Stress Management Fail?

September 20, 2014

Four deadlines, two vacations, and one business trip to San Francisco makes for one hectic week. It was a perfect storm that might have seemed avoidable. Two key members of my team had actually planned their vacations for what appeared to be a soft time in our project scheduling. Likewise, I had accepted the invitation to attend an out of town conference, thinking it would be a nice get-away after delivering on some important deadlines. Then some project schedules began to slip and another was accelerated. The first weeks of September would challenge my short staffed team. The point of this blog is not to brag about tough work, but to evaluate management through difficult moments.

I immediately began to feel the pressure. In my current role, I actually do very little drawing production or permit-ready calculations. But missing two of my project engineers meant jumping into the trenches: drafting my own details and burning through pages of my calc pad. Meanwhile, I still had to guide and review the work on three other projects and participate in an interview for a new job. I tried to do the work that required meeting with teammates and using analytical software during the day, and at home I reviewed PDF and text documents. Still, I wasn’t able to give every project or team member the time I would have liked.

By Wednesday of the second week, I was feeling pretty worn down. During our broader group’s leadership meeting I snapped a little during a discussion about staffing. It’s common for the employees in our group to work on many project simultaneously with different bosses. It’s a challenge for the employees and managers alike to assess priorities and direct time appropriately, but we generally work amicably. With so many deadlines, I felt cornered. I must have seemed quite out of sorts, because my colleagues were pretty nice and accommodating to me for the next few days.

My boss called me to his office to discuss the problem. It was rare to see me so stressed. He also wanted to restate the importance of satisfying tough clients, because some of my jobs were basically being considered business development tasks. We sometimes take on the low budget headaches to build relationships that can lead to bigger projects in the future.

One of these jobs had required a lot of back and forth, pushed deadlines, and trips back to the drawing board. I confessed that my biggest frustration on that project was failure to control the process. I didn’t feel that we got the architect into the right structural system to meet budget. It’s still early in the project, so my boss counseled that there would be time to get things right. The design process is seldom linear. While young engineers may like to think that there’s one optimum solution to every problem, it’s rare to get there without many false steps. I didn’t need to be so aggressive in the last hours before the schematic deadline.

On another project, I felt that I had left junior staff unguided for too long. The work hadn’t progressed along a steady timeline, and much work was left until the deadline. We ended up coordinating the final report remotely, while I traveled. My colleague emailed me sections of the report as he completed them, and I reviewed and modified them on my iPad. I reviewed several sections while in the air, and completed the balance from the airport terminal. In the end, a comprehensive report was delivered. Looking back on the experience, it was valuable to learn how to leverage technology in the way we had. My younger colleague also took on a lot of responsibility for the work product, worked very hard, and delivered a good product.

Through all this, I actually interacted the least on the project with the biggest fee. The project engineer on this project did a fantastic job of leveraging the staff resources in our office to get the job done. He was also able to convince the client that we could offer higher quality consulting information if we were less distracted by complicated 3D modeling. We delivered our schematic design set with PDF mark-ups drawn on the architect’s backgrounds. More time was spent solving engineering problems than drafting.

The tough weeks had upside. Staff rose to challenges. They took responsibility for projects, worked harder and smarter, and made good decisions with little or no input from me. I especially appreciated a story relayed about how one project engineer took charge in a meetings with contractors whose shop drawings were inadequate. We also learned to utilize information technology to better collaborate remotely. I think we grew as a team. My stress levels were unjustified.

I once browsed a book on leadership that profiled two types of leaders: those who micromanage and are cursed with disappointing results and those who lightly guide the process and enjoy the fruits of an effective team. No one likes to be micromanaged, and relaxing while your team handles the dirty work is very appealing. It’s difficult to let go, and having complete trust in your team is really a learned trait. I guess it takes tough weeks to force trust building and to allow junior team members to build confidence. I may have failed in stress management, but learned better management nevertheless.

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