Donna Burke was a systems engineer at Southwest Engineering Services for five years

 Southwest Engineering Services

Donna Burke was a systems engineer at Southwest Engineering Services for five years when

she was invited to participate in a project to develop a new type of software for the company. The

project director was Ron Morrison, who had a reputation as a software whiz and rising star in

the company. Donna was not sure why she was invited to work on this project, but she was very

excited about it. She understood that the work would be important, and she knew that a success-

ful project would also provide a big boost for her career in the company.

Ron called a meeting the first day for the 12 people invited to be part of the project

team. After introducing himself, Ron gave a short welcoming speech to the group. “All of

you are here today because you have special skills that are essential for the success of this pro-

ject. Each of you was recommended by your boss, and only the most qualified people in the

company were invited to participate. As you know, the volume of business handled by Southwest

Engineering has been growing steadily. The company needs a better type of decision support

system for managing engineering projects in a way that will guarantee quality while keeping costs

low. Southwest Engineering faces an increasingly competitive market, and this decision sup-

port system is essential for the company to remain profitable. Our objective is to develop a new

and innovative system that is better than anything else currently available. It is an extremely

challenging assignment, but I believe we can pull it off if we have total commitment by every

member of the team. If you are going to be part of this team, the project must take priority over

everything else in your life for the next nine months. We will be working long days and even

many weekends. If anyone has reservations about making a total commitment, there is still time

to withdraw from the team. Please let me know your decision by 9:00 a.m. tomorrow.” The next

day, Donna and 10 other employees joined the team. The one person who declined to join had

family health problems that would prevent him from working extra hours on the project.

As the team plunged into the project, the work was even more intense than Donna had

expected. On weekdays it was common to order in food and work late into the evening. Working

Saturday mornings was taken for granted, and the team would often go to lunch together after

finishing work on Saturdays. Ron had an attitude of enthusiasm and optimism that was conta-

gious, and before long even the most cynical and unemotional member of the team was caught

up in the excitement. Despite the long hours, the work was exhilarating because everyone knew

that they were part of something that would change the way things are done in the company.

Ron provided a clear picture of the specifications necessary for the new system, and this

picture was important for guiding the work of team members and keeping them focused on the

same objective. However, Ron did not dictate how the work should be done. Team members

were expected to use their expertise to determine how to do the work. Ron was available to pro-

vide guidance if asked, but he was careful not to impose himself when not needed. When some-

one was experiencing difficulties in doing a task, Ron was supportive and helpful. Nevertheless,

it was clear that he would not tolerate less than a maximum effort.

Ron pushed relentlessly for continued progress in the work. The team met regularly to

evaluate progress and determine how to deal with obstacles and problems. Every member of

the team had an opportunity to influence important decisions about the design of the software

system, and the actual influence for a particular issue depended on one’s expertise and quality of

ideas rather than on status in the company or years of experience.

An important part of Ron’s job as project director was to make sure the team got the

resources and assistance it needed from the company. Ron spent considerable time traveling to

various company facilities to meet with key people whose support and cooperation were needed

to design and implement the new system. Before leaving on these trips, Ron would ask a mem-

ber of the team to carry out his internal leadership responsibilities. When it was her turn, Donna

was at first apprehensive, but she found it to be an interesting and satisfying experience. As

Ron debriefed her afterward, he encouraged her to consider a managerial position at Southwest

Engineering in her career plans.

At one point during the fourth month, the team became discouraged over a series of set-

backs involving some persistent technical problems. Ron called a meeting to give them a pep

talk. He said to them, “I know you are discouraged about these setbacks, but it happens in any

project that is breaking new ground. We have made tremendous progress, and I am really proud

of what you have accomplished so far. I am confident we can overcome this latest obstacle and

make the project a success. Let’s take the rest of the day off to give ourselves a little rest and meet

again tomorrow to discuss some new ideas for integrating the system components.”

The following week the team figured out an innovative way to deal with the obstacle. They

celebrated this breakthrough with a party at Ron’s house. The project was completed three

months later, which was several weeks earlier than the original deadline. The project was a great

success, and they felt tremendous pride in what they accomplished. A final celebration party was

held before people dispersed back to their regular units or to new projects. Afterward, Donna

and another team member reminisced about their experiences. Donna gave Ron much credit

for being a fantastic coach and facilitator, and she hoped to have the opportunity to work with

him again on another project. However, she also realized that their success was a team effort that

could not have been accomplished without the significant contributions of all the team members

and their willingness to cooperate and put the needs of the project above individual self-interests.

Copyright © 1991 by Gary Yukl


 1.   Describe the leadership behaviors Ron used and their influence on the attitudes and 

behavior of the team members. 

 2.   Compare this cross-functional project team to a self-managed operations team by identi-

fying similarities and differences in the leadership roles.