02/11/2021

By Johnathan Farnsworth, Senior Manager

Johnathan Farnsworth headshotImagine this: You’re flying on a plane and mid-flight there’s an announcement made that the current pilot is going to be switched out with a new pilot. Terrifying? Maybe just a bit. As consultants, we are frequently brought in to lead large programs that are already in flight.

This typically means we are tasked with bringing a struggling program back to green, or driving it to completion. Keeping emotional intelligence at the forefront, and leading the program judiciously and empathetically can obtain the desired results while fostering a teaming environment.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence

Taking over the responsibilities of a program from the previous manager is always an interesting and delicate task. You quickly need to bring yourself up to speed, engage the team, learn the ins and outs of a new program and potentially a new technology.

Successfully leading a program with emotional intelligence can be difficult as the tendency is to utilize a heavy hand, by driving and controlling the team, to get results. This works in some cases but depending on the teams’ experience up to that point and their styles, whether they are analytical, amiable, expressive or drivers, it may have the opposite effect.

Keeping emotional intelligence at the forefront, and leading the program judiciously and empathetically can obtain the desired results while fostering a teaming environment.

Where to Start

My priority coming into a new program is to establish relationships and a team-oriented environment. Get to know your team—what drives them? How has their experience to date been on the program? Typically, the most important question to answer is what the team and individuals need to be successful.

Over my career, I have focused on the following aspects when joining an in-flight program to help lead judiciously and empathetically:

Avoid the “Heavy Hand” – As mentioned earlier, many people don’t respond well to being told what to do. Where appropriate, empower your team to make decisions and give them a safe space to learn and grow. Some individuals will need to be directed, sometimes firmly, but you can still hold them accountable without disrespecting them or killing their sprit in the process. In turn, they will be willing to work hard for you to accomplish the common goal you have set.

Minimize the Blame Game – It’s far easier to point fingers when an issue occurs, especially when you are working with multiple vendors, than to set a one team mentality. Removing the finger pointing can allow the team to focus on what’s important and take the corrective action necessary to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In some situations, this can be a very powerful tool. Unfortunately, this approach will not lend itself well to all situations and keeping the pressure on is necessary to ensure a successful program.

Manage the Stress – Large programs are stressful—there are a million things to accomplish and tight deadlines, that no matter how well-planned, always seem to come up too quickly. Today’s environment heavily relies on remote teams across different time zones. Always remember that the resources you are dealing with day in and day out are people too. Things are happening in their lives that you may never know of but try to keep things in perspective and ensure you lead with the necessary empathy.

Be Involved – Program managers typically engage at a high-level. It’s what we are taught to do and necessary to ensure large efforts get completed on time. Don’t be afraid to get into the weeds from time to time to experience what your project managers and team members are going through, but remember you don’t want to live there! I joined a program that frequently had late-night cutovers that would go on for hours. Wanting to see how one went, I joined the meeting for support and stayed up with the project manager who was driving the cutover. As 3:00 AM approached, you could tell the team was starting to go stir-crazy, but we pushed through. To this day, we still joke about my first cutover and whether I was awake the entire time.

Much like having your pilot switched out mid-flight can be terrifying, joining a program mid-flight can be terrifying for yourself, client and team. There’s nothing better than wrapping up a program knowing that you led with empathy and compassion, yet still completed it successfully.

There's nothing better than wrapping up a program knowing that you led with empathy and compassion, yet still completed it successfully.

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