Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

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I'm all about Building Thriving Leaders™ This blog is based on over 35 years of project management and leadership successes and failures. Get practical, concise nuggets on both hard and soft skills to help you deliver projects successfully with minimal friction.

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Messenger or Manager

***Colleagues: I'm experimenting with a new blogging format to more effectively give you insightful | concise | direct nuggets. I'm calling it the BTL (Building Thriving Leaders) BriefBlog. Be honest with me; would love to know what you think!

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Messenger or Manager: A BTL BriefBlog Episode

The Scenario: The project manager is providing a weekly status report to the project sponsor

  • PM: The vendor told me yesterday they will miss their delivery date by a month.
  • Sponsor: Just a month ago I gave you the money you asked for to get the project done. What's the issue?
  • PM: The vendor is telling me it's more complex than they thought. They can't deliver.
  • Sponsor: What??? I gave you what you asked for and now you're telling me they can't get it done?
  • PM: That's what they're telling me.
  • Sponsor: What are you doing about it?
  • PM: Well, we have a weekly status meeting and will discuss again next week.
  • Sponsor: Have you escalated to their management?
  • PM: No.
  • Sponsor: So you're telling me that we just have to accept it?
  • PM: Well, I can try talking to them again.
  • Sponsor: Get them on a call, and include me.
  • PM: Ok.
  • Sponsor (thinking to himself about the PM): Delivers bad news, no plan to address, I thought he was a PM; he's just a messenger.

The Message: It's good to provide early warning to potential issues, but it’s bad when you don’t provide the next steps you're taking or what help you need. This labels you as a messenger rather than the manager you’re expected to be.

The Consequence: Issues without next actions or asks gives the impression you're not taking ownership of the issue and you're expecting someone else to manage through it.

The Take-Away: Don't be an issue messenger. Define the issue, articulate what next steps are, and be clear on what and when you expect others to do to help squash the issue.

Posted on: March 08, 2022 11:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Align on the What, Advise on the How

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colleagues: I originally wrote this article for board members and their interactions with executive teams. The parallels apply to a leader-follower relationship so decided to publish the article as-is and give you some nuggets that you can apply to your leadership journey.

Pat hated giving board updates. As the head of integration of a recent acquisition, Pat was required to provide monthly updates on the integration to the board. There was one board member, Cary, who focused on how the integration project was being done, questioning Pat on initiative processes, minor deliverables, and detailed assignments. Cary was experienced in acquisition integration and spoke from a position of authority, but Pat was also an experienced professional with six successful integration projects completed. Because of Cary’s experience and strong personality, the board chair permitted Cary to deep-dive on minutiae. Pat’s frustration with being micro-managed boiled over to the rest of the executive team, creating a tone of distrust between the board and executive team. Pat’s updates became less and less transparent, with Pat reasoning that more information was only fodder for Cary’s drilling. The integration project ultimately was completed, but the trust relationship between the board and executive team was significantly eroded.

Boards are filled with experience and wisdom. Its members know, through success and failure, how to get things done, the pitfalls to avoid, and not to touch a hot stove. Their insight is crucial to the success of an organization. That insight, though, doesn’t mean a board and its members have license to over-function with its CEO and executive team. Unchecked, a CEO and executive team can feel micro-managed due to being told not only what should be done, but how it should be done. Being overly prescriptive on the how is a material pain point in the board/executive team trust relationship.

Being clear about defining and understanding the what/how roles and accountabilities is crucial to a healthy, functioning board/executive team relationship. When done well, the executive team is able to execute without disruptive oversight, and the board members are transparently and satisfactorily informed about key initiatives. When done poorly, nervous board members, with the best of intention, can actually disrupt work through increased updates, shadow management, and unsolicited advice on how to get things done. I call this behavior “love-bombing.” When an executive’s confidence is shaken on a key initiative for which he or she is accountable, the exec will tend to increase his or her involvement in the initiative, requesting more frequent updates and deeper dives on issues, looking for ways he or she can help. In an effort to be helpful, the exec actually creates more work for the initiative leader and team to calm the exec’s nervousness. It’s no different with a board. The board will want to help and offer its collective experience, but in the process can delve too much into the how, putting a strain on the board/executive team trust relationship.

Managing and controlling the what and how relationship between the board and executive team falls squarely on the CEO and board chair to clearly articulate the what/how relationship and set the tone with its board members to align on the what and advise on the how. To help establish a fruitful what/how relationship the chair and CEO should employ these actions:

  1. Set what/how expectations with the board – The board chair and CEO have to set the tone with the rest of the board on the board’s place in what/how alignment. Being purposeful about the distinction not only sets expectations with the board, CEO, and executive team but also serves as a good reminder when a board member over-reaches. Both the CEO and board chair have the responsibility to ensure alignment is in place and call a time-out when discussions get in the weeds.
  2. Get crisp on what “done” looks like – For an initiative which will include regular board updates, ensure there is a clear understanding of what needs to be done, why it’s being done, when it’s to be done by, and who’s accountable for getting it done. Having a good grasp and concurrence of what, why, when, and who helps board members stay in their lane and focus on results.
  3. Be deliberate with initiative updates – “Going dark” on initiative progress on what, why, when and who breeds nervousness among board members and can instigate board members delving into how things should be done. Provide a regular initiative status and proactively realign what, why, when and who if necessary.
  4. Solicit advice then decide what to do with it – Boards generally have a great cross-section of experience and wisdom to contribute, and it would be foolish for a CEO and executive team to not tap into that experience. Be thoughtful about soliciting advice, then decide if the advice makes sense to implement given the full context of the initiative. 
  5. Use committees to do deeper dives and help on the how – Depending on the initiative it may make sense to leverage one or more board members to advise on a deeper level to better ensure initiative success. The CEO and board chair should assess whether a board committee is necessary, then be thoughtful on its setup and review rhythm.
  6. Don’t put an initiative at legal, regulatory, or compliance risk – A key function of a board is to help an organization identify, assess, and mitigate risk. Board members should continue to be on the lookout for legal, regulatory or compliance risks and speak up when one is identified, even if it delves into how an initiative is done. The board chair and CEO should clearly set this expectation with the rest of the board and executive team.
  7. Break the rule in extraordinary situations – There may be some situations, i.e. material strategy misalignment or CEO performance issues, where broader deeper dives are necessary for the sake of the organization. The board chair should make those calls and deliberately drive those discussions.

Trust is crucial to a healthy board/executive team relationship. A key driver of trust is clear articulation of the what/how accord and where the board and its members need to function. Be proactive in defining it and holding both the board and executive team accountable in the relationship.

Posted on: December 24, 2021 10:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

The 5 Tollgates of Selling Up-Part 3

"Gosh, this is a huge problem!” Renu said, leaning forward, elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of her.

Bert smiled, pleased with Renu’s reaction. Bert was a newly-promoted warehouse supervisor, having worked in the warehouse for two years fresh out of high school. He proved himself to be a hard worker with a lot of promise. Renu, the plant manager, saw Bert as a high-potential employee who had the passion and talent to ultimately take her job someday.

“I’ve been saying this was a problem for a long time,” Bert said.

“So what do you think we should do about it?” Renu asked.

Bert stopped for a minute, not expecting the question. “Well, I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?” Renu asked, her eyes locked with Bert’s.

“Um, no, not yet.”

“Not yet?”

Bert could feel the little droplets of perspiration forming on his forehead.

“Bert, you bring me a problem, but no proposal on what to do about it?”

“Well, I, uh, didn’t think we’d be talking about solutions here.”

Renu saw what was happening and decided to turn the meeting into a teachable moment.

“Bert, you and I have talked about your potential and you know how vested I am in your success. Anyone can identify problems; people who only identify problems are average at best. The ones who rise above are those who not just articulate a problem, but also follow it up with a proposed solution. Did you see how engaged I was when you articulated the problem to me?”

“Uh huh.”

“Right, I was bought into your problem. That was the time to articulate what should be done about it-- when you had my attention. When you come in without a solution to your problem it leaves me frustrated. I really want to know what you think and want to see your problem-solving skills in action. Does this make sense?”

Bert gave a slight smile, realizing that the meeting turned into a selling idea lesson. “It does.”

“Good, now how about we get together again in a couple of days and try this again.”

“Sounds good, I’ll get time on your calendar,” Bert said as he got up from his chair.

“Very good. Take care, Bert, and close the door on your way out.”

Tollgate 3: I understand what you want to do about it

After agreement on the problem, the next step is to articulate your course of action. This could be in the form of a target solution that addresses the problem or specific steps you think need to be taken to come up with a target solution. The important thing here is clarity. Whatever you propose, make sure it’s specific, quantifiable, realistic, and relevant. Specific means that you’ve drawn a clear line between the problem and the course of action; that it’s clear to the exec how the course of action addresses the problem. Quantifiable means that the course of action is measurable; that it would be clear whether or not the course of action was actually attained. Realistic means that the course of action can be realized given available time and resources; that the exec could secure what is needed to execute the course of action. Relevant means that the course of action is germane to the scope, values, and priorities of what the exec controls or has influence over; proposing something that is out scope of what the exec can influence will just get you a “I can’t do anything about this,” response.

By no means should you be like Bert and present a problem without a course of action. It labels you as someone who raises problems without recommendations on how to solve them. Anyone can raise problems; it’s the competent professionals who articulate what to do about them.

Again, positive engagement from the exec is crucial. Getting some questions and context is a good step to securing the exec’s buy-in. Things could get difficult if the exec disagrees with the course of action accompanied by your inflexibility to deviate from your proposal. Be very in tune to what the exec is communicating and look to incorporate some of his or her thinking into your course of action.

~~~~~

Execs can’t do all the thinking in an organization. They rely on competent, clear-headed thinkers to not just blurt out things that are wrong, but to articulate rational courses of action to make things better. Don’t leave an exec hanging with a well-defined problem and no proposed solutions.

We’ve gone through three tollgates thus far:

Next up is part 4 of The 5 Tollgates of Selling Up.

Posted on: September 24, 2021 04:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Asking for Help: The Leader/Follower Partnership

It was one of the worst meetings in Greg’s project management career.  

“We are slipping by a month,” Greg said to his leader Kavita.

“How long have you known about this?” Kavita asked.

“Um, two weeks. I’ve been working hard to pull it back in but wasn’t able to do.”

“And I’m just finding out about this now? Why didn’t you ask for help?”

Greg stammered. “I thought I could handle it on my own.”

“This is really bad, Greg. We have customers relying on us to deliver on time. Sue, you work with Greg to see where we’re at and see if we can pull this thing back in. Hopefully it’s not worse than a month.”

“Will do, Kavita,” Sue said.

“Good, I need to northwind my management and let them know we may have a problem. Get back to me by end of day with your assessment. Clear?”

“Clear,” Greg said as he looked down, avoiding eye contact with Kavita.

“I’m disappointed you didn’t ask for help,” Kavita said as she left the room.

Asking for help. Something that by nature we know how to do. Whether it’s in the form of a baby crying, a kindergartener needing his shoe tied, or a teenager needing a parent’s help with a flat tire, asking for help is something each and every one of us has experience with. Yet in a professional setting, asking for help can be viewed as a sign of weakness; something that could reflect negatively on a person’s ability to deliver.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Asking for help, when done effectively, not only ensures successful delivery but demonstrates a follower’s maturity and wisdom to use any and all levers available to secure delivery. There’s definitely a methodology to asking for help that both the leader and follower need to follow if their partnership is to flourish.


Before we go further, there are a few principles a follower needs to embrace to make this partnership of asking for help work well:

  • Your leader collects a success tax on your work – Your ability to successfully deliver reflects positively not only on you but on your leader. Your success contributes to hers. At the same time, your failure reflects on her as well. Your leader has a vested interest in your success.
  • You hold a gun to your leader’s head – The reality is that if you don’t deliver on something your leader may come down hard on you; but more often than not, your leader’s leader is going to come down hard on your leader for not delivering. She now has to explain why your project didn’t get delivered to her management.
  • Asking for help is not a weakness – Just because you ask for help doesn’t mean you’re in any way less competent; it just means you are leveraging the tools at your disposal to get things done as effectively as possible. Your leader is one of those tools.
  • Some things are just beyond your pay grade – Asking for help isn’t always about a leader having greater skill or competence on an issue; sometimes it’s about influence. A leader may be able to get something done more effectively simply because she has the leader title.

​Asking for help means both the leader and follower have responsibilities for the partnership to work well. Take heed of the following points to ensure both are doing their part.

For the follower:

  • Be specific about the what, who and when – Asking for help is more than just saying “I need help.” The ask needs to be actionable, the specifically-named person who needs to help you needs to be clear, and the when needs to be understood (no “ASAPs”). Also be clear about what happens if you don’t get the help by the date you need it.
  • Demonstrate you’ve thought through the ask – Your leader wants to see that you’ve not just mustered up the courage to ask for help, but how you’ve thought through your ask, what you’ve done to try to help yourself, the alternatives you’ve considered, and the implications of those alternatives.
  • Be timely in your ask – Give your leader as much lead time as you can in your ask. The longer you procrastinate or try to solve things on your own the less time you give your leader to act. Sure, sometimes your ask could truly have a short deadline because something unexpected crops up, just do your best to avoid creating a crisis because you dragged your feet.
  • Be measured – Your leader wants you to be deliberate, focused, and calm in your ask. Set aside the drama and demonstrate that you’re in control of the situation even if things aren’t going well.
  • Document it – Put the what, who and when down in an email and send it to your leader. Copy yourself on the email so you can…
  • Hold your leader accountable – Be deliberate about following up with your leader on the action. Assume your leader has a hundred things she is working on and may need reminders to get something done. Don’t just make the ask and not follow up.
  • Give your leader what she needs to help you – Need your leader to send an email to someone? Craft the email for her for her to tweak and send. The easier you make things on your leader to help you, the greater the likelihood your leader will do what you need.

For the leader:

  • Provide a conducive environment – Don’t make your follower feel inadequate, embarrassed, or ashamed when asking for help. Set the tone that asking for help is OK.
  • Take time to understand the ask – Ask questions to understand the implications of the ask and ensure can accurately represent the need to whoever else you may need to talk with. You don’t want to be in a situation where you deliver something different from what the follower expected. He may not question you and just try to take things into his own hands.
  • Follow up – Simple; if you commit to taking action, do it. Don’t use one standard for taking action with your leader and a different one with your follower. Treat both with the same respect and urgency.
  • Think and act like a partner – You have a role in your follower’s success and it’s your job to make sure he has the tools and support he needs to get things done. Your follower depends on your expertise, influence, and pay grade to do things he cannot do on his own. Partner with him to get things done.
  • Ask the follower to help you help him – Is your follower expecting you to talk with another manager to free up resources to get something done? Ask him to draft an email that you can then tweak and send. It not only saves you time, but also gives your follower practice in communicating with others higher up the chain.
  • Reinforce “how can I help you?” – It’s not enough to create a conducive environment; you need to continually reinforce with your followers that your job is to help them be successful, and that they should leverage you to get things done. Keep saying, “How can I help you?” and provide positive reinforcement for those who take you up on it.
  • Don’t do your follower’s job for him – Asking for help isn’t a get out of jail free card for a follower to just throw up his hands and expect you to do his job. If a follower hasn’t thought through alternatives and implications or isn’t specific about the ask, be specific with what you want and ask them to follow through. His job is to make asks clear and thoughtful so you can take action effectively.

​Effectively asking for help not only paves the way to getting things done more expediently but also positively impacts the leader-follower relationship. Followers, learn how to effectively ask for help. Leaders, respect the partnership and follow through. 

Posted on: August 09, 2021 02:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

The Very Real Consequences of Evasive Answers

Some time back I was in a meeting with a project manager who presented the status on his troubled project to the project sponsor and other executive stakeholders. This project was of high interest to the sponsor and stakeholders as they were depending on its successful completion to make some major changes in their respective organizations. The project sponsor asked the project manager a very straightforward question:

Why is the project slipping?

The project manager went into a long, meandering monologue. The sponsor interrupted and asked the question again. More meandering from the project manager. Seeing the sponsor and other stakeholders’ growing frustration, the project manager’s boss stepped in and said they needed to do more homework and would come back the next day better prepared. The next day, the project manager’s boss presented the status and answered questions--along with a new project manager.

Through my career I’ve seen (and been in) plenty of situations where an exec’s (who I will refer to as “the asker”) questions were met with evasive responses. It could be that the person being asked (“the askee”) didn’t want to admit not knowing something or be proven wrong. The askee would then, as we liked to say in the consulting world, “tap dance” to attempt any response that might satisfy the asker. More often than not, the asker would grow frustrated with the evasiveness. This led me to the following hypothesis:

If an asker asks a question, the asker expects a direct answer.
When an askee is evasive, the askee leaves it to the asker to make up his/her own answer.
The askee has not only damaged his/her credibility, but now has to change the asker’s perception of the answer.

While my focus is in executive interaction, the same principle applies to other relationships like spouses or business partners. When an askee is evasive, the asker makes up his/her own answer, and the askee now has to dig out of a hole to reestablish credibility and set the record straight.

Need to build your answering skills? Keep the following eight tips in mind:

  1. Listen first then answer – Take the time to listen to a question without interrupting the asker, then when the asker is finished, give a response. Resist the urge to interrupt to get your answer in.
  2. Do ensure clarity – If you truly don’t understand a question, then by all means ask for clarification. But don’t continually ask for clarity; it could look like you’re deflecting.
  3. Give straight answers – If you’re asked a direct yes/no question, give a yes/no response. If there are contextual factors that support the answer or conditions that may change the answer, then provide them--concisely. And please don’t say, “It depends” without qualification.
  4. Don’t reframe – Saying something like “The question you should be asking is . . .” immediately conveys that you think the asker isn’t intelligent enough to ask the right questions. Acknowledge the question, respond, and move on.
  5. Don’t deflect – Changing the topic to avoid answering a question may work if the asker can be distracted, but usually the asker can sniff out when someone is avoiding a question by changing the topic. Do it once and you’ll probably get some grace for innocently not understanding the question; do it two or more times and you’ll be viewed as an avoider.
  6. Don’t attack validity – Saying something like, “That’s not important,” or “You shouldn’t ask that,” tells the asker you believe his or her intelligence is inferior to yours. If the asker is taking the time to ask a question, then assume the question is important to him/her.
  7. Say “I don’t know” – If you don’t know the answer to a question then be quick to say “I don’t know, I need to get back to you.” Then record the question and be prepared for a “When will you know?” follow-up from the asker.
  8. Be quick to admit if you’re not prepared – Too many “I don’t knows” may mean you have to do more research. It’s best to avoid this by being clear on the topic and prepared to discuss it. One humiliating abrupt ending to a meeting with a “you need to do more homework” directive will motivate you to not let it happen again.

This bears repeating: the consequences of evasive answers not only means the asker makes up his/her own answer, it also harms the askee’s credibility. Give straight answers and control the narrative. 

Posted on: January 14, 2021 09:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)
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