Today we are doing an interview with Dana Brownlee, the author of "The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches". She has worked as a business strategy consultant for many years and in 2003 she founded Professionalism Matters, a corporate training company based in Atlanta. Dana is also an energetic and innovative speaker who has participated in speaking events in six countries.
Today we will be talking about her professional development, how she started working as a project manager and then as a corporate trainer, what inspired her to write a book about managing the managers and in the end ask her what kind of advice she would give to all project managers that would like to improve their own managing skills and to those that wish to share their expertise but have not yet made their first steps toward achieving that goal.
PMTips: Hi Dana. Thank you for doing this interview. We are thrilled to have you here with us today.
Dana Brownlee: Well, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
PMTips: I would really like to open up our conversation by asking you to tell us more about yourself and your professional development. How did you decide to work in this field?
Dana Brownlee: I feel like I'm a bit of a dinosaur. I've been in the project management space for quite a long time. When I got my PMP - I don't remember exactly what year, I think it was the late 90s - I vividly remember, though, printing off the application and filling it out by hand. That probably tells you something there - it's been quite a while. In terms of how I came into the field, I think that some of it was intentional, some of it not. Like [for] many people, it was a natural gravitational fit. I think just with my natural DNA, my natural programming, I'm just the type of person, I dot my i's, I cross my t's, I'm very responsive. I like structure, I like to put almost everything into some sort of two-by-two. My husband says I also have a gift for telling other people what to do, so maybe a lot of it, I think, is just how I was wired. So, what happened for me was, I worked for a company that was very supportive of continuing education, and they paid for me to get my PMP. And then, I think, what happened was kind of this reverse effect. Because I had the PMP, and it was fairly early on, in terms of having a PMP, I think, that people started seeking me out. I started getting opportunities, I started getting requests to teach classes or lead projects, because I was one of the few people at the time who did have that designation. So, that's a little bit of how I got into the project management space.
PMTips: Can you tell me something about your experiences or challenges that you faced in your career, the experiences that shaped you as a project manager?
Dana Brownlee: Sure. Well, I'm sure, many project managers have noticed, at times you feel like you're herding cats, there's scope creep issues, there are conflicts on the team. I dealt with all of those. One challenge in particular dealt with trying to satisfy a variety of different stakeholders, and in particular - and this is one of the reasons why I ended up writing the book - senior level people that I was certainly deferring to a large degree, but I was noticing that in some ways they were kind of becoming a roadblock. Not necessarily because they were doing anything intentionally nefarious, but they just wouldn't be around, or they would throw in extra requirements at the last minute, or they would throw in changes and not necessarily respect the change management process, or they would overpromise on our behalf. Things like that became some of the tricky obstacles we had to navigate. Another one that I would definitely say was a challenge for me personally was the fact that I tended to be a project manager in very technical environments or technology companies and I didn't have a development background, a technology background per se. I would be in a position where I was maybe managing fairly technical projects without the technical background. That became somewhat tricky for me, trying to figure out how to navigate that, you know, where was my comfort space, how technical did it need to be for me to say I'm not a good fit for this. Or if I did feel like I'm in my own meeting but I don't understand the conversation that's happening right now, how do I stave that without losing face, losing credibility in that moment. I was also really young at the time. I think that coupling all those together, that became a bit of a challenge as well.
PMTips: How did you then decide to become a corporate trainer and actively share your experience and knowledge with others?
Dana Brownlee: I worked in a lot of large corporations, so I was going to a lot of corporate training and I just really liked it, it appealed to me. I liked the oratory, I liked the exchange with people, I've always loved sharing my expertise, sharing tips and techniques. I've always been wired in a way that I'm very practical, so it was something that was a natural gravitational pull, if you will. And so, at one point I mentally decided... and also I think there was a part where I was a business strategy consultant for a number of years. As a business strategy consultant with a large IT company I was essentially facilitating a lot of strategy sessions, facilitating workshops. I was performing that same sort of function. When some things changed with my company, I felt like I didn't want to go in that direction, so I just decided to start my own company. That was way back in 2003. Because I just really felt like it was going to be a good fit. It was a nice marrying of my expertise, my more analytical skills with my love of oratory and speaking. So, that's how I got into it.
PMTips: What inspired you to write about managing the managers? What made you realize that there is a necessity for managing up and that it is a skill that is not innate but can be acquired?
Dana Brownlee: What happened was - I was going around to lots of project management events, major conferences on a variety of topics, and I was talking on a variety of topics. I might have been talking about communication skills, leading effective meetings, project management team building. But one thing I noticed, even though I was talking about different topics, when I would get to the Q&A one of the first questions I would always get was some version of "But how do I apply this if my manager's the problem?" or "How do I use this technique if my boss is the one who's in the room/he's the one who's dominating the session/she's the one who's submitting all these changes and not respecting the change management process?" and so it just became really interesting to me that that was such a prevalent question and even in a variety of different countries, sometimes I was in other countries and they were still asking me the same questions. So, in 2010 I actually wrote a white paper that later was posted on PMI or ProjectManagement.com, called "The project manager's guide to dealing with a difficult sponsor". And then as the years progressed I started to kind of genericize that information somewhat to not just focus on the project management community, but really genericize it for pretty much all professionals who work with seniority, because we all know that hierarchy makes a difference. It's one of those items that people tend not to talk about quite a lot, but it has a huge impact on how we work and it has a huge impact on our results. That was one of the major reasons, or kind of a major impetus for me to write the book.
PMTips: How important a skill is to be able to manage up and help your boss be more effective? What kind of value does it give to both employees and managers, but also how does it affect the project's end result?
Dana Brownlee: Well, of course, I think it's significant. I think it's really, really important. And I was really pleased that when I initiated a survey - I did some research before I wrote the book, because I didn't just want to limit the findings to my experiences, although I'm older than dirt, haha, so I had many, but I wanted to really incorporate feedback from as wide an array of professionals as I could - and so I was really, really pleased that I got over 1100 responses to my Managing difficult bosses survey. One of the questions that I asked was "How often have you experienced these difficult bosses/difficult senior leaders?" and it was proven that that was certainly something that was significant. Over 85% of people told me that that was something they had experienced sometimes or often. Furthermore I asked the question "Do you agree that managing up is an important skill set for success in most organizations?" and there over 84% of the respondents said that they strongly agree or they agree, and really the highest category was strongly agree, over 44% said that they strongly agreed that it was an important skill set. And then to your last part of your question, I really do think it's a win-win. I mean, managing up in many ways it can be defined in lots of different ways - but in some ways, in the context of the question that you just asked it's, to me, about helping your manager be more effective and helping them help you, because we all know that to a certain extent, you know, we're somewhat limited in our success by the effectiveness of our manager, I mean it may not be fair, but that's just the reality. It's really hard sometimes to break out as a superstar when you've got a really weak, inept or just difficult boss, so to a certain extent [this skill] is kind of a win-win, it's helpful to them certainly, but it is also indirectly helpful to you. I definitely feel that it's something that's critical, it's important, -and it's a win-win, it's helpful for not just them but it's helpful to you as well.
PMTips: In your book you give recommendations for managing six different personality types of bosses. Could you tell us more about your research and the process in which you have recognized those particular personality types?
Dana Brownlee: Certainly. When I did the survey, I actually included six personality types, but they weren't the exact same six. There was one that was different between the survey and the book, and the reason why is this: I got a lot of feedback on five of them - actually I got a lot of feedback on all of them saying these were definitely difficult boss types that we've encountered and that we need tips to try to deal with those - but I also got overwhelming feedback that I had left off the micromanager. I made sure in the book to include the micromanager, even though I hadn't included that particular boss type in the survey. So, in the book we look at specific tips for managing the Clueless Chameleon, that's the boss that's saying "Hey, I'm not exactly sure what I'm looking for, but I'll be sure to hold you responsible when I don't get it", the Missing-In-Action boss, the Meddlesome Micromanager, we've got the Wishful Thinker, that's the boss that wants you to boil the ocean and solve world peace while you're at it, by tomorrow preferably, the Tornado, that's kind of the bull in the china shop type boss, the boss that's intimidating other people in the meeting, or just maybe their personality is very overbearing, and then finally the Naked Emperor, which is the boss that thinks all their ideas are great, they come up with all these kooky pie-in-the-sky sorts of ideas, but nobody wants to tell them that they've got a little bit of an ugly baby. Those are the six that we unpack in the book.
PMTips: Which of the manager types that you talk about in your book do you find most intriguing or challenging or which requires the most interesting technique to deal with?
Dana Brownlee: In terms of which one is the most challenging, I probably would say the Naked Emperor, the one that I was just talking about. It really does put you in an awkward position, in project management sometimes we say no one wants to tell the boss they've got an ugly baby, where they've got this great idea that maybe is not so great an idea, or you find yourself executing this project that you just fundamentally don't agree with, you find yourself halfway through scratching your head saying"Why are we even doing this in the first place, this makes no sense?" And I think that so many of us have found ourselves in that situation, but who wants to be the one to call up the VP to say they need to kill the project, that it was a crazy idea to begin with, I mean nobody wants to be in that position. So, I would say the Naked Emperor is really difficult, and also, practically speaking, I would say the MIA boss. We do have a hierarchy for a reason and there are reporting relationships. You can't make your boss be available, if they are only in the office one day a week or if they're traveling all the time, they're not really reachable - that's a difficult situation to be in because you can't necessarily dictate or control that situation. We do give lots of tips for managing each one of these personalities, so there is hope, there are certainly things that you can do. But I would say, though, those are the particular ones I found.
PMTips: Managers and employees do not see the same picture because they are looking at it from a different angle due to their different standing points. I believe you agree with me on this. Can you give your own view on these differences? What can exacerbate them and what can minimize them?
Dana Brownlee: That's a great question, because, you know, folded into that question is such a fundamental principle that a lot of times there's no real truth, there's my view and maybe your view, and we're just looking at it from different perspectives. One of the images that I have in the book is that cartoon tree swing, that I'm sure a lot of people have seen, where there's like eight different views of what a tree swing looks like and they look dramatically different. Sometimes depending on your point of view, you might see something that's completely different. That's one of the primary reasons why, in the book for example, I talk about staying away from labels and really getting specific in terms of defining what you're talking about - and I talk about this in speaking events sometimes, too, when I use the example of something like a business plan. It sounds like a great label, but I promise you that if I'm in a room of thirty people, I could get thirty different interpretations of what we mean by a business plan, in terms of the scope of it, the level of detail, what's included, what's not included, the major focus, even what's the application that's used to produce the deliverable, is it a PowerPoint document, is it Excel, is it Word, how long is it. That's certainly something that you want to acknowledge right from the beginning, that everyone has a different perspective, so it's not necessarily good or bad, but it's getting really, really clear when we say a communications plan, when we say a requirements document, when we say a change management process, what we're really talking about, and so I tend to encourage groups to get really, really specific, to get away from the jargon, get away from the labels and get really specific. So, when we're talking about that business plan, give me an example of what you're talking about, show me a blank one, or show me one that you've done in another project. Because that gives us something tangible that me and the other person can then mark up, "Oh, now I see what you're talking about", "I want this and this, I don't want that", or "Over here I thought we were going to go more in this direction". So getting tangible and documenting things is absolutely critical. Another thing that I think is important there is confirming priorities really, really early on in a project. So, when you talk about how we have different perspectives, it's not just that we all have different priorities as well, and so one of the recommendation I make is that it's not as helpful to say everything's important or everything's high priority, but kind of push back on that a little bit and say "OK, if you had to prioritize, if you had to rank or even if you're just looking at the triple constraints, good, fast and cheap, you know, rank those for me, which one is the most important?" Because typically you're not going to get all three at the same time. There's going to be some level of prioritization, so really get clear on where that person's priorities are, because that also gives you more enlightenment in terms of what their perspective is or how they're viewing this.
PMTips: What kind of advice would you give project managers that would like to approach and analyze their managing skills and correct or improve them?
Dana Brownlee: Well, I would definitely say - you know, one of the questions that I get sometimes is from leaders or executives who have someone on their team who isn't performing well and they're asking me for advice, basically on "Should I invest in trying to develop them or maybe should I find them a new home?" And what I usually say is, you know, there are usually three things, three elements that anyone needs to correct their deficiency - awareness, ability and motivation. We have to pull back from the reflexive response to just send people to training. Training can be great if the problem is ability, but training isn't necessarily going to help if it's a motivation challenge or if they don't really have awareness of the deficiency, they'll say "Why am I going to training, I don't need training". I would say the first step is trying to create some level of awareness. Maybe conducting a 360 feedback sort of analysis, so that you're getting some feedback from other people, where am I strong, where am I weak, what are some of the things that maybe I need to work on. You're trying to create some tangible awareness in terms of where are the areas where we might need to work. What I tend to find is people tend to focus on where they're really strong and they tend to maybe, kind of, ignore where they're really weak. Ive s'een people in organizations who are unfortunate that sometimes culturally, in the organizational culture, managers don't give honest feedback to employees or to direct reports. That really robs them of the opportunity to figure out where they need to improve or what they need to work on. I would say the first step is really trying to create that self-awareness that says OK, this is something that I need to work on. Maybe it's your leadership style - I have a lot of videos on YouTube, a lot of instructional videos. In one of them I kind of track my own journey in terms of acknowledging some of my leadership deficiencies and actively working on balancing my leadership style. I recognized that I was very much a task person, but I really needed to work on the relationship side. And I talk about some specific things that I did to really try to enhance that. So, I would say first step - try to create that awareness. Once you've got the awareness of the deficiency areas, certainly work on ability, whether it's training or getting mentoring, and then hopefully motivation isn't an issue, but if it is you might want to address that as well.
PMTips: You are a recognized speaker with a profound experience in talking in front of large and small groups, providing them with tips and techniques they could find useful almost immediately. With that said, what would your advice be to project management professionals that would like to step up and share their expertise with others but do not know how to begin?
Dana Brownlee: Well I'd say that in today's day and age it's easier than ever because there's so many opportunities, there're webinars, there're podcasts, there're articles that you can write, everyone online is looking for content, so there're articles that can be written, you can submit to speak at conferences. If you're intimidated by the big, huge conferences - start small. I mean there are lots of smaller project management organization chapters who are always looking for speakers, always looking for people to serve on committees. I would say there's lots of opportunities out there. Start small, start in an area where you feel you like you really do have some deep expertise and you have some interesting stories that you can share, you've got some great anecdotes to share, some lessons learned, best practices. So I would say start really small, dip your toe in the water, start to write some articles, maybe even start your own YouTube channel, post things online, post things on LinkedIn - I love LinkedIn - write some articles there, but there's so many outlets, venues for you to engage with others, engage with the project management community, but the key is just for you to get out there and share what you know.
PMTips: Thank you Dana, for your time.
Dana Brownlee: No, thank you, I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me.