If you’ve been dropped into a position where you have to manage a team, or you have taken a project to the next level and you need to build one. You will need to start thinking like a leader, and it’s those soft skills that will need to be developed. This is the crib sheet I continually review time and time again to check my focus and effectiveness. I break it down into three key areas Getting Things Done, Creating a healthy workplace and Managing up and across.
Getting Things Done
A crucial part of getting things done is about setting goals that can be achieved. The SMART method for setting deliverables for a team is ideal for this.
- Specific — A goal needs to be clear and unambiguous. Unless it can be specifically defined then it can’t ever be considered done.
- Measurable — There needs to be a measurable outcome for the goal. If it’s not going to add anything quantifiable then why is it being done at all.
- Ambitious — The goal needs to be none trivial. Otherwise, it would be just part of a larger more none trivial goal or simple task.
- Realistic — although the goal can be ambitious it must still be realistically achievable.
- Timely — A timescale needs to be set for any goal to be valuable. This goes along with specific in creating a clearly defined scope of work. When working on a project it is a good idea to have a project charter which among other things outlines the reason, objectives, and benefits of the project. A charter will make it easier to determine if the goals you are defining are withing the scope of the project.
Organization and planning is a large part of any management role. Don’t get hung up on which tool tools to start using, start with some kind of to-do list and a way of managing incoming requests. This can be implemented using something like the “Getting Things Done” methodology with nothing more complicated than email, or you can go full-on Agile Scrum methods using Jira. Either way, managing your own tasks is the crucial first step before you can move on to managing anyone else.
The crucial element of any role is to deliver value to the business. More often than not this value comes in the form of completing tasks grouped into projects. There are formal project management planning methods like PMP, PRINCE2, and CAPM each of which has its own associated training course and certification track. These certifications can be useful if you are wanting to go into a role that specifically requires it, but for most management tasks a formally certified methodology may not be required or even that helpful.
The primary use case for a project management tool is to keep track of your tasks and keep track of the tasks you’ve assigned to other people. If you are relatively new to this process picking a kanban board is a relatively easy way to start. You can get started with Kanban-style project management with off the shelf tools like Trello, MS Teams, Jira and many more.
- There is no excuse for project planning tools not being online and accessible to everyone in the team.
- Visibility and awareness of the bigger picture by the team help productivity.
- Start simple with a Kanban tool if you don’t have experience in managing projects.
- It’s important to be able to manage yourself before you can do that with others.
A lot of people regard meetings as a huge waste of time with very little productive work being done in them, and to be fair, this reputation is not without a significant amount of justification. Meetings, however, are an integral part of modern business and can be learned to be done well. If you are calling or chairing a meeting it’s a good idea to have a clear agenda. There should be a capture of all the relevant decisions and action items, and people should leave with a clear idea of the next steps. It’s best to keep the meetings relatively small, short and on schedule, to minimize rambling discussions and keep them on target. There is a huge amount of time wasted in meetings, so if that can be minimized as much as possible everyone wins.
- Have a clear written agenda that everyone is aware of before it starts.
- Keep the meeting small and don’t have superfluous attendees.
- Keep the meeting short. Longer meetings become exponentially less useful over time.
- An hour is probably too long unless it includes a demo or presentation.
- Keep the meetings on time, and minimize overruns.
- Everyone in the meeting should contribute otherwise they probably shouldn’t be in there.
- You should keep a record of action points and decisions yourself, don’t rely on others to keep notes.
- If tasks are allocated then put them into your planning tool as headlines during the meeting. They can be fleshed out later on.
When working in a specialized field, it is quite common for you to need to communicate efficiently and clearly with your peers. You are used to writing for an audience with similar levels of knowledge, aptitude and domain knowledge. This allows you to communicate and share ideas efficiently and clearly with the least amount of ambiguity. To be able to communicate effectively with people in a management capacity, you need to write for a much wider audience.
It’s relatively easy to write for an audience like yourself, your values and your perspective. The hard part comes when you have to write for people who aren’t you. Know your audience, and use their language to speak to them.
Know your audience, and use their language to speak to them.
Writing for a non-technical audience is an art. You are more often than not trying to write persuasively about an idea to try and get buy-in from other parts of the business. To get people behind an idea, they don’t need to understand all the detail and the logic behind it; they need enough to believe in the story. They need to know how it will help the business, make their life better, and how it’s just fundamentally a good idea. But it’s not why you think it’s a good idea; it’s why they would think it’s a good idea.
- Read a lot and write a lot. Don’t shy away from documentation tasks.
- Start writing user documentation.
- Use a tool like Grammarly to keep an eye on how you are using language.
- Find a good diagram creation tool and learn it’s more powerful features. I use https://www.lucidchart.com/ and find it exceptionally useful for expressing complex ideas.
Presenting your ideas
Standing up in front of a room full of people, power-pointing your way through a bunch of slides is going to make quite a few of you nervous, but it is likely to be a necessary part of your new management role. There are quite a lot of techniques for presenting clearly and confidently, but the role of practice in developing these skills can’t be underestimated.
- Think about what the needs and values of your audience are. It’s not about you.
- Build a narrative to take them on a journey with you.
- Focus on pictures rather than blocks of text. They won’t be able to read and listen to you at the same time.
- Don’t just read your slides. You need to engage with your audience.
- Practice presenting in small groups, on low stakes subjects.
Creating A Healthy Workplace
Motivation is a crucial but difficult ingredient to foster in any team. They need to feel as if they are working towards a common goal which is worthwhile. There is nothing more demoralizing than coming into work every day and not feeling that what you do matters. Spend time engaging with the team to share your vision, clearly expressing your idea in terms they will relate to while accepting and valuing contributions and feedback from the team. By accepting feedback and criticism you need to be willing to modify your vision and credit the contributions made by your team members.
Leading a team is not just telling people what to do and when to do it, the command and control idea of management does not build good teams. A large part of your role as a leader is modeling the ideal behavior you want from your team. Remember that leadership is not a natural-born ability, it is a set of skills that can be learned and cultivated.
Things to model:
- Accept that failure and learning is a necessary part of improving. A lower case failure only becomes an upper case Failure if nothing is learned from it.
- A perfect solution doesn’t exist and a good solution delivered in a timely manner is much better than the unattainable perfect one.
- Coaching team members. A team is often multidisciplinary and peer learning and coaching can strengthen cross skill awareness as well as team cohesiveness.
- Manage conflict in a calm and cooperative way. Apart from very few situations is a disagreement not going to have any common ground to work from.
- Strong ideas weakly held. This is a common phrase in new management-speak meaning, fight for your idea but be prepared to have it torn down by a better one.
It’s important to remember that although for most people, working isn’t a choice, where they work is. It’s very easy to lose people to other companies that may pay more which you may not have direct control over, but it’s also easy to lose people to companies that have a better environment, which you do. People don’t quit companies they quit managers.
- People want to think their contributions are valued.
- People don’t like being somewhere they aren’t trusted.
- To combat the feeling that people in your team feel isolated, build strong relationships with yourself and the team.
- People respond very badly to perceived unfairness. Try to make your reasoning for decisions transparent.
People don’t quit companies they quit managers.
A part of dealing with any team is managing conflict. This is not easy and if you are uncomfortable dealing with it get help from HR or your peers. Conflict be it serious or differing of opinions is inevitable, keep calm and listen.
- Under all circumstances try and keep calm.
- Most people are happier with a resolution if they feel they have been listened to.
- Balance an assertive approach with cooperation.
- Find things that can be agreed on.
- If in doubt talk to HR.
Introduce ideas both sides agree on and build from there.
You will need to give feedback to people in your team, which is not always welcome. There are however ways to do this effectively and constructively.
- Make it understood that failure is a necessary part of progress.
- Comments are about improvement, not criticism.
- Understand their point of view and display empathy.
- Discuss how their actions have impacts on other people.
- Don’t be vague about feedback, it needs to be specific and actionable.
Managing up and across
With leadership you are not just working with your team, you are also representing your team to the rest of the company, management, and other teams. You need to be able to clearly discuss and present what your team is doing.
Make sure you have a clear strategy that you can present and track with management. This also means that you need to be aware of the larger strategy in the business and how your team fits in with delivering those business needs.
Keep communication regular and understandable. All projects and teams are a cost to the business if there is no visibility on what the team is achieving then the benefits to the business won’t be clear.
When requirements come to your team it is important to know how much you can handle and what can be delivered. For the good of your team, you will often have to push back on demands put upon it, good information will help you do that. With good project management practices and sizing of tasks, it becomes possible to give realistic timescales and velocity to your team. If they want feature A in 3 months, they’re going to have to drop something from the roadmap. Good project management data like burn up and velocity charts allow you to be clear with what you and your team can do.
For the good of your team, you will often have to push back on the demands put upon it, good information will help you do that.
It’s not enough to just track requirements and deliver features back to the business, it is often necessary to look at the business, how it works and propose more systemic change. Disruption of business models and methods is happening all the time, and if you are able to propose revolutionary change you can reshape a company. Staying in your lane is a terrible idea, don’t do it. Staying in your lane is a terrible idea, don’t do it.
If you’ve not done it before, or you aren’t particularly a people person, taking on a leadership role can be tough. It’s not easy and it isn’t for everyone. You will be spending a lot more time managing your team than doing whatever practical work you used to do. If all you want is to get your hands dirty and make things, then it’s probably not going to go well and you may end up resenting it. But if you embrace the soft skills as the next stage in your career you can make some serious changes and with your team achieve more than you ever could have done alone.