Q: I’m a new senior member of a project team and have serious concerns about how it’s being managed. Key work items with compliance and audit implications have been neglected, and there’s insufficient sense of urgency. How can I get this on track, recognizing that I’m not the person in charge?
Derek, 52, corporate counsel
A: First, my COVID-19 PSA: Practice social distancing! It might feel hard, you might not want to miss out on things, you might have a robust immune system, but don’t take a chance on spreading it to others. Thank you.
Now, back to today’s topic.
Situations like this occur when there’s a leadership vacuum. While those of you with specialized roles such as legal or finance shouldn’t take on overall project leadership, it’s your responsibility to actively push for appropriate action.
This can take a number of forms.
If you are in a genuine emergency, with missed deadlines and key client priorities being missed, be clear, direct and forceful. This is a time to actively model an action orientation targeted to your own responsibility area but with clear implications that others need to follow suit.
For example, you might say, “In order to meet this requirement, I need …” Then assign tasks: who, what, when. Make the timelines doable but aggressive. Be rigorous about follow-up. Then ask what others need from the team.
If the situation is less dire but you can see it coming, you’ve got more slack to get structures in place.
In that case, be actively involved in assessing needed steps and designing a good structure to support ongoing success. Remember to hold the line on not taking on ownership of tasks outside your domain.
Success will depend on your colleagues’ ability — and willingness — to step up.
Approach the situation assuming good intent. Most people are trying to do their best, and even if they fall consistently short, it’s generally not due to ill intent.
This still leaves the problem of impact. But if you can diagnose the reasons for their failures, you’ll reach a faster solution.
Some possibilities include:
• They don’t know what to do. Help them figure it out, perhaps having joint-work sessions rather than sending them off to work independently, which clearly has not worked.
• They have other legitimate priorities that keep taking precedence. If this is putting your company at risk, they should clarify the project’s needs with their boss. And if they don’t, you may need to.
But what if they just don’t seem to care? That gets to the “willingness” issue. If they are resistant to change or are not interested in learning new skills, then you need to advocate for the well-being of the project.
Basically, you need to demand a culture of accountability.
This will include a willingness to own tasks, step up to get things taken care of, offer constructive and respectful disagreement, and engage in open discussion when people are falling short. Coddling helps no one.
After all, it’s in everyone’s interest to have the team succeed. Show your leadership capabilities by helping build cohesiveness during this challenging time and ensuring a good outcome for the project.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.