Episode 18 — Thor, The Norse God of Project Management

Episode #18
Original Air Date: 09.20.2016

35 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Joel "Thor" Neeb

Want to learn more about aligning your team for success, finding the critical instrument, setting the tone and more? Listen to hear Thor, the president of Afterburner, discuss his experience in leading a team of more than 70 elite military professionals.

Thor was an F-15 pilot. He escorted the U.S. President through the sky. He flew missions to ensure the safety of our country after the attacks of 9/11. He was a technical leader of 300 of the most senior combat pilots in the Air Force. He’s a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. He’s now the president of Afterburner, leading a team of more than 70 elite military professionals, and with them has trained almost two million business professionals and fostered elite teams for Fortune 100 companies, companies in the tech industry, finance, medical devices, and several NFL teams.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"Well, if you don’t know what your ultimate end goal or your intended effect is, then you probably don’t want to trim down that dashboard right now; right? So if I don’t have the end in mind, then maybe I need 350 instruments. I don’t know yet. So what we have to do first is build out that future. "

- Joel "Thor" Neeb

"Far and away the aha moment when we talk with teams is just the power of the debrief because we talk to the team members about how our execution rhythm as fighter pilots is to first plan."

- Joel "Thor" Neeb

" Like I said earlier, it comes down to teams and mission. And you can motivate your teams and teach them why they’re on an inspiring mission and go back to that “why” question and say, “This is what we’re attempting to build as a group, as a team. And we can do this together. This is the future that we’re creating.” Because that allows them to have some more excitement about what they’re doing day to day."

- Joel "Thor" Neeb

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NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Every two weeks we get together to discuss the things that matter to you as a professional project manager.  We talk about project management certification and doing the job of a project manager, and we hear from some of the leaders in the industry.  I’m your host Nick Walker, and with me are our in-house experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  And by the way, on the day we’re recording this, Andy, you’re getting ready to deliver the keynote address at PMI Honolulu.

ANDY CROWE:  I am heading out to Honolulu to be at that chapter.  I’ve been there before, and I’m really excited.  I’m talking about the Talent Triangle, which is getting a lot of buzz within PMI:  the technical, the leadership, and the strategy triangle and how that applies to our own career.

NICK WALKER:  And, by the way, our guest today is delivering the opening keynote in a few days at the Project Management Institute’s Global Congress for North America in San Diego.  And this is a guy who probably has enough fascinating stories that we could probably sit here for hours and never exhaust them all.  It’s amazing how you find these guys.  I’m really looking forward to this today.  Our guest is Joel Neeb.  His friends call him Thor.  Are we friends enough to call you Thor?

JOEL NEEB:  I definitely think so, yeah, absolutely.

NICK WALKER:  Okay.  Okay.  Well, Thor, welcome to Manage This.  We are fortunate to have you here with us.

JOEL NEEB:  Thanks, Nick.  It’s a real pleasure to be here.

NICK WALKER:  Now, before we begin, let me give just a quick rundown of your background for our listeners.  Thor was an F-15 pilot.  He escorted the U.S. President through the sky.  He flew missions to ensure the safety of our country after the attacks of 9/11.  He was a technical leader of 300 of the most senior combat pilots in the Air Force.  He’s a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.  He’s now the president of Afterburner, leading a team of more than 70 elite military professionals, and with them has trained almost two million business professionals and fostered elite teams for Fortune 100 companies, companies in the tech industry, finance, medical devices, and several NFL teams.  We could keep going.  But we want to stop there and give you time to talk to us.  Thor, first of all, why Thor?  I’ve got to know that.

JOEL NEEB:  So, you know what, for every call sign there’s two versions of the story.  The version one is safe for public consumption, and we could tell that right now, which is Thor and the Thor’s Hammer.  I was an instructor, and so I was known as “The Hammer” as the instructor.  And then there also is a two-beverage minimum version of the story which is a little less flattering for me and probably pretty embarrassing and sounds a lot less cool than the first version of the story.  But it’s a lot of fun.

NICK WALKER:  Does it have anything to do with your chiseled Greek god looks?

JOEL NEEB:  It definitely does not, at that point.  There’s an embarrassing story associated with it, like every good call sign should have.

NICK WALKER:  Okay, okay.  Well, we’ll just have to go into that one after the mics are off.

JOEL NEEB:  There you go.

NICK WALKER:  Okay.  Well, first of all, tell us the concept of Afterburner.  How do fighter pilots speak into the world of project management?

JOEL NEEB:  Well, you know, in my world, Nick, I was flying Mach 2.  I had 350 instruments in front of me.  I was going in and out of the clouds.  I had four, sometimes seven wingmen flying with me at any given point in time.  And I have to manage this complex universe and figure out, as I’m going inside and in and out of the clouds, how to keep these wingmen from running into each other, how to keep them from running into the mountain up ahead, and then also how to achieve at our mission.  And so we had to be able to distill this incredibly complex universe down into just a few key components that we can manipulate at any given point in time, right, the critical things within my cockpit, because I can’t look at 350 instruments and dials.  I can’t watch all seven wingmen at one time.  What are the two or three things that we should be focusing on paying attention to, to stay safe and to stay successful?

And so that’s the same type of business concepts we approach to organizations.  We help them as they navigate, how do I wade through this complex universe as the business cycle shifted from seven to three years, and I’ve got to go faster than I ever have in the past, and I have less time to enjoy the profits from my current product before I need to find the next one.  And so my project needs to take place faster than it did last year.  And this is an accelerated universe.  How do we manage all of that and figure out what key components are to manipulate?

ANDY CROWE:  So, Thor, I want to wade in on this a little bit.  And by the way, I’ve soloed in a Cessna 172.

JOEL NEEB:  Well done.

ANDY CROWE:  Does that put me close to your level?

NICK WALKER:  Oh, wow.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah; right?

NICK WALKER:  We’ll get you a call sign.

BILL YATES:  You guys, you’re peers, absolutely.

ANDY CROWE:  I’ll skip the call sign, but thanks.  So I sat in a meeting very recently, and I’m going to strip out some of the details here.  But I sat in a meeting very recently with a very complicated dashboard in front of me.  It was not in this organization.  It was in a different organization, a very complicated dashboard, a lot of components and a lot of eye candy.  And when you’re talking about 350 dials and instruments, this is sort of resonating with me.  So people were overwhelmed with this dashboard.


ANDY CROWE:  But they were also enamored by it.


ANDY CROWE:  They were oohing and aahing and talking about how great this was.  And in my mind I’m thinking, okay, how is this actionable at all?  So, okay.  You walk into an organization, and they have a complicated dashboard, a complicated set of metrics.  How do you trim that down?  How do you know what to focus on?  How do you decide?

JOEL NEEB:  Well, if you don’t know what your ultimate end goal or your intended effect is, then you probably don’t want to trim down that dashboard right now; right?  So if I don’t have the end in mind, then maybe I need 350 instruments.  I don’t know yet.  So what we have to do first is build out that future.  Let’s all land on what does success look like in two to three years?  And I know you’re going to push back and say, well, you know, the market’s changing so fast.  How is that question even relevant?  Not really.  You’ll still have a solid North Star.  If we can determine where you’re going in two to three years, I’m telling you, over the next year or two, things will change, and your path will change to get there.  But your ultimate destination won’t.

Once we know that destination, we call it the “high-definition destination” in our world, then we can retrace our steps and figure out what are the critical tactical steps to take right now.  And then it becomes a lot easier to say, well, I don’t need these 200 instruments over here, then.  If all I’m doing is this to pursue this type of destination, then I probably don’t need to look over at this side of the cockpit.

ANDY CROWE:  Or I don’t need to look every week or every month, certainly.

JOEL NEEB:  Yup, yeah.  There’s nothing wrong with having that scorecard that allows you to have access to it.  It’s just knowing which ones are the most relevant.

ANDY CROWE:  And you know the interesting thing here is you start to connect back to what are those dials and levers that are going to move those things, that are going to govern and change.

JOEL NEEB:  Exactly.

ANDY CROWE:  So it’s not just an act of monitoring.  It’s an act of figuring out, okay, what do I do to move the needle?

NICK WALKER:  I see the parallels between the F-15 piloting and project management.  We’re talking about focus.  We’re talking about knowing what the mission is, really.

JOEL NEEB:  Knowing what the mission is, and then what are the leading indicators, what are the instruments that are leading indicators that’ll help me affect those lagging indicators for success down the road.

NICK WALKER:  So let’s talk a little bit more about focus.  How can project managers get better at locking in on the most important tasks?

JOEL NEEB:  So going back to the concept of beginning with the end in mind, first of all, let’s determine what that mission objective is going to be.  What is the line in the sand that defines success?  And we don’t need to do this, once we determine what the two-year North Star looks like, we can back that into a two-month mission objective.  And this is where people generally push back and say, well, timeout, you know, I don’t have a flight like you do.  I don’t take off and land, and I get to have a nice clear start and finish to my mission.  And I say, sure, I’ll give you that.  But I bet you have an idea of what success would look like on September 30th.  I bet you have some semblance in your mind of where you’d like to be.  Why not align your team on that right now so that you can work backwards into the instruments you should be looking at.

ANDY CROWE:  Outstanding.

BILL YATES: I’ve got a question along those lines.  I know, not only did you fly, but you also were an instructor.  So you had to step back into the experience that you had when you were overwhelmed with too much information.

JOEL NEEB:  Right.

BILL YATES:  And think, okay, this is how I was trained and how I learned how to focus on the big, you know, the top two, top three.  And then, thinking about our project managers, they feel that they’re overwhelmed with information.  So think about what was some of the advice that you gave to those young pilots?  And what would you say to some PMs when they’re trying to look at all 350 dials and figure out which one is most important to the sponsor, to the manager, to my team.

JOEL NEEB:  Yeah.  I think the reason that we keep the 350 dials in front of us is because we lack confidence to get our eyes off of a few of them.  And here’s what I mean by that.  When I first started flying, I felt like I had to frantically look around the cockpit and make sure I had my eyes on everything because heaven forbid I miss the thing that is important to me, giving me information about why I’m either going to crash or fail my ride or, you know, something else would happen.

And so as you gain confidence, you learn, well, no, there are specific instruments in this phase of flight.  I just went into a cloud.  It’s not as important anymore for me to look at my landing gear handle.  I should really look at my attitude indicator to make sure I’m still flying straight and level, and I didn’t just go upside down by accident inside of this cloud.  And so you phase it by that.  I think project managers run into the challenge of having to determine which instrument to focus their team on because what if they get it wrong?  This is that big fear that, what if I’m not looking at the critical instrument right now?  Well, spoiler alert, you will get it wrong once in a while.  But the whole point is that you’re iterating upon this and creating a cross-check for a team that does focus on the critical levers.

BILL YATES:  So just following up on that, so what you’re proposing, too, is for the PM, they’re going to think about where they are in the life of the project, who they’re dealing with, what their issues are then.  Am I in a cloud now?  Or am I about to land?  Am I just taking off?  Where am I in this project?  And that helps influence the key indicators that I’m going to follow.

JOEL NEEB:  Exactly.  What phase of flight am I in right now?  What’s my intended effect?  And this is not something the project manager has to show up and say, out of your 350 instruments, these are the five you should pay attention to.  The better dialogue is let’s talk about what instruments you should be paying attention to and facilitate that conversation because the team knows already.  Leverage the wisdom of that crowd and help them to tell you what are the key instruments, thereby talking about they won’t look at, as well.

NICK WALKER:  All right.  Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other factors that are involved in sort of taking what you’ve learned from an F-15 fighter pilot into the project management world.  Integrity.  Let’s talk about that a little bit.

JOEL NEEB:  Sure.  So integrity, you know, everybody talks about integrity.  I mean, nobody says we’re going to lie and steal and cheat.  So integrity is a word that means something and that everybody aspires to.  I think in our universe, and as a fighter pilot, it was not only an aspiration, it was just the minimum threshold, meaning if you didn’t have your integrity, there was nothing else we could really do with that [crosstalk].

BILL YATES:  It’s really – it’s your foundation.

JOEL NEEB:  Exactly.  Yeah.  It’s the guiding principle.  It’s what you build everything off of.  So it’s not the destination, it’s really the starting point for everything that’s going to take place after that.

NICK WALKER:  And sometimes, you know, things can really take a different turn than what you might expect.  That happened to you actually in your own life.  It’s my understanding that in 2010 you were diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and given about a 15 percent chance to live.  But how did that change what you were doing and take you into a different direction?

JOEL NEEB:  Well, you know, that was quite the punch to the gut when I got the cancer diagnosis.  I hadn’t expected it at all.  I was feeling fantastic.  I was actually getting ready to go try out for the Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration team for the Air Force, and just on top of the world when that happened.  And got this diagnosis out of left field.  I was in great shape when it happened.  And I had to very quickly deal with the repercussions and the ramifications and planning for end of life and everything else that they told me to begin thinking about at that stage.  And so, just like I think anybody does when they’re faced with that challenge, you reflect on your life, and you think about the things that you’re proud of and the things that frustrated you.

There was one thing that stood out for me that I was most proud of as I looked back at my life.  And it wasn’t what I thought it would be.  It wasn’t throwing my hat in the air at the Air Force Academy.  It wasn’t some of the accolades that I had gotten.  It was one specific thing.  It was when I was a part of an inspiring mission on an incredible team.  And the one I went to first was my family.  I’ve got an incredible family, wife and kiddos.  And to be a part of that team and the mission that we were on together, and my wife and I and raising our kids, that brought me extreme joy.  The times when I played rugby at the Air Force Academy and had this great team and great mission that we were part of.  Fighter squadrons.  And it just really resonated with me that that’s what I was going take away as the most important thing to me in my life.

And then I’ll tell you the other thing, my other thing that I thought about the most was, from a regret perspective, I didn’t have anything that kept me up at night in terms of things I wished I hadn’t done in my life.  But I did say, “I can’t believe this is it.  I can’t believe I’ve had all the swings at the plate that I’m ever going to have.  I’m 33 years old.”  There was so much else I wanted to do.  And it really helped me to, like everybody does, come up with a bucket list.  And it started out as just hopes and dreams because I was supposed to die.  But I got to actually live that out.  So I got the best blessing anybody could ever have.  And I’ve been marking off that bucket list to include leaving the Air Force, my incredible career I loved, and starting something new because I wanted to have additional chapters to my life.

BILL YATES:  That’s remarkable.  Thank you so much for serving our country, and then thank you for your transparency in what you battled through and the influence that it had, the impact that it had on you as a leader.  And I’ve got to go back, I’ve got to tie two pieces together here.  You know you mentioned integrity as a foundation.

JOEL NEEB:  Mm-hmm.

BILL YATES:  And that’s true every phase of life, wherever we are.  And I see that in you.  And I just had to remark on that, you know, whether it’s in the family, in the community, in the service, playing rugby.  You know, you always have to – integrity is always the foundation.  And I’ve admired that in you and think that’s a phenomenal thing to pass on to leaders, especially as our project managers want to grow in their influence and ability to grow in their career.  You can’t – there’s no stop along the way where you can give up on integrity; right?

JOEL NEEB:  Yes, exactly.

BILL YATES:  It’s not worth sacrificing.

JOEL NEEB:  Not only is it not worth sacrificing, the biggest test is when you are forced to sacrifice, let’s say a business metric, to preserve your integrity.  And I’ve seen that a couple times where we had the opportunity, it was a gray zone, it wasn’t even really misleading a client if we were to give them all the information, and we could have gotten away with it and rationalized it in our heads.  But we made the decision that we may even forfeit this revenue opportunity, forfeit this client, this support.  But it’s so important for us to maintain our integrity that this is the test.  This is the testing point.  Everybody says they want to have integrity.  But right now is when we’re actually being measured and watched, and this is what we’ll be remembered by.  And we, to our credit, we hadn’t lost those, didn’t lose those clients.  But I was willing to do that in order to preserve the integrity.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah.  Thor, that’s – you just hit on something important is that integrity becomes most important in those gray areas.


ANDY CROWE:  Because that’s – it’s the clear black-and-white areas.  People are going to go one way or the other.  And it should be an easy decision.  It’s not always, but it should be.  But it’s those gray areas where you could probably just move right on without stopping here.  And you have to stop.  You have to enter into a difficult conversation.  You have to have a critical conversation with somebody.  So that’s a great point.

JOEL NEEB:  Exactly right.

NICK WALKER:  As you’re giving your seminars, what are some of the aha moments?  You know, you look into the eyes of the people you’re speaking to, and their jaw drops, or their eyes get wide, or they see something in themselves.

JOEL NEEB:  Sure.  Far and away the aha moment when we talk with teams is just the power of the debrief because we talk to the team members about how our execution rhythm as fighter pilots is to first plan.  You create an aligned plan with your team, create collaboration and alignment.  We can’t just talk about hopes and dreams and what we’re going to do.  We’ve got to go out and execute it.  So let’s brief it, take all that great planning, bring it front of mind, serve as the distinction between the planning and execution phase, go out and execute it, make sure we have a way to mitigate pop-up threats while we’re in flight.  When the weather changes, or I have a traffic conflict or a threat from the ground, how am I going to handle that?

And then, finally, and what resonates most with everyone, is this concept where every time we complete a mission, we sit down and we debrief it.  And in a nameless, rankless fashion, where it’s not my ego that we’re aligned to, as the highest ranking person in the room, or the general that showed up for the debrief, or any particular individual.  It’s the mission.  Let’s talk about how we make tomorrow’s mission better in a meaningful, constructive conversation.  And that’s the aha moment for the crowd, and they say, “That’s what we don’t do here, and we need to do better.”

BILL YATES:  I know you’ve done a lot of work recently in Silicon Valley.

JOEL NEEB:  Mm-hmm.

BILL YATES:  And when I’m hearing you talk about the debrief and the iterations, I’m thinking sprint; I’m thinking Agile.


BILL YATES:  Have you had some recent experiences that you want to share with us regarding some of that work in 2015?  Maybe some relationships that are continuing now?

JOEL NEEB:  Yeah, absolutely.  So from a sprint or a scrum perspective, the debriefing mechanics that we bring over that were written in blood, quite literally, from our lessons learned over the past 70 years of manned flight, we are able to power your retrospectives and give you a better approach to debriefing  your team, using the same techniques that we used to create fighter pilots and safe flyers.

ANDY CROWE:  So I want to ask a question here.  I’ve watched a documentary on the Navy Blue Angels, which is roughly analogous in some ways to the Thunderbirds and to that world.  And I was watching how they plan a particular show.  And they will sit in a room, they sit at a conference table, they close their eyes, and the flight leader calls through the different rhythms.  And each of them communicates what they believe would, you know, they would be saying in that time and what they’re doing and all of this.  It’s really solemn and quite fascinating to watch.  So then I did not see the debrief side of that.

But I was watching that.  I’ve always been fascinated.  That stuck in my mind.  I saw it years ago.  But the debrief side of that, how do you push past the reservations people are going to have about communicating honestly?  They’re going to get to the end.  And I really like Bill.  I’m not going to want to throw him under the bus.  So I’m, you know, going to kind of soften this and say, well, you know, such and such could have been better, et cetera.

JOEL NEEB:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  How do you really get a team over that hump and over the reservations of true, honest, blunt communication without a lot of emotion, hopefully.

JOEL NEEB:  Right.  Two things you’ve got to do.  First thing is keep it as objective as possible.  And so it really goes back to the plan.  Everybody loves the debrief, but the little secret is I know they’re going to go back home and try to debrief the first time.  And what they’re going to land on is that lesson learned number one is plan better.  Those, yeah, because those are done in the debrief and say, finally, they muster up the courage to say, “Andy, here’s what I wish you would have done in this last run, last mission.”  And, “Bill, here’s what I was expecting.  I wish you would have done this.  That would have been great.”  And by this point Andy’s interrupting me, saying, “Well, I never agreed to do that.  I don’t know why you thought that was my responsibility.”  We didn’t have that transparency upfront.


JOEL NEEB:  So create an objective that’s a line in the sand and very clear to the group, and then create transparency in the roles, in the accountability for how you’re going to execute that.  So that’s number one.  Number two is that the tone that we’re going to set that allows us to have a conversation where we can talk freely about what we can all do better has to be established by the leader.  It has to be established by the leader.  And it’s not me saying, as the leader, here’s what you can do better, and here’s what I’ve always wanted to tell you.  It’s me saying here’s what I can do better.

I start off every single one of my debriefs the same way.  I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the flight.  I told you that we were going to check in on the radios at 9:02.  We checked in at 9:04.  That was my bad.  I stepped a little bit late, and I’m going to fix that for tomorrow.”  And there’s always something new to debrief that we could have done better.  But that’s the point.  You debrief yourself first to set that tone, that we’re all going to make errors.  There’s no such thing as a perfect mission.  Let’s get that out of the way right now so that we can talk about what those errors are and improve.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, one of the things that I focus lessons-learned meetings on, first of all, I assume that we planned adequately on the frontend.  If we didn’t, that’s almost a separate issue.  But when I do a lessons-learned meeting, or after-action review, post-mortem, whatever you want to call it, I focus on one thing.  And that is, if we had this to do over, what would be do differently?  And that’s it.  It’s a really focused question.  So it kind of is all-encompassing.  But it also doesn’t – it doesn’t let wander too badly, you know, around topics and so forth.  It’s a really focused thing.

BILL YATES:  I love that question because it covers all different topics, too.  It could be my vendor relations that I’ve had with that engagement.  Wish I had engaged a different vendor.  Wish I had given more work to a certain vendor or partner.  They did such a great job.  It makes me look at everything from how I’ve interacted with the team, to planning, to estimating.  I love that question.  And it gets people, I think from my perspective, it’s a little bit – it’s effective, like as a leader, as I give up, okay, here’s what I felt like I – here are areas that I can improve in.  It’s also easy for me to answer or respond to a question that’s, hey, what could we have done better?  There may be something that’s really bad, but I can kind of nibble at it and go ahead and address the elephant in the room.


NICK WALKER:  It’s impressive that you talk about leadership, but you really demonstrate it in your own life, as well.  You’ve been able to establish a youth outreach program in San Antonio.  I’d like to hear a little bit about that and sort of what you’ve learned from that, that you can perhaps take into the world of project management.

JOEL NEEB:  Absolutely.  So this started when I first got my cancer diagnosis.  And I spent about the first 30 days after that cancer diagnosis, literally kind of curled up in the fetal position, feeling sorry for myself.  I was like a little puppy dog, following my wife around the house, and she couldn’t leave me alone.  And a lot of restless nights.  But after those 30 days were up, I got up and I said, you know, with whatever time I’ve got left, I’m going to try to make an impact.  And whether that’s on my community, my family, my work, I want to have a legacy.  I mean, if this is it, if this is truly it, I’d like to leave something behind.

And one of the things that we were challenged by in San Antonio was an abysmal 35 percent graduation rate at our high schools, at the inner-city school district.  And with the help of some other individuals and some great team members down in San Antonio, we were able to put together a youth outreach program which centered on, once again, that critical leverage point because we can’t affect everything within the cockpit.  I can’t make every instrument look good.  But this focused on what we believed was one of the most important instruments and indicators, and that was attendance.  We said, “Showing up is half the battle.”

And we would bring these team members in there and inspire them, the students in there and inspire them and teach them about our jobs.  And I’d bring in a fireman from the Air Force, and he’d do a demonstration with his equipment.  And the police would do a canine demonstration.  And we’d talk about being fighter pilots and how we had this great future because we showed up and because we’d made the effort when we were their age.  I wish somebody would have told me when I was 16 years old the decisions I was making then would affect me more than any other time in my life.  And so that’s really the message that we gave those kids.  And I’m happy to say that, for the schools we worked with, more than 15,000 kids in the past six years now, the graduation rate is above 60 percent at every single school that we’ve supported since that time.

ANDY CROWE:  Outstanding.

BILL YATES: One thing that I want to circle back on with our project manager community is how do we grow as leaders?  I mean, I’ve seen you apply leadership principles.  I mean, we could step back and go, well, geez, he went to the Academy.  You know, he’s had these amazing experiences.  He’s got great degrees.  But you found places that you’ve applied and learned leadership principles throughout.  So what advice do you have to PMs who want to grow as leaders?

JOEL NEEB:  Yeah, the biggest advice I would give to you is try and fail.  There’s nothing magic about the Air Force Academy.  I didn’t go to the Air Force Academy, and they didn’t open up a special book that says “Here’s how you act like a leader.”  So I failed plenty of times, and we could make five podcasts on all the things that I attempted to do and didn’t work out well.  But here’s the point.  We debrief that.  We iterate.  We pivot.  We make an adjustment, and then we get better.  We know in the military that elite leaders are not born.  Contrary to public belief, the Pattons and the Eisenhowers of the world were not just born with these traits and that they just lived their lives as leaders the entire time.  They made plenty of mistakes.  They’re deliberately created, but they’re intentionally created.  You can’t do it through the school of hard knocks.  You’ve got to have a deliberate approach to how you’re developing both yourself and your team along the way.

BILL YATES:  I think Abraham Lincoln, if he were in the room, he would agree with that.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah.  And, you know, the thing I like about that, Thor, there are so many things that you cannot try and succeed every time.  And you almost don’t learn from your successes.

JOEL NEEB:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  It can be painting.  It can be music.  It can be pole vaulting.  And the point is you have to try, and you have to fail.  And then you come back and hopefully – and this is what separates, or at least one of the attributes that separates leaders is leaders will look at it, own their part in the failure, understand it, and come back and look again.  And I’m a believer that you can fail a bunch of times, but you’re not a failure until you start blaming other people.  So I think it’s important to look at your own role in that, look at what you could do better, ask that lessons-learned question to yourself, and try and figure out what you could do differently next time.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  One thing I want to ask is, when I look at the example that you were giving with the debrief of “I like to set the proper tone, and I want to start with me.  These are ways that I failed as your leader in this, and I’m going to improve and get better.”  That really speaks to humility.  What role do you think humility plays as a leader of projects?

JOEL NEEB:  I think the best leaders know that it’s not their job to be the football coach that’s giving the rah-rah speech and motivating everybody all the time.  You’re really in the background.  You’re removing barriers.  It’s a lot less sexy and glamorous of a job when it’s done perfectly well.  I think folks like Jim Collins would agree with that, the Level 5 leader, the humble, approachable individual.  And those are the fighter pilots that we sought out as individuals to go to Top Gun and our Air Force equivalent of it, the Weapons School, where they would come back and be the master instructor.  So we don’t want the bravado, playing beach volleyball with my shirt off kind of individuals as the teacher.  We want somebody who’s ever approachable.  And that’s going to be the leader that removes the barriers for us in a humble fashion, without leading so far in front that no one’s behind him anymore.

NICK WALKER:  Let’s talk a little bit more about the mission.  And why should project managers care in the first place if their project really is aligned with the organizational goals, with the mission?

JOEL NEEB:  The best example I can give on why they should care from a business perspective is a challenge that they had at GE back in the ’80s.  If you remember, in the ’80s they came out with the SMART goals concept, and Jack Welch really leaned into that and talked about how, if we can create these SMART goals, and it’s measurable, it’s going to be something the team can rally behind and get a line behind.  But they made one big mistake.  And this is documented pretty well.  They didn’t attach these SMART goals all the time to a strategic objective.  And so they liked the SMART goals because it would create tactical focus, meaning it would allow your teams to do something, but it wasn’t always “the right thing.”  So they got really good at being busy.

And by beginning with the end in mind, we can figure out, well, where are we going ultimately, and then back it into what are the specific goals that we need to achieve?  That’s the alignments.  Actually just got out of a conversation this morning with the CEO of a $26 billion corporation who I had that conversation with, and that you’re doing a lot of things right now, and you’re doing them well, actually a 91 percent success rate.  How much better would that be if they were all the right things and aligned your strategic objectives?

NICK WALKER:  Ninety-one percent sounds pretty good.

JOEL NEEB:  And I said, “You should be proud of that.”  But just as much as I’m proud of putting that 91 percent for my kids’ homework on the fridge, I mean, that doesn’t accomplish anything if we don’t know what it’s attached to in terms of strategic objectives.

BILL YATES:  One of the things that strikes me as I look back at your career, and I think about the role that you play now with civilian life and with for-profit companies, the amount of vigor, the level of rigor that you’re accustomed to as a pilot, and with the training that you have, and the debriefs that you guys have?  You know, you throw that up against what you deal with now, the cultures that you step into at different companies.  You go in and teach or instruct there, and you see the lack of rigor, and you see the lack of discipline.  Does that drive you crazy?

JOEL NEEB:  It does.  But at the same time I understand it.  And I usually go back to the leadership and have a conversation with them, if I see that there’s a lack of motivation, because at the end of the day I really believe you can motivate your teams.  Like I said earlier, it comes down to teams and mission.  And you can motivate your teams and teach them why they’re on an inspiring mission and go back to that “why” question and say, “This is what we’re attempting to build as a group, as a team.  And we can do this together.  This is the future that we’re creating.”  Because that allows them to have some more excitement about what they’re doing day to day.

And it doesn’t matter what job you’re in.  You’re saying, well, you know, our job is just not that glamorous.  I’m not a fighter pilot, or I’m not fill-in-the-blank.  That doesn’t matter.  We were up at Nike, probably the best example of this I’ve seen.  And everybody around this table would agree that Nike’s a pretty passionate, engaging group.  It’s probably pretty fun to work with; right?

BILL YATES:  Just do it.

JOEL NEEB:  Yeah, exactly.  And I’m watching them execute.  And I’m watching, there’s a bunch of senior vice presidents, and they are into it.  I mean, they are talking about how they’re going to provide this for this part of the culture, and they’re going to help out these people in Chicago and do this next project.  And they are really pumped up.

And I’m sitting next to the senior vice president, kind of in the background.  I said, “Wow, your team is so engaged.  They’re just all over this.”  And he looks around, makes sure there’s nobody else around.  He says, “Well, Thor, we’ve got to be passionate about this.  If we ever forget why we’re doing this, we’ll realize that what we’re doing is just selling T-shirts and sneakers.  And there’s nothing magical about what we do.”  And we all picture Nike as this great place to work, but it’s because they created that.  They created a “why” that allows them to back into the excitement and the passion that they put into their day jobs.

ANDY CROWE:  So, Thor, I want to ask you a question, and you’re free to agree or disagree with this statement.  But I believe that, in that sense, every failure is a leadership failure at some level.  Would you agree with that?

JOEL NEEB:  Wholeheartedly agree.  Every system that we see is the logical result of the components that are in place.  And so, if it’s up to the leader, if we can all agree that the leader manipulates that system and is ultimately in charge and responsible and accountable for that system, then the system exists that way because the leader is allowing it to.

ANDY CROWE:  Agreed.

NICK WALKER:  All right.  We could go on and on, probably, and pick your brain.  But tell us how we can get in touch with you because I’m sure some of our listeners probably have some additional questions.

JOEL NEEB:  Absolutely.  So first of all, you can check out our website, Afterburner.com.  You can write me directly.  I get questions and comments all the time.  I personally answer them.  People do take me up on this, so I recommend that you do, as well; and I can help you with your debriefs or just planning out your next mission, or just if you have questions about project management.  We’ve done hundreds of these.  I’ve done personally hundreds of these.  Our company’s been around for 20 years and helped out, as you alluded to, almost two million people in 3,000 companies, most of them in the Global 2000.  So we have a lot of experience with this.

And at the end of the day we’re all – one of our core principles is that we’re master instructors.  We insist that our team members have the heart of a teacher.  So when I get these messages and requests for help, I love it.  I have a great affinity for seeing somebody else succeed because of the things we can teach them.

NICK WALKER:  Well, we appreciate so much what you have given to the project management community; what you’ve given to your community there with the kids, too.

JOEL NEEB:  Thank you very much.  And I neglected to give my email address.  It’s thor@afterburner.com.

NICK WALKER:  Great, great.  We want to give something back to you.  All right?  We’ve got a little token of appreciation for being with us.  As a special gift, that little Manage This coffee mug sitting in front of you.

JOEL NEEB:  All right.

NICK WALKER:  We hope you will enjoy it.  It is yours to keep.  It is microwave safe.  It is dishwasher safe.  I don’t know how it does at Mach 2.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah, not cockpit safe, I’m sure.

NICK WALKER:  Probably not, yeah.

JOEL NEEB:  Some of the newer cockpits probably safe, yeah.  Space age.

BILL YATES:  They’ve got cup holders in them.

JOEL NEEB:  That’s exactly right.  Well, thank you very much, gentlemen.  It’s a pleasure to meet all of you and see other folks with a heart for helping out these organizations perform more efficiently.

NICK WALKER:  Well, thank you again, Thor.  Andy Crowe, Bill Yates, as always, thank you for your insight.  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on October 4th for our next podcast.  In the meantime you can visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us.  And tweet us at @manage_this if you have a quick comment for us, or a question for our experts about project management certification.  The team is always there for you.  That’s all for this episode.  Talk to you again soon.  In the meantime, keep calm and Manage This.

One response to “Episode 18 — Thor, The Norse God of Project Management”

  1. Karen Delaney says:

    Very interesting and agree that as a PM, the buck stops with you and you can’t blame others for failures, you must accept that responsibility and learn from it. When you are honest, the team will respect you more than trying to blame others.

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