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Using Project Management to Survive Personal Disaster

Michelle LaBrosse October 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

Life throws everyone curve balls. Whether the issue requires caring for someone you love or dealing with personal crises or emergencies, sometimes it can feel like life is spinning out of control.

Key questions

If you’ve been there before, or you’re there right now, here are a few ways that project management can help you to transform a disaster into a detour—just another path that you’re traveling.

How much time can you reasonably spend on your professional commitments? Assess what is realistic for you to achieve or accomplish, knowing what is on your plate professionally and personally. Look at your challenge as a project. Think about what you have to manage and how you can do what you have to do well. Sometimes you have to decide to let some of your responsibilities go or to let your career take a back seat. A good project manager knows when to delegate to other team members or to family members and friends.

How much should you disclose to your peers at work? The current culture is one of reality television programs and talk shows where people disclose the intimate details of their lives, so people often become desensitized to what is appropriate to share. If you’re going through a divorce or if a family member has passed away, you should be honest about what’s happening, but be wary of unloading on your team members. If you’re dealing with an emotionally charged situation, set time aside to attend counseling. It’s draining when people treat their co-workers as therapists.

Do you have a secession plan? Leaders know that part of their job is cultivating a culture of leadership. Part of your job is to know who will follow you, and who can fill your shoes. In an emergency situation, it’s a relief when you know there is a leader that you’ve mentored who can step in and keep your project moving without skipping a beat.

Do you have a contingency plan? Before disaster strikes, you should have a contingency plan in place. Know what you would do if you—or anyone on your team—was suddenly unavailable. Have a team structure with people who can back each other up. The power of having a team lies in the ability to build redundancy into it.

Rules to follow

As a team leader or team member, sometimes you’re not dealing with your own issues, but the challenges of those around you. Your actions during difficult times speak volumes. Leaders are often born when the going gets tough, so following are some rules to use when a team member is tackling a life challenge.

Develop boundaries. Don’t let someone’s personal problem sidetrack every meeting or conference call. It’s important to let people talk about what’s happening, but set clear boundaries about when it’s appropriate.

Focus on the future. Don’t assume that everyone likes to talk about their personal problems at work. Often, people return to work soon after a crisis because they see it as a safe haven. Give people the space to move on. Talk about the future, and let them see what’s ahead instead of focusing on what is behind them.

Have counseling resources available. Many companies now have counseling resources available to their team members when they need them. This signals that you care about your team’s personal health and well-being, and that you want them to be effective. It’s difficult for people to be successful at work if they are distracted by a personal issue.

Know when and how to let go. This is one of the toughest things to do as a manager. It can be hard to let someone go when you know they have gone through a difficult time, but if they are not performing well for a long period of time, you can’t let them drag the team down. Communicate clearly and develop policies that explain your norms and expectations, as well as the implications for when those expectations are not realized.

Lead with compassion. Whether you are going through a challenging time or someone on your team is, you’ll never go wrong if you act with compassion, which is not about ignoring what is happening. It’s about recognizing it and coming up with solutions that work for the situation.

Face it head on

The next time a curve ball comes your way, you don’t have to duck. Grab your project management glove and face the ball head on. With your project management skills, there is nothing you can’t do.

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