Leadership Is Never On Vacation

By Laurent Duperval

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Earlier this summer my family and I went on vacation with two friends and their baby. We rented a cottage on the side of a lake and planned to spend a week there, enjoying the sun, the friendship and the absence of mosquitoes.

Things did not start out great.

Although we had directions to reach the cottage, we did not take the time to plan our route, thinking that the most direct road would suffice. However, because of traffic and congestion, we had to take an alternate, unplanned itinerary.

We didn't have a GPS to help us, but there was a map in one of the cars. We didn't realize until much later that the map was too old and was no longer an accurate representation of the road layout. Still, we were on our respective cell phones, trying to figure out what exits to take in order to reach our final destination more quickly. We did not agree, but did not take a brief moment to stop and consult each other by the side of the road. Instead we kept plodding ahead, sensing we were heading in the correct direction, but not really confident about our choices.

An outside observer would have laughed at the situation: The couple in the front car had the map, but no idea where they were headed. The couple in the rear car had no map, but had an idea about where to go. The driver in the rear car was trying to tell the passenger in the front car what to look for on the map, in order to find their way.

Then came a fork in the road: The lead car took an exit because the driver was following the outdated map; the second car kept going straight, because the driver followed the road signs. This caused confusion, delays, and some frayed nerves on both sides.

In the end, both cars reached their destination, although it was definitely not as smooth and straightforward as it should have been.

So, how was that vacation trip similar to leading a team?

  • The leader knows the destination. A leader knows where she is headed and also knows the starting point. In IT, this translates to knowing what you want the infrastructure or the new project to look like, once completed. Although you may be clear in that vision, there is no guarantee that the team in charge of implementation sees things that clearly.

  • You need a map. Even if you know where you are headed, you need a map to get you there. Effective project planning is key. Just as you can look up a road map at any time to know your current position, a good plan helps you understand and visualize your progress.

  • Update your map. We had a map, but it was so old that it actually became a problem. The same thing is true with a project plan. Sometimes it works until the end, but sometimes it does not: unexpected delays and roadblocks will inevitably modify your original plan. It shouldn't be so rigid as to prevent you from adapting it to reflect your current reality.

  • Pay attention to the signs. Sometimes we become so fixated on our map, that we forget to look out the window and see the signs that surround us. When that happens, we run the risk of heading for hardship, even though things were very well planned at the onset.

  • Projects can easily miss deadlines or fail if nobody is paying close enough attention to the warning signs. Among the signs are: developers who fall sick after working 10- to 12-hour days for a prolonged period; requirements that are constantly being updated because various teams understand them differently; never-ending projects because there are no clear expectations of outcome.

    If the warning signs become too numerous, it may be time to slow down, or even stop to re-evaluate your position.

  • Face-to-face communication beats technology. On our trip we relied on explanations over the phone while still driving, instead of taking the extra time to stop and communicate face-to-face. In IT, we often rely too heavily on technology for all communications: email, instant messaging, sometimes the phone, voice mail, etc.

    Technology is supposed to help us communicate better but it can actually impede communication. Face-to-face communication takes more time and effort but provides you with valuable information you cannot get otherwise: body language and tone of voice.

  • You can't lead from the rear. If you know your destination and you know how to reach it, you can't lead by pushing people ahead of you. You need to be in front and have people follow. On our trip, the driver in the back car should have taken the lead, instead of trying to lead the other car over the phone.

    Similar situations often occur in the workplace: the manager who wants the team to work overtime, but who comes in late or takes long lunches; the manager who tells people to lead a balanced life, yet works 12 hour days and never takes a vacation; the manager who asks for feedback, but flies off the handle if the feedback is negative. Leadership is effective only if the leader walks the talk.

  • Don't leave your team behind. One of the most important parts of leadership is that you do not abandon your team willfully. As a leader, you make the best efforts to keep your team intact, even if it means investing more time with the ones that have difficulty following. You may choose to remove them from your team; they may choose to leave; but you don't abandon them on the way to your destination. Our almost-failed road trip is reminiscent of many failed IT projects:

    -- projects where there isn't a clear business outcome;
    -- projects where there is no clear plan to a finished product;
    -- projects that fail because people are unable to communicate and understand each other;
    -- projects that fail because the actors are so busy moving forward that they don't have the time to step back and see if they are headed in the right direction.

    We had a bit of a shaky start to our vacation but, all in all, we had a very good time and we would do it again in a heartbeat.

    Similarly, all projects do not go exactly according to plan. You can make it smoother by having a clear vision of your goal, by communicating it to your team, and by being willing and able to lead them through the rough spots.

    In a few years, you'll be able to look back upon the experience and enjoy it just like a vacation trip to your cottage.

    Laurent Duperval is the president of Duperval Consulting, which helps individuals and companies improve people-focused communication processes. He may be reached at laurent@duperval.com or 514-902-0186.