Giving the Gift of Support

13-December-smallThe Terra Nova Expedition of 1911, led by the noted British explorer Robert Scott, is widely considered to be a planning and management failure. Not only did the five-man ‘pole’ team die on their return trip, but while striving to be the first to reach the South Pole they arrived a mere 34 days behind Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team.

Expedition journals tell of a series of unlucky and unfortunate circumstances, extreme weather, supply shortages, poor supply depot coordination, and a lack of follow through by their base camp team. This tragic adventure is not devoid of heroism as the selfless act of Captain Lawrence Oates is still known today.

Expedition Sacrifices

A month after reaching the South Pole, in early January of 1912, Edgar Evans succomb to injuries from a fall. Both Evans and Oates were suffering from frostbite and had been slowing the team down. By mid-March, when the weather turned for the worse, very little progress was being made and the hopes were not high.

Oates, who had a severe case of gangrene, made a decision. Weighing the odds of the survival of his team, he chose to sacrifice himself in hopes that the remaining three members would live. According to Scott’s journal one evening Oates simply said, “I am just going outside and I may be some time” before exiting the tent. This act did not ultimately save the rest of the team, as they perished about 10 days later.

One thing I find extremely fascinating about this 100+ year old tale is that on a personal level Oates publically and privately disagreed with Scott. In his journal he stated:

Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition… He [Scott] is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere…

Scott for his part, was a little less harsh, seeing Oates as a perpetual pessimist, writing:

The Soldier takes a gloomy view of everything, but I’ve come to see that this is a characteristic of him.

Can you imagine what it took for Oates to put aside his personal feelings towards Scott while calculating the risks to the expedition team, and negative impact his health was having on them? In the end, Oates elevated their needs over his, laying aside his life to give his team a better chance of success. The failure that ensued doesn’t diminish the gift he gave.

Sacrificing and Giving in Project Management

As project managers, we see ourselves as collaborators, partners, cheerleaders, a coach or shepherd there to selflessly ensure success. If we asked our peers, teams, and clients, would they agree? Or would they see us as authoritarian figures, task masters, and uncaring outsiders.

I would argue that a project manager’s approach to communication and personal interactions defines how those around us would answer these questions.

Ensuring the overall success of a specific goal or the project is just one aspect of a project manager’s role. To achieve success in the long term, I’ve found that you must earn the trust and respect of your team. This sometimes can be accomplished in moments, weeks, or months, but can also take years (if a teammate has had bad experiences in the past).

To help establish and maintain my team’s trust and respect, I continually ask myself the following:

  • Am I more concerned for my team’s well being and health or for that of the project? Are my teammates satisfied, fulfilled, and do they find value in their work? If a successful project costs me a team member, was the trade off worth it?
  • Am I focused on establishing a creative, collaborative, and trusting environment? Or is this more about productivity and efficiency? Remember they are merely byproducts of the right environment.
  • Am I a source of motivation? Do I enhance those around me with my words and actions or am I getting in the way, being distracting, and bring those around me down?
  • Am I willing to fight on my team’s behalf, protect them, and give them the time that they need to complete their work?
  • Do I fear disappointing my team more than I fear failure on this task or project? Remember trust can be violated in seconds or minutes by imperfect and selfish actions, words, or even the tone of my voice.

Nothing builds trust like focusing on the human side. Instead of talking numbers and tasks, try fostering and cultivating relationships. Reinforce the idea that you are a collaborative and integrated member of the team, not an outsider, in charge, nor in control. Simple and subtle adjustments can shift other perceptions of you and even your opinion of yourself.

Give of Yourself

Unlike Captain Oates’ extreme sacrifice, as project managers we are not asked to lay down our lives for the success of the project or team (although sometimes it might feel that way).

We weigh the odds, calculate the risks, and make, encourage, and inspire sacrifices, sometimes at an individual expense. And like Oates, we have to be selfless despite our personal likes and dislike, we have to take pride in our team’s collective missions and expeditions, and when things look bleak, we have to make the choice to commit to giving a little more in hopes that our teams, our projects, and we ourselves survive.

This holiday season and going forward in your project management practice, I encourage you to be a bit more selfless, continue to strive to lend a helping hand wherever possible, generously share your time, knowledge, and praise. Give the gift of support to those around you in hopes that it’ll help them become the the best possible versions of themselves.

Captain Oates’ selfless act is recognized as much today as it was over a hundred years ago. The cross, erected over the location where it is presumed that he perished, read

Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman… he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.

sloan-millerSloan has been guiding digital and marketing projects of all shapes and sizes for over a decade. With a passion for mentorship and education, he is an co-organizer of @DPMPhilly, has spoken at several events on the topics of effective management of teams, projects, and process, plus he teaches a course on project management at the University of the Arts.

Follow him at: @PMOwned