Leading by Example: Walking Your Talk … Under a Magnifying Glass

Why don’t my people just do what I say?

It’s a common refrain among my executive clients. Life at the top would be so much easier, if only “they” would “get it.”

In fact, your employees probably _are _doing what you say. You just may be saying things you don’t intend. It’s often not your broad proclamations that give direction; it’s the little things you do that have the biggest impact.

Your actions encourage and discourage behavior

Remember when you were a front-line employee. Executives’ actions were relentlessly scrutinized. A late arrival, a smile, or a nod could introduce chaos. A CEO I worked with was looking over his marketing department’s latest campaign. He frowned at a storyboard before strolling away.

Unknown to him, the team saw the frown, scrapped the campaign, and spent the weekend reworking everything from the ground up. When he found out, he was flabbergasted. He never thought a simple frown would change the team’s direction.

Your reactions to employees and their work will send signals. Remember this! If you notice yourself frowning or smiling, nodding or shaking your head when it may send the wrong message, stop. Think about the message you may have sent, and say or do whatever it takes to make sure your audience knows your intent.

Watch your words, too. A joke may not be a joke. A consulting firm’s Managing Director smiled and quipped “Remember, if you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday.” He was smiling. Everyone knew he was joking. And as one team member later told me, “I felt like I had to come in Sunday. Sure, he was joking. But he’s the Managing Director. Maybe it’s not 100% a joke.”

You lead by demonstration

Of course, the Managing Director was there Sunday, thus insuring everyone would know weekend appearances are mandatory. Your actions will, by demonstration, always be the most significant way you communicate standards of behavior and priorities to your company. The Managing Director cared deeply that his people have an outside life, and said so on many occasions. But his coming in on weekends spoke louder than his words in signaling acceptable behavior.

What you don’t do also matters

What you don’t say out loud, the actions you don’t acknowledge, and the signs you don’t show send powerful messages, as well. The messages sent by omission are harder to detect. After all, there‘s nothing there to examine! But there are things your employees might expect that aren’t forthcoming.

If you don’t acknowledge people, it can send a message that you don’t value their contribution. Different people need different acknowledgment. For some, it’s public recognition. For others, it may simply be mentioning “Hey, you did a really great job.”

If you don’t give feedback when someone does a poor job, you send the message that their performance is fine. If someone is screwing up, they deserve to know as early as possible. Otherwise, they’ll walk away with a message that does neither of you any good.

Common courtesy is increasingly rare, and its absence communicates a subtle lack of respect or lack of individual concern. A simple “Please,” or “Thank you” with a smile and direct eye contact takes only a couple of seconds. If you don’t have time even for that, then people will (rightly!) conclude they aren’t important enough to warrant your attention.

Making decisions in isolation quickly lets people know you don’t trust them. I have worked with companies in which the senior managers are very open with their big decisions, and other companies in which “we can’t tell them that” is a common refrain. As far as I can tell, involvement signals faith that your employees have something of value to contribute. When that involvement is missing, the message of distrust is loud and clear.

Not sharing bad news sends the message that everything is fine. It’s easy to keep bad news quiet, for fear of hurting morale. But framing bad news as a reason to rally builds a team instead of breaking it down. Shared challenge is the stuff of bonding. Use it!

A Great Business Leader Knows His Impact

Matsushita, one of history’s most successful businessmen, knew the impact he had on everyone around him. As this story shows1, he even appreciated the messages conveyed by what he didn’t do.

The father of $75 billion empire, Matsushita was revered in Japan with nearly as much respect and reverence as was the Emperor. And he was just as busy.

One day, Matsushita was to eat lunch with his executives at a local Osaka restaurant (Matsushita Leadership by John Kotter). Upon his entrance, people stopped to bow and acknowledge this great man. Matsushita honored the welcome and sat at a table selected by the manager.

Matsushita ate only half of his meal. He asked for the chef, who appeared in an instant, shaken and upset. The Great One nodded and spoke: “I felt that if you saw I had only eaten half of my meal, you would think I did not like the food or its preparation. Nothing could be less true. The food and your preparation of it were excellent. I am just old and can not eat as much as I used to. I wanted you to know that and to thank you personally.”

Concrete next steps

If you find yourself under the magnifying glass, here are ways of mastering the situation.

  1. Don’t get caught off guard. Schedule five minutes at the end of the day to review your day, note who you came in contact with, and simply ask yourself what messages you sent.

  2. Use the magnifying glass deliberately. At the start of the week, choose a message you want to communicate by example. Spend a moment or two identifying exactly where you can send the message, and how you have to behave to send it. Then do it.

  3. Check for messages of omission. During your daily review, ask yourself who you didn’t contact, but who might have expected it (you may not know who at first, but over time, you’ll learn). What message does the lack of contact send? What message will rumors of what you did do send to those who didn’t see/talk to you?

  4. Review company systems. To make sure you’re sending the same message as your company, review the systems once a year or so. Review your compensation plan: what does it communicate about company goals? What behavior does it encourage? Discourage? Review your decision making and feedback processes. Ask yourself if you’re omitting anyone or anything in those areas.

Communicate well!

  1. Matsushita story excerpted from Dr. Mark S. Albion’s Making-a-Life, Making-a-Living ML2 E-Newsletter #56. Free subscriptions and information on his New York Times Best Selling new book can be found at http://www.makingalife.com. ↩

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

In this episode of Business Explained, I interview Michael Bungay Stanier, author of “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More And Change The Way You Lead Forever.” We discuss how to use some truly powerful coaching questions to boost your ability to help others.


Firing Up Organizations in Tough Times

QuestionThings are very tight right now. Our outlook is uncertain and people are afraid for their jobs. Under these circumstances I’d expect people to get more done, but somehow, we aren’t more productive than before. Any hints?

It’s funny, being a human being. You would think that when the pressure is on, we would flip into resourceful, productive mindsets and valiantly overcome whatever obstacles block the path to our goals. Alas, it doesn’t happen that way. When we feel scared and uncertain, our forebrain shuts down and our hindbrain screams, “Run!” That worked great when spotting the saber-tooth tiger grinning at us through the grass. But in the modern world, that’s often the opposite of what we need to do to survive.

Fear motivates immediacy

Creating urgency is a first step in mobilizing organizations. But an important truth about humans is that urgency easily slips into fear. Fear mobilizes, and it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Which way is “away from?” Whichever direction someone is pointed when that hindbrain screams “Run!” Everyone around will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won’t move them in the same direction.

Fear does more harm than just scatter effort; it produces stress. Under stress, creativity vanishes, problem-solving abilities diminish, and people stop learning. They react from impulse, they don’t think through consequences of their actions, and they become less able to spot patterns and interconnections. This is fine for a five-minute burst of jungle adrenaline, but it won’t lead to a workforce that can navigate a tricky economy.

Any workforce living in stress will have problems over the long term. When morale is bad for months at a time, people disengage. They stop thinking about taking the company to new heights and start groaning when the alarm clock goes off—and groans rarely bring out peak performance.

Leadership motivates coordinated action

Fear’s companion is, oddly, leadership. Fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions. Leadership aligns them in the same direction. Call it what you will: inspiration, vision, mission—setting direction gives people something to move towards. By sharing a vision, everyone in an organization can orient themselves around the same set of high-level goals.

Working towards a larger purpose also mobilizes people, but it mobilizes them in a way that unlocks their creativity, problem-solving, and resourceful mental states. When working towards a large goal they perceive as achievable but challenging, people create eustress, a positive stress that gives them the energy and resources to make progress on the goal.

It’s a big improvement when everyone is moving in the same direction, but one more piece is needed: coordination. The balance between good stress and bad stress is delicate. Once people agree on a goal and are psyched to go there, coordination becomes ever more important. If two groups become blocked by a lack of coordination, bad stress can re-emerge and begin shutting down morale again. So once people are mobilized, the ongoing challenge is making sure they’re supporting each other, and not getting in each other’s way.

Reconnect leadership at the top

The first step to getting the work force back into a powerful, productive mental state is to start with yourself. You’ve probably got the “Run!” response down cold. Now it’s time to reconnect with your “towards” vision. People take emotional cues from their leaders, and if you’ve been stressed about the economy, you’ll be radiating it throughout your organization, so get yourself and your leadership team into a powerful, positive place.

Leave the daily triggers that pull you back into stress. Turn on the voicemail, turn off the e-mail, smash the cell phone, and head off for a weekend in a mountain cabin. Get enough sleep, enough food, and enough physical relaxation so your brain starts working again. Reconnect to your vision. Write, daydream, and brainstorm where you want your group in five years, a year, six months, and three months. Factor in your personal goals as well so you really tap your own intrinsic motivation.

You’ll know you’ve done enough when you feel a strong pull towards your goals. Uncertainty about the economy may still be in the background, but once you’ve regained your equilibrium, you will also feel a strong sense of where you’re going.

Spread that feeling to the rest of your leadership team. Invite them for an off-site, and together, clarify the vision of where you’re headed until it’s at least as clear as perceptions about current problems. Take the time to make sure everyone understands the direction. Bring in their goals, wishes, and aspirations for the organization. While you work, watch their faces. Notice the energy level. When they start getting excited, you’ve tapped their motivation and gotten them back on a powerful path.

Back to the business, decrease stress

Once you return to daily business, you’ll have to decrease stress as you align people. Stress from specific causes (“My kids are sick.”) can be addressed on an ad hoc basis. Stress from vague sources like “the economy” is general anxiety. Often, you can help people by just letting people talk. Listen empathetically and don’t rush into solving or analyzing problems (for most of us type-As, this is much, much harder than it sounds). Feeling listened to can be enough to help someone regain equilibrium.

If the anxiety is about Things We Don’t Really Like to Talk About—like the fear of layoffs—talking can help defuse them. There’s no better way to nurture a fear than to let it remain the stuff of speculation. When left to their imaginations, people deal with uncertainty by imagining the worst and then reacting as if it had already happened. Truth is a great antidote for uncertainty. It is, after all, a form of certainty. Discuss what’s happening, even if all you can say is, “No one knows what will happen, but we’ll keep forging ahead toward our goals.”

Oh, yes. Keeping people healthy is also essential to soothing their nerves. Make sure people are sleeping enough. Sixteen-hour days are probably as productive as ten-hour days with enough sleep and an after-work life. Unless you run an assembly line, productivity is probably tied only loosely—if at all—to hours worked (but that’s another column).

Connect people to forward motivation

As you decrease stress, have the leadership team bring the sense of direction into all interactions. Remind people about the direction. Rally them. Excite them. But don’t overdo it; this isn’t about creating a huge one-time pep rally high. You’re setting a direction for the organization that you want to pervade decision making and keep people steady over the long term.

You build the strongest connections when decisions are made. Have your teams ask continually, “Will this decision move us further in the direction we wish to go?” Once everyone unifies around this question, coordination becomes possible and it will be much easier for people to move forward, which is what productivity is all about.

Your job becomes keeping your leadership team tied to the company vision, and helping them propagate the vision to their teams in turn. People are more productive when they know where they’re going and feel like they stand a chance of getting there. By reducing their stress and fear, addressing their uncertainty, and linking everyday activities to a future direction, people will be able to concentrate on producing results, rather than just running in circles from their anxiety’s imaginary monsters.

Stever Robbins is President of Leadership Decisionworks, a leadership consulting, speaking, and facilitation firm. His work is featured on LeadershipDecisionworks.com and VentureCoach.com.

Young Leader, Veteran Team

QuestionI am a projects and operations manager at a multinational oil giant based in Cape Town, South Africa. I have seven people reporting to me. I am twenty-four years old and the youngest member of my team—the ages range from thirty to forty-three. What strategies/tactics can I use to gain genuine respect and trust of my direct reports? We have been working as a team for the past seven months.

As you’re finding out, positional authority is only vaguely useful for getting things done in an organization. The right job title will certainly get people to follow directions thanks to social psychology’s “obedience to authority” principle (see “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion”) but it won’t engage or align them unless they respect and trust you. Respect and trust don’t come from an organizational position; they come from building a strong relationship. Trust and respect are intertwined, but distinct; you can give respect without trusting, and you can trust without giving respect.

You’re six years younger than the youngest member of your team, so don’t count on gray hair or decades of industry experience to contribute to building respect. You’ll have to earn it from scratch.

Let’s build respect the old-fashioned way: by showing you’re really good at what you do. Being the youngest on your team, don’t even try to demonstrate the highest technical expertise. Even if you are the best technically, people won’t feel great about being out-performed at their own game by someone half their age. They will feel great, however, at having their own strengths magnified by someone who’s becoming a really good leader. Build respect by demonstrating excellence at leading.

Ask for help

First things first. Address what no one’s talking about: your age. People trust you when they believe you understand them. When you say what everyone is thinking but afraid to say, you’ll build trust rapidly. Done well, admitting when you’re in over your head can be the foundation for strong relationships. “I’m younger than the rest of the team, yet I’m the manager. We have a job to do as a group. I don’t have your industry experience, and I’m counting on you for our success. My job is doing what I can to help you create that success. If we all do our part, we’ll make a superb team.”

You’re laying the issue on the table and using it to frame a mutual working relationship. Yes, you’re young. And that’s just a fact. The team can either get over it, pull together, and get the work done, or they can turn it into a problem and stonewall. Either way, once you’ve had this conversation, you can talk about the choice they’ve made, rather than silently accepting their implicit reaction.

Now, start helping your team shine. If you make your team members successful as individuals and as a group, you’ll earn not only trust and respect, but also that most coveted leadership quality: loyalty.

Set a mission

Teams that shine use each person’s strengths to get the greatest results. But before you delve into strengths, you need a team mission to set the direction.

Make sure everyone knows and buys into the mission. The mission is why the group was formed in the first place. If you don’t have one, ask the group to help develop the exact wording based on the team’s original charter. Have them choose words that are meaningful and emotionally charged to them. What’s important is that the mission be more than just nice words. It will be how people know they’re doing the right thing. If your team will “develop processes that make existing production more effective” and everyone knows it, they know not to spend time brainstorming new product development. Since a mission is a definition of success, make sure it aligns with your boss’s idea of what success means for the team.

Missions and goals may be vague or may become obsolete over time. That’s fine. Notice when they aren’t adequate and fix them as needed. Just make sure everyone shares an understanding of the team’s current direction. Unless goals are clear, communicated, and agreed upon, you’ve already lost the battle.

A big part of your job is keeping people aware of the mission. Many new leaders assume that once the team knows what it’s supposed to do, all will be well. Nope. Daily work sucks people in and they gradually lose sight of the goal. Remind them often. Use the mission to introduce weekly status meetings, and ask the team to relate their status reports to the team’s larger objective.

Figuring out team dynamics

Once you have a common goal, you’re ready to enlist the team in crafting their working relationship. Take the time to understand each person’s unique strengths and blind spots. For each person, challenge the group to ask:

  • What are that person’s strengths?
  • How can that person’s strengths contribute to the group?
  • What support will that person need from the group to use his strengths most effectively and to compensate for weaker areas?

Include yourself in the discussion. You’ll be contributing direction, facilitation, and management. You’ve already said that your strengths don’t include decades of industry experience, so the team can expect you to bring them questions only experience can answer. Likewise, invite them to tell you when their experience contradicts your plans or decisions. With a roadmap of skills and needs, the team provides mutual support towards a common end.

Your job description as a leader is simple: Support your team in whatever they need to meet their goals. Your goal—telling the truth, framing the relationship as mutual support, setting direction, and aligning team members’ strengths—builds culture and working relationships. In the day-to-day, your team’s need for additional support will change. You’ll find yourself acquiring resources, scheduling projects, and shielding people from organizational politics. By occasionally asking, “How can I help you do your job better?” you’ll quickly learn how you can help your people succeed.

The more you demonstrate true commitment and honesty, the more people will trust you. The better you do your job, the more the team will respect you. You’re doing your job well by honestly addressing the status quo and having the group design working relationships that bring out their best. You may be the only manager in your team members’ careers who has taken this approach. They’ll respect and trust you for doing what it takes to make them successful, and won’t care for a moment that you’re twenty years their junior.

The Essence of Leadership

QuestionAs the author of this column, I receive a number of questions each month on the topic of leadership. Manu asks how young men and women in India can be taught to think about leadership. A pharmacy director in the U.S. is having difficulty firing up a small number of workers who are not engaged in their work. Linda wants tips on being more decisive. An executive leading a crossfunctional team asks: “How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and focused on our goals when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?”
The answers to these questions begin with the very basics. What is the definition of leadership?

In my experience, “business leadership” is often associated with a CEO of a company who made a lot of money and got rich in the process. Yet when clients tell me their company needs leadership, impressive job titles and large salaries aren’t what they’re after.

We say, “So-and-so is a born leader.” No such thing. Leadership is a relationship between a person and a group plus the skills to guide the group to success. As with any relationship, success depends on both parties. One group’s stellar leader may fail utterly when leading another group. The lack of competent leadership is the number one complaint I hear from non-CEOs.

Rather than just study leaders (thousands of books on leadership cover that ground), I’ve asked hundreds of people who they follow and why. They say leadership is emotional; it’s about inspiration, motivation, and connection. Unlike management, it doesn’t lend itself to systems, structure, and traditional classroom teaching. What inspires people to follow is surprisingly consistent, and surprisingly simple. But be forewarned: Simple doesn’t mean easy!

Establishing the leadership relationship

Call it “vision,” or “mission,” but it all boils down to one thing: First and foremost, people look to leaders for direction. Only by knowing their organization’s direction can people apply themselves to achieve their goals. It needn’t be formally stated; the leader’s actions and decisions convey the direction to the company. The direction needs to pervade every decision and conversation within the company, and it’s the leader who makes that happen. Providing direction for others is a key to creating a leadership relationship.

Even with direction, people must trust a leader. Trust is built on honesty and integrity. People want the truth from their leaders. Outrage from Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Enron, and many other public scandals were fueled less by the events than by the accused parties’ cover-ups and lies. When Salomon Brothers covered up improper trading in an early-1990s scandal, it fueled the flight of a billion-dollars’ worth of customers as people lost trust in the organization. Warren Buffett rescued the company by using complete and total candor with Wall Street and regulators as a way of restoring trust. Far from being a disaster, telling the truth proved astonishingly effective in quickly restoring the company’s integrity, with a minimum of fines.

Leaders must have integrity, establishing clear values and living those values. One of my clients worked for a newly public company whose CEO urged employees to hold their shares to keep investor confidence high. He then sold several million-dollars’ worth of his own shares. He responded to his employees’ feelings of betrayal saying, “It was just a small percentage of my holdings.” But that didn’t matter! He contradicted himself by selling shares while exhorting his employees to hold theirs. It killed his leadership.

Interestingly, the key is having actions match values, more so than what those values are. If one leader values quality and another values speed-to-market, they will simply attract different people to their organizations. But in either case, they must live their values consistently.

Consistency is another vital leadership element. When a leader changes direction with the market fad-of-the-day, or when his or her values shift according to the latest public opinion polls, people stop following. People want dependable leaders who provide a touchstone in times of change. You may ask: In a world of constant change, don’t we need to shift and adapt? Of course. But you must choose a direction and values that stay stable even while adapting your tactics.

A software company once had a company vision, “We will produce the best ABC widget for DOS the world has every seen.” It was a great vision statement, until Windows squashed the company out of existence. The software maker’s vision was so narrow it couldn’t adapt to change. A mission of, “We will solve the ABC problem for computers worldwide” would have been flexible enough to keep the vision while adapting to technological evolution.

Lastly, followers need to feel connected to their leaders. Leaders almost always connect through shared values; that’s one reason followers leave when a leader doesn’t live his or her values. Helping people feel they are part of something much greater—giving them a personal vision—is another strong tactic. For instance a leader in the healthcare industry may say, “You’re not just joining our company, you’re becoming part of transforming the world of healthcare.” Recognizing and rewarding employee achievement helps cement the connection. On the other hand, taking credit for others’ work is a powerful connection destroyer.

I was surprised by this framework’s simplicity—direction, integrity, consistency, and connection. But its simplicity hides how difficult it is to pull off. It’s difficult because these qualities can’t be faked for long. Creating a direction is easy. Integrating it into every breath and decision is not. Choosing values is easy. Aligning behavior, decision making, policies, and organization around those values is not. Consistency is easy … until things don’t go quite as planned. And connection is easy until things get busy and instinct tells us to stop all this fluffy foolishness and just get down to work.

Building the organization

Direction, integrity, consistency, and connection create the leadership relationship. That’s a first step in building an organization, but it doesn’t address the issue of how leaders make their organizations successful. History is littered with great leaders who didn’t have a clue how to turn their leadership into an enduring business. Let me share some of the highlights:

  • Focus, focus, focus. Know what the organization should be doing and ruthlessly say “no” to anything that would be a distraction.

  • Play to individual strengths. Understand the abilities of everyone you hire and make sure their job plays to their strengths. Don’t spend too much time developing weak areas. If someone can go from good-to-great in their strength, that’s more valuable to the organization than taking someone from poor-to-acceptable. Build organizational competence by teaming up complementary skill sets. Ditto for yourself; know what you’re good at and can do well, and spend most of your time doing that.
  • Play to organizational strengths. Stick to what you’re good at as a company, and get very good at it. If you’re a great software company, opening a chain of high-end fashion clothing stores won’t build a strong organization.
  • You can train people for skills, but it’s much harder to hire attitude. Most companies hire for specific job history or resume keywords, which is precisely the wrong way to go about it.
  • Bring out the best in your people. Hire the best, give them a common direction, and let them do their job. You’ll have a much stronger organization than if you make yourself too important. Remember: Every time you hire someone who isn’t as smart as you, you lower the average IQ of the company.

My favorite books on building organizations are Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (it also touches on the “Level 5” leadership character qualities that correlate with success), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization by Peter Senge, with Bryan Smigh, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. All are research-based, easy to read, and have enough great material to keep you building organizations well into the next century.

Most of this column has concentrated on the “soft” skills. When it comes to leadership, I remember what the COO of a multibillion-dollar company once told me: “At the end of the day the financial and strategic issues are there but they are reducible largely by analytics…the people and process issues are not.” If your goal is to become a successful business leader, your route will be smoother if you spend some time working on relationship skills and “softer” aspects of leading. Because at its heart, leadership is nothing more and nothing less than inspiring others to follow your dream and doing what it takes to make possible their success.

No Authority? Use Persuasion

QuestionI am leading a cross-functional team in a company initiative but the members on the team do not report to me. How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and stay focused on the goals established when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?

AnswerDéjà vu! My first project management job was the Quicken VISA Card. We were creating software to import credit card statements into financial software. The software had to be integrated with six different Intuit products. I had “dotted-line” relationships galore, but no one who actually reported to me. Much of my team had other primary projects, all with separate deadlines.

Leading a team in those circumstances is an ongoing negotiation between you and your team’s other priorities. You need to capture your team members’ share-of-mind, and keep them wanting to move the project forward. Unlike a direct supervisor, you don’t have the tool of authority to help. You’ll have to rely on relationships and persuasion.

Easy commitment

Think of your job as helping your team members make your project a priority. You need to know enough about them and their competing commitments so you can work the joint project into their lives. Schedule a one-on-one meeting with each member. Find out what else they’re working on, how much time they can commit to the team, and what their big challenges are. Ask about challenges related to their other projects, and spend some time brainstorming ways that you can help them on those projects.

Don’t be afraid to confront the elephant in the room: “Our project isn’t your top priority, so how can we insure we make forward progress while helping you complete your other priorities?” Just asking the question signals that you care about their priorities. They’ll often care about yours in return.

Once you know their other goals, lend them resources. Intervene on their behalf. You heard right: Help them succeed at their competing commitments. The more they fulfill those commitments, the more time they’ll have left for you, and the more they’ll become committed to your project.

Is one of your team distracted by a national product launch, for which the logistics are screwed up? Help straighten out the logistics, even though it isn’t your job. You would love it if she made you a priority over their other commitments, so demonstrate you’re willing to make her the priority as well. Do something selfless for her. She’ll respond. It just might be the first time someone other than a direct supervisor tried to make her life easier.

Staying in mind

Once you’ve opened channels of communication, diligently maintain the relationship. As in many relationships, frequency trumps duration: People remember many brief encounters more than a single long one.

Have you ever attended a full-day project kick-off, followed by six months of silence from the project team? That’s called “getting off to a resounding thud.” When a project starts quietly but comes up daily in conversation, it infiltrates your thinking and becomes part of the culture. That’s what you’re after. You want your project ever-present in your team members’ minds.

But you want it to be present in a good way. Make sure each project-related contact leaves people feeling like it was a good use of time. That means finding excuses to interact that aren’t “status meetings.” Most people dislike status meetings. Personally, I despise them. For frequent-but-brief contacts, connect to provide value to your team members and use as little of their time as possible. Contact them with help, with direction they need, with resources, or with one-on-one requests for status. Remember: Your goal with these contacts is simple awareness.

In addition to awareness, a team for a large project may need to feel a team identity. Do that separately. I believe teamwork should happen naturally, not through off-sites and ropes courses. From your early meetings and ongoing relationship-building, you’ll understand the needs and strengths of your team members. Facilitate their working together, so they build respect for each other as part of getting the work done. Find opportunities for them to help each other and match them up at those times. “Hmm, Sandy, you need help with the bar graph tool? Did you know that Aaron was working on it just last week?” If team cohesion is a real issue, ask them if they would like formal team-building meetings. At all times, let them drive the process in a way that works given their other commitments.

Put your project in context

If people in your organization are generally committed to the goals of the overall organization, you can strengthen commitment to your project by helping them understand how the project fits into the company’s larger goals. For instance, if the company is branching out into new markets with your project, you can help the team understand that the project is strategically important, and not just busy work.

Uncovering Opportunities to Help

Similarly, if there is an executive whose organization spans both your project and your teams’ areas, you might want to ask the executive to talk at a team meeting, to reinforce how much the project matters to the organization.

Appealing to company goals is powerful in a healthy environment, but should be done with caution if morale is low. In some companies (often those with histories of layoffs or unfair treatment), people view the company and its success very cynically. Appealing to company goals won’t be motivating. In many companies, however, people feel loyalty to and care about the company. They’ll be motivated to help the business reach its goals.

There’s no perfect answer to managing a team with other commitments. But if you take the time to make it easy for your team members to contribute, keep your project top-of-mind, and help them understand how important it is, you’ll have the best chance of pulling together a team that can get the job done even amidst challenges and distractions.