Claire Donaldson reflects on how her most recent challenge as a leader saw her feeling unprepared even after months of planning.

Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to undertake a variety of leadership courses and apply my learning in both project and organisational contexts, reflecting on challenges and successes to consider what I might try differently next time. I will not pretend that I am successful in being self-aware 100% of the time, or that setbacks don’t knock my resilience on occasion, but I genuinely want my team to be successful, whatever that means for them, and that means I need to reflect and continually improve.

My most recent challenge as a leader took me by surprise. After nine months of planning, reading, organising, looking after my mental and physical health, my beautiful son was born, and ‘project parent’ commenced. While the project kick off was a success, a healthy baby was born, and I was ‘more or less’ intact, it was several weeks into the project when I reflected about my experience over the preceding weeks.

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1. Setting a vision

Jack Welch, Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) between 1981 and 2001, said “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” A leader’s success is not achieved by simply setting the vision but by ensuring it is understood and the team buy into it.

The type of parents my partner and I wanted to be and the environment we wanted our son to grow up in was one of the elements of project parent that I was more prepared for. We reflect on this vision often as a team and communicate it to our stakeholders (friends and family). The vision was on track, but the long-term success will not be fully realised for a number of years and will be dependent to the decisions we make as each new challenge arises.

2. Making decisions

As a new parent I found myself bombarded with decisions which I had to make based on little to no relevant experience and almost always under time constraints. Is the baby crying in the middle of the night because he is hungry, tired, unwell, or needing changing? Is it gas? How do I help him relieve gas? Massaging his tummy, holding him over my arm, or on my knee? How long should I try one technique before trying something else? There is only so much advice (helpful and contradictory) that Google, parenting books, healthcare professionals and other parents can provide, because as a parent you are the one who decides on what to do in each situation.

The ability to make timely decisions based on available information is an important leadership skill. On a potentially daily basis, we make decisions to progress our projects based on our experience, that of our team and or subject matter experts or other available sources. However, sometimes these decisions are wrong, and we also need to recognise and acknowledge when this is the case and implement a different solution. My experience of raising my son has been one of constant problem solving.

3. Building trust

Building truly trusting relationships underpins my approach to leadership; I feel that without it, success is not possible.

Being empathetic, understanding what motivates each member of your team and being emotionally intelligent are all skills which help engender trust and support high performance. This is also true with regards to parenting, where creating a trusting relationship between the parent and the child can improve the development of children. In both relationships, not only does the follower, or child, receive a positive impact through the psychological dependence (trust), but the leader or parent do as well.

4. Showing resilience

Resilience is a fundamental pilar of leadership and discussed often in the context of mental health, particularly stress management. The importance of physical health, including sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet to support resilience is also well known. While it is not surprising that I found all three components of my previously rigorous physical health regime were lacking as a new parent, the direct impact to my mental capabilities was notable. What is impressive is that new parents must overcome this and inevitably are more resilient as a result, but this requires them to reshape their coping strategies.

The analogy of a leader as a father, or parent, was first introduced by Freud in the 1930s (Freud, 1939, pp. 109–111), but was not a concept I grasped until becoming a parent myself.

Leadership is about succeeding through others and takes a lot of hard work, as does parenting. We work at it constantly, don’t always get it right, but must keep going and support our team.

I’ll leave you with this powerful quote from inspirational speaker and author, Simon Sinek: “The first criterion for being a leader is you have to want to be one. Being a leader is like being a parent: anyone CAN be one but that doesn’t mean everyone WANTS to be or SHOULD be.”
Author: Claire Donaldson MAIPM CPPM is a mum, wife, and Mott MacDonald Advisory Lead for Queensland who has spent the last 13 years leading projects across various sectors in the UK, USA, and for the last seven years in Australia. Her motivation comes from supporting her team to provide lasting positive outcomes for the community in which they work.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of  Paradigm Shift magazine. Find out more about the AIPM digital magazine and take a look at the full edition.