How Pervasive Leadership Can Help You Manage Successful Projects


They spent the rest of that morning having what Lisle always thought of as “the partnership conversation.” She needed to understand where each team member was coming from, to know what caused all of them to stay on the project, and to provide a comfortable exit for anyone who wanted out. Sandy tried to leave the project during the morning. The team spoke up and persuaded her to stay. She had the second most experience on the project, and she was the only senior analyst.

Lisle also needed them to understand what her purpose was in coming onto the project. They learned during the course of the morning that they could challenge her and ask her almost any question—even somewhat personal ones—without her freaking out. Eventually, they understood that Lisle saw herself as being in service to the team and the organization. And she taught them a key precept of pervasive leadership:Enact empathetic stewardship. That applied to the organization, the team, and the project. This puzzled some of them, but Jamey seemed to get it and was excited by working this way.

After lunch, they regrouped to talk about how to do the project assessment over the remaining nine business days. They hadn’t asked her to go to lunch with them, and she noticed that they broke up into groups—part of the team went one way, and the rest went another. That was interesting. Not unlikely, she was a topic of conversation over lunch.

Lisle used the time to take a walk, grab a bite to eat, and refill her water bottle. Then she spent ten minutes in a quiet, dark corner to “look at the inside of her skull,” as she called it. Feeling refreshed and composed, she went back into the work session.

She laid out a typical project assessment model for them. Many of the team had never seen one. It had just been “done to them” by other project managers. While Lisle held on to the Delphi method tasks of talking with all the stakeholders, other team members took on various research and analysis tasks. The project repository was a mess. It was even difficult to tell where the most recent project dashboard was. She’d get that from the PMO.

By 4 p.m., everyone understood their part in the assessment plan and headed back to their desks to set up the tasks for tomorrow. They’d check in at a 9 a.m. standup.

The next morning, Lisle walked into the room to be present for the standup. Team members drifted in. She remained standing, saying good morning as each person entered the room. At 9 a.m., she turned to them expectantly—and they looked expectantly back. Uh-oh.

“How do you usually do your standup?” she asked.

“The PM checks the status of each task, and we tell her what it is,” Santosh said.

Lisle thought it was definitely time to change their mental model of I and thou. Joint accountability wouldn’t work otherwise.

“Right. Well, during the assessment phase, we’ll get in a circle facing each other, all standing up to keep the meeting short, and go around the circle saying what we did yesterday, what we’re doing today, and where we need help,” she said.

She continued, “Yesterday I was in a series of conversations with you all until about 4 p.m. Then I went back to my desk and made appointments with the sponsor to follow up on whether we would get an acting sponsor, and with Dave to find out his perspective on the project. Then I dug around in the project repository to see whether I could find a steering committee roster. I also sent an email to Dave asking him for a copy of the most recent dashboard.

“Today, if I don’t have the dashboard from Dave before we meet at 11 a.m. I’m going to see whether any of the other PMs might have a copy. I’m going to let Dave know we’re on track to get a reset recommendation in nine days. And I’m going to make the rest of the appointments for the stakeholder interviews we talked about yesterday.

“I need help with finding that steering committee roster. Does anyone know where it might be? And does anyone have skills in setting up a wiki? I think we’re going to need one for reporting outside our team.”

The team looked at her a bit stunned. A slow smile dawned on some faces. Then, everyone stood up and followed the model she had just used. A few needed prompting to get through all the parts of the standup conversation. At the end, several people partnered to help each other, and the team drifted out of the room. Jamey stayed behind.

“I was pretty worried when I heard you were coming onto the project, and so were most of the team,” Jamey said. “But you’re not nearly as scary when you’re with us as you are when you’re out there around the office. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Lisle had heard this before. It had taken years to take it in. Finally, she realized what she could change to soften her style and become more approachable.

“I’m sorry I appeared scary,” she said. “I take my work very seriously. I get sick and tired of all the bloodshed—the indiscriminate waste of human energy I see on so many projects. Actually,” she grinned, “I’m a real pussy cat when you get to know me.”

“I’ll bet,” Jamey said. “A Maine Coon or maybe a Norwegian Forest Cat.”

User Comments

Valerie D'Sa-Mayer's picture

I found this article so informative that I joined this community just so I could leave a comment.  What a brilliant way to explain concepts that are otherwise explained in drab ways.  Looking forward to more of the same as it is especially useful to anyone who is new or relatively new to the fields of project management/Agile.


December 6, 2016 - 2:07pm

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