How to Build a Successful Project Team in the Automation Industry

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is  Tip #46.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerStudy after study has shown that human perception quickly turns into reality. If a class is told they are troublemakers and slow learners, then over time that is exactly what they will become. However, if that same class is treated as an elite group where expectations are high and good grades are simply a given, then that class will usually rise to the occasion and deliver a much higher level of performance.

As a father of two boys I have coached some 30 seasons of soccer teams aged four through fourteen. From the outset I quickly realized that the team’s perception of itself ultimately determined how they would perform. Most new coaches treated the four or five year olds AS four or five year olds and had very low expectations of their abilities. I treated my team as true soccer players, constantly pushing their skills well beyond their years. Imagine a team of four year olds with set plays, moving down the field passing the ball, and everyone knowing they had a job they were expected to perform. We had great fun, and usually kept playing well past practice time because the kids did not want to stop. All the while the kids were learning the game, learning how to play smart, and learning how to win. They were also learning that everyone played a part – even the weaker players had special tasks that were critical to the success of the team. When we walked onto the field the kids KNEW that they could win – and they almost always did. Over 30 seasons the teams chalked up a 90+% win rate. They also learned to win – and lose – with style. They were never allowed to bad-mouth or trash talk the other team, “in your face” goal celebrations were forbidden, and at the end of the game we always shook the other team’s hands, looked them in the eye and said “good game” and meant it – regardless of who won. Many of those same kids went on to play the highest levels of soccer or excel in any number of other athletic endeavors.

Managing a successful project team is really no different.

Concept: Never accept a mediocre effort as “good enough.” Expect and demand the highest quality as a given and consistently demonstrate that by setting a good example as a leader. Teams will usually mirror the work ethic of the leader. If you slack off – so will they.

Details: A successful team usually consists of the following:

• A strong leader – The leader must be good at communication, reasonably familiar with the same skill sets as the team, able to quickly gather information and make a decision, and able to admit when he or she is wrong. Most importantly, the leader must earn the trust and respect of the team. If the leader does not have the team’s trust and respect, the team will almost certainly languish and will ultimately fail.

• Senior team members – Most teams have at least one seasoned team member who is technically skilled in his or her role and comfortable with the leader. Like the team leader, these members must also be willing to lead by example and to help mentor and develop the newer team members.

• Team members – The remaining members must be hard working and must either know their roles or be willing to learn them quickly. All team members should take every opportunity to learn new skills and/or technology whenever possible.

• A winning mindset – The team members must perceive themselves as winners and believe that the project’s ultimate success is essentially a given. Through his or her words and actions, the leader should make certain that the team understands that failure is simply not an option and that the team must do whatever it takes to complete the project on time, on budget, and with a satisfied client. A team that believes it will be successful usually IS successful, and after a chain of successful projects, that team is usually considered the “premier team” of the office/plant. The members are ultimately recognized (and paid) accordingly.

Watch-Outs: As a leader you must remember that it is too easy to delegate the work to the team members and let them carry the load. There is often also a tendency to favor some team members over others and treat them differently. This erodes trust and respect and can quickly poison a team’s dynamic.

The best leaders work as hard as (or harder than) the team, and they are not afraid to jump in and pick up whatever task needs to be done to get the job finished.

Exceptions: Despite all of the politically correct propaganda, everybody is NOT a winner and the skill sets and capabilities of individuals are different. When creating a team, pick those team members that offer the right skills, the necessary technical capabilities, and the ability to work together. Do not be concerned with other people’s perception of what the team mix should be. Some will think the team should consist of members with more seniority, others will say that gender and cultural diversity are most important, and still others will seek to exclude certain groups or individuals. The best team will consist of those team members with the right combination of skills, work ethic, and desire to get the job done. This resulting mix will almost never match what others think it should be.

Insight: The leader sets the stage for the team. If he is lazy the team will likely follow his example. If he is divisive, the members will quickly begin bickering amongst themselves. However, if the leader is respectful, talented, and hardworking and picks the right group of co-workers, project success is virtually assured.

Rule of Thumb: Pick your team members wisely, lead by example, and always convey the highest expectations of performance. Your team will deliver.

Hunter Vegas

About the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.
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