By Angela Payne
One of the things that strikes me when I read Water Online is the expansive range of industry imperatives. Just one view of the homepage shows that organizations across the U.S. are focused on everything from contaminant removal and wastewater management to desalination, infrastructure improvement, and drought prevention. And while we can always point to limited resources as an obstacle to prevailing in the face of these challenges, a focus on capital constraints almost always ensures that progress won’t be made. But there’s one resource every organization has that, when leveraged, increases the likelihood of project success across the board in the water sector.
That resource? Human capital. With a greater focus on leading people and leveraging greater productivity, an organization can significantly improve its odds for success with every undertaking.
It all starts with leadership. Even with a strong project roadmap, to be a leader who can unleash an organization’s full potential, you need certain indispensable skills. And the good news is that any dedicated person in a leadership role can master these capabilities. So if you have any notions about there being “born leaders” — think again. By daring to do a few things, you can be on your way to improving the performance of your project.
Great leaders are often associated with an ability to articulate ideas that motivate people to do things they didn’t know they could. And certainly, being a highly effective leader requires the capacity to inspire individuals to deliver on breakthrough targets. But the first step to getting there isn’t talking, it’s listening. My colleagues and I have witnessed the extraordinary strides an organization or team can make when the top leader makes it a point to solicit candid input and feedback from people throughout the enterprise, even — especially — when the opinions voiced aren’t what they hoped to hear.
For example, when the new managing director of an Australian water utility took over with the daunting charge of resolving a huge budget shortfall and getting a troubled infrastructure project back on track, the first thing he did was listen intently to people at all ranks of the organization. He genuinely welcomed their perspectives about past successes and disappointments, as well as their thoughts on his proposed plan. Many people expressed disillusion and told him he was being unrealistic about what was possible — that he was “dreaming.” And while their feedback didn’t alter his determination, having that dialogue altered the level of resistance in the organization — at first a little, then much more as time went on and people saw his plan generating seemingly impossible results.
Another significant advantage this leader gained by truly listening to his people: He gleaned valuable understanding of past issues and concerns that were getting in the way of higher levels of performance.
Within any organizational culture — even if it’s a very positive culture — the past always informs the present. Once a leader can appreciate an organization’s so-called “status quo” and its pitfalls, he or she is much better positioned to steer the course of each undertaking. This ability is all about embracing insights (positive and especially negative) and clearing away any and all potential obstacles to success.
For instance, if you come to realize that the initial planning for big projects in your organization tends to get mired down in repetitive deliberations: Put a stop to it. Make it clear that while planning and process are important, there comes a time to execute — sooner than later. This doesn’t mean that adjustments can’t be made along the way as circumstances dictate; it means that repeating past mistakes and pitfalls will invariably stand in the way of high performance. Another example my colleagues were a part of: A CIO hired to transform a government IT group came to quickly understand that the morale of the team was very low, with an overall sense of victimization within the bureaucracy. So through a series of short-term wins, he began to shift that perception and chip away at a failing status quo.
I should also mention that an added benefit of accepting a harsh reality and addressing it is that you will take notice, in a good way. And while it’s rare for everybody to get on board, the energy and determination of the people who align with your leadership will be much more powerful than any resistance.
If you proceed with a plan and challenge the status quo yet reach a juncture where you realize that you need to make a change — whether it’s pausing to address a serious issue or speeding up the schedule to seize an opportunity — it’s your job to make that well-informed adjustment. In fact, problems will undoubtedly arise with any project where there’s a gap in decisive leadership.
So if a key supplier for your project isn’t coming through with consistency — even if it’s a long-held relationship — it’s your job to replace that partner with one who’s up to the task. If a community group begins protesting unavoidable transportation disruptions caused by your infrastructure project, launch a public engagement campaign that leverages low-cost channels such as public meetings and social media. Being decisive doesn’t have to cost money. Indeed, a failure to act almost always results in higher budgetary costs, and more importantly, can detract from project momentum and morale.
While these may seem like common-sense capabilities in theory, they require discipline and rigor in practice. Just as it’s important for you as a leader to stick to your fiscal budget, it’s critical that you remain true to your project’s mission and your people. Even if your organization doesn’t have all the money in the world, you can make a world of difference with your leadership.
Angela Payne is a leadership expert and author with a background in a range of industries, including natural resources management. As a member of JMW Consultants’ North American Team, she coaches top executives and facilitates training sessions for leaders and teams seeking to step up their professional games. She is based in Boulder, CO.
Image credit: "Untitled," Marcin Wichary, 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/