest led to greater professional achievement. My chaos and calm paradigm came to the forefront in September 2001. That time in my life is one about which I speak very little. I had a full view of the events from three blocks away and my significant other worked and died on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center. The details of that day are burned in my memory from the time he left our apartment to his final goodbye on my work phone to walking home through rubble, dust and despair. Like for so many that day, my world had been turned upside down. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath shaped my career in significant and meaningful ways that still resonate with me today.
Post-9/11 I had to regroup and learn to live in my new reality. In the months that followed I learned three powerful lessons:
When in Doubt, Go With What You Know – I dove more deeply into my safe space, which was at this stage my job. Around the office my colleagues treated me as if nothing had happened. Being in that environment helped me heal. It helped me get back to being me, not the me who lost someone in 9/11. Me, the competent woman who could lead teams and get stuff done. It was no one’s job to baby me or feel sorry for me. It was a place where everything was “normal”. There was a job to do and there were expectations on me that needed to be met. I had no choice but to step up.
Moving Forward is the Only Option – With a traumatic event getting caught up in the “what ifs” and the “what could have beens” is inevitable. I rewrote the scenarios of 9/11 in my mind over and over. In a way, I felt that I had to because it was my way of never forgetting. I had to do a lot of work to accept that letting go didn’t mean I didn’t love or didn’t hurt or didn’t care. It simply meant that I had to live. Part of living for me was accomplishing things. What better place to accomplish than on the job? Simply driving toward finishing job tasks pulled me back to a place where I could look ahead to what was next rather than staying stuck in what could no longer be.
Count on Yourself – I can’t say this enough. Unfortunately, it’s a concept that many women discount. No spouse, company or family member will take as good care of you as you will of yourself. Financial dependence is not something to aspire to. Be capable, do the work, make a difference and you’ll reap the greatest benefit – independence.
Life is a series of tests, both personal and professional. We truly don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re pushed to our limits. For me, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross sums it up best…“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of those depths.”
This blog appeared on The Huffington Post August 5, 2016. http://huff.to/2bsPa2Y
Any sports fan can define a utility player. What they probably can’t do is name one. Utility players are generally not given the All-Star nod, they’re not seen shaving in a Gillette ad or featured in magazines escorting models to events. Ask someone to name a great shortstop; quarterback or center and the conversation could likely go on for days. Ask them to name a utility player and out comes their device for a Google search
If the specialists get the glory, the bank and the arm candy, why bother with being good at a multitude of things?
In my big corporate days and now in my consulting career, I’ve always considered myself to be a utility player. The key to playing that part is being able to perform several functions effectively and competently. Effectiveness and competence in the wake of change, growth or shifting economies are things I want on my team all day, every day. While being great at one thing has its advantages so does being able to succeed in multiple roles.
For example, excelling across multiple disciplines will help you:
- Prepare for bigger roles with wider reach – Quick, name a CEO who’s only good at 1 thing! I can’t either.
- Raise your profile throughout the organization – The more you do, the more people know you, the bigger your network and fan base.
- Be invaluable during tough times – As companies are tasked with doing more with less, the jack-of-all-trades becomes the go-to staffer.
Remember effectiveness and competence are critical. It’s not enough to be able to do a variety of things or to be willing to try something different. You have to crush all things equally whether you’re playing first base or playing shortstop.
Who's your favorite utility player? Leave your answer in the comments. Be creative! There are plenty of utility players outside of sports.
Consultants are often brought in to create a strategic assessment of a process or to solve a business problem. By the time the consultant is hired you can be assured that the team has been operating with sub-optimal processes in place and has learned to work around or work within its limits. No consultant ever hears the words, “Take your time figuring it out.” So how do you get to the heart of the problem quickly? I’ve found the following three strategies to be integral to swift problem solving:
Talk it Out: Stakeholder interviews are fundamental to information gathering. Talk to the people involved in the process, consumers of the process and observers of the process. These groups can provide a well-rounded view of what’s happening day-to-day, where the pain points are and how their own jobs are affected by the process issues. You’ll be amazed how in sync opposing groups can be when they’re offering feedback about what’s not working well.
Draw a Map: Whether you use the coolest flowchart tool or a pencil and the back of a napkin, laying out information visually will help highlight disconnects, redundancies and gaps in a way that talking through something never will. It will also help convey a problem to time-strapped execs in a succinct way. I once had a senior technology executive ask me to consolidate a 15-page analysis into three bullets. From that point forward, I’ve made sure I could articulate problems and solutions with pictures.
Find the Facts: Gather as much data as you can up front. Numbers don’t lie. Having solid data in your pocket will give you power to draw irrefutable conclusions and support your recommendations. In a data driven business ecosystem a gut feeling no longer carries the weight needed to secure buy-in for your recommendations.
When time and money are of the essence, the faster you can draw fact-based conclusions the better you position yourself as an efficient problem solver and invaluable resource to your clients.
If I’ve learned anything from my big company experience it’s that documentation is key. Very little gets done without an approval or a tick on a spreadsheet that says the VP of XYZ approves this. And with good reason, many industries are regulated and these decision archives become necessities in doing and staying in business.
But what about in smaller, ever-changing organizations like startups? In the nimble start up, often decisions are made on the fly or in the kitchen area over the free snacks and artisanal brew. Documenting decisions or process feels like overhead, when in reality it can be the jumping off point for next-level growth.
Earlier this year I met with a startup CEO with his sights set on scaling the organization. The team had grown exponentially and the reach of its product set was expanding. The company’s growth was outpacing its day-to-day operating model. He asked me how I could help them manage change within the organization. My answer, I’d write stuff down. After a month of working for this CEO, we had a plethora of project plans, process flows and accountability matrices. Laying this information out visually helped the team identify opportunities for improvement that would align standard operating procedures with the current size and scale of the organization. In addition, these newly defined processes were extensible enough to support future growth.
Another client hired me to build a pitch deck for a prospective ad agency. My assignment was to tell a cohesive story about the product, the brand and the market. I asked my client to send me whatever documents she had that I could turn into a presentation. She sent me roughly 20 multi-page emails containing discussion threads amongst the leadership team with cogent ideas, random thoughts, decisions made, decisions overturned, decisions remade. Email was this team’s only way of keeping track of what they were doing. From that stream of information I was able to build an easy to follow presentation that was used as the baseline for investor presentations and business plans.
When done right, taking time to document and archive ideas, processes and plans is an accelerator to growth. After all, you have to know where you are in order to see where you can go.
Many employers struggle with the idea of hiring a consultant. Especially when a business is in cost cutting mode or looking secure assets to fund growth. Why pay an outside consultant when you are already paying your employees to meet the company’s goals?
As a former corporate employee, I understand the team angst brought on by the arrival of a consultant. “Why does so and so get $200 an hour when I only get $100 for the same job?” “Why does he get to make his own hours and I don’t?” “Oh, THEY’RE the expert? I thought I was the expert?” Those are the collective thoughts that can crop up when a consultant is brought into the mix. Once the consultant – employee relationship is forged, however, it’s hard not to admire the consultant’s fluidity, his or her ability to not care about politics, and what appears to be the genuine enjoyment of the work. A lot of us doing the same kind of work each day or those trying to find a way up the corporate ladder don’t have the luxury of that experience.
I see two main advantages of hiring a consultant:
Efficiency: a consultant is there to do a job, not to schmooze, not to climb. Get in, get out, collect a fee, move on. It’s pure and simple. When an employer is looking to get results quickly a consultant can take them there without the distractions of performance reviews, career development, or training that is required of and expected by full-time employees.
Objectivity: a consultant can take more risk in telling it like it is. Consultants are paid for their expertise. We’re obligated to speak up, make recommendations and find the problems that a full-time employee might be too close to see. We get to do all this without worrying that we’ll commit the dreaded CLM if we say the wrong thing to the wrong person. You hired us to analyze, assess and fix. We’re not afraid to do it.
Putting key initiatives into the hands of someone who is outside your work family can be daunting. There is a degree of letting go and trust that has to be present when hiring consultants. More often than not however, consultants can give you a perspective you can't get on your own. In today's business environment, why not have that advantage?
Many people have asked me about the origin of the Valiant Mind name. Rather than leave the mystery out there, I thought I’d take to my blog to explain. I grew up in Staten Island, NY. Anyone who’s familiar with the 5 Boroughs of New York City knows that Staten Island has a small-town feel in a quasi-urban environment. To this day, Staten Island remains the only borough without a subway and the only without an inter-borough rail system. The only ways off the island are the Staten Island Ferry, buses or cars.
And speaking of cars, my first car memory is of a brown Plymouth Valiant that my parents owned. As a young girl, I thought it was really exciting that the car and I had the same first 3 letters of our names. Valiant and Valerie, it was serendipitous to a 7 year old! When it was time to scrap the car, my father took the logo off the side for me. I’m sure that classic, silver Valiant logo is tucked away in a box somewhere only to be uncovered when it’s time for an attic overhaul.
It wasn’t until I was in the early stages of forming my business that the Valiant name popped into my head. I was trying iteration after iteration of my first and last name with the word “consulting” attached. Nothing felt right. After a day or two of naming struggles, a trusted mentor and marketing expert suggested I forgo something literal and use a word that had special meaning. I started playing word games with myself. Still nothing felt right. One night while trying to get to sleep an image of the Valiant popped into my head. That was it! Valiant! The next morning, I scrambled to look up the meaning of the word Valiant. It’s defined as possessing or showing courage or determination. Valiant felt right. It was in the few moments after where Valiant Mind came to life. What resonates most to me is the tie-in to my company name and my brand promise: dependability, authenticity and empathy. Giving my clients the peace of mind to know that when something is in my hands the job will get done. Just like that trusty brown Valiant got us wherever we needed to go.
Last fall I was chosen to lead a component of my child’s school auction. The auction is the largest fundraiser the school holds each year. Making the auction happen requires partnership among parent volunteers, vendors, artists, businesses within the community, teachers, school administrators, maintenance staff, and a host of others. My piece of this intricate puzzle was to manage the art auction inventory. When I was first asked, I wondered why someone with a financial services background would be needed for anything closely related to art and the art world. The auction chairs’ vote of confidence stemmed from two things: my organizational skills, and my ability to work with anybody and everybody. Sound like project management put to work in a non-work setting? You bet!
My job for six months was to manage the art inventory, which amounted to 100 plus pieces of art valued in total at close to $300,000. Breaking this down into process, there were three main components to my role: art intake, documentation and delivery. Get the donations cataloged, get the artwork in the door, get it ready for installation. This simple breakdown is something that comes easily for process-oriented, left-brained thinkers. The trick was applying this in the right-brained artistic realm. In previous posts I’ve written about the combination of left and right-brained thinking into a comprehensive approach. My consulting business, Valiant Mind, is based on this very premise. The winning combination in the auction scenario was appreciation and respect for the artistic process and by extension the artists themselves coupled with the most fundamental of tools, the Excel Spreadsheet. A very simple spreadsheet outlining the artwork, its donor, its value became the main communication and tracking vehicle for all involved. It was art in it’s own uncomplicated right. This was a case where the logical side (process, spreadsheet) and the creative side (empathy, curiosity, appreciation) worked together perfectly.
Once my job ended, the sum of my efforts was turned over to a team in charge of installing the artwork for the big event. This team was made up of professional artists, gallery owners and art experts. Watching this team in action was a great learning experience for a process geek like me. Even in a creative environment there is inherent logical process. For example, placement of artwork based on size, value and the buzz around the artist. The process was carefully thought through and executed upon seamlessly. What's more, the creative work was supported by the very same Excel Spreadsheet that bolstered the inventory piece. It was interesting to see fundamental tools and interpersonal skills come alive in a non-traditional working environment. When armed with Excel and empathy you're ready for anything!
As any parent of a pre-schooler will tell you there are a set of rules by which their children live inside the classroom and on the playground. Luckily for parents, most children feel very comfortable bringing these rules home with them. How many times has little Timmy, who can’t ever stay quiet, said that he’s just using his words? Classroom rules are there for a reason. Sure they keep order and help teachers manage a herd of 4 year olds but they also create a sense of harmony and community that helps get stuff done.
How then can these rules be applied to the workplace, or better still the project team? As the leader of the team you’re pre-ordained to control and move the effort along. It’s your job to influence, cajole and get people on-board to do your bidding. By applying the fundamentals of school-aged children to your project you can set down a path that runs more smoothly than your average project.
1) Use Your Words: one of the most important things a Project Manager can do is to communicate. Whether it is to his or her team, the project stakeholders or to senior management. When I’m managing a project, it is my goal to get the message out before someone has to ask me for it. I take pride in being an excellent communicator and having the ability to anticipate someone’s question in advance of them asking it. Communication from the PM out isn’t the only way to use your words. Encourage your team members to do the same. Communication of statuses or feedback on what’s working and what’s not within the context of the team supports bonding and fortifies the group around the common goal of delivering results.
2) You Get What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset: getting a complex effort off the ground takes a myriad of drivers and doers. What happens when your doers don’t want to do? From the PM perspective, you’ve been dealt an inadequate hand. From the doer's perspective, you’ve gotten a request that you don’t have time for or perhaps you don’t have the interest in. In this scenario, the PM has to be the first to have a good attitude, to not get upset if you will. As the project leader, the PM sets the tone and the best example for how the group will move forward. A PM who throws up his or her hands creates a dynamic of melancholy which will ultimately lead to disinterest on the team’s part. On the flip side, the PM has a chance to flex some empathy skills to encourage support from the defiant doer or has the opportunity to come up with a creative solution for getting the required tasks complete. Going head to head with a member of the team presents challenges and can cast doubt on one’s skills as a leader. Embracing this dynamic and managing conflict in a constructive positive way gives us all a chance to grow as PMs.
3) Take Turns: differing points of view can help challenge a PM and boost idea generation and creativity. If the PM insists on being the single voice within a work effort he or she is short changed. Soliciting input, or giving others a turn to lead, comment, or provide a perspective helps build energy and enthusiasm around a project. Throughout my years in corporate America, my initial response when someone came into my office asking what should be done about a particular task or challenge was, “Tell me what YOU think we should do first.”
4) Clean Up After Yourself: since most of us don’t have toys in the workplace, this maxim applies to owning your mistakes, fixing them and learning from them. There are so many points within a project where things can go wrong. Admitting you’ve dropped the ball and offering an answer to how things will get back on track is a brilliant show of competence. We’ve all had the Teflon project team member from time to time. That someone to whom nothing sticks. Ownership and accountability build your credibility and your good-will with colleagues and management, whether you’re the project lead or a supporting player on the team. I can guarantee there’s not one working person today who can say they’ve never screwed up at work. Cleaning up your mess after doing that will help you stand out in a good way.
If only work could be as much fun as going to pre-school or playing on the playground. Melding some of the rules of childhood with day-to-day project management can be almost as entertaining plus it comes without the scraped knees.
What’s the difference between a good product manager and a great one? Project Management at its core is about planning, managing and closing a work effort. It’s all about the execution. Can I get from Point A to Point B on time and within budget? I’ve worked with Project Managers throughout the years that took their role literally. The drive and desire to get to the finish line was paramount. The colleagues or related tasks left in the PM’s wake were not given a second thought. Anecdotally, these driven and task-oriented employees were praised as “good PM’s” with a “but”. They were good BUT no one wanted to work with them. When these highly functioning PMs were assigned to big projects that involved multiple cross-functional stakeholders the announcements were met with silent groans and eye rolls. Observing “good PMs” helped hone my own personal management style. Very early on I learned to value how I got the job done over just getting it done.
The great PM looks beyond the individual tasks and execution components of the project. He or she manages not only the project but also the community involved in delivery. The stressed manager, the overworked technologist, the business analyst who is spread too thinly. Dealing with and respecting the personalities and emotions involved separate the great PMs from the pack. Empathy, simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, is key. Empathy, an element of Emotional Intelligence, is often dismissed because it is confused with sympathy. And who isn’t sympathetic? That is a basic perception we all have as human beings. However, feeling bad for Joe who just got chewed out by his boss is not the same as understanding Joe’s upset.
Practically and tactically speaking, the information we ingest through empathetic interaction makes PM’s better listeners and ultimately more successful. This is so for two main reasons:
- The empathetic ear can garner more support from stakeholders and the individuals required to complete project tasks. A PM without internal support and buy-in from the doers has greater difficulty closing individual tasks per plan.
- The likability of the empathetic PM boosts the morale of the project team and rallies the doers to get their tasks completed.
Throughout my career I've seen PM's attempt to bring soft skills into their projects with mixed results. In my view, those who believed in the value of relating to their project teams were far more accomplished than those who never looked up from their project plans and opened their ears.