Managing Yourself Well so you can Excel When Leading a Team

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Four techniques for effectively. managing your own time, information flow and priorities.  By mastering these, you can be better prepared to lead and support a program team.

How can a program director or program manager effectively manage their own time, information flow and priorities.

Time.  A program leader's time most limited asset.  We all would like to have unlimited time for performing the responsibilities noted in program management textbooks and bodies of knowledge.

Unfortunately, fulfilling those expectations isn't practical in a work environment rife with volatility, unknowns, complexity and ambiguity.  Program leaders need an effective approach at managing a constantly changing and growing set of demands on their time.

Here's an example where managing my time, the flow of information, and priorities were crucial in navigating a program recovery:  With the directive to "get started post haste," I boarded the next airline flight to perform a two-week program diagnostic assessment.  This new client had many concerns about a large program and intuitively felt that a course correction was needed urgently - a comprehensive assessment would provide facts that could help everyone understand the true situation.

There I was in a different country, in an unfamiliar company, with hundreds of people I didn't know, with an expectation that my efforts would provide rapid relief.  Aspects of this situation are probably well familiar to most program leaders - especially the expectation that your presence and efforts will have immediate and lasting impacts.

The approach I took here in managing my personal priorities came from my experience in leading countless programs.  Here are four experience-based tips from my professional toolkit - powerful methods a program manager can apply to effectively manage your time:

  1. Develop and Refresh Your Situational Awareness. The absence of situational awareness almost always puts in program manager in a position of reacting to events, consuming (and wasting) time and energy to recover from circumstances.  Recognize the importance of continuously refreshing your understanding of the situation.  Change is continuously underway among your stakeholders, throughout the organization, and within the team.  Develop non-threatening and effective methods of continuously keeping on top of organizational politics, revised priorities of stakeholders and issues they are facing, perspectives of your leadership and team performance, and other factors that characterize your program's condition.  Macro elements (the economy, governmental regulation, your company's financial health) can also have monumental impacts on your program.  Glance at a few communication plan templates on the web, and you'll see that they focus (almost) entirely on sending information, with passing mention of soliciting feedback or receiving information - developing situational awareness puts the emphasis on listening, analyzing and understanding.  This is an aspect of Steven Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 5 - Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.
  2. Delegate and Coach. As a program leader you have considerable authority and influence, but you are limited in the volume of program work you can accomplish as a one person.  A full-time program leader shouldn't drift into taking on the work of project managers, scrum masters and team members, even if you have that skill set.  Avoid personal overload by focusing on your responsibilities, which likely include coaching team members who are facing challenges that they seemingly cannot overcome.  Become comfortable with approaches taken by team members that different from choices you would make; more often than not, I've found that a team member who pursues an approach they themselves have chosen has a greater ownership in driving to a successful outcome.
  3. Manage Your Time. It's easy to fill a program leader's calendar with standing meetings that repeat on a regular cycle.  Problem is, sometimes the value of these meetings diminishes over time.  Periodically step back from the busyness of your daily routine and review your past month’s calendar. This can be particularly useful if you find yourself frequently bragging/complaining about being double booked - this is not a badge of honor.  Your scheduled meetings were seen as necessary when initially established, but an occasional examination of your calendar may show some meetings who usefulness is diminished, their frequency can be reduced, or durations can be shortened.  Does your past month's calendar confirm that you are indeed allocating time to your most important responsibilities?
  4. Be Respectful of the Team's Time. As a program leader, you have a tremendous authority in claiming time for discussions that are important to you; exercise this clout with restraint.  For instance, let's say you conduct a 60-minute weekly status meeting with a dozen project managers and team leads, with each person actively participating for just a few minutes.  Some participants may be attentively listening as others share, but in our remote working world it seems more likely that they are "multi-tasking" or otherwise disengaged.  This wouldn't qualify as time efficient for anyone other than the program manager.  Here's another scheduling behavior:  my 1:1 meetings with team members have durations that reflect the work underway, proposed discussion topics, and other factors; I'm inclined to have short duration meetings on our calendars, with the recognition that a near term follow up may be needed in some instances.  Finally, team members are probably biased in thinking that a program leader's meeting is unproductive time, detracting from their time on the "real work."  You'll only create or confirm this negative view by initiating an abundance of program meetings that are important to you but may not have value for the team.

So how did this diagnostic assessment proceed? Rather well, with a few unexpected discoveries.

Connecting with people was "make or break" for this activity.  While some were skeptical of an outsider coming into their midst, most people were willing to extend trust and openly share.  This may have been because I led with curiosity and non-threatening questions, listening attentively.  From this I was able to assemble an accurate view of the operational aspects and performance of the program.  In this case, understanding those factors was only one facet; also present were conflicting perspectives on the value of the program and the size of the investment that should be allocated.  In other words, the situation was not just "can the program deliver?" but was also "should the program even exist?"

Unfortunately, the client’s intuition was well founded, and the diagnostic exercise identified many catastrophic shortcomings that would block a successful program completion.  The potential value of the program was confirmed. The assessment was accepted as accurate and relevant.

In an unexpected plot twist, they asked me to stay on, lead adoption of the recommendations from the assessment, and direct the program.  This assignment could have required ridiculously long working hours with few weekends outside the office.  Delegation of work to the proper executive or team member, with support as needed, was a life saver for me.  Initially, my calendar was completely packed with standing meetings; during calendar reviews I was able to tame the time demands by adjusting meeting frequencies and durations.

In the final analysis, the program was successful because team members were receptive to a restructuring of the work and processes - devoting time up front to build relationships and connect with influencers paid rich dividends in this transition.  The team was devoted to the company and the program, they saw a path to success, and quick wins (along with continuous wins every 3 months) served to bolster morale. Years later, people still remarked on the great experience this program provided them!

What approaches do you implement as a program leader in managing your time and priorities?