PMI Nigeria


Servant Leadership in Project Teams

By Jill Diffendal                                                                                  Sept 20, 2021

Are you a manager who is responsible for a team, or a leader who is responsible to a team? Johanna Rothman, author and coach known for her Modern Management Made Easy book series, talked with PMI CCO Joe Cahill on a recent episode of the Center Stage podcast about the difference, and how managers can make the transition to serving their teams.

Cahill: You talk about being responsible to a team versus being responsible for a team. Can you explain the difference?

Rothman: ‘Responsible for a team’ means the team reports to you, the team tells you what’s going on. You, however, are going to take that information and you will filter it, and report it out to the other people and up to your managers.

However, what if you’re ‘responsible to a team’? That stops at their achievements. You are then responsible to help them find the environment that they need, right? Do they need more equipment, do they need access to other people?

So ‘responsible to a team’ is much more about servant leadership than ‘responsible for a team’.

Cahill: It’s a small distinction in language, but there’s a big difference in what people actually do with that mindset, right? How does that actually impact the team?

Rothman: The team is much more responsible, because you’re there to support them. When a manager of any stripe is responsible to a team, the team can actually create its own self organization.

With that change in mindset, they are much more likely to take on responsibility for themselves, not be helpless. That totally changes how the team works. And in my experience, it’s a really positive thing for how the team works.

Cahill: So if you’re advising a project or program manager how to take this on, how would you suggest that they approach this reframing?

Rothman: You will need to start at several levels. First, with the team – start slowly, and say, what is the first thing I should delegate to the team? Which decisions can they make all by themselves without me, where they just tell me the result of those decisions?

Now, you will have to say, I see what you want. Let me go work that issue. So you work those issues on behalf of the team. It’s all about being responsible to the team.

Now, the next piece is, what do you do about your rewards? You will have to start the conversation with your manager and HR to talk about how do I get rewarded for my support of this project or program instead of my deliverable, right?

And if you say to them, “My job is to serve the people I work with, so that they become more capable,” then it cannot be my achievement, it has to be their achievement.

So it’s several conversations about agility, several conversations about what we reward, what we can discuss, who gets to make the decisions. It’s a slow and steady set of conversations, and the more you start with small wins in the team, the more likely you will be successful over the long term.

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