Leading Under Pressure

One of the key characteristics of a good leader is ability to deal with unexpected situations, with disappointments and frustrations, with stress and depression, with pressure and anything that the ever changing high velocity business of today brings.

What characteristics you need to have and what behavior you need to exhibit so your team follows you even in the difficult times? It all starts with 3C (Composure, Confidence, and Clarity).

Composure

Even under pressure you need to keep your cool. You need to be able to calmly assess the situation and not buckle in. As a leader it is your responsibility to push your team so they grow, learn, execute and excel at their work. At the same time you are here to shield them from undue pressure. Why? Because the biggest killers of productivity are anxiety, uncertainty, fear and stress.

If your boss pushes on you to meet unrealistic deadline it is you who need to stop it right there and do you best to explain to him what is and is not possible. You may tap your team for detail information but you should never act just as a proxy who pushes the pressure to the team by asking them for impossible.

In the eyes of your team you should be someone who is easy to reason with even when stakes are high, who never yells, and who is consistent and fair regardless of external circumstances. This also means that every now and then you will have to take a fall for the team and then work with them to make sure you both are better equipped to deal with similar situations in the future.

Confidence

This leads us to confidence. If you are not sure what you are doing or what should be done, if you are the yes-man and agree with whatever your boss or customer asks then you will either have no choice but to push the pressure to the team or you get yourself so stressed that it will be difficult to maintain the Composure.

Confidence means that you are sure of your own abilities and that you trust your team. If one of these is missing then you need to fix it fast. So how do you build confidence? This is rather broad topic but let’s start with positive mindset. If you have the mindset that you know you will do your best and that the same applies to your team and if you are willing to celebrate (at least in your mind) some small wins (like learning something new along the way) it will gradually build up to a feeling of achievement and success. And success breeds confidence.

You may also use the trick of remembering that almost everyone struggles when doing something for the first time. You may remember all your fails when you were trying to walk, or learn to write. Or what about the first time you sit on a bike? Or first time you tried to play a guitar? All these should give you enough history of overcoming obstacles and achieving something you haven’t thought possible to form the positive mental attitude that leads to confidence even when dealing with unknown.

Clarity

If you are calm under pressure and confident you will be able to deal with it then you are ready to be crystal clear on what needs to be done and you are ready to communicate this in a transparent manner. The key here is to be truthful while managing expectations of all the stakeholders and creating sense of urgency inside the team while keeping stress away.

This is best achieved by exhibiting behavior aligned with the 3C. When you are confident, calm and communicate with clarity you appear to be in control of the situation (and hopefully you are). For the external stakeholders this means that they will trust you to handle the situation and they will understand your reasons for why something is or is not possible. For the team it means they feel like you are here to help and they can rely on you to have their backs. This then leads to willingness to do their best so they don’t let you down.

There is much more that can be said about how to deal with stress, difficult conversations, motivation of the team and getting things done but when you get under pressure remember to start with 3C: Composure, Confidence, and Clarity.

How do you deal with pressure? How do you ensure you keep your cool in front of the team? How do you push the team to excel and deliver while shielding them from undue pressure that would destroy their focus?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

The less work you have the longer it takes

About eight years ago I moved to a new city. I found a great job, city seemed to be nice so why not stay. I love traveling and exploring new places. In these eight years I regularly travelled outside the city to other countries and continents. When being a tourist I always explore the new place and learn lots of new things about it. Guess what. In all these years I never found the time to explore my new home town. Even though there are many historical sites and beautiful places… I’m being told.

In 2008 when in Australia I met a guy from New Zealand, we talked about his country and he mentioned that 10 miles from his village is a site where the Lord of the Rings was filmed. He was fifty, travelled the world and he never went there! He just never found the time. There was always some excuse that he can do it tomorrow.

Have it ever happened to you that you finished a project and there wasn’t new one in sight. Did you suddenly have more free time to do other things or has it somehow happened that even when having almost nothing to do you still couldn’t manage it?

All these things have one common root cause. When having more time at our hands we tend to fill it with whatever nonsensical work so we still don’t get things done. When I moved to the new city I told to myself “I will live here for couple of years so I have enough time to explore it.” And I never got to it. There is no pressure. The guy from New Zealand had his whole life to go and visit the beautiful place next door and never went. There was no pressure to do it. You have only couple of small tasks and lots of time to do them, well you procrastinate and at the end don’t do any of them. There is no pressure.

Some of you are very disciplined and figured out how to get things done regarding the circumstances and environment around but for the rest of us some pressure (external or internal) might be needed to get us moving. If you have a task that should take 5 hours and you give it to your team saying that they should get it done in 10 hours, it will take 10 hours. People tend to fill the time given. Sometimes by simple procrastination, sometimes they really spend the effort on doing more research, more testing, more of something that is nice but isn’t necessary. In project management we call it gold-platting. Giving something more effort, features, attention than was requested, needed and is paid for.

How to change that? How to create environment where people focus and get things done? It is all about challenging yourself and challenging your team to do a bit more than can be comfortably handled. There needs to be this feeling that you have to do this particular task not only because it needs to be done but also because other stuff is waiting in the row. At the same time beware of creating so much pressure that it leads to stressful working condition when there is so much work and so much stress that people freeze and don’t do anything simply because they worry too much and don’t know where to start.

So how do you create an environment with enough pressure to get things done but not too much stress so people enjoy working there?

  • Set clear goals and deadlines that are tough but achievable so people have to give their hundred percent to it
  • Say what is coming and don’t wait with talking about the next task until the current one is finished. People need to see what is coming otherwise they will try to prolong the current activity as much as possible to avoid the uncertain future
  • Create sense of ownership by the team so there is this internal pressure (that way the team will want to do things on their own and the pressure will not feel like a pressure but rather as an interesting challenge)
  • Remove any unwarranted external pressure (from customers or top management) that could stress out the team and freeze them
  • Challenge the team members by giving them more responsibility (you must ensure that people don’t fall into complete routine and apathy)
  • Listen carefully and observe when people get overloaded, when that happens make sure they understand the priorities
  • Walk your talk and challenge yourself the way you are challenging the team; the team needs to feel that you share the pain with them
  • Make sure you give people enough work so they feel engaged and useful, the worst thing that can happen is to have people who are overloaded and next to them sitting someone who is bored. They may both eventually leave.
  • Share a laugh. Humor is the best way how to get rid of stress and you should use it often. Though be careful to not overuse it and never use it in a way that can hurt someone.
  • Reward the results but appreciate the effort. In business results are what counts but understand you work with people and not machines, so always appreciate also those who did their best even if they didn’t achieve the results intended.

Last but not least remember all the things you learned about sharing a vision with your team, letting them know why we do what we do. And if you are like me and never get to explore the place you live in. Remember that if you love travelling you don’t necessarily need to go the edge of the World but you can see interesting stuff just around the corner and feel free to behave like a tourist even at home. I will do the same.

Twitter type summary: “Always give people a bit more work than they can comfortably handle and then help them to handle it comfortably.”

When are you at your best? Do you product maximum and best quality work when having tons of time? Or do you prefer a bit of pressure to keep you focused?