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The Leadership Gap

I have a story to tell about leadership.

Actually, it’s about the lack of leadership, and how that percolates through an entire organization.

It was my first official project management gig. I worked within the IT organization of a large company. First by chance and then by preference, I became the primary project manager for Internet projects. I loved the public facing, creative nature of the work, and I had a team of talented people to work with.

Team at work

However, as the months turned into years, I started to grow frustrated in my work. The company had multiple semi-autonomous groups which created B2B as well as customer-facing products. This resulted in a very fragmented market identity. Seeking executive direction on web site design was a dead-end street. A corporate culture of enabling an entrepreneurial spirt had gone too far in the direction of chaos.

We ended up working with a few internal stakeholders, brainstorming design and content ideas, creating affinity diagrams, prioritizing, and forging ahead as best we could. We actually built some good-looking web sites, but I never really knew if they were effective or even what metrics we would have used to measure their effectiveness.

There were a lot of things I loved about the job. The team was great. My immediate supervisor was probably one of the best I’ve ever had. The location was perfect. The benefits were rock solid. However, when lunch with a friend resulted in a new job offer, I took it and never looked back.

women at lunch

I’ve been reading in the news lately about multiple big companies who had well-publicized failures of leadership, and it reminds me of that long-ago job. In a strong economy, a company with mediocre or even poor leadership can succeed, perhaps phenomenally, for a time. The money wasted in unnecessary or poorly planned projects and employee churn is offset by comfortable profits. But even if the shareholders are happy, what about you, the business analyst or project manager or scrum master, trying to do a good job in this organization?

So, how do you identify poor organizational leadership? Here are some of the symptoms to watch out for:

Are People Allowed to Make Mistakes Organizational Leadership

  • Infighting. There will always going to be differences of opinion and conflict, but if deep distrust between departments or business units is the norm, that’s a warning sign. Good leaders don’t allow problems to fester indefinitely.
  • Fear. Are people allowed to make mistakes? Or is it “one and done?” If every project failure or missed goal results in a firing, then people will never take risks and are likely to dodge responsibility. Insecure leaders are quick to look for a scapegoat instead of doing a deeper analysis of problems.
  • Attrition. Every Monday, you come to work and the team has changed. Someone left or switched departments, again. Poor leaders don’t inspire loyalty or trust, so employees don’t stick around if another opportunity is offered.
  • Invisible leaders. You never see who occupies the corner office, or if you do, he’s briskly on his way to somewhere else. He never stops and chats, drops into meetings, or invites people into his office. Good leaders do more than publish an open-door policy, they are present and accessible to their organization.
  • Churn. Are you constantly being told to advance, then retreat, then go sideways? Unless you work at a dance school, this is a bad sign. Good leaders provide direction and structure for their organizations so that people can work towards goals. That doesn’t mean there will never be cancelled projects or last-minute changes, but that shouldn’t be the daily norm.

If you’re working in an organization with a leadership deficit, but bailing right now isn’t an option, how do you stay sane and get the job done? I’ve been there a few times; here are some of the tricks I’ve learned:

Don't Magnify Problems Organizational Leadership

  • Keep your perspective. This can be hard because we all tend to take our work very seriously, but in 10 years, will it matter that much if this app got built or that server got replaced? Unless it’s truly a matter of life and death, probably not.
  • Don’t magnify problems. If you know that churn is the norm, pace yourself and try to protect your team from getting jerked around. Deciding when and how to communicate changes can help reduce stress on the people you work with.
  • Keep a sense of humor. Try to remember that even an awful situation will make a great tale to tell over cold beers six months from now. Take 5 minutes to watch cute kittens or Chris Rock videos or whatever makes you laugh and resets your brain.
  • Document. Especially if conflict is a big problem in your organization. Take and publish meeting notes. Record meetings if that is permitted. Get sign-off on project decisions and software design documents. Lack of documentation can make it impossible to defend yourself if things go awry.
  • Take care of you. Take the PTO. Go for a walk or a run. Take the time for a proper lunch. Don’t let the stress of the situation rob you of health and happiness.
  • Feed your network. It can be hard to spend the time and the energy on maintaining relationships when your work-life is awful, but remember how that lunch with my friend ended up providing me the perfect escape route? Stay in touch with people and get involved with local organizations so that you can find opportunities.
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