Monday, July 29, 2013

Lead, Follow, Or...

Although it may be rare, there are times when a leader needs to get out of the way...

A few years ago, I was working as the overall project manager where a significant portion of the project was being manufactured in Shanghai, China.

Image courtesy of thepathtraveler at
We had an onsite project manager (who went by Peter) with an engineering background who was very knowledgeable and helpful over the phone and by email. Eventually, my customer wanted to visit Shanghai and check on the status of the project. We scheduled a visit for a week and a half, with the intent that I would show the customer around.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, the customer was still deciding who would go. I left early (to familiarize myself with the locations) without knowing who the customer would be sending. I arrived in Shanghai after more than 24 hours of travel, and started working with Peter to plan the trip. Two days later our customer representative arrived, going by Jim.

Now, the surprise: Jim was actually a Chinese native, born and raised in Shanghai. He spoke perfect Mandarin and knew his way around better than I ever could. I realized all of this at the first introduction, when Peter and Jim spent 5 minutes comparing notes that I couldn't even begin to comprehend.

Now, after watching the interaction, I came to a couple of realizations:
1. I don't speak their language.
2. I am the only on who doesn't speak the language.
3. Most of the other people at the meetings will not be able to speak English.
4. I will be slowing them down.

I pulled Peter aside for a discussion and told him that he would be running the tour and meetings, and that the sessions would be conducted in Mandarin. In addition, I did not need a translater, because the meeting would be slowed down by that. I requested detailed minutes of meeting, to be consulted when the discussion impacted any other part of the project, and told him not to sell or promise anything without discussing with me first, as I was responsible for the impacts. Then I did one of the hardest things in my life:


For the next week and a half I kept my interactions to a minimum. I let Peter run the meetings, for which I was an outside (way outside due to the language barrier) observer, and at the end of the day I worked with Peter through the significant discussion in order to stay up to speed. Sometimes the conversation would require an English word as there was no Mandarin equivalent, but for the most part I was the isolated one on a daily basis. Jim even showed us a few spots that Peter didn't know about and that weren't on the typical stop list for tourists. It was a very difficult time for me.

However, I learned a lesson. I am not always the best person to lead an event. Sometimes I need to empower others to take the lead, and I step aside. I GET OUT OF THE WAY, and that is part of COMMAND. I couldn't do everything, and in this case I shouldn't be. 

As a leader, if you find yourself in an awkward situation, one where you are swimming in unfamiliar waters, it may pay dividends to look at the other leaders on your team and determine if one of them is more suited to swimming the distance. Whether its' technical knowledge, cultural divide, or language barriers, a single leader isn't always the right solution for a particular scenario. You have to empower your team and trust them. Follow-up if necessary, but... get out of the way.

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