Developing Others

Developing Others

As project managers, a big part of our job is developing those that work for us. I have been thinking a lot about that topic lately and have explored it in some detail below.

In terms of our emotional intelligence framework, developing others falls into the area of relationship management. Developing others is an important part of project management. For PMs, developing others means to invest in and grow the project team.

Most PMs would agree that developing the staff under them is an important component of the job. The PMBOK® Guide even mentions development of others in section 9.3 Develop Project Team. The objectives in the PMBOK® Guide are twofold:

  1. Increasing team member capabilities
  2. Teambuilding

The PMBOK® Guide mentions the following 6 tools and techniques for developing others:

  1. A project manager’s General Management Skills, in particular interpersonal skills
  2. Formal and informal training of the team members
  3. Team-building activities
  4. Ground rules
  5. Co-location
  6. Recognition and rewards

As PMs we need to recognize that developing others is making an investment in them. As a result of this investment, we create goodwill and deepen our relationship with our team members. Our ability to develop others is a function of our relationship with them. Without a relationship based on trust and truth-telling, our feedback and development efforts will likely be ignored or dismissed.

In his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman identified the following competencies for individuals skilled at developing others:

  • Acknowledge and reward people’s strengths and accomplishments
  • Offer useful feedback and identify people’s needs for further growth
  • Mentor, give timely coaching, and offer assignments that challenge and foster a person’s skills

This sounds exactly like the type of investment my coaches and mentors have made in me over my career. Let’s explore further this concept of developing others to understand what it means for project managers.

Acknowledge Strengths and Contributions

Acknowledging the strengths and contributions of your project team members is a very powerful tool for encouraging others. We must start by being able to clearly see others and to recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of each person. We need to understand their strengths and how they are contributing to team. Of the two, contributions to the project may be easier to see. Strengths are about potential, and contribution is when that potential is realized. If someone on your project team is not able to leverage or apply their strengths, those strengths may not be apparent to you. If we are unable to recognize and utilize the strengths of our team members, we are not leveraging the potential of the team.

Work by the Gallup organization highlights the importance of focusing on strengths when providing feedback. The Gallup organization has gone as far as to develop an online assessment tool called StrengthsFinder (see that can be used to identify the top 5 strengths of an individual out of a universe of 45 strengths. These 45 strengths include such straightforward strengths as Focus and Strategic as well as less clear strengths such as Woo and Learner.

I have used the StrengthsFinder tool and found the results helpful and fascinating. My top five strengths from the StrengthsFinder tool are shown below.

  • Focus: People strong in the Focus theme can take a direction, follow through, and make the corrections necessary to stay on track. They prioritize, then act.
  • Significance: People strong in the Significance theme want to be very important in the eyes of others. They are independent and want to be recognized.
  • Strategic: People strong in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
  • Self-Assurance: People strong in the Self-Assurance theme feel confident in their ability to manage their own lives. They possess an inner compass that gives them confidence that their decisions are right.
  • Learner: People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

Understanding my own strengths was very valuable. Based on my strengths, I was able to choose opportunities which leveraged my strengths. I was also able to grow in those strengths. I am better able to appreciate why I am successful in certain areas and why others are difficult for me. I also learned to take my strengths into consideration when taking on new assignments or projects.

As PMs we should also recognize each individual’s contribution to the project. We need to be aware of the contribution of others and then we need to recognize that contribution.

Recognition is one of the most powerful and underused tools in the PM’s arsenal. It takes so little effort and cost to recognize team members and the payoff can be huge. And there are thousands of ways to recognize and acknowledge our team’s contributions: in one-on-one meetings, in the hallway, in a team meeting, in an email to the individual, in an email to the individual’s line manager, in a status report, etc. Try thanking each person on a regular basis for their appropriate contribution to the project. Just saying a simple thank you for your hard work can be a major motivator for a team member. Recognition is one of the most powerful and underused tools in the PM’s arsenal.

Targeted Feedback

The competency of Developing Others also includes providing feedback to them. I like to qualify the feedback by calling it targeted feedback. Remember that we said earlier that feedback is the breakfast of champions. Providing feedback to others is an investment that we make in their growth.

There is certainly an art to providing effective feedback. Positive feedback is usually easy and does not require much risk. However, providing constructive feedback can take courage and involve risks. If we don’t take care and use the feedback as an investment, the team member can take it personally and become de-motivated. Here are some keys to providing constructive feedback.

Stick to the Facts

Feedback to others should be based on facts. We should not rely on hearsay or jump to conclusions. If we are in doubt about the facts, we should ask the individual. Focus on the Positive Positive feedback is always easier to hear and more motivational than negative. Strive to provide feedback which recognizes those things that are going well along with those areas of improvement. There are always positive things to acknowledge in each person’s work and we should strive to recognize them in addition to those areas of constructive feedback.

Be as Clear as Possible

Feedback should not be ambiguous and individuals should not walk away wondering what you were trying to tell them. Keep in mind that giving and receiving feedback can be stressful and our minds may not be working very clearly. Our fear can cause us to have trouble saying what we want in a clear and concise way. The recipient of feedback can also get so scared they do not clearly hear what is being said. They may also put their own filter on the message and focus in on only one part of your message. To get the best results, write out your message in advance. Make notes, even in bullet form, of the message you are striving to get across. Be as clear and specific as possible and use words that are accurate and easy to understand. Use phrases like “here is what I need from you”. Don’t make it a mystery.

Make it Accurate

If we provide inaccurate or partially inaccurate feedback, the recipient will often feel unseen and will dismiss our feedback. For example, if we use the words “always” or “never” in our feedback, we need to make sure that they are true and accurate. Rarely do individuals “always” do the thing that we think they always do. If someone hears “you never show up to my meetings on time”, they will likely think of the one or two times that they did show up on time and use that to ignore or dismiss your feedback.

Keep it as Objective as Possible

While we will all put our own subjective voice on feedback, we should strive to be as objective as possible with each individual. Separate the behavior from the person. It is better to say “I don’t like when you don’t meet your commitments” than to say “you are lazy”. We should also avoid comparisons with others when we provide the feedback.

Invest, Don’t Punish

The goal of our feedback should be to help the person to develop. Before you give feedback, ask yourself if you are genuinely interested in helping those you develop. Explore the feelings and emotions you have toward that person. Determine if you are operating from another agenda or trying to repay some slight that you feel. For example, if you are angry, you should address that anger separately and not punish others. If you are not trustworthy with your feedback, you will not be successful developing others. We need to recognize that if we are feeling angry or scared, we may inadvertently make the feedback more negative than appropriate. Conversely, when we feel happy or excited toward someone, our feedback may be more positive than appropriate and we may withhold feedback that could really help the other.

Giving feedback to others is a common question or discussion topic in the project management courses I teach. My students always ask about how to give feedback to others, in particular, constructive criticism.  I generally share the information above and recommend that they use it as a starting point.  In a class I taught a few weeks ago, a student offered me a suggestion that was extremely helpful. He said that he would always ask the other party if he could give them some advice before just leaping in. He would start with something like, “can I give you some feedback?”. I thought that was an excellent idea and could even recall people saying something like that to me before. If you ask someone if you can give them feedback, and they agree, then you can proceed to do that. If they say no, then you should not proceed. This simple principle can guide you in situations where you may be unsure.

Coaching and Mentoring, & Work Assignments

The third area of developing others is coaching, mentoring, and work assignments. This is one of the biggest opportunities for project managers. Whether it is formal or informal, coaching and mentoring can be used to develop the project team. What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?  Here are a couple of definitions from the Wikipedia:

  • Coach: A coach is a person who teaches and directs another person via encouragement and advice
  • Mentor: a trusted friend, counselor or teacher, usually a more experienced person.

The key elements of these definitions include trust, encouragement, and experience. As PMs, we need to consider coaching and mentoring as a large part of the job we are doing. Remember that PM is about getting work done through others. Coaching and mentoring is how we encourage others and help them to grow and develop.

I have been fortunate to have had several great coaches and mentors over my career and I recognize the value of receiving coaching and mentoring. In fact, it is hard for me to imagine growing as a PM without receiving the valuable input that I have received over the years. I have worked for a number of managers and project managers in my career and some were great coaches and mentors. As an independent consultant and business owner, I no longer have a formal “manager”. However, I continue to seek out coaches and mentors. I would not have started my own company and maintained it without the encouragement from my mentors. This book was the direct result of the investment of one of my mentors.

The final topic in the area of developing others is the assignment of work. The allocation of work assignments on a project is one of the most important roles that the PM has. How the PM executes this will determine if people are given room to grow on the project or whether they feel their role is limited and perhaps the PM doesn’t know or care about them.

Consider your own approach to making work assignments. What is your level of intention about work assignments? Do you think of both the short term and long term needs of the project team? Or do you find that when you have a short term need you simply fill it and ignore the development needs and objectives of the team members?

When we assign work, we need to think not only about the short term but need also to consider the longer term needs of the project and the individual. Sometimes we need to assign work not based on who can currently do it but who needs to learn it. We need to think about cross training and reducing risks and dependencies on key people on the team. We may also need to consider the savings we can incur in the long run by developing junior people to take on more responsibility within the team.

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