4 years ago, straight out of college, I started my phase as a project manager (PM) directing an in-house training program for C-level executives in Mongolia. There were 2 aims: teach them English and train them in the classical western management process.
My boss was very clear on the level of authority I would have, the budget, resources, and timeline.
Although I had studied management in college, I was unfamiliar with PM as an isolated discipline, and so I had to research in depth.
After doing all that research, I put it into practice and was as successful as one can be with 12 months and 4 hours of work a day (time assorted to work exclusively in this project). However, as a first win, it was more than satisfactory.
After that, I moved to Mexico, where I consulted on process development and optimization for an amazing start-up. Again, short time-frame, limited resources, and nothing existed. After some time, we managed to settle sales processes and other time-consuming tasks. This allowed the CEO to grow in other areas and focus on what really mattered. I considered this my second win.
Then, I moved to South Africa, where I started an NGO together with 7 more people. I was in charge of sales at a national level and had to focus on training volunteers.
When you are working in a professional setting, most people tend to just do the work. Maybe not as outstanding as you would like to, but because if they don’t work, it affects their livelihood, they will do it. When dealing with volunteers, your leverage has nothing to do with money and I was not taught how to deal without such leverage.
When the money leverage is removed, you are left with emotions and feelings. You’re reminded that your team members are humans, and I was not ready for that (as absurd as it sounds). When I turned to talk to my friends, in their 30s, working in management positions for huge multinationals, I found out that they had also forgotten that people are humans.
I finally found a mentor that had worked with volunteers and also for international consulting firms. One of the things he helped me realize was that I, as a leader, didn’t determine the real needs of my team members, and that changed my perspective forever.
If you find that people don’t stay long in your company, don’t take ownership, nor commit fully to the company. Then, you might be making some of the same mistakes I was.
Below, you will find some of the strategies I learned to increase ownership and talent retention, while improving productivity.
As leaders, we can’t determine what others want, but we can create a space where their needs can be satisfied and developed with a sense of purpose.
I had to rewire my brain to understand that I was in charge of the project, working in hierarchical contexts, and had to deal with it accordingly.
To overcome this, the first thing I had to do was a session of expectation setting. When you do this, the session should be conducted with the team and also one to one.
In full honesty, I do expectation settings even for romantic dating. People have silent expectations, and sometimes those can be too much. This hit me once I went to an important networking event and saw people hanging out, by themselves, near the bar. My mind expected everyone to be friendly and have great conversational skills. It turns out these skills are actually rare, but people expect other people to “at least be polite and friendly”. This can be a heavy burden for those who lack these skills. Yes, nice and polite are skills. Expectations like these also create a lot of stress. Stress can manifest as someone not caring to straight up violence in the workplace, this is why it’s important to take the time.
Setting expectations is a vital tool to understand how your people work, what would boost their morale, and what would kill it. If you are smart enough, you will listen, write their thoughts down, and act upon them.
An expectation is a firm belief that something will happen. Beliefs are things that, without any solid support, elicit our confidence and trust, with as much certainty as if they were facts (which they are not).
Since expectations have a similar effect in the mind as knowledge -if I drink water, I won’t be thirsty- if they are not met, they can deeply affect people. This is mostly manifested by something called “Cognitive Dissonance” (click for definition). From a temporary resentment to a broken heart, or even worse. Expectations are powerful, seldom addressed, and generally confusing.
If you don’t talk about them with your team, you are denying the existence of a powerful piece of the puzzle and it might come throw everyone off balance.
First, it would be helpful if you acknowledged how expectations have affected any part of your life. That you understand the power they have in you so that you can respect that in others.
Second, understand that expectations are to be heard. Yes, they can be negotiated, but if you try to change someone’s mind you’re crossing a line. Listen, negotiate for the sake of the project, and decide whether to go on or not. If someone tells you that they expect you to befriend them, and that’s not your policy, just say no. Trying to convince them that their expectation is out of place can be wasteful and escalate to a mess if anyone stumbles upon the other’s values.
This takes us to the third point.
The popular belief is that honesty is great. It works, but it hurts. People feeling hurt can do dumb things. So, honesty needs to be managed strategically. You need to make sure that you can handle honesty. I am not saying you won’t get hurt, but at least make sure that you won’t react emotionally or get engaged in a personal conversation.
I had a leader who organized one to one feedback sessions. He asked for full honesty, he gave it but couldn’t take it. The result? My coworkers and I decided to stop sharing because his reactions were affecting the whole dynamic.
Making it safe means you being aware of how things affect you and that you will, at least, listen instead of reacting. That whatever you listen to, you will take into consideration.
I’ll try to illustrate this with an example. Let’s suppose you’ve already found a team of people in remote locations and you’re ready to work.
Before getting to it, take 1-2 hours to have an expectation setting session with your team. This session should cover points like:
You get the gist. As you can see, all of it has to do with work interactions. Do this from day 1 and you’ll be on the right track.
There’s this thing called a Statement of Work (SOW, click for more), basically, run it with your remote workers, see if they have any questions, answer them as thoroughly as possible, and get to the next thing.
Ask people if there is anything that can throw them off, what would make them quit (gage which things are in your hands, which are not), how do they want to be kept accountable, what motivates them. Go with it, know them, and don’t judge it, just listen.
Now, when you set expectations, you “put them on the table”. But what are your going to do with them? How are you going to manage them?
Well, the most important thing, in the beginning, is to set a discovery period. If you do this and you need to change an element of your team, you’ll be free to do it without much, or any, repercussion.
Also, outline a realistic schedule. If the expectation is to finish in 3 months, see if your resources are enough and if your teammates can handle it.
Within that timeline, set milestones and measures of success so that you can see how things are moving forward (more on this later).
As mentioned above, honesty is great but uncomfortable. When we are being honest, we need to acknowledge that things can go wrong. How to deal with it? PLAN!
Murphy’s law is not a joke law, it’s a thing. Now, we don’t need to get into micromanaging and expecting the worse. Limit your planning to situations that are in your control and can threaten the completion of the project.
Also, following up on honesty, if there is an issue, communicate it, explain action plans, ask for help. Keep people in the loop so that everyone is aware of what’s going on and no one has excuses to fail due to lack of information.
Managing expectations is all about defining how will you work with those expectations that already exist, whether you like it or not, while keeping productivity going.
No one said being a PM would be easy.
This is not news for any PM, but it’s always useful to remember: Set very clear points on how you’ll measure progress and success.
My recommendation is that you have a clear vision of the “Big objective” or final goal. Once that’s settled, define the measures of success (MOS).
MOS are the end results of a series of tasks or objectives completed that bring you closer to your goal. Take “Front-end code finished” as a valid measure of success. When you look into the work it took to finish all the front-end, you get milestones.
Milestones are achievements that bring you closer to a MOS. Following the example above, some milestones could be:
This is vital to define and share with the remote team. MOS give people a sense of purpose and clear way for them to measure their progress.
If you have this, remote workers will know exactly what do and they will be able to manage their time fast. Unless you’re asking a painter to create a masterpiece, you need to define work for people, don’t let them guess, their answers might not be what you expected.
KPIs measure the success of a team towards a certain goal based on specific metrics. They let you know if your actions are giving results or not, and what could be changed to be more effective.
KPIs can be whatever you want as long as they are relevant to the project. These measures are adaptable and have different definitions across diverse disciplines: Investing, economics, medicine, engineering, among others. You could consider the numbers of visits to your website or number of bugs in the code, as indicators of how well your team is performing.
In this case, your Burn Down Chart is excellent for measuring your performance. This is a great graphic representation on how your actions are getting you closer to your main goal vs the time left.
When I was working with remote teams, I used KPIs in good practices. For example, always following certain security protocol, delivering 1 webinar a week, keep meetings under 40 minutes. Always looking for increased productivity and reaching a MOS.
All of the above is amazing and it does work great if you take the time to do it. However, if you don’t keep yourself, and others, accountable, things will go south.
Accountability is responsibility and ownership, and it starts with you. A rule of thumb for me, as a PM, is to check if I did the following:
For the last point, I need to be sure that the person on the other side of the world is able to, at least, understand what’s in my head. I once worked with a girl from Poland to whom I didn’t give clear objectives. When she delivered her work, although I used it for other purposes, the main objective hadn’t been fulfilled, so I asked her to do another thing that would fulfill the needs. She freaked out so much because she had invested lots of time in her work, and I told her it was not what I needed. So, I had to check on myself to see where had I gone wrong, and realized my instructions lacked detail.
On another example, a friend of mine hired a recent grad as an accountant, she got busy with sales and gave this new accountant all trust and power to manage her finances. Three months later, my friend realized she had a huge credit debt and everyone was on vacation. Her first response was “I never considered this girl had never handled a big credit card”.
You need to take responsibility first to ask it from others.
First, you need to define consequences for actions or lack thereof. How will you define if someone gets to continue or not. What repercussion will it have if deadlines are not met? Define them, share them with your team, and be firm in their execution.
Second, get into a dialogue. When in a dialogue, try to have this clear: Legitimate reasons vs. Excuses. Legitimate reasons are acceptable, excuses not so much. However, you decide what is an excuse and what is a legitimate reason,. For me, an excuse is what people say to try to influence my perception of them. Meaning, a long boring explanation. If someone tells me “I fell asleep”, but we manage to submit things, I won’t be happy, but still go on; I appreciate honesty. If someone comes with a lie or a long explanation, most likely we won’t work together again.
You can set these parameters as long as you share them with your teammates and make it clear to them. It’s already arbitrary how you will set these parameters, don’t be more arbitrary by suddenly changing them or manipulating them.
Did you notice a pattern? For every point, you have the power to define almost everything. The only thing is, settling them needs to be on paper and clear, and once they are settled, you need to know if others can understand them, and then share this with them. Although adjustments can be done, they need to be clear, objective and shared with everyone involved.
If you make a decision on your own, without telling others, you will be the sole responsible for its outcome. and others are not to blame for not guessing.
Remember, it all starts with you as a PM.