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Episode 417: Leading During A Disaster (Free)

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Niraj and Cornelius
Niraj Kumar and Cornelius Fichtner

This interview with Niraj Kumar (LinkedIn Profile) was recorded at the lively Project Management Institute (PMI)® Global Conference 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

We share insights gained from leading teams in the aftermath of the 2016 flood, called the worst Louisiana disaster since Katrina. Learn how our guest led teams through devastation around them and reacted to a life-altering situation, yet stayed true to the mission to serve the community.

You will hear how the team leaders collaborated to ensure that the critical tasks get done, operations keep humming, and the affected customers continue to receive service.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Niraj Kumar: In this episode of The Project Management Podcast™, we look into specific leadership behaviors you can practice to adapt to a chaotic and challenging situation.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to The Project Management Podcast™ at www.pm-podcast.com. I am Cornelius Fichtner.

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner: We are coming to you live from the lively 2017 PMI Global Conference in Chicago. With me right now is Niraj Kumar. Hello, Niraj!

Niraj Kumar: Thank you, Cornelius! It’s nice to be able to talk to you again!

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah and we finally meet in person, aren’t we?

Niraj Kumar: Absolutely! It’s so good to see you.

Cornelius Fichtner: How is the conference going for you so far?

Niraj Kumar: The conference has been fun. A lot of activities and things that people can take back to their work. It’s definitely very helpful for anybody who is a project practitioner, not just for a project manager but anybody who works with projects. Even for stakeholders, this conference can be very helpful.

Cornelius Fichtner: You have just finished your presentation a few minutes ago. How was it for you?

Niraj Kumar: It was great! People participated and I was glad to see the audience’s interests and how they all resonated with the topic and how they can use some of the things we discussed.

Cornelius Fichtner: Alright! We’ll look into all of that as well.

Niraj Kumar: Great!

Cornelius Fichtner: The topic is “Leading During a Disaster: Lessons Learned from the 2016 Louisiana Flood”. What’s the story behind it? What interested you in discussing, presenting this topic here at the Congress?

Niraj Kumar: I decided to present this topic because when we are in a situation that’s chaotic and disastrous like this event was for our work situation, we go through events, we work with other people, we use some skills, we also learn the limitations of what do we read in books and how we really end up practicing when it comes to leading people, influencing people. And what I do is I put a leadership lens on what took place in this context at work. And I give out some tips and ideas that project practitioners and leaders can use to be more effective in a chaotic situation.

Cornelius Fichtner: How were you personally affected during this situation?

Niraj Kumar: I was affected very deeply because as I said before, it’s one thing to read about a flood. It’s one thing to read about a difficult situation or a war situation. It’s one thing to live through a disaster and work through that. I was in the midst of it and I wanted to share what happens when you were in the middle of it. How does it unfold? And how difficult it is to keep people motivated, how difficult it is to get the work done, what should we focus on? And also how some of the things that you read in the news media are very different when you were in the middle of it when you are trying to get your work done?

At the end of the day, we are professionals. We get paid to hit a target. We get our accolades from working through people and that’s my focus. That’s what we come to work for everyday. I felt like this event the way it changed me from inside, it refined my leadership abilities.

Before that situation, I was able to lead people. But now after I have gone through that, I would be talking to them differently if I were in a similar situation. So I would say as a team, people who go through the situation, it helps them grow in a certain way. It helps them balance different things including we have to get the work done, but how do we talk to people so they are still motivated. They get the work done, but they also feel good about it at the end of the day.

Cornelius Fichtner: How did you keep yourself motivated during that time?

Niraj Kumar: I kept myself motivated by just going through certain steps that I discussed in this presentation. And I believe that to lead others, you first have to lead yourself. You first have to be in the right emotional state, in the right motivational state to be able to accomplish work through others.

I learned that when you are in a difficult spot and you are struck by a grief, you are struck by any kind of grief, you go through a staged approach. You know we like to call it six stages of grief. And I felt like we, as humans, go through those stages when we are hit by grief and it’s good to know in advance that when we go through a tough situation, first we like to deny it. We like to isolate ourselves from the difficulty and then we like to bargain with universe or with God or with people who we think are the power to be. And at the end of the day, we accept the situation as what it is and then you work from there. So processing grief to me for any individual is an important concept not just in theory but in practice as well.

I also kept myself motivated because I have a great team. At the end of the day, I believe that your team motivates you and you motivate your team. We are all in a difficult situation together. So having a great team makes a lot of difference. So I would say my ability to really manage my emotions when we go through a tough time and understand that all of us have different ways of managing our emotions and being self-aware about it helps you go through it, helped me go through it better. And also reach out to others and understand that we can help each other out.

Leadership is a contact sport. I forgot who said it but it’s a very, very true statement. It’s something where you work with others. You know that there is somebody who can step in if you are feeling bad. You know that if you have a team that reports to you or if you are running a project where there are people assigned to your project, if they trust in you and you have done the work to keep and generate the trust, they’ll step up. Even during difficult times, they will do what’s right for you, for your team so those are the things I think about when I think about keeping myself and that applies to anybody if they want to keep themselves motivated.

Cornelius Fichtner: How do you define leadership?

Niraj Kumar: I like to define leadership as how and what you do with people, how you think about people, how you talk to them, how you influence through people. So to me, it’s about whatever skills you use to be influencing and working with people, they all combine all these behaviors and thinking and actions, they are leaderships skills for me, and I call them ‘skills’ because they can be learned.

I believe that just like other skills for a project manager, leadership skills can be learned. Sometimes they take longer than a technical skill takes to learn but I call them ‘skills’ for that reason.

Cornelius Fichtner: What did your team do during this event?

Niraj Kumar: My team worked on the tasks that we generally do. My team provides internal support to our largest operational team and what changed for us during this event was how we had to work through some of the tasks that we generally would not work on because of the emergency situations, because our customers needed special processes. They needed different systems or configuration. So we changed those things so we are able to work for our customers and with our government guidelines.

Cornelius Fichtner: So what are some of the leadership behaviors that you used during this flood in order to keep your team motivated?

Niraj Kumar: The first thing I do is I’ve always thought the good leaders create followers and great leaders create leaders on their team. And I want to be creating leaders all the time.

So the first thing that I did or rather I had done before that ended up helping me was I like to empower other people and always thing in terms of who can do my job if I were not here.

Growing somebody on your team is very, very important to me and there were a few team members who are able to lead the team when I was unable to get to work. So that’s the first thing that I did in advance. I think all the leaders should do, they should develop other leaders. So when they step away, somebody can take their place.

The other steps that I took is that I think it seems very simple but something that goes a long way is listening to people’s problems when they are in difficult spot. For example, we are at work to get the work done but if people have lost their homes and they want to talk to you about it, they want a sympathetic person to listen to. They want somebody who would say: “I understand you problem. Let’s see..”

The most important thing is understanding their problem. Putting ourselves in their shoes and not just trying to solve it right away. Being empathetic goes a long way in generating the trust you need in critical time to be able to ask them to do something for you and for the team. So I would say, keep creating leaders on your team. If you a leader today, I would say, become a better listener. Understand that there are times when you just have to lend your ears. You don’t have to solve their problems yet. That time also comes.

Meet them where they are. If they are hurting, if they lost their lives, if they have no car to go to work, if they have no place to live after they get out of work, if they living at a make-shift arrangement, it’s good to let people know that you understand their problems and you are willing to walk in their shoes. I think once you get that, once you are able to ask them questions, understand the pain they are in, you can work from there. Because then you will ask questions of them differently, you will demand things of them but in the context of the pain that they are working through. That changes how you interact with people. So I think that really helped us in terms of the behaviors and influencing other people.

I also believe that leadership at the end of the day is also getting stuff done, getting the tasks done. I think one of the things that I recommend project leaders do is they think about what can be done today or tomorrow like in small chunks of time when you are in a disaster or in a chaotic situation. When things are going perfectly well in a project, let’s say you do a communication once a week, you find out what’s wrong maybe once in two weeks, so you have a lot more time to assess the team’s performance, team’s deliverables. In difficult spots like these, you have very little time. You might have to assess the work everyday. You might have to see how are things moving everyday.

If you are leader, one of the things leaders always have to do very well, one of the first things is they have to set the vision for the team. We have to paint the picture for our team. Tell them where they are going because if we fail to do that, we have failed as a leader. That’s one of the first things we do no matter what the situation.

In a chaotic situation when people are confused, when things are broken, they don’t know where to go. That skill of setting and communicating vision becomes a lot more important. That means you might have to tell them everyday: ‘Folks, we are going to do XYZ by the end of today.’ Not by the end of a month, not by the end of the year because that’s what they are looking for from you as a leader. They want you to tell them what’s due today and they want you to tell them when you are done. They are done with the work. They want you to tell them that it’s complete I think one of the things that leaders also sometimes lose sight of is that it’s better to talk about a little bit progress, little bit of progress then talk about a lot of work and no progress.

Let me give you an example, let’s say that in regular project work when things are just going fine and you have all the resources at your disposal, you have all the budget money and there is time available for the project work to be done. Let’s say you have ten tasks that you want your team to accomplish in a day, during chaotic and disastrous situation, you might want to prioritize which three you want to get done not ten because in these situations, you might not have the full capacity. If you had 100 people on your team, you might only have 40 people or 30 people. So you might want to prioritize the work.

And once you have prioritized the work, the task list to a smaller list, then at that point, you are better off working with the team to get all those three done, completed. Because once they complete the work even though the list is smaller, they will feel more motivated. They will feel more accomplished. They will go home happy and that can give them a reason and a motivation to keep working through the tough situation.

So you want to give about progress and completion of tasks and not do like: “Let’s do everything” because when you try to do everything, nothing gets done in those situations. And not only it affects your task and the projects, it affects their motivation because motivation is tied to the progress we make. They need to know what progress they made that day and that’s how you want to communicate to your team.

Cornelius Fichtner: But this is true not only in situations where you have disasters going on around you. This is true in everyday project management.

Niraj Kumar: Absolutely! The fundamental concept that the people look for progress and complacent is important no matter what situation you are at. The same concept becomes more important for you because to take advantage of that concept and use that to get the work done and keep things motivated, you might have to reconfigure the task and that’s what the trick is during disastrous, during chaotic situations.

Give the team the clarity they need. In regular situations, you might tell them here are the ten tasks and I’ll talk to you after two weeks. If they are self-motivated professional, they will keep working on it. In chaotic situations, you might have to tell them that this is the one task that needs to be done today. And let’s talk tomorrow and see how we are doing. That’s the difference. You change the frequency and you change the number of tasks and when you can kind of check in with the team and kind of assess how things are going.

So what changes here in terms of the game, what changes here is that you might have to do a lot more work in assessment and motivation than you are used to. In regular situations, the frequency doesn’t have to be that often. In disastrous situation, you have to stay close to them and watch them more often.

Cornelius Fichtner: You mentioned that there is a process grief that happens in chaotic situations like this that some of your team members, that their homes were destroyed during this, were you able to provide anything to them to help them through this time? Did your company support you in this in any way?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

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