Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

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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Recent Posts

Knowledge and Wisdom: What's the Difference?

I Just Wanna Be a PM!

The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership

Ten Ways to Grow your Followers into Leaders

Ten Points to be a Better Up and Out Influencer


Agile, Career Development, Communication, Decision Making, Disability Inclusion, Empowerment, Followership, Leadership, New Job, project execution, Project Management, project sponsorship, Social Media, Time Management, Upward Management, Work Life Balance, Working from Home, Writing


Knowledge and Wisdom: What's the Difference?

Categories: Leadership

I've done a lot of thinking about knowledge and wisdom. Many use the term interchangeably. Couldn't be further from the truth. Here are my 12 key differences. What do you think?

  1. Knowledge is knowing what to say, wisdom is knowing when to say it.
  2. Knowledge is what goes in, wisdom is what goes out.
  3. Knowledge is telling others what to do, wisdom is articulating why it needs to be done.
  4. Knowledge is solving problems for others, wisdom is helping others solve their problems.
  5. Knowledge is providing answers, wisdom is asking questions.
  6. Knowledge prioritizes being right, wisdom prioritizes relationships.
  7. Knowledge is meant to impress others, wisdom is meant to help others.
  8. Knowledge inundates others with data, wisdom helps others understand data.
  9. Knowledge is about researching others, wisdom is about personal experience.
  10. Knowledge is about doing things right, wisdom is about doing the right things.
  11. Knowledge is taking a position on an issue, wisdom is understanding the implications of the position.
  12. Knowledge is about words, wisdom is about words backed up by actions.
Posted on: October 23, 2023 12:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

I Just Wanna Be a PM!

The Scenario: 

Adam, an individual contributor, just finished project-managing another successful project at his company, Conset.

After the project ship party, Adam’s manager asked him to take on a people-leadership role.

Adam was very reluctant to take on a people-leadership role. He just wanted to keep delivering great projects as an individual contributor and didn’t feel comfortable taking on the cultivation of followers.

Adam finally relented, feeling the pressure to fit into the mold of “You must aspire to be a people-leader.”

Six months into the job, Adam was the most unhappy he’d ever been at Conset. He couldn’t spend time delivering great projects like he loved. He was mired down in management meetings, addressing people issues, and trying to craft the vision for his organization.

Adam’s followers grew increasingly disgruntled with Adam’s leadership style and began leaving for other jobs inside and outside of Conset.

Nine months after taking the job, Adam had had enough and left Conset; taking a project manager job at a competitor.

The Message:

Before we get any deeper into this, I want to make something painfully clear: There are leaders I would never ask to project manage a mission-critical initiative, and there are project managers I would never expect to be inspirational people leaders.

There are plenty of project managers who also aspire to be great people leaders. They can paint an inspiring vision and cultivate a high-performing organization to achieve results. They actively understand the goals of their organization’s followers while equipping them to achieve those goals. They excel as inspiring people leaders.

At the same time, I’ve worked with some outstanding project managers who can paint a very straight line between the current and future state, and effectively drive team execution to successful completion. They aren’t particularly charismatic or good at imagining a tomorrow, and they aren’t especially good people cultivators. They are simply good solid project managers.

And that’s completely OK.

All too often, leaders expect that others, particularly project managers, should aspire to be inspirational people leaders. It’s as if being “just a project manager” is somehow less important or doesn’t utilize them to their full potential. Putting (or even worse, shaming) a project manager who just wants to manage projects in an inspirational people leadership role is not only potentially damaging to delivering results, it also carries the potential to adversely impact careers. Not every inspirational people leader wants to be a project manager, and not every project manager wants to be an inspirational people leader.

Project managers and leaders share many of the same attributes, such as great communication skills, removing roadblocks, providing clarity, accepting accountability, sharing praise, and problem-solving. At the same time, I see three key areas where leaders and project managers have different but complementary skillsets, as follows:

  1. Great leaders must define vision; great PMs must execute vision – Great leaders are able to articulate what could be, thinking outside of the box and imagining a new and innovative way to solve a problem. Great project managers need to be able to understand the vision, define a clear path from current state to future vision, identify and alleviate roadblocks, and deliver the vision.
  2. Great leaders must cultivate people; great PMs must optimize for results – Great leaders are able to cultivate and grow people to their greatest potential. Great project managers need to ensure the right people are doing the right things to get the right result and adjust when team staffing issues occur.
  3. Great leaders must charismatically inspire; great PMs must intentionally execute within cost, schedule and scope – In painting the vision, great leaders know how to invoke passion and excitement to align followers and motivate them to perform. Great project managers need to complement a leader’s ability to inspire with believability through effective delivery within cost, schedule, and scope constraints.

The Consequences:  

Assigning an unequipped or unwilling project manager to a people leadership role can result in the following:

  • Visionless organization – Putting a project manager who doesn’t possess a visionary skillset could result in an organization that doesn’t keep pace with the future and doesn’t articulate a compelling “what could be.”
  • Unhappy followers – It’s only a matter of time for followers who aren’t inspired, challenged, and cultivated to become unhappy with their leader.
  • Apprehensive project manager – Having a project manager fail in a leadership role due to the project manager being neither equipped nor having the desire to lead can shake his or her confidence and impact future delivery.

The Next Steps: 

Are you a project manager who is contemplating or being asked to take on an inspirational people leadership role? Consider the following next steps:

  1. Honestly assess your visionary, people-cultivation, and charismatic inspiration skills and document skill gaps.
  2. Ask a trusted advisor to review your assessment and skill gaps.
  3. Decide if any of the skill gaps are areas where you can and want to grow.
  4. If you decide to proceed with taking on a leadership role, put a plan in place to address the skill gaps.
  5. Monitor your skill-gap plan and use your trusted advisor to help you with any needed course corrections.

Effective project managers are highly sought after and can be worth their weight in gold in driving on-time, on-budget, and within-scope delivery. If you just wanna be a PM like Adam, then don’t fall victim to thinking “you need to be a people leader.” You don’t. Just keep delivering great projects.

Posted on: September 26, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)

The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership

The Scenario: 

Vera and Tam have just left their manager Walt’s office.

“Did you get what Walt wants us to do?” Vera asked.

“Nope, as usual. We must have asked him five times to explain what he wanted and why it was important. Just got word salad. Again.”

“And were we supposed to do something? He just kept saying ‘the team’. That could be any of several of us. Are we supposed to communicate it out to everyone else?”

Tam smirked. “Then he launches into a diatribe of how we’re supposed to do our jobs. And I’ve got no idea not only of what he wants but when he wants it by, or even how to prioritize it with the 30 other things on my to-do list.”

Vera nodded her head. “You know how it is, he blathers for a while then forgets he even asked for something. Just stay low and do nothing, this too shall pass.”

“Agreed,” Tam said as he pushed the elevator button. “Thai for lunch?”

“Yup, then it’s back to getting real work done,” Vera said as the elevator doors opened.

The Message:

You may have been in Vera or Tam’s situation; a leader who isn’t clear on what he or she expects followers to do, why it’s important, appropriate advice on how to execute, when it needs to be done, or who is expected to do it. Worse still, perhaps you recognize some of yourself in Walt; a leader who gives fuzzy direction and leaves his followers wondering what in the heck he is talking about.

Through the years I’ve made many mistakes with how I lead others; either being overly prescriptive and turning followers into errand runners or being so vague that followers couldn’t pin me down on what was needed. I’ve learned that good leadership means ensuring clarity on why, what, how, who, and when and ensuring you as the leader don’t over- or under-function in how you lead followers. To that end, I have developed a simple rule I call The Straight A’s of Intentional Leadership, as follows:

Articulate the Why
Align on the What
Advise on the How
Hold Accountable the Who
Agree on the When

Following the straight A rule helps ensure leaders and followers understand why something is important to do, what needs to be done, what constraints need to be considered during execution, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done. Embracing the straight A rule won’t guarantee great leadership skills, but it sure as shootin’ will help the leader be a better leader and scale up into an intentional leader of leaders.

Interested? Read on for a more thorough explanation of each:

  1. Articulate the Why – Followers want to know that they are spending time on something important. Being clear and precise as to why something needs to be done, the positive impacts of doing it, and the consequences of not doing it are crucial to getting buy-in. Skipping this step or assuming the why is clear to followers will make this a tougher slog for both you and the followers, particularly if tight deadlines accompany the ask.
  2. Align on the What – Clear understanding on what the “done” needs to look like is crucial for followers to internalize what the deliverable expectations are. It’s important to be as quantitative as possible and it’s certainly within bounds to share examples if applicable. It’s important to be collaborative and not dictatorial; if followers have an opportunity to influence the deliverable, then they are more likely to own it.
  3. Advise on the How – Many leaders are in their position because they have done the job their followers are now doing. Coupled with that experience comes a desire to want followers to do things the way the leader has done it or thinks it should be done. Leaders need to throttle how directive they are with the how considering the following:
    1. More experienced followers will generally need less direction; less experienced followers will most likely need more direction.
    2. If there are policy, regulatory, or legal constraints dictating why something has to be done a certain way, then the leader needs to ensure the follower understands the constraints and adheres to them.
    3. When providing advice to a follower on the how, ensure that it’s clear you are giving advice and that the follower has the option to accept the advice on the how, providing the what and when needs are met.
  4. Hold Accountable the Who – Having singularly-named persons accountable for delivery is paramount to ensuring things get done. Putting multiple names or “the team” as the person accountable makes it more likely that things won’t get done because it’s too easy to assume someone else is working on them. If you do need to put multiple names on a deliverable, I like to bold the person primarily accountable for delivery so even if there are multiple people named to work on something, one person is accountable for the resulting deliverable.
  5. Agree on the When – Ideally, the accountable followers will set a due date for the deliverable. Many times, though, a date is coming either from above or from a customer. When that happens, the leader should provide guidance to followers:
    1. Ensure clarity on the due date expectation and the practical consequences of not hitting the due date.
    2. Provide guidance on priority relative to other priorities the followers are working to. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority :-p.
    3. Give the followers an opportunity to assess the work involved and come back to you with what they need to meet the due date.
    4. If the due date is truly impossible to achieve, instruct followers to provide what, if anything, can be done by the due date and an alternate plan to meet the what.

The Consequences:  Ignoring the 5 A’s when leading followers can mean the following:

Missed or delayed dates – Misaligned expectations on the five A’s can lead to deliverables that are late, not done at all, or need rework to meet the need.

Follower frustration – Followers will get frustrated with a leader who doesn’t provide clarity on the five A’s. While it’s incumbent on the follower to ask questions if unclear, the leaders should be proactive in providing clarity in the first place.

Poor leader work/life balance – Deliverables missed by followers could spell late nights for the leader to make up for any expectation shortfall.

The Next Steps: 

Next time you have a deliverable needing to be done by followers:

  1. Write out an articulated why statement, including the consequences if not done.
  2. Have a picture in your mind (or better yet, a sample) of what the deliverable needs to look like.
  3. Provide any guidance on how the deliverable needs to be produced, putting particular focus on legal, regulatory, or policy factors affecting delivery.
  4. Be clear on who should own the deliverable.
  5. Communicate any date expectations and give the accountable owner an opportunity to understand the work and what can be achieved by the due date.

Want to dig deeper? See more in my book Straight A's - Five Proven Steps to Empower your Team available on Amazon. 

Posted on: September 19, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)

Ten Ways to Grow your Followers into Leaders

The Scenario: 

Frank and his new boss Phil are discussing an upcoming major project that Ann, the CEO, has tagged Phil to own.

“Frank, we need to talk about Apollo. Ann is very focused on its delivery and has specifically asked me to be the project sponsor.

“OK,” Frank said confidently, expecting Phil to empower him to lead Apollo.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m going to ask Beth to lead Apollo.”

Frank’s heart sank. “Beth?”

“That’s right,” Phil said. “I know that you’ve been wanting to take on something big like this, but I just don’t think you’re ready for Apollo.”

“What do you mean?” Frank asked.

Phil leaned forward. “Frank, I’ve got no doubt that you’d burn the midnight oil to deliver Apollo. The truth is that I just don’t think your team is ready for it.”

“My team? How so?”

“Apollo is huge and it’s going to require a strong team to get it done. Beth has done an outstanding job of investing in her team and growing them to be able to take on challenges like Apollo.”

Frank tried to appeal. “But you know I’d put everything I’ve got into delivering Apollo.”

“Frank, that’s exactly the point. I believe you’d put your all into it. It’s not about just you, it’s about the team you’ve been entrusted to grow. They’re Just not ready for Apollo. There will be other big projects in the future; let’s work to help you get your team ready for them.”

The Message:

Perhaps you know a Frank (or maybe are one yourself); a leader who will work himself to the bone to get something done but fails to grow and leverage a team of followers to help deliver results. Common excuses like, “I’m the only one who can do it,” “My team doesn’t have the experience,” or “It’s quicker if I just do it myself,” may be true in the moment, but they do nothing to build and leverage the skills that the leader’s team can bring to the table. This is a primal failure of what I call followership stewardship; the cultivation of followers to help them grow into leaders so you as a leader can scale into a leader of leaders. It’s every leader’s responsibility to acknowledge that a core purpose of being a leader is delivering results and growing followers. A leader who isn’t intentional about both delivering results and growing followers won’t scale into a leader of leaders. At some point the leader will not be able to deliver on bigger problems because he lacks the leverage of well-equipped followers to deploy. Sadly, this usually becomes evident when a leader fails to solve a problem that is too big for him or her to solve.

Do you need to work on being a better followership steward to deliver results and grow followers? Here are ten nuggets to consider:

  1. Watch the leader/follower skill gaps – Be mindful of having too large of a skill gap between you and your direct followers. Big gaps, even if the leader has high-potential followers, can cause the leader to take on more work by having to bridge the skill gap between the leader and follower.
  2. Have at least one follower who can do your job at a moment’s notice – Secure leaders don’t view followers as a threat. Quite the contrary; secure leaders cultivate followers who can fill the leader’s shoes with minimal business disruption. Have at least one follower who can fill your shoes in the event you are unexpectedly out of pocket.
  3. Find strengths that complement your weaknesses – Leaders who understand their own weaknesses need to seek out followers with strengths in the leaders’ weak areas. The leader not only supplements the team with strengths he or she doesn’t possess, but also provides an opportunity for both the leader and follower to learn from each other.
  4. Be disability inclusive – 26% of the US population has a documented disability. Only one in four working-age disabled people have jobs. Employee turnover is 48% less for those with a disability. Leaders need to actively look to the disability community for talent.
  5. Actively encourage being challenged – Leaders need to promote an environment where followers feel safe to challenge the leader’s thinking. Leaders don’t have a corner on the wisdom market and shouldn’t behave as if they do. Set and expect a respectful tone.  
  6. Call out “yes people” – Followers who simply agree with everything the leader says not only can be labeled as “sucking up to the boss” but also don’t get an opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking. Let followers know that you don’t want to build a team of brown-nosers; just make sure you follow up the words with actions and encourage being challenged (see point 5).
  7. Always have a succession slate – Leaders need to be intentional about having a candidate list of people who can take the leader’s job. Once you have the list, make sure you have a plan to cultivate your succession candidates to minimize disruption in the event you move on.
  8. Don’t make your job look so ugly no one would want it – Leaders who appear to work day and night, never take a peaceful vacation, or can’t enjoy their kid’s soccer game without being interrupted harm themselves in two ways. First, they become prime candidates for burnout. Second, they make their job look incredibly unattractive. Why would a follower who tries to keep balance want to be promoted into the leader’s 24/7 job?
  9. Promote “leverage a skill to learn a skill” – Leaders need to set a tone for followers to both bring a skill into an assignment and learn a skill from an assignment. Assignments that don’t have growth opportunities for followers are lost learning opportunities. Be deliberate about ensuring followers not only bring experience to a situation, but also gain experience from it.
  10. In-the-moment coaching while delivering – Leaders who combine the delivery of results along with in-the-moment coaching to followers provide far more value to the follower’s growth than any amount of sitting in a classroom. Capitalize on learning opportunities by providing timely and candid in-the-moment coaching.

The Consequences:  Not being an intentional followership steward can lead to the following:

  • Your followers won’t grow – When the leader doesn’t walk the talk on growing followers then – guess what – followers don’t grow. Imagine that.
  • You won’t grow – Stagnate followers mean stagnate leaders. Your growth comes in large part through the growth of your followers.
  • You won’t scale – When your growth is limited then your ability to take on larger and more complex areas of responsibility also becomes limited.

The Next Steps: 

  • Review the 10 tips to be a followership steward.
  • Decide which ones you need to improve.
  • For any tips you’ve identified as needing work, put an action plan together to address those followership steward areas.
  • Use a trusted advisor who can hold you accountable to be a better followership steward.
Posted on: August 18, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

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)

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I... took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

- Robert Frost