Millennials often get a bad rap as being a generation full of entitled, timid leaders with no critical thinking skills. While it is easy to generalize the actions of a few people you’ve met, heard about, or seen in the workplace to be representative of an entire age demographic, in my experience I find that there are a many more millennials who want to put in the work to become leaders within organizations and influence change in the world, even if they aren’t explicitly talking about it. For future leaders, whether they’re millennials or of any other generation, having a vision of where you want to take an organization is only one piece of being a leader. Learning how to put together the plan that you will lead your team through to success is what puts people in a position to actually succeed as leaders.
The Challenge of Preparing to Lead
As Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp, discussed in a recent article, “On Being A Bad Manager,” learning how to manage and how to lead is a lot like learning how to play an instrument in that observation is not a substitute for doing. Just because you’ve listened to great guitarists on the radio doesn’t mean that you can play like them the first time you pick up a guitar. Being a leader is no different. You can observe people higher up than you in an organization, but that observation doesn’t prepare you to step into their shoes and perform at an elite level. Simply seeing others do it is not a substitute for actually doing it yourself.
Spending time as a leader is a critical piece to learning what works and what doesn’t work when guiding a team However, as Fried points out in his article, newly promoted managers and leaders often don’t have the benefit of learning “how to play” in the privacy of their basement; they are being viewed and evaluated as a leader starting from their first day on the job. Of the many challenges that new leaders face, answering the question, “What skill can I develop today before I am put into a formal role so that I am ready when opportunities present themselves?” is what should focus preparation.
One of what I view as the most important parts of developing as a leader is also developing the ability to effectively plan. Planning is just one of many areas that impact how capable a leader is, but it’s one that is often overlooked. To be clear, the type of planning that I’m talking about isn’t the building of a business plan made up of assumptions that shows how your start-up will go from zero revenue to a billion dollar valuation in five years. It also isn’t the type of planning that fits within the “stop planning – start doing” type of tasks, like blogging, building a brand online, or working out where it is better to start making progress on something instead of expending effort on an overly detailed plan before beginning. The type of planning that I encourage leaders to develop is project planning where a team is formed, resources are gathered and work is done to fulfill the expectations for the group.
The Benefits of Building Project Planning Processes
One of the most important reasons why I recommend developing abilities as a project leader is because, even though the details of what go into a plan may change from one situation to the next, the process to plan an event can be developed and refined over time to become an effective and reliable tool. The process of going from an initially defined (and often ill-defined) problem and a blank sheet of paper through the steps to size up the situation and establish priorities, objectives, strategies, and tactics are transferrable from one context to another and can be taken with you throughout your career. For developing leaders who want to get ahead, learning how to organize people and equipment around a plan and execute the plan are often a great way to demonstrate your ability to lead. Projects have clear start and end dates and distinguish themselves from other types of planning because your plan is put to the test during execution instead of having the developed plan that will sit on a shelf be the completion of your work.
Why Focus on a Planning Process
Admittedly, planning isn’t something that people often think about when they picture a leader in their head. It isn’t the inspirational speech that rallies the troops before a big event like in the opening scene of Patton. It isn’t the act of standing on the frontlines and making the critical, time sensitive decision that saves the day and is talked about in case studies and historical accounts for centuries. But it is the act of planning that allows for the make-or-break decisions to be made because they were anticipated and the conditions leading to the decision were developed deliberately with foresight. Well-made plans are what allow leaders to earn the trust of their team because they let followers know that their leaders have their best interests in mind, are being used in areas that allow their strengths to shine, and aren’t just wasting their time on irrelevant tasks. But to plan effectively so that your full mental resources are available for the big decision or to craft the engaging speech can’t be wasted trying to figure out how to plan. Planning is best done when it is the result of a deliberate process.
It can be easy to overlook the need for a planning process while building towards a project because, at first, the process can seem overly burdensome, require unnecessary steps or distract from the common sense solutions that are often clearly visible. As a result, when the planning process breaks down, it can be tempting to apply brute force to the problem and, with a bit more effort and a lot less sleep, the problems can be covered up. This perspective is shortsighted for project planners looking to truly develop their abilities because results that come from effort over process are often difficult to replicate. As projects expand in scope and scale, the margin for error decreases as the number of people involved expands beyond a reasonable span of control for any single leader. A well thought out process should allow you to apply the same steps and same actions each and every time you face a blank sheet of paper at the beginning of a project, regardless of whether a problem is small or large.
For young leaders who are looking for opportunities to develop their leadership ability before they are called upon formally, there are no shortage of opportunities to develop their project planning experience and skills. You could volunteer to organize your company’s holiday party organize a local 5k race. Another option, and the one that I have been committed to lately, is volunteering to develop wildfire recovery projects with Team Rubicon. The benefit of developing project planning skills with a volunteer group that runs projects frequently is that you can develop a project one month, and then serve as a volunteer in someone else’s project the next month. With each iteration you learn more about what inspires a team, what frustrates them, and how to evaluate the various tradeoffs you are likely to encounter along the way.
As a result, your confidence in your ability to step up and lead a project from its formulation through its completion becomes an asset that companies, teams, and organizations actively seek out. But when your leadership skills and experiences (which include planning) are on display from the first moment, instead of relying on unproven confidence to get you through it, you can trust that the process you’ve developed and refined and that can lead through is in place. You can trust that you are ready for the opportunity that you have.
Does it take time to develop this degree of confidence? Sure it does, and it certainly isn’t a life hack or a one-time thing. It is an act that requires time, patience, and commitment to master and develop. But the result of the effort is that, when you face the wide range of challenges that leaders encounter on a project, having the planning process mastered is what frees the leader up to deal with the unique challenges and the unforeseen opportunities for growth.