Leadership is Managing Relationships

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce my father to you, but I can’t. In the past three years, people have asked me why I haven’t been writing or blogging. I have a simple answer – my father passed away. He was of  Jewish descent, one of only two survivors in his family who escaped Germany to America during World War II.

This is a very tough post to write because it’s intensely personal; however, much of what I’ve been involved with since and thought about has revolved around this fact. My dad was the sun, the moon, and the stars to me; when he went away, my world went dark. It has only been in the last six months or so that I’ve felt as if I’m finally emerging from my shell and the darkness has lifted.

Over the course of time, we model our behavior based on who we admire as leaders. I have several product and project management mentors, but the person I most try to emulate remains my father. Leadership is managing relationships, and project management as a whole (although we try to make it about scope, cost, and time; analysis and metrics; quantifying value) involves people – leading them, motivating team members, collaborating and facilitating discussion, creating the best possible environment and culture so that the best work can be done. I’ve taken many courses over the years in all the various PMBOK areas; you can use waterfall, Agile, Six Sigma, CMMI, ITIL, etc…, but it always comes down to the human interactions – people working together in concert to accomplish a common goal and delivery quality projects or products, depending on what’s needed. So as a project manager or ScrumMaster, whether it’s between myself and the team, or between team members by helping them to overcome their differences – it all boils down to how we as collaborative, servant leaders manage relationships.

At first glance, my dad was not the kind of person one thinks of as a leader. He was shy, self-effacing, and an introvert. He was also, however, a great small-talk artist and could talk about anything in the world to anyone. My father was an amazing listener, and had this way of making you feel like what you were saying was the most important thing in the world by the way he listened, asked questions, and interacted with you. When I was a child growing up in Tokyo, I marveled at not just all the relatives, but the many lifelong friends my father had cultivated strong relationships with. In group situations, he wasn’t the guy cracking the best jokes or telling the tall tales. He was content to play second fiddle to the person who grabbed the spotlight. He was the magician behind the curtain. People gravitated toward him, and as the only foreigner in the office managing a group of Japanese businessmen (and struggling to speak their language), he still managed to gain their respect and admiration. He was the kind of guy you wanted on a team because not only was he a hard worker and team player, he was the “glue” that held everything together.

When he passed away, people came from all over the world and sent their condolences. The relatives on my dad’s side of the family paid me the highest compliment that anyone has ever given me – “You’re just like your father; you see things from other people’s points of view; you’ve got that way with people.” Honestly, if I am even half of what my dad was as a person, I’d be ecstatic. He was human and made mistakes like we all do, and I for one have definitely made plenty and will make plenty more. As I look back at what has happened since my dad’s death and reflect on what my cousins told me,  I realize that my philosophy and work have taken on a much richer and deeper meaning, particularly regarding the relationships we build at work and in life.

It’s vital to nurture relationships, whether they be professional or personal, since we’re all much more connected in today’s technologically-focused world. As human beings we don’t exist in a void; we need each other and as a race, we function better in tribes and communities – so why not invest the time and care in our dealings with one another? No man is an island, as they say.

As a product/project manager these days, I strive to be good at what I do; I try very hard to consider my team members’  perspectives in negotiating with senior management; I aim to help create the best possible safe and open environment so people can do their best work. If we as project managers can  help the team become more productive and high-performing as well as help nurture and foster a culture of trust, teamwork, and pride in group accomplishment, I believe we’ve earned our seats at the table.

I hope we all have role models and people we strive to model our behavior – and you’re all as lucky and blessed as I have been. Daddy, thanks for giving me the best example I could ever have had, in terms of being an authentic friend and relationship builder.  I think about you each and every day, and will love and cherish you always.





9 thoughts on “Leadership is Managing Relationships”

  1. A touching piece, as sincere and measured as the father who motivated it. Lisa, thank you for sharing the source of your inspiration and for reminding us of the simple fundamentals that have a strong impact on fruitful team and individual engagements, both professional and personal.

    I’m sorry for your loss, but now joyed to find that his legacy continues. A very happy Father’s Day to you on Sunday; I’m sure he would be proud.

  2. Hey Lisa,

    I didn’t realize you were mourning the loss of your dad – it’s a bit late, but deepest condolences. He sounds like a good man.

    2nd fiddle players are the unsung hidden heroes. There should be a PandoList surfacing these hidden key players!

  3. Lisa, this is a wonderful, thoughtful post on both an important personal topic and an important personal topic. There’s much leadership and life wisdom contained here. Thanks for sharing! -Art

  4. Bob Allen (@CuriousAgilist)

    For the whole time that I’ve known Lisa I know how hard it was to write on this topic much less talk about it. It’s not everyone that can draw on an experience as deeply a personal as the loss of a parent and manage to find learning within.

    Those that know Lisa know how she finds new and effective ways to get the right people working together, truly communicating, and how much she cares about doing so. Now she’s shared with us where that skill and strength comes from. Her skills aren’t limited to helping people feel at ease based on a shared language; it comes from working hard at understanding what others need and it comes from the heart. Thank you Lisa.

  5. This is a great ten-thousand-foot overview of project management. There are so many articles out there about the specific tactics of management, but this article steps back beyond tactics and strategy and addresses the truth that at the end of the day, you’re a group of people working together, and the methods and processes that you use are going to essentially be based on consensus and understanding.

  6. You have pointed out a key ingredient I wish more project managers recognized. I’m sorry for the loss of your dear father. But every event in our lives can offer us a lesson to learn if we remain aware. In your case, driving home the importance of every team player involved in a project being treated as a human being seems to have resulted in this posting. From our experience working together in the past – and what you’ve said in this posting – I think you could possibly be one of the most balanced project managers around. Thanks for sharing your learnings. Stay happy. Stay healthy. I know you will think about your dad when you least expect it.

  7. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing such a personal story, and sharing your memories of your dad with us. He sounds like someone I would like to have known, and someone whose behavior I would like to model. I’m not good enough at listening and maintaining relationships, and I want to improve in those areas.

    Getting to spend some time with you at SF Agile, I noticed how you connect with people and how you connect other people with each other, and how good you are at drawing people out and getting them to tell their stories. One of my favorite moments at the conference was when you sat down at the table with the two fellows from Japan and surprised them by conversing in Japanese! They immediately seemed so much more at ease than when I had been talking to them beforehand. And you’re so honest and direct but in a kind and non-offensive way. I bet you *are* a lot like your father.

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