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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Ten Points to be a Better Up and Out Influencer

The Scenario: 

Alberto has just been hired to head up the program management office for Aspiron Group.

Alberto prepares a 30-minute presentation to replace the organization’s status reporting system for his vice president, Irene.

Alberto and Irene will be meeting each other for the first time.

At the beginning of his presentation, Irene gets an urgent phone call and apologizes to Alberto saying she only has 15 minutes.

Alberto presents slide 1, his view of why the organization needs a new status reporting system.

Irene immediately starts questioning Alberto about his reasons for wanting to replace the current system and why money should be redirected from other priorities to the new system.

Alberto, unable to satisfactorily answer some of Irene’s questions, fumbles for answers and gives a lot of “I’ll have to get back to you on that” statements.

After 15 minutes, Irene again apologizes for having to cut the meeting short and leaves the room. “What is he talking about?” Irene thinks as she leaves.

Alberto is left alone sitting in the room, having never gotten past slide 1, feeling as if he’d blown setting a positive first impression with Irene.

The Message:

Poor Alberto. Not only is it less likely that he will get the new status reporting system, but he has also failed to establish credibility with Irene. Rather than starting from a positive or neutral credibility position, he’s now operating from a deficit position, making it more difficult to influence Irene in the future.

As a leader, there are two vitally important concepts you need to clearly understand when influencing up and out. The first is the five tollgates that I believe leaders must successfully pass to effectively influence up and out (who I will refer to as recipients):

  • Tollgate 1: The recipient believes you’re credible – The recipient agrees that you have the subject matter knowledge to discuss the problem.
  • Tollgate 2: The recipient acknowledges the problem – The recipient agrees that the problem you’re trying to articulate truly is a problem.
  • Tollgate 3: The recipient understands what you want to do about it – The recipient not only has a clear understanding of the problem, but also understands how you think the problem should be solved.
  • Tollgate 4: The recipient sees how this aligns with his/her priorities – The recipient not only understands what you want to do but also agrees with the urgency of solving the problem relative to other problems on the recipient’s to-do list.
  • Tollgate 5: The recipient gets what you expect him/her to do – The recipient is clear on what you want him/her to do to address the problem.

With tollgate 5 comes the second important concept, which is about decision ownership. There are four decision ownership scenarios, as follows:

  • You propose, recipient decides – You expect the recipient to make a decision based on your proposal.
  • You decide, recipient concurs – You decide and look for concurrence and guidance from the recipient.
  • You decide, recipient is informed – You decide and keep the recipient abreast of your decision.
  • You decide, recipient is not informed – You decide and do not inform the recipient because the recipient doesn’t need to be concerned with your decision.

I can’t over-emphasize enough the importance of these two concepts when influencing up and out. The first ensures alignment with how a problem needs to be solved and what you expect the recipient to do, and the second articulates the roles you and the recipient play in any decision-making.

Do you need to be better at influencing up and out? Here are ten points to consider:

  1. Digest the five tollgates – Truly take the time to understand each tollgate, its importance, and what you need to do to ensure your communications follow the five tollgates structure.
  2. Make sure you structure your content to address each tollgate in sequence - If you haven’t passed tollgate 1, your likelihood of making it through the remaining tollgates is drastically reduced. Build your pitch around each tollgate in sequence.
  3. Make your words count - More content isn’t better. Get your point across in as little content as possible. Make liberal use of bullets versus narrative text to better condense thoughts into consumable chunks.
  4. Be manic about watching reactions - If your recipient is signaling understanding and you’re getting the desired result for a tollgate, move on to the next tollgate. I’ve had plenty of pitches where I’ve glossed over content because the recipient was already on board with what I was presenting in a tollgate. The most important thing is to get what you want, not to showcase everything you’ve prepared.
  5. Remember absolute vs. relative priorities - Just because a recipient says, “Not now,” it doesn’t mean the recipient is an idiot or that you’ve failed. Accept that timing might not always be on your side.
  6. Structure content for the time allotted and have a plan if that allotment changes - Plenty of times I thought I had an hour to pitch an idea only to have the recipient tell me I only had 30 minutes. Anticipate what you’ll do in the event your time gets cut short.
  7. Use fewer slides with Harvey balls – Forget the 7x7 rule (7 bullets no more than 7 words each). Put more information organized in sections on a slide and use Harvey balls to walk your recipient through your pitch. It saves a lot of “go back to slide 13” requests and actually facilitates more discussion. It also helps in the event your time gets cut short.
  8. State the ask/advise/inform upfront – Your recipient needs to know whether he/she is being asked to make a decision, is expected to advise, or is just being informed. Be clear on what you are expecting your recipient to do and ensure he or she agrees with the role.
  9. Be bold about telling the recipient what you think and why – This is particularly important when the recipient needs to make a decision. You could frustrate the recipient by asking an open-ended “what do you want to do?” question and then arguing with the answer. Besides, you then have to work from the recipient’s position as opposed to putting yours out there to start with.
  10. Leverage best practice examples that have worked for others – Seek out others who have had to influence up and out to sell an idea, get a copy of their communications (email, slide deck, etc.), talk with them about what worked/didn’t work, and ask them to look at your communication before publishing. You’ll both develop more effective communication as well as build relationship capital with those you seek to learn from.

The Consequences:  Being ineffective at influencing up and out can lead to the following:

  • Others will drive your destiny – Those who influence up and out better control the narrative and get what they want, which could come at your expense.
  • You won’t be helping your followers – Your followers expect you to be able to influence your management and peers across the organization to help them do their jobs.
  • You will be viewed as if you’re out of your league – Your peers who are better at influencing up and out will be viewed as stronger leaders by your management.

The Next Steps: 

  • Review the five tollgates and ten points on influencing up and out.
  • Decide which ones you need to improve.
  • For any points you’ve identified as needing work, put an action plan together to address those influencing up and out areas.
  • Use a trusted advisor who can hold you accountable to be more effective at influencing up and out.

 

Posted on: August 11, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Impressive First Impressions

So check this out.

Recently I received an email from someone who found me on LinkedIn. The person wasn’t a connection of mine, so I had no idea who he was or where he worked.

Let’s go through some of the items on the email (indicated by red letters A-F) and how it influenced my impression of this person. I changed personally identifiable information and will call him John Doe.

A – John’s email in the “from” line is from what I call “CompanyName1.” All good so far.

B – The subject of the email is “Offer for Thensetta Group of Companies.” This seems all fine and well except my company name is “Consetta.”

C – In his signature line he identifies himself as working for “Company Name 2,” which is different from the company in his email address

D – His website is listed as “Companyname3.com,” which is different from both the company names in his email address and signature. What’s even more interesting is that the underlying URL is different from the listed company name. When I copied “Companyname3.com” into my browser I got a “Page Not Found” message. When I clicked on the hyperlink it took me to a parked webpage.

E – The portfolio in Vimeo has yet another company name which is different than all the others.

F – John tells me that if I want to stop getting emails from him I need to reply with “remove.” I presume that means to put the word “remove” in the subject line. Any reputable company uses an email service like Constant Contact or Mailchimp with a structured unsubscribe process.

Needless to say, there’s no way in heck I’m going to do business with John Doe. The first impression he left was so abysmally bad that I could never imagine entrusting him with helping me resolve a business problem.

I suspect that if you’ve been in business for any period of time you’ve heard the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Despite this saying being as old as dirt, I’m amazed at how frequently I’ve seen professionals, both seasoned and newbie, create a negative perception in a first interaction. It’s even worse when, like the John Doe email, a negative first impression is earned through careless and reckless mistakes. The way John Doe bungled his first interaction with me told me volumes about what he might be to work with. While it’s entirely possible he is a competent professional, I’ll never know because he’ll never get a second chance with me.

If you think you might need some help on creating positive first impressions, give the following six tips a look before your next meeting with someone new.

  1. Learn all you can – Take the time up front to learn about the person. With all that’s available on LinkedIn and through general web searches, there’s simply no reason to go into a meeting not knowing anything about the person. But balance this with point two…
  2. Don’t look like a stalker – Just because you learned a lot about someone doesn’t mean you have to bombard them with your research. I’ve met with eager first-timers who, in an effort to impress me, started rattling off articles I’ve written, companies I’ve worked for, and things about my family. While on one hand I was impressed they took some time to learn about me, I was also creeped out with how much they appeared to obsess over me. This leads me to point three…
  3. Look for a couple of connection points – Many people know of my passion for helping the autism community and their loved ones. I’ve always appreciated when someone has asked a genuinely sincere question or related a personal situation about autism. It shows that they not only took a bit of time to learn about me, but also lets me know the other person is passionate about something I am. Just make sure you follow point four…
  4. Be genuinely interested – I can smell a mile away when someone talks about a connection point only to try to warm me to the relationship. I don’t want to talk about my passion area with a disinterested party. When looking for connection points, make sure it’s a topic in which you are genuinely interested. A good test is to ask yourself: Would I talk about this connection area with this person even if there were no underlying agenda? Wrap up the meeting with point five…
  5. Take the initiative to summarize actions – Summarize the meeting with specific actions you and/or the other person will take and when the action will be taken, then include the summarized actions in a follow-up email. This underscores for me that they see our meeting as important enough to take action to keep us both aligned. Just don’t drop the ball on point six…
  6. Do what you say you’ll do – It drives me crazy when someone commits to something by a due date, then doesn’t deliver. Even if something comes up which prevents you from meeting your commitment, send a note prior to the due date with a revised date. Avoid the “My dog ate my homework” explanations; just a quick note telling when the commitment will be completed.

Positive first impressions matter. Creating negative first impressions through carelessness or being unprepared is just shooting yourself in the foot. Take first impressions seriously and do all you can to make your first impression impressive.

Posted on: March 18, 2021 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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)

Six Crucial Lessons to Becoming and Staying a Trusted Advisor

In a recent phone call I told the CEO of my insurance brokerage that after being a loyal customer for 15 years I had moved all my business to other providers. Given our long-standing relationship, I felt I owed him an explanation; not because I wanted to see someone fired, but because I wanted him to know my reasons for leaving so he could put any lessons learned to use.

It started about seven years ago when the person assigned to my business insurance seemed to lose interest in me. He wasn’t on top of my renewals, made me do work that he could have done for me, and didn’t competitively bid my insurance. I moved all of my business insurance to another agency. A similar issue happened in the past year with my personal insurance; I simply didn’t feel that I was important to my agent. The final nail in the coffin came when my bank notified me that my homeowners’ insurance had lapsed two months earlier without any notification from my insurance agent. I then reached out to another agency, who quickly bound coverage for me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday evening.

While the CEO of the original brokerage wasn’t happy that I moved my insurance business elsewhere, he was grateful I took the time to calmly and constructively give him feedback. We ended the call on a very cordial note, and I am confident that if we ever ran into each other at a coffee shop we’d shake hands and exchange regards.

I open with this story because for years I considered him and the agents at his company as trusted advisors. I openly shared my personal and business goals with them and believed they advised with my best interests at heart. But after a time I realized I didn’t feel important to them, and my personal and professional interests were no longer their primary concern. The people who were at one time my trusted advisors now had exactly none of my business.

So what’s a trusted advisor? In my four decades in business I’ve boiled it down to six crucial principles:

  1. Intently listens then thoughtfully acts – A trusted advisor takes the time to listen to the client, understand their perspective, and ask clarifying questions before drawing conclusions or providing advice.
  2. Never breaches confidences – A trusted advisor needs to provide an environment where the client knows sensitive information will not be discussed with others. Relationships can be irreparably harmed with just one confidence breach.  
  3. Advises on what s/he knows, admits what s/he doesn’t know – A trusted advisor is confident in his/her abilities and skillsets, and freely admits when something is outside of his/her expertise area.
  4. Always keeps commitments – A trusted advisor always follows through on commitments when and how the client expects.  
  5. Is courageously, respectfully candid – A trusted advisor doesn’t need to tell the client what they want to hear; but should courageously and respectfully tell the client what they need to hear. The trusted advisor’s job is to say what s/he thinks; the client’s job is to decide what to do with it.
  6. Takes the initiative with the client – A trusted advisor ensures time with the client is purposeful and productive, and resulting actions are followed up. 

Being a trusted advisor isn’t something project sponsors and other internal stakeholders automatically grant; it takes a track record of demonstrating these six principles through actions that elevate someone to trusted advisor status. Following are six crucial lessons I’ve learned about what it takes become and continue as a trusted advisor:

  1. The last impression is just as important as the first – Sure, setting a positive first impression is critical to becoming a trusted advisor. However, every impression made thereafter is equally important. A great trusted advisor is consistent in the impressions s/he makes with a client. Whether it’s the first, second or hundredth impression, the trusted advisor is consistent in his/her level of performance and the client comes to expect great service.
  2. Treat the client like they are your most important client – If you take someone on as a client it’s your job to make them feel important. The client doesn’t care about other clients you serve and how much or little business they represent. Your job is to provide the agreed-upon services while making the client know their business matters to you.
  3. Focus on problems first then sales will follow – When I meet with a new client I ask them to think about the biggest three issues that keep them awake at night. During our meeting I am very up-front about the problems I think I can help with and those that are outside my wheelhouse. My ability to focus on the client’s problems and then determine if/how I can best help sets my foundation as a trusted advisor and secures consulting engagements.
  4. Align your urgency to the client’s urgency – In my opening story my new insurance advisor understood the urgency of binding my homeowner’s insurance quickly. He aligned his urgency to mine and got the job done. I’m now a raving fan.
  5. Follow up 100 percent of the time – This one’s really easy; if you say you’re going to do something by a specific date, for Pete’s sake do it. If there’s a good reason you can’t keep a commitment by an agreed-upon date, notify them as early as possible. Letting a due date come and go without any notification not only erodes your credibility but could also impact downstream activities that are dependent on your deliverable.
  6. Don’t hammer screws – You may have heard the phrase, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Your job as a trusted advisor is to know what you’re good at and what you’re not, then focus on solving problems you’re best qualified to solve. Overselling your expertise to take on work you’re not qualified to do is akin to trying to hammer screws. You’ve got the wrong tools for the job and can create problems for both yourself and the client when you’re ill-equipped to solve the client’s problem.

Becoming a trusted advisor is something that’s earned through behaviors and actions and can be quickly stripped away if taken for granted. Keep these lessons in mind to help you not just attain trusted advisor status, but keep it.   

Posted on: January 09, 2021 11:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

How to Succeed Under an Insecure Leader

In Part 1: Ten Differences Between a Secure and an Insecure Leader,  I contrasted ten key attributes that distinguish a secure leader from one who is insecure in his or her abilities.  Part 2 is dedicated to giving you eight nuggets to help you succeed under an insecure leader. 

For years I was an insecure leader.  My greatest fear in leading others was that I would be "found out" and that everyone would see me not as a strong, competent leader but as a bumbling fool.  Through the years I've learned that the quest for infallibility is impossible to reach and that making mistakes is part of the growth process.  I'm less insecure today because I am more comfortable saying "I don't know" without everyone in the room thinking I'm an incompetent twit.  Having said that, I am secure in knowing I will continue to screw up until my last breath.


For an insecure leader, it all comes down to trust.  Insecure leaders are by default distrustful of others and will only let those into their inner circle after trust has been earned.  You could be the best performer in the leader's organization but if he or she doesn't trust you then you're always going to be operating on the fringes with the leader and will likely have a stressful relationship.  Unfortunate, yes; but that's the fact Jack. You need to accept and embrace it.

So okay, you've accepted and embraced the fact you work with an insecure leader.  What next?  Here are eight specific things to consider in better securing a good working relationship with the leader:

Respect the leader's position - Regardless how smart or competent you feel your leader is, the first step to a healthy relationship with an insecure leader is respecting his or her position as leader.  To an insecure leader, disrespect for the position is no different than disrespect for the leader.

Don't overdraw in the feedback bank account - Insecure leaders need to hear that they are doing some things right.  When presenting feedback to the leader, start things off with something positive before raising constructive feedback.  The spoonful of sugar will truly help the medicine go down better for the leader.

Don't dump problems - If you have a difficult issue you need help with don't dump it on the leader's doorstep.  Clearly articulate the issue and present some alternatives to how you and the leader can resolve the problem together.  Dumping the problem can put insecure leaders on edge because they may now feel as if they are being tested.

Criticize in private - Publicly criticizing or embarrassing an insecure leader puts the leader in a "fight or flight" situation and can severely damage your relationship with the leader.  Save the negative feedback for a private session.

Don't suck up - A savvy leader will see sucking up as insincere.  In addition, other team members will resent you if you are viewed as a brown-noser in it for personal gain. 

Allow the leader to teach - Being insecure doesn't necessarily mean the leader is incompetent.  Find something you can learn from the leader and become a student of the leader's viewpoint.  Being less than open to learning something from the leader may suggest a problem with your attitude versus purely a problem with the leader.

Understand the leader's communication style - Some leaders truly are "open door" while others prefer scheduled appointments.  Some prefer verbal discussion while others like written emails.  Understand how the leader likes to communicate and stick to his or her style.  Also beware of the leader who says the politically-correct "my door is always open" but seems annoyed if someone barges in.  Keep your ear to the railroad track and understand how the leader truly likes to communicate. 

Don't compromise your principles and values - learning how to work with an insecure leader doesn't mean blindly following whatever the leader asks you to do.  If an insecure leader asks you to do something against your principles be very clear in articulating your objection and why you are objecting. 

My one nugget to you is this: recognize you work for an insecure leader, embrace it, and decide you're going to make the best of the situation.  It will not only yield a better working relationship with your leader, it will also reduce your stress level.

Posted on: May 26, 2020 12:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)
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