Assignments, for a variety of reasons, can be disappointing. And when tackling one of these projects, your preconceived outlook may impact your performance. Therefore, you can anticipate that the evaluation that your performance will not be on par with what you want to achieve on those very assignments that you wish you could shed. You do have options.
Case in Point
Recently my friend, Heico Wesselius, found himself in this situation. He works for an American firm in a foreign country, where everyone works long hours. Many people stay late in the office regardless of how little work they have just because their managers are still behind their desks. In this culture, the number of hours spent at the desk measures output - at least in terms of face value. Heico, who is originally from a different part of the world, disagreed with this notion and found himself miserable on this project.
As a strategist, he initially welcomed a change. This was his first IT implementation project, but he had no intention of being on it long term. He only wanted to diversify his skills portfolio. Unfortunately, Heico realized the national and corporate cultural issues with his client complicated the environment so much that the project would likely fail. I remember how, two weeks into the project, he declared he would consider interviewing elsewhere if he were assigned to the second phase. His opportunity came and went. He was staffed on the second phase, and he hated his work even more.
His project manager generally arrived at the office at the crack of dawn and left long after the sun set. Additionally, she reviewed his work at 5:00 each day, rather than throughout the day. He often remained with her to make the edits until well past midnight on most weeknights. And he was performing below his capacity, because he was doing the lesser skill tasks his junior consultant was neglecting. Additionally, his other tasks lacked stimulation. This went on for another two and a half months. As the second phase was closing and his firm began preparing the proposal for the third, he decided he had to take action for the sake of his mental health.
The Door Opens
He deliberated his exit strategy for days. He considered all his options: address his discomforts with his project manager, address them with the partner, blatantly refuse to continue or quit. He decided to discuss the matter with the partner directly, because he felt his project manager would not understand. So he wrote a letter. His letter logically laid out his lack of challenge and his desire to roll off the project. He also intimated the personality differences between himself and the project manager, as well as their different approaches to work.
Once his partner read the letter, Heico and the partner discussed the contents of his letter and his options: committing to the first part of the third phase with the acknowledgement that he would be staffed on other projects immediately, where his talents would be best used; or walk away from the project completely and accept the next assignment, whatever the nature of the project.
Regardless of Heico's decision, his partner felt it would be important for Heico to provide his project manager with upward feedback. However, Heico knew his project manager would not appreciate the feedback, because of her cultural background. He also questioned who should deliver the message - the partner to whom she reports or himself, a consultant who reported to her directly. So he met with his coach, who agreed that the message would be completely ineffective. In her culture, to provide upward feedback defies the respect seniority is entitled to receive. His coach advised Heico to document his experience as part of his project evaluation process. This way, the documentation lives, provides senior management with a basis to judge the rest of her performance and would protect both Heico and the project manager from confrontation.
In the end, the client reduced the scope of the third phase, which required fewer consulting resources. As a result, Heico was excused so he found closure by going forward with the advice from his coach.
Walking away with a Smile
Because Heico approached his problem proactively, professionally and reasonably, he accomplished multiple victories:
- An open discussion between him and his project manager ensued about how the project could have been run better by both of them.
- His staffing preferences got broadcast to senior management and staffing services.
- He was an agent of change by not letting the matter dissipate. By voicing his concerns, he encouraged others to speak their minds as well. As others also step forward, patterns previously accepted as status quo, though not necessarily acceptable, emerge and can be addressed as a firm. Rising above the silence is especially important when put into cultural context.
- Management is more conscientious of unreasonable work hours.
- The staffing process is currently being revised and communicated to all consultants. And assignments are being reviewed for the appropriateness of resource allocation.
- Partners and senior managers are more conscientious of their staff capabilities and can sell engagements better suited for the firm. Ultimately, this will lead to more effective use of staff resources, more focused client solicitation, and overall improved economics.
- Staff is encouraged to manage their careers proactively, and management is more accountable to listening to staff needs and concerns.
- By standing against mediocrity, his courage has been rewarded with more respect by management and peers. People take him even more seriously than before, and he is also more sought after because of his outspokenness, objectivity and professionalism.
Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, Heico offers the following suggestions:
- No one can promote you better than yourself because the best promotion in consulting is self-promotion. This is, after all, an industry largely based on projected image.
- Remain calm. Rather than reacting extemporaneously, think carefully about your choices and their ramifications.
- Focus on your goals - long term and immediate. Fashion your approach around these goals. Aside from just addressing the problem at hand, you want to maximize the time you spend in consulting - the skills you want to hone, how you want to be remembered and the relationships you want to cultivate now and for your post consulting life.
- Craft a strategy that puts you in the most favorable light and most effectively accomplishes your goals. Ensure that your strategy allows you to remain in control so you always have multiple options. The last thing you want is to be railroaded into accepting someone else's plan, because yours lacked foresight.
- Always act above board. You never want someone to see you on the same level as the person with whom you face difficulties. This undermines the position of power you so carefully planned out in your strategy.
- Remember that this is your career. While it is important to be mindful of all parties involved, in the end, you are accountable for only yourself.
- Act in accordance with your values, your style and your degrees of acceptability. If you are uncomfortable with any part of your plan, set it aside and seek out neutral guidance. Otherwise, you might end up mismanaging your tactic (or continue to face countless sleepless nights).
You have the power to control your situation. Your outcome depends on how you choose to exercise your power.
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