Project Teams – and the need to build your team

How often do we really spend time pulling our team together, building it and making it a cohesive unit? Don’t we often just start working, hoping for the best and silently moaning that we got this one person on the team we don’t gel with?

All to often our bosses will force us to jump into a project and start working instantly. However if we spend even 1 hr in building the team together, getting to know each other can make a world of a difference.

It is on us – the Project Manager or Team Leader – to build the team. Team building is not an annual event paid by the company, where some outsider comes in to do some exercises that supposedly build the team. Team Building is actually your and my responsibility as a Manager, Team Leader or Project Manager.

What you do depends on the situation, the time & money available and the people on the team. You need to be sensitive to who is on your team and what cultural background they come from. If you have people from very conservative backgrounds, then swimming events might not be suitable. If you have sedentary people who are not used to exercise, climbing Mt Kenya might not be a good idea.

General doing something productive together can be a great team building. However it does not need to be sport. You could decide to visit a children home and donate there as a team. Or raise funds together for a worthy cause. Bake sales and such still can do the trick. You could go to a colleagues house, who is in dire need and help them. For example we once went to a colleague and helped him clean out his house and few possessions left, after a house fire. The opportunities are endless, but the team needs to decide together what they do. Anyone against the idea need to be given space to voice their concerns.

Still all this is well and good, but what to do if your boss gives you a hastily thrown together team and tells you to be on site tomorrow. There is not time for team building in the traditional way. Here you need to get creative. Don’t wait for the big budget approvals etc. Do something quickly. The most important thing is that you sit together as a team and spend time to get to know each other. Things I have done successfully:

  • Sit together at lunchtime and tell each other about our family, our hobbies etc
  • Have a drink after work together, where we get to know each other socially
  • Have a short round after the project brief, where we talk about our professional back ground (if we don’t know it – and you’d be surprised how little we know about our colleagues), our thoughts about the project, our values etc. Create an environment, where everyone can contribute and every opinion is accepted. Those who laugh at others or criticize what someone says need to be chastised gently but publicly to ensure all know their opinion counts. And you need to ensure everyone has said something
  • If you have a budget, then you can have a social gathering, where food or drink is provided
  • Have a more formal sitting, where each can introduce themselves, talk about their experience, special skills and values and you help them align the values with the company values.
  • Celebrate things together. If a team member has an exam, celebrate, when he passed it. Celebrate birthdays, weddings, babies born and any other achievement the team thinks are important. Even if the company has their own way of doing it, still have your team celebration. It will make a difference to the team. A cake with the name and the accomplishment on it, does wonders to a person’s self esteem. Don’t fear to have 2 cakes if there is a reason. I once celebrated the last meeting before Christmas with a Christmassy cake and had a special cake the same meeting for one of the team who had graduated a few days before. We happily ate 2 cakes, the graduate felt proud and honored and had cake left over to take home to celebrate with his family again.
  • When there are tight timelines and people have to work overtime to finish a project, I usually show up on site at one time with a cake, or a lunch for all to celebrate for 30 minutes or so. Your team will go back to work reenergized. Team Members for a very sensitive client project where a data center was being moved to a new location and our integrated team of over 20 people worked 48 hours non-stop, still talk about the project. I was not directly involved, but knew the project manager, who was reporting to me, was having an exam himself in the middle of the project. I want to know how this kind of work is done and how it is progressing. So I showed up on site with a home-baked cake and a coupled of bottles of soda and plastic cups. We had a great time together, the teams relaxed briefly, I got a tour of the new data center. The team went back to work re-energized and the clients IT Manager was deeply impressed that a “big boss” can show up on a project site on a Saturday afternoon.
  • Start every team meeting with a round of success. Let every team member report what he has done since the last team meeting that he is most proud of. Then congratulate them on the successes. This is not the time to criticize. Should there be something that needs to be corrected, do so later, one on one.
  • Have a whatsapp group for the team, where successes are shared
  • Take photos of the team at work and show them during the next team meeting
  • Have a good laugh together
  • Go watch a movie together

You see the opportunities are endless and it does not need a lot of formal organizing or costly official events to build a team. It takes a leader who is interested in his or her team, wants to genuinely know them, cares about them and wants to see them grow. You need to be willing to share as well and become one of the team, not the boss man or boss woman, who directs from above. Be the first to share.

See what other teams have done and take ideas from there.

So get going, get creative and build your team your way.


Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary (2015) defines it as follows:

“volunteer – noun: 1. A person who does a job without being paid for it…. 2. A person who offers sth without being forced to do it…”

“volunteer – verb: 1. To offer to sth without being forced to do it or without being paid for it…. “

I have volunteered all my life. It was what we did. If a neighbor or friend was sick you volunteered to help them, cleaned or washed for them, cooked them food and spend time with them. If someone lost a loved one you did the same, so that they could mourn in peace and not have to think about it any more. They did the same for you.

If there was a wedding or other celebration you volunteered to help out, depending on what you were good at. Some would help with decorations, others would make food (at your own cost), others would baby sit, some would provide the music or skits for the evening.

As Nurses we would volunteer during free medical camps and not expect any payment. We wanted to give back to the community and help where needed. Actually if there was a free lunch it was a welcome surprise, but not expected. You can imagine how shocked I was when I realized these days Nurses and Doctors expect to be paid for work at free medical camps. Really????? Where is that money supposed to come from?

When we sat on a board, we’d pay for our own drinks (or food) during the board meetings.

The meaning of Volunteering seems to have changed for some. Everything seems to be outsourced and you only come to complain about what you thought wasn’t done right or you would have done differently. In our money hungry and self-centered society we have forgotten the true spirit of volunteering and people expect to be paid, get allowances and generally benefit in some financial way from what they call “volunteering”. I think it is time we re-think what we call “volunteering” or “giving back”.

For me an event well organized, the thankful smile of an old Lady or a disadvantaged person, who received free medical treatment, smiling children’s faces during a children’s camp or the thankful smile and silent blessing of a neighbor is payment enough. I go home with the feeling of having done something worthwhile and having made someone’s life better. The experiences have made me grow as a person and help me put things in perspective.

In the Project Management Institute (PMI) we still embrace the spirit of volunteering. Worldwide there are over 10,000 volunteers, who tirelessly work to further project management knowledge. They have lots of fun and learn a lot. Here the Kenya Chapter has quite a number of volunteers who work for the chapter. Without being forced, without sitting allowances, without getting more business out of it or any other material benefit. However in return you get:

  • Leadership skills from experience – Learning by doing among peers
  • New friends for life
  • A world wide Network
  • Amazing knowledge resources to use and learn from
  • Opportunities for
    • International volunteering
    • Leadership Training in the Leadership Institute Meetings (LIM)
    • Participation in the Leadership Institute Master Class (LIMC)
    • An amazing Network – which for many has led to new opportunities jobwise
    • Speaking opportunities in LIM and PMI conferences
  • PDUs that count against keeping your certification valid
  • Personal growth as a Project Manager, Manager and Leader

I can not even put a value to the amazing benefits I have had from joining PMI and starting to volunteer. They are not material benefits, which are short lived, but lifelong benefits for me as a person and growing leader.

Think about it? When have you last volunteered.

Servant Leader – the true Leader

As I was going through old notes on Servant Leadership and reading up on where the term Servant Leadership came from, it suddenly hit me:

You can not be a true leader unless you are a servant leader!

Yes you heard me right!

Since Leadership is based on 5 best practices, if you look at these closely you need to admit it!

5 leadership practices, based on the book “The leadership challenge” by James M. Kouzes & Barry z. Posner, which again is based on actual research in the last 40 years or so, are:

  1. Model the way – yes you have to walk the walk
  2. Inspire a shared vision – unless you talk with your team about their vision and the company vision and how their own vision can be aligned with the greater vision of the team or company
  3. Challenge the Process – yes even your own developed processes – that does not mean you change them all the time, but check if they are still applicable and still the best way to do things
  4. Enable others to act – how else will you get the best out of them? But this means stepping back and becoming a servant leader. Allowing them to learn and to fail at times.
  5. Encourage the heart – again, how else will you get the best out of your team, unless you encourage and praise them? Again only a servant leader can truly do this. You need to acknowledge even smallest achievements to get them to perform better and better.

To achieve those 5 best practices, you need to be a humble leader, not the boisterous politician, who always wants to be seen up front and the one who initiated all the successes.

Look at the leaders you really admire, you will realize that these are more likely servant leaders, who humbly did their work, often in the background. Look at Mother Theresa for example. Yet they achieved so much by enabling and encouraging others. If you look closely they will have modeled the way, inspired a shared vision and challenged the process along the way.

As a project manager, you do not need to have a big title and be in Senior Management to be a change maker, who leads others to do the right thing. But be being a man (or woman, for that matter) of your work, walking the talk and modelling the way, you will influence others. By being passionate about what you do and talking about the greater picture, the vision, you will inspire others.

Now what is a servant leader?

Someone, who inspires others and enables them to become their very best. Then he happily steps back and watches them to become their very best and takes pride in having helped them. He humbly allows them to make mistakes, even though it may fall back on him.

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

I used to think I was the only one who would feel like an impostor in meetings of “big” people. This nagging feeling that you are not good enough and all those around you are the real deal, they are so much better than you. This goes hand-in-hand with the fear of being found out and publicly expelled or exposed.

Then one day while sitting in the Leadership Institute Master Class it really hit me – not just head knowledge, it sunk in: there are many who feel like I do and we all keep quiet. Someone openly confessed he used to suffer from it and explained on how he is working on overcoming it. Then several people confirmed they are suffering from it too. Yes the imposter syndrome is real and we need to learn to overcome it!

A friend of mine suggested to me at one point I should write down all my achievements and read through them when I feel down and outright useless, a failure. She had seen through it, knew I am an achiever, not a failure and seen all those things I had achieved. My immediate reaction was to tone down what she said, and say that my achievements are not all so noteworthy after all. This is a typical reaction to protect yourself, just in case “they find out I am the imposter”. But she insisted and pointed out the things I had just told her, she made me see that these are big achievements and not little things.

I started out writing them in lists, but somehow reading through it was not that effective for me. It felt like a litany reading the always in the same order. Then I got the idea of using an old chocolate treat tin and write the achievements on little note papers. One on each paper.

When I feel down or feel useless, the big failure, I just start pulling out papers at random and reading them. Man that works! It has never failed to make me gain confidence again. Sometimes I literally had to read through all the papers, before the reality hits that this is what I have achieved and I can do great things, but it always does.

There is just something reading your achievements randomly that makes me feel good about myself again. And 90% of the time I then remember some recent achievements that I have not written down yet.

Another thing that has helped me is having an accountability partner. With one of my LIMC (PMI Leadership Institute Master Class) class mates we set short term, mid term and long term goals and meet every 2-3 months virtually to update each other. I look forward to these meetings and it is great fun celebrating each others achievements. At the same time we encourage each other and give each other ideas about those goals we missed out on.

Main take home for everyone from this is that you are somebody, you are NOT and impostor and you have achieved a lot. Document it and celebrate your small victories. They do add up to quite a lot!