Managing teams without direct authority over the participants isn't a new concept, and professionals charged with organizational leadership responsibilities are almost certain to find themselves managing indirect reports at some point in their careers.
If you’re new to this, you might feel as though you’re set up to fail. While indirect reports contribute to project goals and have defined deliverables, they are connected to project leadership through a "dotted line." And managing these reports often doesn’t come with input into HR-related issues. But the lessons you learn from this experience can be invaluable.
So, what actually works in the real world when it comes to managing indirect reports? To find out, we talked to two veterans who have seen it all. A project manager with more than 15 years of experience managing and leading virtual and collocated teams, Susan Legg McKinley currently works for healthcare services company Cardinal Health. A former marine, teacher and attorney, Frank Zammarchi is a senior acquisition specialist at IBM in charge of the procurement side of all agreements that come to IBM as a part of the company’s acquisition portfolio. Zammarchi has more than 30 years of experience leading indirect reports.
Here’s their recipe for success.
Keep communication lines open
One of the first things you learn in project management is that it is the responsibility of the sender to ensure that a communication is not only received but understood by its recipients. Communication — or the lack thereof — is one of the single most important factors governing the success or failure of any project or relationship.
Zammarchi and McKinley recommend maintaining an open door policy and encouraging a frank, judgment free environment in which project participants can discuss project-related issues. As McKinley points out, “open communication transforms relationships.”
You’d also be wise to remember that communication is a two-way street. "You have to not only appreciate the work [team members are] doing for you, but … their input if they know how a process can be streamlined or improved if a process isn't working," Zammarchi says. "I let them know that I'm looking for their feedback as well. It's not a one-way street.”
Another piece of advice: always respond to questions promptly and completely. "Communicating and answering questions back in full is really key to getting the job done," Zammarchi says.
Practice practical gratitude
According to McKinley, one of the deep drivers for human beings is that they want to feel like they matter and that they make a positive difference. Expressing appreciation and gratitude for a job well done is vital for both individual and team morale.
As a leader of indirect reports, it's unlikely that you'll have the authority to grant concrete rewards. "I don't have the ability to give [indirect reports] awards or to say 'Take an extra day off'," Zammarchi says. Zammarchi, who is not collocated with most of his indirect reports, says that he makes a conscious effort to express his thanks by sending a note to an indirect report's manager, copying the second line manager so that the leadership chain is aware of the value of each person's contributions. McKinley adds that she always recognizes the contributions of those who helped her and takes the time to thank them personally and publicly.
It's not uncommon for project participants to belong to multiple teams in addition to their regularly assigned duties, which may have competing deliverable deadlines. Managers may (or may not) be helpful when providing guidance on the importance of a particular project and why the participant's time and effort is justified. Team members need to understand not only what makes the project important, but why the project is important to them and how they are important to the project.
Take the time to go over individual schedules and workloads and look for conflicts that could negatively impact a project. Actively work with team members to clear those roadblocks in advance, if possible. Listen to participants’ thoughts and concerns. "Let them know that they're heard," says McKinley. When team participants feel listened to, they'll often go the extra mile to meet schedules, even aggressive ones.
Buy-in can also be boosted by creating a sense of team, community and cohesiveness with your project participants. Zammarchi says that he tries "to build camaraderie that we're all in this together … and that we can all work together and make it a team effort." Once committed to common goals, team participants will work hard not to let their team down.
Clearly define goals
Ensure that individual participants’ goals, as well as team goals, are clearly defined. To the maximum extent possible, ask for input and gain buy-in from indirect reports on goals, schedules and deliverables. Make certain the work requested is valued.
Nothing is more demoralizing that spending hours on something only to have it disappear into a black hole with no further mention or acknowledgement of the effort required to create a deliverable. Always thank team participants after receiving requested deliverables.
Build up rather than tear down
It's a simple fact: No one wants to work for a grouch. No one wants to be served a morning cup of negativity, especially not from their project lead or manager.
According to McKinley, to "lead other people you have to keep a positive attitude….You can't be the one spouting negativity. You always have to be the team cheerleader." As a leader, it's your job to inspire the team and to press forward through challenges. Your personal attitude — positive or negative — has the power to build up or tear down the team.
Make the Golden Rule a habit
"Treat others with dignity and respect and they'll respond to you," says McKinley. "Everybody needs to be held accountable for whether [a project] gets done, but by treating people kindly and with respect, they're going to respond to you."
This is especially true when working with team members who are frequently assigned to multiple projects, each with its own leadership team and leadership styles. Relationships built on kindness, courtesy and mutual respect will go farther to build and maintain an effective, efficient (and happy) team than one built on coercion, fear and dominance.
Deal effectively with the dark side
One of the more difficult tasks facing those who manage indirect reports is dealing with performance issues. The very nature of managing an indirect report is that there's typically no clear way to mete out consequences to low or non-performing participants.
McKinley acknowledges that addressing low motivation and performance issues aren't "pleasant conversations" but are sometimes necessary. Her tips? Never use anger. Never attack. Always talk and be willing to push through until you have a resolution.
She also makes a point to never embarrass indirect reports in front of peers or management. "If you've got issues with someone that you need to work through, or you don't feel like you're getting the results you want, then you need to have a one-on-one conversation."
In some critical cases, a team manager may have to go to the indirect report's manager or senior management to resolve an issue. Doing so could make it even more difficult to work with the indirect report, but it might be the only remaining option.
Performance-related issues generally fall into two categories: those caused by a lack of personal motivation and those caused by a lack of resources needed to get the job done. You may not always have the scope to manage individual project work assignments, but when you do, manage them with an eye on overall project success as well as the success of individual participants. This is particularly important for team members who consistently underperform. Sometimes, the fix can be as simple as reassigning them to tasks that more closely match their skill sets.
Zammarchi stresses the importance of ensuring that team members not only feel comfortable in doing the assigned tasks but that they understand what needs to be done. "The more comfortable they feel in doing these things and understanding what needs to be done, the more successful they are going to be down the road. It's really ensuring that they have the tools and resources they need to do their job," he says.
A technique that is extremely effective is to simply state your expectations (e.g., I expected to receive the report by close of business on Monday), followed by your observation of the results (e.g., It's now Thursday and I haven't received the report). Then (and this is the really hard part), quit talking. Listen! People have a need to fill in silence and if you simply wait, the team member will generally start filling in the blanks about why the deliverable hasn't been forthcoming. Careful listening helps identify if this is simply a motivation problem because they don't like the task or don’t want to do it, or if they lack the resources (required skills, tools, and so forth) to get the job done. Once you identify the real issue you can address the root of the problem.
Managing indirect reports isn't easy. You have no authority to reward and no authority to mete out consequences. Your team may or may not be collocated. You may or may not be able to adjust schedules or individual assignments. You may not even have the same team assigned to the project from phase to phase.
Despite all those challenges, managing indirect reports can be extremely rewarding. You have a unique opportunity to build true team rapport based on shared understanding that you're all in the project together. It's also an opportunity for you to grow as a leader. Managing indirect reports enables you to hone your communication and other soft skills.
Zammarchi's final piece of advice: If you have an issue that keeps showing up, be willing to entertain the possibility that you may be part of the problem. Don't foster a problem and keep it going or make it worse. You have to be flexible. Find out what works for you even if you have to change the way you do things.