Our Guest This Episode: Neal Whitten
Neal Whitten is a popular speaker, trainer, consultant, mentor, and best-selling author in the areas of leadership, project management, and employee development. He has written over 100 articles for professional magazines—over 80 for PM Network magazine—and is the author of seven books. With over 35 years of front-line project management experience, Neal has developed and instructed dozens of unique workshops, created many professional- and personal-development online courses, and presented to many thousands of people from across hundreds of companies, institutions, and public organizations.
Neal joins the cast to help you recognize too soft behavior, show you how to avoid being too soft, and demonstrate why too soft behavior is harmful and how not being too soft can help you be far more effective and successful as a project manager.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"From experience I’ve found most project managers, most business analysts indeed to be too soft. They’re not willing to make the tough and unpopular project- or business analyst-related decisions, even though their instincts warn them that they’re not taking the most effective action."
"Your boss and your senior management want you to take charge over your domain of responsibility with a passion that comes about when you behave as if you own the business. And if you hesitate or routinely pull back, then again you’re demonstrating too-soft behavior."
"It impacts the whole team when they see the leader of that project take the initiative and maybe step way beyond what they would have been comfortable to do, and kind of stick their neck out there and take a risk, take a chance. Then they’re inspired to do the same."
"One of the things, I believe, Bill, is if you really want people to like you, choose a career different than project management. You’re not going to make everybody happy. It’s just not the way it is."
ANDY CROWE ● BILL YATES ● NICK WALKER ● NEAL WHITTEN
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. It’s our opportunity to talk about what matters most to you, whether you’re a professional project manager or working toward one of your certifications. Our purpose is to light up your imagination, encourage you, and give you some perspective. We talk about trends in the field, and we draw on the experience of others who are doing the stuff of project management.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the two guys who make this podcast happen, our resident experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And Andy, we’re also going to hear from one of our favorite guests today.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, the guy that I refer to as my “sensei,” absolutely. Neal Whitten’s in-studio with us, and we’re always excited to have him.
NICK WALKER: Neal Whitten is an author, a mentor, a trainer, a sought-after speaker, and a project management professional. Neal Whitten, welcome once again to Manage This.
NEAL WHITTEN: I am honored to be here, guys. Thank you very much.
NICK WALKER: Now, Neal, you speak a lot on project management topics. You get feedback from your seminars which, I understand, is always positive. We’re going to talk today about one of the subjects that always gets a reaction from your audiences because it’s real. It hits home with a lot of project managers. That’s because you force us to answer the question, am I too much of a softie? All right, Neal. You’re a nice guy. This room is full of nice people. But there must be a difference between “nice” and “too soft.” What is that?
NEAL WHITTEN: Well, let me just say that I have found that most people in our profession are too soft, and probably most people in general are too soft. But when I’m in front of a group, and it’s relevant, I’ll often ask this very simple question. Do you believe that you tend to be too soft at work? And what I mean by “too soft” is demonstrating behavior that results in being consistently less effective than what is otherwise possible and needed in performing responsibilities.
Anyway, when I ask this at conferences, webinars, and so forth, most people say yes, they are too soft. And from experience I’ve found most project managers, most business analysts indeed to be too soft. They’re not willing to make the tough and unpopular project- or business analyst-related decisions, even though their instincts warn them that they’re not taking the most effective action.
NICK WALKER: Okay. So how can we know if we are approaching that “too soft” category?
NEAL WHITTEN: I can give you some examples. And you can decide for yourself if you fall into these examples. One that comes to mind is, if you behave as if you have the responsibility, but without the authority, then in my view you’re too soft. I do face time with thousands of people each year. I frequently hear project managers and business analysts say that they have the responsibility, but not the authority. This just is not true. You almost always have the authority. The problem is that you don’t take it.
BILL YATES: So, Neal, I can agree with this. I mean, I’ve heard this complaint from project managers when doing face-to-face classes with them. That’s one of the most common complaints is just what you’re pointing out here, that I don’t really have the authority that I need in order to get my job done. So you’re saying they do have it, they just need to reach in and grab it?
NEAL WHITTEN: Yeah, that’s the neat thing about it. It’s already there. Here’s an example. And I say this to everyone listening. When was the last time you were called on the carpet, challenged, for exceeding your authority? Was it within the last week, or the last month, or even the last year? Was it ever? My experience is that less than 15 percent of people in a large group, and by that I mean a statistically valid size group, have ever experienced being confronted exceeding their authority. And this is sad to me. But what is sadder is that statistically most people listening will never experience being called out on exceeding their authority across their entire career. We’re talking about your entire career. My assertion is that you almost always have the authority, you just don’t seize it. You’re too soft.
BILL YATES: So I’m hearing Neal Whitten call us all out, that we need to misbehave.
NICK WALKER: It sounds like it, yeah.
BILL YATES: We need to overstep our bounds. We need to go beyond what we perhaps think our authority is.
ANDY CROWE: Right. You know something I’ve found with this, Neal, is you get into trouble for the authority you don’t assume, not for over-assuming your authority. You get in trouble, you get smacked around for not taking enough ownership, not taking enough authority. And one of the things that we did in the alpha study of project managers, we surveyed 860 PMs and asked them, “Do you believe you have adequate authority for the projects for which you’re held responsible?” And what was really interesting is the high performers said yes. They agreed with that statement to a degree of 90 percent agreement.
The lower performers, and really when I say the “lower performers,” I mean the 98 percent of everybody, so not just the low performers, but 98 percent of all of us came in below 50 percent agreement with that statement. So there’s this huge dramatic gap right there of saying whether or not they even believed they had adequate authority. And it’s largely – then when you turn around and ask senior management, senior management said, “Of course, they all have authority.”
BILL YATES: They’re in charge of the project; right?
NEAL WHITTEN: Those results parrot my experiences totally. I really believe that, when you go to work every day, you know, put your meekness at the doorstep before you walk in. Become who you choose to be, and don’t be fearful of doing that. I was in management for a number of years in a large company. And I will tell you that I would rather my employees did something that exceeded their authority. I’d rather they beg for forgiveness than ask permission.
ANDY CROWE: Yes.
BILL YATES: Yup.
NICK WALKER: Interesting. All right. So take the authority. Even if you don’t think you’ve got it, you do.
ANDY CROWE: And let me say, Neal, just as one caution, that that “take the authority rather than ask for permission” does not extend to raising teenagers. We’ll caution that.
NEAL WHITTEN: Oh, I love it.
ANDY CROWE: I’m working through that right now, as a matter of fact.
BILL YATES: I love it.
NEAL WHITTEN: All right. Let me give you a sidebar that you might find interesting. So I worked for a major corporation for 23 years. And in that period of time I exceeded my authority and called down on the carpet about a half a dozen times. And, now, I never came close to being fired that I’m aware of. At least nobody ever told me that. And when I exceeded my authority, it wasn’t for personal reasons. It was for the business. It was for the project sponsor. It was for the customer. It was for the team. It was for what I would call the right reasons. But here’s a sideline that I never would have thought about when I was doing that. In each case, I either got promoted, or a large award, or both. Now, it didn’t happen on the same day that I got my hand slapped.
BILL YATES: Right.
NEAL WHITTEN: But it happened on the same project because of the style of taking charge and making things happen. So being too soft is actually not a good thing, it is a bad thing. And you will lose respect. People won’t want to work for you from a leadership point of view. Let me give you another example, by the way, of being too soft. If you fail to perform your assignment as if you own the business, to me that is indicative of being too soft. When you look around you for the people who you respect the most, they’re likely folks who come to work each day with the mindset that they perform their duties as if they own the business. And that business is defined by their domain of responsibility.
If you’ve ever owned your own company, and we’ve got people around the table that have, you’ll know exactly what I mean because you can’t put food in your belly or pay your bills unless you’re successful. It’s this passion that helps people achieve their best. These are people who make things happen. They believe, and their actions demonstrate, that the buck stops here, and that they are fully accountable for the project or their assigned domain. Your boss and your senior management want you to take charge over your domain of responsibility with a passion that comes about when you behave as if you own the business. And if you hesitate or routinely pull back, then again you’re demonstrating too-soft behavior.
ANDY CROWE: Neal, I love this. This is such a good point. It has some tie-ins with your previous point, as well. But to me every employee ought to have an entrepreneurial mindset. And you go into an organization – and an entrepreneur, the mindset, that used to be a bad word when I would tell people back in the ‘80s I was an “entrepreneur.” That means stay away from this person. Now it’s got kind of a cool edginess to it. But back then people didn’t want to be around an entrepreneur. And I remember my mom asking me, “When are you going to get a real job?”
NICK WALKER: Right, yeah.
ANDY CROWE: “But, Mom, I’ve got a real job.” So in this case, though, every employee needs to take ownership of their job. They own their own position. And that means making it successful; applying the resources, every resource you have control over; probably asking forgiveness rather than permission, within limits, obviously. You don’t want somebody endangering the business. But people need to go in with this entrepreneurial mindset into their position and not the mindset of “I’m only going to do what I’m told” because that’s when you get into trouble. And that’s another way of being too soft because you’re going to sit there, it’s like, “I don’t own this.”
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: I don’t have – this is not my domain. That’s somebody else’s decision.
BILL YATES: There’s a common thread here with these two characteristics of initiative and the desire, the need to take initiative. And Neal, I really appreciate, too, what you have said. It impacts the whole team when they see the leader of that project take the initiative and maybe step way beyond what they would have been comfortable to do, and kind of stick their neck out there and take a risk, take a chance. Then they’re inspired to do the same.
I’m sure those that were at the organization that you were a part of and knew you and then saw what awards you received or the feedback that you receive for taking that risk, they were inspired by that. And that changes their behavior. So think of the role of that project manager. When she really steps it out and really goes beyond her comfort zone and takes on that extra initiative, it’s going to impact the whole team.
NEAL WHITTEN: I tell you, I look at life in this fashion. I see it as an adventure. And when I go to work every day, I want to have some fun.
BILL YATES: Right.
NEAL WHITTEN: And I want to make a difference. And I want to shake things up. And I’m not doing it for egotistical reasons. I’m doing it because I really want to be part of something, and I want to be part of something successful. And as leaders, our job is to become role models, in my opinion. That is – and it’s not easy to do. It’s not always easy to take the high road. But however you behave as a leader will have a direct bearing on how the people around you behave, as well.
Let me give you another example of being too soft: if you complain rather than constructively work issues to closure. I don’t believe that you should ever complain about anything. Ever. Complaining, to me, is negative energy and adds no value to solving the issue at hand. People who complain are exhibiting too-soft behavior by averting truly getting the problem fixed. But make sure you understand what I mean by “complaining.” An example of complaining is when Person A complains to Person B about something that Person C can fix.
BILL YATES: Okay.
NEAL WHITTEN: In this case, Person A just wasted his time and Person B’s time. However, if Person A complains, so to speak, directly to Person C, the person who can fix the problem, then this is not complaining to me. This is the first step of the solution by informing the person who can do something about it. People who have worked with me over the years would be hard-pressed to ever hear me complain about anything because there’s no value in doing so. Either you fix it or you don’t, but let’s not talk about it and waste time.
NICK WALKER: Oh, my goodness, this is so real. You hear this all the time, people complaining to the people who can’t do anything. And it just – it becomes this negative groundswell that nothing ever gets solved.
ANDY CROWE: Nick, I’m a big fan of the Stoic philosophers from kind of ancient times, but Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, those guys. And the Stoic philosophers, you know, everybody thinks a Stoic shows no emotion. That’s not true. They do absolutely feel and show – they’re not Vulcans. They feel and show emotion, but they don’t complain. You don’t complain about things because it does no good. In fact, it does harm to just sit there and grouse and gripe and complain about things.
You either work to change it; and, if you cannot change it, you work very hard to accept it. And this is an important organizing principle in my life. You may find yourself in a very ugly situation tomorrow. Well, you know what, you’d be surprised what you can deal with if you have to. It doesn’t mean no emotion, it just means you’re not going to sit there and grouse and complain.
NICK WALKER: And I think it will help us live long and prosper, though.
BILL YATES: Very nice, nice. You know I’m reminded – there’s a book I’m reading right now, “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. And actually there were some principles from that book that I brought out in a team meeting a couple of weeks ago here. And really the challenge, to me, is related to this area of, if I see something here at our company that’s broken, or not working as effectively as it should, then I have a choice to make; right? I can either complain about it, ignore it, or fix it.
ANDY CROWE: Or you can blame the user.
BILL YATES: Right, right, right. Yeah, stupid users.
ANDY CROWE: That’s the worst choice of all; right.
BILL YATES: Yeah, so looking, you know, when we identify problems, we do our Pareto analysis and see what issues are most common for those that are using our products and services. Then let’s fix it; right? Let’s own that, and let’s take the initiative to make it better. Let’s don’t complain about it. Let’s look for a solution.
ANDY CROWE: This is Japanese management at its core, as well, is that you look at a problem, and you make small, deliberate steps to try and resolve that problem, always looking in the same direction, always trying to prioritize those things.
NICK WALKER: And Neal, your point that this isn’t actually complaining, even though it might feel like it, if you’re talking to the right person, that’s a productive complaint, so to speak.
NEAL WHITTEN: Absolutely. It’s moving you in the right direction, and that’s what we want to do. It’s none of this negative energy that has no real value-add. Let me give you another example about being too soft. You’re too soft if you personally require the approval of those around you to function from day to day. And without it you feel inadequate. Then you will likely find their behavior to have an immobilizing effect on you. It can stop you in your tracks.
Don’t ever give that kind of power to another person. What other people think about you should never be more important than what you think about yourself. This is a hard concept for a lot of people to put into practice. I think most people recognize its value, but to do it for ourselves is difficult. But this is a major place that you, if you want to be a very successful, consistently successful leader, you need to get past this, needing the personal approval of others.
NICK WALKER: We are kind of humans that like approval, though. I mean, I think all of us want to be liked. We want to have people say good things about us. But you say we’ve got to get past that?
NEAL WHITTEN: Well, let’s talk about that, yeah. We all, we want not just to be liked, we’d like to be loved. But it’s just not always going to happen. I think that, if you want to be liked – and you’re not always going to be liked in any environment. Even the people you love and who love you the most don’t always like you. So when you go to work every day, you know there’s going to be people that don’t always like you. The best way, I think, to be liked is to demonstrate integrity, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and doing the right thing. If you do that, you will likely be respected.
Now, if you’re respected, you will likely be liked, but there’s still no guarantee to that. And so I believe in that concept of go about fulfilling your dreams, and demonstrate that integrity, and over time you will find yourself being liked more and more. But don’t ever go to work any day and put a priority, in my opinion, on being liked. That’s not a valid reason or goal to have when you come to work every day is to be liked. Definitely have integrity. Definitely earn the respect of others. But keep it real.
BILL YATES: You know, Neal, this is so practical. I think of the role of a leader – and in this context we’re talking mostly about a project manager. The role of a leader is to make tough decisions. And many times those decisions are not popular. And I think back to either roles that I’ve been in the past, or I’ve seen others who were leading me, who have, either because they didn’t want to deal with the conflict, or they didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, they would delay communication, or they wouldn’t fully disclose. They’d put off things. And eventually it’s going to come to light. Eventually a decision needs to be made.
So again, it’s a weakness of leadership that manifests through that. And I think many times, if we go down and do the root analysis, it may come back to, well, I really want people to like me. You know, their opinion of me matters so much that I don’t want to deal with this conflict, or I don’t want to assert this position.
ANDY CROWE: One of the things, I believe, Bill, is if you really want people to like you, choose a career different than project management. You’re not going to make everybody happy. It’s just not the way it is. And especially when the sausage is being made. Sometimes you can get there at the end, and everybody’s happy with the outcome. But not everybody is going to be happy with the process getting there.
BILL YATES: That is so true. Yeah, I think about one of our teaching points on retrospectives and wrapping up, project closure, is we have a big image of a Band-Aid. Many times there are relationships that need to be mended. Now that we’ve pushed through and accomplished what we needed to, as a leader I’ve got some people I need to go back to and kind of restore relationship, make sure that we’re okay.
NICK WALKER: So no more Mr. Nice Guy. But be a guy of integrity, and that breeds respect.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, it’s an interesting point here because I know Neal well enough to know he’s not saying cut yourself off from criticism, or cut yourself off from feedback. There’s a different way of saying I’m comfortable in my own skin, I’m comfortable with the decisions I’m making, and I’m not feeding off the energy of approval. If you want to do that, go be a politician, you know, and then only look at your positive approval ratings. This is a project manager’s job. We’re creating things that do not exist. As we like to quote Snoop Dogg, we’re puttin’ paint where it ain’t. And this is a different kind of game, and it stirs up conflict. And you need to learn to derive your energy from more productive sources than public approval.
NEAL WHITTEN: Yeah, if you switch your thinking to where, when I said earlier I see life as an adventure, when you go to work every day, I want to shake things up. I don’t want to do it just for the purpose of doing it. I don’t get out of bed and ask myself who can I piss off today. It’s not that at all. But Colin Powell said, “If you’re not pissing somebody off occasionally, you’re not a good leader.”
BILL YATES: That’s right, that’s right.
NEAL WHITTEN: And I believe that.
ANDY CROWE: I’d say that I’m safe in that regard.
NEAL WHITTEN: All right. Let me give you another example of being too soft. If you evade taking a position on an issue, then you’re too soft. A role of leaders is to help resolve conflict among team members. They take appropriate business-based positions on issues, even if it doesn’t please all parties.
So let me give you an example. I’m mentoring Sarah, who was a project manager of a sizeable project. We were walking through a hallway, heading to a room where a meeting was soon to take place. And we came upon two team leaders, I’ll call them Laura and Larry, discussing an issue in the hallway.
BILL YATES: Discussing.
NEAL WHITTEN: Discussing, yeah. Well, actually, that’s too kind of a description. They were angry at each other and loudly protesting the other’s views. So upon seeing this, Sarah leaned into me and asked, “Would you mind if we join in on the discussion?” And I said, “I think that’d be a good idea.” And after standing with the two team leaders and listening for a few minutes, Sarah turns to me and said, “We have to go.” She didn’t want to be late for the meeting.
Once we were out of hearing range of the two team leaders, I asked Sarah why she didn’t say anything back there to help resolve the conflict. Sarah said, if she had sided with one team leader, then the other team leader would have been upset with her. I said, “That’s not how it works. Besides, you now have both people upset with you because you did not assert your authority and help find an appropriate resolution.” And then I went on to tell her, if she sided with Laura, and that left Larry upset with her, that’s not her problem. It’s Larry’s problem.
I said to her, “Never avoid taking a position because you fear somebody won’t like you. This is business. It’s not personal. Don’t make it personal; don’t take it personally. Decisions are made based on what’s in the business’s best interest, not what is in Larry’s best interest.” Here again, Sarah was too soft in dealing with the situation, which meant she was not as effective as she could and should be.
ANDY CROWE: There’s an old political adage that most accidents happen in the middle of the road. That’s definitely true here. You try and have it both ways, and you’re not going to make anybody truly happy.
NICK WALKER: Yeah. You mentioned politicians before. I think a lot of politicians have found that out, trying to cater to, okay, what is the conventional wisdom, and I’m going to go there. And I guess there’s some politics in an office situation. But you don’t want to be that politician.
ANDY CROWE: And you know what, Nick, you used to be able to pull that off as a politician, when you could get on a train, and you’d get off at one stop and make a speech, and then you’d go to the next stop. You could make a completely different speech, and people weren’t able to resolve all of this. Today, that day has passed. And at work people have internal networks. They have collaboration. They have virtual meetings. And people around the country, around the world can hear about a decision or a statement you made in a meeting before you get out of the meeting. And so news travels very quickly, and that deft ability to try and straddle an issue. You need to learn how to stake out a position. I really like this.
BILL YATES: Yeah. And, you know, there’s a point for, in this case it was Sarah, she needs to let the two sides kind of shoot all their ammo; right? They need to present their case. But then that’s kind of why she’s there; right? She needs to step in as a leader and go, okay. What my understanding is, based on this viewpoint and this other, here’s what seems to be the obvious choice to me. Let’s make a decision and move on.
NEAL WHITTEN: In my view, Sarah, like any project manager, she’s a businessperson first.
BILL YATES: Right.
NEAL WHITTEN: And a project manager, a business analyst, or you fill in the term, second. And if you go to work every day with your business hat on, I’ve got to tell you, work gets a lot easier because it becomes very apparent what the right thing to do in this particular situation. And if Sarah owned the company, there’s no way that she would have two of her major players in a hallway, not getting along and not resolving the conflict, not being able to move the business forward, and allowing that to stay as it is and just walk away. She would never do that if that was her own company.
BILL YATES: Right. That’s a good point.
ANDY CROWE: Neal, I have a question for you in all of this. Do you feel like timing comes into play? Have you ever seen people maybe drag their feet as a way of being too soft?
NEAL WHITTEN: Yeah. Decision-making to me is a critical action in any team, project, or organization. We all have experienced instances where we felt decisions were being made far too slow. Make sure that you aren’t the problem. If you avoid or excessively delay making key decisions, then this is another example of demonstrating too-soft behavior. If you wait to make a decision until all data is known, to ensure that you’re making the absolutely best decision, you’re going to lose all competitiveness. In my view, it’s better to make a decision and occasionally be wrong than make no decision or excessively delay in making the decision.
ANDY CROWE: Or to escalate every single decision up a level. That drives me nuts when people say, “Hey, I’ve looked at the data, I believe we should do X. Do you agree? Is that okay? Do I have your approval?” This constant – the same idea is delay, delay or avoid, avoid. Right.
BILL YATES: Yeah. And there’s that Agile principle of waiting, making a decision at the last responsible moment. I don’t want people to abuse or think of that as an excuse for, well, I’m just going to wait. I’m just going to wait, going to wait. Again, there are goals; there are deadlines; there are milestones that we have to hit with our projects. And when we continue to delay these key decisions, then we’re less likely to hit those milestones. So, yeah, last responsible moment. But put that in the right context; right? Don’t abuse that.
ANDY CROWE: And the bold-faced word in that is “responsible.”
BILL YATES: Right, right.
NICK WALKER: My father used to say, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” And I guess he was right.
ANDY CROWE: He would have loved working here, Nick.
BILL YATES: He was a project manager.
NEAL WHITTEN: I love it.
NICK WALKER: Neal, anything else that is a sure sign that we’re too soft?
NEAL WHITTEN: I might just throw in, if you fear that not being too soft will cause you to be too hard, and therefore you’ll be seen as being rude or insensitive, abrasive, arrogant, or a bully, don’t go there. You are a good and decent person, and you won’t give a weight to those behaviors.
ANDY CROWE: Excellent.
NICK WALKER: Neal, great stuff here. Thanks so much for joining us again and holding up a mirror so we can take a good look at ourselves and our practices. We appreciate your perspective. And I know a lot of these ideas are taken from your book, “No-Nonsense Advice for Successful Projects.” How can we get that book?
NEAL WHITTEN: We’ll have it droned to you immediately by this – you can call this phone number. No. Actually, the best way might be through Amazon or your favorite ordering mechanism for a book.
NICK WALKER: And how can folks get in touch with you, if they have any questions?
NEAL WHITTEN: I have a website. It’s called NealWhittenGroup.com, NealWhittenGroup.com. Or my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
NICK WALKER: All right.
NEAL WHITTEN: Thank you.
NICK WALKER: Neal Whitten, thanks for sharing your time, your guidance, your know-how with us. Andy and Bill, as always thanks for your expertise. This is the kind of stuff that earns PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward recertification. And we want to remind our listeners that it’s very easy to claim your PDUs for this podcast. Just go to Velociteach.com, select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and it will walk you right through the steps.
That’s it for us here on Manage This. We hope you’ll tune back in on February 21st 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 any questions about project management certifications, whether it’s the PMP, CAPM, PMI-ACP, CSM, PgMP, or PfMP. We’d love to hear from you.
That’s all for this episode. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.