Your most important job as a manager is to build the skills and nurture the qualities of your team members. Yeah, the work is important, but at the end of the day, your people are what matter most. Projects come and go, deadlines are hit and missed, but rarely do these milestones have the same long-lasting effect as developing a person. It’s like the old adage says “…teach a man to fish…” but it’s really “…teach a man to work….”
I’m going to focus this post on developing project leadership skills, something I think is essential for every one of your team members. I don’t mean engineers should be replacing project managers, but instead, every engineer should be working towards being able to lead a project themselves. Why is this important? Well, for starters, it makes your life easier because your direct reports will become more capable. It’s also an essential skill for them to learn if they’re ever to grow in their career. It’s also your job. Yes, as a manager it is your job to help make them better. It’s a win-win for everyone, trust me.
5 Steps to Building Project Leadership Skills in Your Team Members
I’ve outline the steps below as a blueprint to help you work with your team members for them to become better at leading projects. The end goal is to move away from assigning tasks to them, and instead, being able to give them large chunks of work to own. Imagine if your day was just about assigning projects to others and you knew they’d be capable of following through. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Step 1: Establishing Ownership
There are so many benefits to allowing others to feel a sense of ownership for what they’re working on. It’s your job to give that ownership, even if it’s just the sense of it.
Here’s a simple question, do you trust your team? Do you trust the person who you are assigning the project? If you don’t then you have some core issues that you’ll need to address with your team, but hopefully you said yes. The next question is: does your direct report know that you trust them?
Giving ownership is the best way to let them know that you trust them. It also makes everything that we’ll talk about much easier. Effective team members, when given ownership and guidance, will take responsibility and be accountable for the assignments you give them.
Step 2: Developing a Culture of Visibility
Visibility is the most important part of leading a project. If you’ve assigned a project to someone and they go off alone and solve the problems, this isn’t good. It may sound nice, but rather than building leadership skills, you’re continuing to build task skills (an eventual career dead-end).
Visibility can take many forms but for starters, having your lead create a project plan with clear objectives is a great beginning. They should work with the other engineers, project and product managers, and anyone else that has a stake in it. At the beginning, you’ll need to be there to help, but with time, your direct report will be able to create a draft with little help from you.
Make sure this project plan is sent out so there’s visibility across the team. Even if some team members aren’t working on the project, allowing them access to at least read it and know the project details is good for overall team health.
Step 3: Learning to Break Down the Tasks
A common problem is the difficulty of breaking down large chunks of work into bite-sized tasks. This skill is a must for any leader. If your lead can’t do this, you’ll end up having to take back ownership of the project and they’ll go back into task mode. Help them to visualize the buckets of work and then work towards breaking those down into smaller pieces. The idea is that no task should take more than a week and the work should be easily distributable across the entire team.
Don’t assume everyone can do this naturally. It takes a certain skill to simplify complex tasks, but it’s a skill that can be learned. If you have one, utilize your project manager to help in this process, they’re usually good at it. Even if a task has a lot of unknowns (a “spike”), there are still plenty of ways to time box the research or prototyping needed.
Step 4: Set the Expectation of Regular Reporting
If you’re chasing your lead for reports and updates then you have a problem. Project leads need to learn to initiate giving you progress updates. Establish the culture of a comprehensive weekly update either verbally or through email. This is different from your daily stand-ups (scrum). While the dailies are task oriented, the weekly reports should be project focused. It’s a way to get the overall direction of the project, discuss any concerns that have come up, and provide assistance where necessary.
The difference between the visibility we spoke about before and the idea of regular reporting is the audience. The focus here is establishing the next level of communication between you and your team member. Make sure you make yourself available to them. Understand that initially you may have to prod them into giving you updates while continuously letting them know that you expect them to come to you.
In most cases, this step will take time so it’s important that you continue to be on top of the project. Don’t use this step as an excuse to ignore the team and then blame the lead when things don’t go right. You’re trying to build these skills, but don’t forget you’re also responsible for the work too.
Step 5: Set the Boundaries for Approval
It’s important to be careful about how much autonomy you initially give to your team member. As I’ve heard said many times, oversight is an organizational tax that people just have to deal with. While there’s a fine line between this and micromanaging, it’s critical not to become a disconnected manager. Just because you have someone leading on a project, doesn’t give you the right to ignore it. In fact, there’s an extra challenge of staying connected to something you’re minimally managing.
When you first begin, set the ground rules for approval. You may be comfortable letting your direct report make certain levels of decisions, so let them know that. Make it clear, however, at what point they should consult you. Use your regular update meetings to discuss issues that need approval. Your goal, however, is to make it so you’re so much in sync that you know the decisions they make are the same you would make.
As time goes by, you’ll start to see individuals in your team becoming better and better at leading projects. As they become better, give them more freedom to make decisions and come up with solutions. Eventually, your team will begin to become more effective and efficient. You’ll notice a huge difference in performance and motivation because you’ve started the transformation into becoming a high performing team.
I personally try my best to do this with my team and have noticed a huge difference. I feel their engagement has sky rocketed and my confidence in them has grown too. Give it a shot yourself. It’ll take extra work at first, but with time, you’ll start to see real benefits all around.
Credit: Feature image by Freepik