Episode 89 – Keys to Success and Being a Good Human

Episode #89
Original Air Date: 09.16.2019

41 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Colin D Ellis

“Self-aware individuals are the building block of great teams.” Our guest Colin D. Ellis explains that to be successful, a leader needs to know him or herself and set the example of how to lead as a good human. Colin is the author of The Project Book: The Complete Guide to Consistently Delivering Great Projects, a very practical, hands-on book which covers the real issues that project managers face.

We take a close look at Colin’s method for assessing your team’s culture. Hear about a model that considers a team’s emotional intelligence and engagement level to gauge healthy cultures. Based on the rating of your team culture, Colin offers advice for the next steps: how to improve, how to build trust, how to focus on culture and still make deadlines, and how to cultivate loyalty.

Author and speaker, Colin has worked as a project manager, a program manager, and a PMO heading up large project departments, in private sector and government. He has worked in the U.K., New Zealand, and is currently in Melbourne, Australia. Colin helps organizations around the world build cultures that everyone wants to be part of.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“... also remember, that you need to be a role model for other human beings. And when you’re being the best of you, you will always bring out the best in other people.”

- Colin D Ellis

“... before you start planning, ... take some time...just to get to know each other, just to agree how you’ll behave, just to agree on the principles of how you’ll work together and set the foundation for cultural success.”

- Colin D Ellis

“We were just creating these lighthearted moments where people could laugh. And when you’ve got laughter, you’ve got energy. And where you’ve got energy, you’ve got motivation. And when you’ve got motivation, you get work.”

- Colin D Ellis

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Table of Contents

01:49 … Meet Colin
06:18 … Key to Achieving Project Success
09:53 … Know Yourself, a Key to Success
12:31 … EQ vs IQ
14:40 … Project Manager vs Project Leader
16:19 … Focus on Relationships
19:44 … Characteristics of a Great Project Leader
23:15 … Value of Team Culture
26:28 … The Challenge of Pleasant Cultures
27:22 … Building the Culture upfront
29:08 … Focusing on Culture While Focusing on Deadlines
31:08 … Utilizing Personality Tests
32:49 … Team Support when Times are Tough
34:53 … How to Use Humor as a Key to Success
37:06 … Importance of Being Honest
39:10 … Get in Touch with Colin
39:59 … Closing

COLIN ELLIS: also remember, that you need to be a role model for other human beings.  And when you’re being the best of you, you will always bring out the best in other people.

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Every couple of weeks we meet to talk about what really matters to you as a professional in the field of project management.  We sort of pride ourselves on finding the top experts in the field, those who can speak to the challenges you face and draw on their own experiences.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and before we get to our guest today, we’re going to ask our listeners a favor.  We’d like to know your experience with these podcasts.  Would you be willing to share your feedback?  Just leave a review on Google, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or whichever podcast listening app you use.  You can also leave us a comment on our website, Velociteach.com, or on social media.  We want to know what works best for you, and what can help us improve.

And one of the folks here who is always calling us to a higher standard, of course, is Bill Yates.  And Bill, we’re going to tackle a question on this podcast.  And that question is what makes a great leader?  And it’s possible we’re going to find some answers that maybe we’ve never heard before.

BILL YATES:  I think so.  We’ve got an author of a book, and this is not just one of those theoretical books.  If I were to think about one word to summarize this book, the word would be “practical.”  Project managers are going to find this conversation, and certainly the book if they go and purchase it, very practical, hands-on advice.

Meet Colin

NICK WALKER:  Well, let’s meet our guest.  Colin D Ellis moved through the ranks from project manager to program manager to PMO to heading up large project departments, and sponsoring projects in both the private sector and government.  He did this in three countries:  the U.K., New Zealand, and currently in Melbourne, Australia.  He is an award-winning speaker and best-selling author, and he helps organizations around the world to build delivery cultures that apparently everyone wants to be part of.  Speaking to us all the way from Australia – we’re up early, he’s up late – Colin, welcome to Manage This.

COLIN ELLIS:  Thank you, Nick.  Great to be here.

NICK WALKER:  Want to start off just hearing a little bit about your background, your professional career.  Tell me how you got started on all this.

COLIN ELLIS:  Oh, that’s a great question, Nick.  So, yeah, 2:24 stutters I’ll just cover it in the next 40 minutes.  I left school pretty early, didn’t really know what I wanted to do, Nick.  And I think often when I talk to project managers a lot of us are in the same boat.  It took me you know, probably about 10 years to get my first project management job.  I worked my way through banking, from a front-counter cashier-type role, where I really learned to enjoy working with people.  My last role before project management was working for a newspaper in telesales.  And I really loved the interaction with people.  I really loved creating and being part of teams.  And so they asked me to be a project manager for Year 2000, back when the world was going to end.


COLIN ELLIS:  We remember those days; right?

BILL YATES:  Oh, yes.

COLIN ELLIS:  And, you know, my interview, they said, you know – I said to them, “I don’t even know what a project manager is.  What’s a project manager?”  And they said, “Oh, you get a car, you get a phone, and you’ll be away from home for four years.”  I was like, “I’m in.  I am in.”  You know?  And, you know, in those days you were hired because you were good with people, and that you could be a good human, which I’ll talk a little bit more about shortly.  And so that was my start, really, and learning how to deal with different people and create different teams with different personalities.

And that was ‘97.  That was over 20 years ago now.  And in that time, you know, I had a fairly rapid rise in project management, something I really loved, really enjoyed.  And of course Y2K became this kind of damp squid because of people like me.  You’re all welcome.  And did program management, and then headed up big delivery departments and transformation programs in the U.K.  And then Milton, New Zealand in 2007, and worked in government for six years where I really crafted a reputation for building great teams and doing things slightly differently, I think it’s fair to say, you know, while everyone was going down a particular path of implementing process and method.  And, you know, it’s not that that doesn’t have a place, but I really put the emphasis on teams.

Moved to Australia – which is home, I live in Melbourne, Australia now – in 2013, mainly because the weather’s better.  And then in 2014 I went to a conference which changed my life.  I went to a conference, and I just didn’t enjoy it at all.  I didn’t feel like people were speaking my language, Nick.  I didn’t feel that people were being honest about some of the challenges that were faced in project management and were kind of skirting around the real issues.  And I thought, right, this is me.  I’d done two speeches in my entire life.  I went, right.  I’m going to be a keynote speaker.  So of course that failed for the first year.  And I had to take a contract with a local telecommunications company, which was great, and I kept the bills being paid.

And then I had a lucky break in mid-2015.  I was in an office for an interview for a job and pitched myself forward for a speech.  They gave me that opportunity.  And, you know, public speaking is something that I do for a living now.  So it’s, you know, I’ve worked hard to get to where I am.  I feel like I’m just getting started.  Often I’ll see “He’s a veteran of 20 years.”  Like there’s no good way to say “veteran” without also saying “old.”

NICK WALKER:  Yes, yeah.

COLIN ELLIS:  So, yeah, I feel like I’m just getting started.

Key to Achieving Project Success

NICK WALKER:  And now a lot of that has culminated in this book that you’ve written, “The Project Book:  The Complete Guide to Consistently Delivering Great Projects.”  The people around here at Velociteach are just raving about this book.  I have got to read it.  I confess that I have not yet, but it’ll be on my list.

At the risk of trying to be too general here, what is the key to achieving project success that you outline in this book?

COLIN ELLIS:  Well, I think often, Nick, and this was my – I guess this was my motivation for reading the book.  I’d read so many project management books.  And with the exception of Anthony Mersino’s “Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers,” which I really, really enjoyed, really resonated with me, there was no book out there that actually talked about the real issues that project managers faced.  And so that was my motivation.  I thought, well, I’ve kind of been there and done that.  And a lot of what I read was theoretical.  It kind of existed in the ideal world.  It didn’t talk about some of the idiots you get on project teams that you have to manage – sorry, some of the difficult people you get on project teams that you have to manage.

And so, you know, what I tried to do, and it’s great to hear that it’s resonated with people, is to really get down on paper, here’s a bunch of things that anybody in a project management position, doesn’t matter whether they’ve been in the job for a day or 10 years, here’s the real stuff that they actually face and then, crucially, what to do about it.  And there were so many books where I would get halfway through the chapter, and I thought, yeah, mm-hmm, oh, yeah, oh, yeah.  And then there was no how-to.  And I was like, oh.  What do I do?  And then at the back it was like, “Buy my program.”  I’m like, “Dude, come on.”  You know?

BILL YATES:  The whole book was a sale.

COLIN ELLIS:  You know, I’ve got zero budget.  I work in government.  I can’t afford to fly – although, ironically, I face the same challenge myself now.  But, you know, so I wanted to write the how-to book, to give people the opportunity to just get some stuff done themselves.

BILL YATES:  And you’ve done that, Colin.  I’ve got to say at the end of each chapter you’ve got a big bold section that is actions.  Here’s what to do, here’s what to read, here’s what to post.  First let me just say you, I mean, have you – and you may not want to answer this straight up, but have you really read all these books?  I mean, you’ve got so many references in here.  This is so impressive.  I really do appreciate that because then, if somebody wants to go deeper into the topic, you’ve got a resource right there.  It could be a YouTube video, could be a video to watch, a TED Talk.  It could be a book to read.  But I really appreciate that.

And I’m not trying to sell your book, I don’t get any kickback, although we could talk about that offline.  But the one thing I really appreciate about the book is it is practical, it is topical, and they’re in short little bites. You know, if I want to get nerdy and talk about a work breakdown structure, these would be the work packages, for sure.  Right?  These chapters are like two, three, four pages long, so it’s easy for a practitioner to grab the book and say, okay, what am I struggling with right now, or what areas do I think I need to improve in, and then go right to that chapter. 

Know Yourself as a Key to Success

Now, right off the bat, Chapter One, you talk about the project manager, to be successful, that leader needs to know himself or know herself, so talk a bit about that.

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, I think that’s – it’s absolutely crucial, you know.  And Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman talked about this in their book “First, Break All the Rules,” that self-aware individuals are the building block of great teams.  And so just to go back to answer your question, Bill, I have read all of those books, you know, I hadn’t read a business book until 2015.  But I figured that, if I was going to write a book, I should read other people’s books really and kind of crack – because I’d never written a book before, I thought, well, you know, I should really look at what everybody else has done.

Yeah, so just to go back, I think self-awareness is absolutely critical because, unless you know who you are, what you stand for, what you know, what you don’t know, then you’re kind of losing a crucial piece of information to inform your actions or to really self-develop in an area that’s critical, particularly in project management because the information that we need as project managers to develop and grow ourselves is so general.  And I think, you know, often there’s a mistaken belief that, if you go on a course, that makes you a project manager, when really that just adds to your technical skill sets.

So I think it really starts with you understanding yourself, what it is that you’re good at, what are some things that you need to develop in order for you to become, I guess, a better, more rounded person in order to lead other people.

BILL YATES:  There are a couple of key words there that you talked about.  Project managers, some are really obsessed on tasks and tools and process, and then others may be too far on the relationship side. You know, so to that end could be I just want people to like me, I want my team to like me, I want the customer to like me, I want management to like me.

So what I’m hearing from you is finding that balance of, yeah, we need to know the tools.  But then maybe the most important quote, unquote “tool,” the most important resources that we have are those team members and those relationships that we have and we have to manage on the team.  So you talk, when I’m reading your book, I feel like you give such good advice for those who maybe have a good grasp of tool sets, but need to understand that soft skill better.

EQ vs IQ

COLIN ELLIS: Yeah, that’s true, Bill, and, so you know, it’s really, really important in the project management profession that people have got the qualifications to get their foot in the door for interview.  We rely so much on that, and not so much on the emotional side of things. So I do place significant weight on that, that’s not to say I don’t cover the technical method side, I absolutely do.  And I did write the book that I would want to read, short chapters, plenty of humor, but, you know, it’s important that you’ve got both. 

And so often when I talk at project management conferences, and I did one recently, and they said, “Oh, are you advocating EQ over IQ?” So I said, well, you know, in his book “Emotional Intelligence” Goleman was able to prove that, if you’re higher EQ, then you’re a more rounded individual, you’re a better leader, and you’re more aware of the IQ gaps you need to fill.  But the advice I always give is that it’s like a bit of a slider between IQ and EQ.  And really, if you’re going to lead in any role, not just projects, but if you’re going to lead, you’ve got to know when to bring the technical knowledge, and you’ve also got to know when to bring the emotional knowledge, as well.

So if you take something like kind of a work breakdown structure or a planning workshop, I’ve got to know the technique inside out, back to front, to be able to run that workshop in an effective way.  But I’ve also got to make sure that everybody gets a say, bring everybody into the workshop, bring some music, bring some energy, and really create an environment where everybody can contribute.  So you’re absolutely right, it’s a slider between the two.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  You said, again, so there are a couple things that you hit on in the book that I just – I found both amusing and really good practical advice. So you talk about using humor and using music to set the mood and to break through on some of those long nights or difficult conversations that teens have.  So kudos on that.  I like that, You don’t find that in the PMBOK Guide, and I appreciate it when you bring up things like that.

Project Manager vs Project Leader

There is a shift, you know, we’re looking through some of the things that we wanted to ask you about.  And so we enjoy, Nick and I enjoy asking folks like you, our guests, hey, what do you see as the difference in a project manager versus a project leader?  How do you distinguish between the two?

COLIN ELLIS:  So leaders really take the time to understand people, they build relationships with people.  But then not just that, Bill.  What they do then is they are naturally empathetic.  So I could take the time to get to know you, understand your personality, understand your style such that I can change my style to suit you. But you know, I can only ever be motivated and inspired if someone delivers a message in the way that my ears want to hear.

So one of the challenges for me as a public speaker is I have to speak in four different personalities.  If I’m speaking to a room, a thousand people, I know there are four different kinds, generally, personalities. And I think this is what leaders do is they take the time to build relationships, and they know how to get the best out of individuals, whereas managers are very focused on the methodical day-to-day task-by-task thing that needs to happen.  Now, you still need to do that stuff, but leaders know the best way to get that particular piece of work out of Nick or Bill or Wendy or whoever.

BILL YATES:  So Nick, I think what he’s saying is a good project manager is schizophrenic.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.  Multiple personalities, yeah.

COLIN ELLIS:  Multiple.

NICK WALKER:  There, there.

Focus on Relationships

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I can relate to that.  No, I do – one of the practical pieces of advice that you give related to this is you say, when you’re kicking off a project, project manager in the first, I think you say the first two weeks, the first two weeks that project manager really needs to focus on relationships. And so I just thought, again, I think that’s a great perspective and a great reminder to PMs, no matter where you are in your career, early on in the project you’ve got to figure people out.  You’re going to be working with this team for a number of weeks, maybe a number of months or even more than a year.

So you’ve got to figure out your team members and know, like you said, the four different personality types as a public speaker you’re trying to hit.  You want to know how to bring the team together and how to communicate best with them, plus other stakeholders, so good practical advice.

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, and this is something, Bill, that I learned really early on in my project management career, you know, my first, I guess, boss, he was a program manager, was awesome because he told me a lot of things that I definitely didn’t want to hear. So in the early days I was managing a team of software developers. Now, I wasn’t particularly technically gifted, and he said that it was up to me to bring myself up to speed and get as much technical knowledge as I needed to be able to ask the right questions.  I didn’t need to know it in depth.

But anyway, for the first week I spent getting to know my team, I had about six different developers and infrastructure engineers.  And at the end of the first week he said to me, “How did it go?”  I was like, “Rob, these guys are idiots.”  He’s like, “What?”  I was like, “They don’t want to do anything that I want to do.  They don’t want to kind of come for a drink in the pub.”  Typical British team building, it all took place in a pub.  “They don’t want to come for a drink in the pub.  They don’t seem to be energized.  They don’t seem to be motivated.”

And so he just sat back, and he said, “Have you ever thought it’s the way that you communicate to them, not the way that they’re acting toward you?”  I said, “What do you mean?”  He’s like, “Well, these guys aren’t you.  They’re not flapping their arms, they’re not extroverted, they’re not high-energy.  They just want to sit quietly in the corner and do a job, and so you’ve got to really take the time to get to know them and understand that.  And whilst they might not naturally click with you, it’s still your job to motivate them.”

So this is my first week as a project manager. And I said, “Well, how do I know that?”  He’s like, “How do you think you get to know that?”  I was like, “What, ask them?”  He’s like, “Start with that.  Start with that.  Ask them how they like to be communicated, ask them how they like to do their work.  Ask them how they like to be motivated,”  and so I did that, you know, and I got varying levels of response.  But it was so crucial because I realized then that every project I did after that, the first two weeks was about us building a bond.  And so many organizations, they rush through that these days.

You know, a lot of the work that I do these days is just two-day programs.  I travel around the world doing these two-day programs where I help organizations just to build great culture for their program or project or team, from which then they can plan.  And so it was such a noticeable shift that after you’d spent this time getting to know each other, all of a sudden you didn’t have to build engagement because people were naturally engaged because you’d taken the time to build a relationship.

Characteristics of a Great Project leader

NICK WALKER:  We’re starting to get into what you’d call the how-tos, so let’s delve a little bit deeper into that. A leader, of course, wants to create a great team, he wants to create a team that everybody wants to be a part of. So what are some other important characteristics of a project leader to create that kind of environment?

COLIN ELLIS:  Well, so I think a little bit of vulnerability, Nick, I think that’s always important, just to demonstrate that you’re a human being and you don’t have all of the answers.  I think acknowledging that, you know, particularly when you start a new project that some things have gone wrong in previous projects, and you’re determined not to repeat those. So listening is a key one, we’re the most distracted generation of people ever.  We’ve formed some appalling habits around our use of technology, so taking the time to listen, I think, is crucial.

Tailoring your communication style, you know, we’re not taught how to communicate.  We learn how to communicate from our parents, mine particularly weren’t great role models for that, and then from the people around us. So you know, we don’t want you to change who you are, we want you to change the way that you communicate.  And then, you know, particularly in our technology-laden world it’s to take the time to work with the team to say, well, what are some tools that we can use to enhance the way that we do things?  And then, you know, really leverage those, use those, and find better, smarter ways to do things.

The great organization cultures in the world right now aren’t talking about going Agile because they’ve already empowered the people to kind of fix the things that are broken so that they don’t have to implement any kind of shortcuts or learn any new techniques. So I think for project managers to become leaders, you’ve got to stay on top of your technical information, learn everything that’s new and wonderful and kind of flexible about our modern world, but also remember, that you need to be a role model for other human beings.  And when you’re being the best of you, you will always bring out the best in other people.


BILL YATES:  So true, one of the points that you hit on, Colin, you’ve got five great questions, this is actually page 119 in your book.  Your advice there is before selecting a tool for collaboration, take a look at your organization, take a look at your team, see what you have currently, and then make the right choice going forward.  I really like that because, I mean, as you and I know, as soon as you publish a book, as soon as you write a blog or post a podcast and talk about one app or one tool, then there are three more that pop up that, you know, may be a better fit, right?  So that can be a bit frustrating.

But what I like about this is you have five questions that help people look at the collaboration tools that they have, the options that they have, and see what’s going to be the best fit for them.  So to me this is timeless, great advice.  So I encourage people, when you get the book, be sure to take a look at those five questions.

COLIN ELLIS:  Thanks, Bill.  Yeah, and again, I think too often what we do is we buy these quick-fix tools, throw them in, nobody uses them, and so we blame the tools.

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely.  It’s the software’s fault.  Absolutely.

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, that’s right.

Value of Team Culture

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Now also, Colin, one of the things that I appreciate, again, about your mindset and the experience that you’ve had, is you see the value, the importance of team culture.  And again, some of our projects are short, some of them are long.  You know, it’s like, okay, so I’m hanging out with the same people, working with the same client for two and a half years.  Man, I want to enjoy this.  I want a culture that rocks.

So let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about culture, and there’s a specific approach that you take that you describe in the book, and I’ve never seen it laid out this way, I really like it. You talk about the emotional intelligence of the team, and then you also talk about the level of engagement of the team. And so looking at those – and I guess the level of engagement would expand to stakeholders, as well.  But you’ve got this as a grid, so you’re basically – you’re saying, okay, for a project manager you can step into a situation and assess the culture, looking at those two characteristics, the emotional intelligence of the team and the level of engagement.

And then you break it down further and talk about four quadrants and talk about doing some prescriptive analysis, if you will, okay, if you’re in this situation, what do you do?  So how did you come across this? You’re looking at EI, and also you’re looking at level of engagement, how did you come across this construct?

COLIN ELLIS:  You know, so it’s something that I always used to do, Bill, and the model is easily people’s favorite thing in the book. I’ve got another book coming out later this year that delves into that even further.  Because, you know, it’s something that it’s within every – everyone’s got this opportunity to build great team culture.  I stumbled on it by accident in those early days because it just so happened that the teams that I led and was part of, it wasn’t just about me, they were just great. And so people would say, “How do I get on your team?  How do I get on your team?  What do we do?”

And partly is we agreed upfront, well then, how are we going to behave throughout the project, you know, what things are we going to do?  How are we going to talk to each other?  If we’ve got a problem, then how do we bring that to the fore?  And so we would have things like honesty half-hours where we could share how we felt, and that really spoke to that emotional intelligence of the team.

And then engagement, it’s kind of one of those HR buzzwords that we use a lot these days, but what we’re saying is how much do you actually care? So how much do you care about the people around you? How much do you care about the job that you’re doing?  How much do you care about the project that you’ve working on? And how much do you care about the organization, what it’s trying to achieve? And when that’s high, then you’ve got an opportunity to get things done, you get that real productivity.  When that’s low, then the culture either of the team or the organization, it really – it’s either stagnant, so nothing really happens, or it’s pleasant.  We’re just a bit too nice.

BILL YATES:  Talk a bit about that.  That quadrant I thought was really interesting.


The Challenge of Pleasant Cultures

BILL YATES:  So this is a group that the – so you have a team, the team as a whole is pretty emotionally intelligent, right? But then the level of engagement is lower than you’d prefer.  So then that quadrant you label as “pleasant,” which I just found that very entertaining and interesting, talk more about that.

COLIN ELLIS:  Oh, so pleasant cultures there’s lots of harmony. So we’re being good human beings, and, you know, we want to be the best of ourselves, but we don’t really understand why we’re doing the project. Also we don’t really understand where it fits in with the strategy.  There’s lots of meetings and lots of consultation, and a billion signatures are needed on a business case, but we don’t really know why we’re doing it.

BILL YATES:  But we’re all getting along.

COLIN ELLIS:  But no one wants to say anything.

BILL YATES:  That’s so awkward.  And I think we’ve all been a part of that before where it’s like, these are really nice people to hang out with, but what are we doing?

COLIN ELLIS:  What are we doing?  Why are we doing these things?  Yeah.

Building the Culture Upfront

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Yeah, with this model, then what advice do you give to the project manager?  Okay, now I’ve kind of done this analysis, Colin, so now what do I do with it, how do I move the chain?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah.  So what people don’t do, Bill, is they don’t define what “vibrant” looks like, so they only ever get there by accident.  So if you take time upfront, so I used to do this kind of informally with my own teams, we would take a day or two, big programs, you know, I did a big program in New Zealand when I lived there, when I headed up a big program. And so we spent a week building a team, we flew our development team in from India, all kinds of people were questioning me on the cost.  But then everything got done exactly as planned, and people are like, “What’s the secret?”

It’s like, well, we actually took the time to define the culture upfront before we planned it. Often you find that sometimes you get this vibrant culture, in a vibrant culture, everyone has a good day, and when everyone has a good day, we’re like, wow, we wish we could bottle this.  It’s like, well, you can.  You just do it upfront, and then you know what it feels like. Also, you know when it doesn’t feel like that, and you sit around, and you go, okay, things don’t feel right.  So what do we need to do to get back to being vibrant?

So my advice is, before you start planning, before you jump in, take some time. it doesn’t, you know, if it’s a big program, then you’re going to take two, three days. If it’s small you’re going to take then, I don’t know, an hour, just to get to know each other, just to agree how you’ll behave, just to agree on the principles of how you’ll work together and set the foundation for cultural success.

BILL YATES:  So I’m wondering if he does any marriage counseling, this just sounds like really good advice.

NICK WALKER:  It does.  And with that in mind, I’ve got to jump in…

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Focusing on Culture, while Focusing on Deadlines

NICK WALKER:  …with a question here, Colin.  And so this is a question that my wife would probably ask, she’s a physical therapist, and she’s always complaining, she says, “We have all these meetings to talk about how we’re getting along and doing all these things.  But,” she says, “but most of us are sitting there thinking, I’ve got work to do, I’ve got deadlines, I’ve got to fix these people, you know, and get them out of the hospital.”

How do you deal with focusing on culture, while at the same time focusing on deadlines?  It seems like sometimes there’s never enough time to get the job done, so there’s got to be a little bit of a mental battle between focusing on culture and focusing on just getting it done.

COLIN ELLIS:  Getting it done, and that’s the most important thing.  You know, we’re all here.  We’ve all got a job to get stuff done.  And it’s always a question of priorities.  So we all have the same number of hours in the day generally, and it’s about making sure that we fully understand our priorities and then having the courage to push back when we’re invited to a meeting where we can have no value.  You know, organizations that complain about having too many meetings, you know, it’s a good laugh for me, but it’s true. So I always say, “Whose fault is that?” And so they kind of sheepishly look away, like oh, my gosh, it’s our fault.  Well, it is.  You’ve created this scenario for yourself.

The reason that you have 30-minute meetings and 60-minute meetings is because that’s the default setting in Outlook.  And then you moan about having back-to-back meetings when you can’t be bothered to change the time to 20 minutes or 50 minutes. And so understanding your priorities, one, it’s having the courage to decline meetings that are of low value to you, and really to make sure that you agree upfront that actually having more meetings, all it does is create more harmony, and more harmony doesn’t get more work done.

Utilizing Personality Tests

BILL YATES:  Colin, another question that I have related to building a team that gets things done and enjoys it, you know, getting into that quadrant of being a vibrant team.  So I’m curious, do you make use of personality tests?  I know you’ve mentioned Marcus Buckingham, there’s certainly a strong one from him.  There are so many out there – Myers-Briggs, DISC, et cetera, do you use personality tests with your team?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yes, I do, Bill, but not in the way that everybody else does it.  So I’ve got an accreditation and a tool that I like that uses plain and simple language.  We use it to provide insights, but I make sure that people understand that they’re not 100 percent accurate.  One of the things that used to bother me often when I used to do the tests is like, this is who you are.  It’s like, yeah, but it’s really not, it’s who I am most of the time, but here’s a bunch of things that I don’t agree with.

And so I use it just to force a little bit of self-awareness because, believe it or not, not everyone’s that self-aware.  So just to kind of paint a picture of, yeah, here’s some strengths, and here’s some opportunities for improvement, you know, no one’s got a weakness unless they make the same mistake over and over again, but then also use it as a way to say, well, look, this is your strength, so this is your personality, so this is your natural way of communicating.

So when you’re talking to Bill, who’s not your personality, this is how you need to think about the conversation that you need to have. I use it much more, you know, so I use it as a tool for self-awareness, but much more as a tool to help people understand the different communication styles so that they can get the best out of each other.

Team Support when Times are Tough

NICK WALKER:  Let’s talk a little bit about what happens when things aren’t going all that well.  Culture is important, and we want to get along, but how does a leader get their team to stand behind him when things are a little rough?

COLIN ELLIS:  If they haven’t done the work upfront, it’s going to be difficult because what they end up trying to do, Nick, is kind of trying to claw back engagement or trying to make people interested and make people care about this thing, this project or whatever it is they’re going to do.  So my advice is always, if you do the work upfront, then people feel connected to it, you’ve got a strong vision.  So People understand why, they understand why this, why now.

If you’re in the position where you’re kind of having to really get that engagement, my advice is always to stop running because people aren’t going to chase you.  So you have to stop running, you have to take a breath, you have to sit down and say, well, why are we doing this? Why this?  Why now? And why should people care? Also, what have people got on right now? How do we free up time?  What value are we trying to get from this? Are we still going to get it?  Ask these crucial questions because often what people do is – and this is the myth of sunk cost; right?  “Well, we spent 50 grand, we might as well finish it.”  It’s like, “But Dude, it’s going to cost a million if we carry on.”


COLIN ELLIS:  It’s to really work with the team to evaluate where we are, but focus on that growth mindset.  So we’re not looking for problems, we’re looking for solutions, or we’re looking for opportunities to work together better to get it done. We can’t always be the best version of ourselves every day, and I think there are times when we need to give ourselves a little bit of a mental health break. so it’s great that that’s acknowledged more these days.  But I think, yeah, taking the time to stop, refocus, reevaluate, get everybody back on side, you know, it’s crucial in setting a direction for the future.

How to Use Humor as a Key to Success

BILL YATES:  Colin, I find you quite humorous.  You’re funny.  The writing style, just engaging with you as we are now, so I can see how that’d be a real benefit, if you’re leading a project team.  Let’s say that we have a project manager who says, “Okay, I’ve been accused of many things, but never being funny.  That’s just not who I am.”  But I recognize, you know, I can see the statistics, I see the studies that have been done, that humor really helps.  “But that’s not me.”  So what advice do you have for that person?

COLIN ELLIS:  So there are some people out there who it doesn’t come naturally, and I am very grateful for my upbringing. I grew up in a city, Liverpool, it’s very funny also, my dad has an extended family, they were very funny people.  So a lot of that rubbed off on me, I like to think.  But, you know, what I always say, and I worked with a project manager in the U.S. last year, and I said, “What you’ve got to do is find moments to create lightheartedness.  You don’t have to tell jokes.”


COLIN ELLIS:  I think that’s this myth, you know, so everyone thinks they have to be Michael Scott in “The Office,” I’m like, no, you don’t.

BILL YATES:  I hope not.  No, no, no.  There are too many legal issues there.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, exactly.

COLIN ELLIS:  You see this.  It’s like, no, you don’t have to do that, that’s not what we’re looking for because some humor just does not work at all. So we don’t want you to send inappropriate YouTube clips or kind of copy your favorite comedian in “The Office.”  What you just need to do is, first thing, not take yourself so seriously.  Secondly, create moments where people can have fun and have, you know, have laughter.  Social interaction, you know, we call them “morning teas” in Australia, and certainly in the U.K., little gatherings where people can get together and not talk about work. 

So it might be talk about your favorite movie. You know, we used to have movie nights where we would watch comedy movies, so no one was actually telling jokes there, we were just creating these lighthearted moments where people could laugh.  And when you’ve got laughter, you’ve got energy, and where you’ve got energy, you’ve got motivation, and when you’ve got motivation, you get work.


Importance of Being Honest

NICK WALKER:  I love that.  You know, it’s so important to create an atmosphere where we can be honest with one another, be ourselves with one another.  But I know that that’s a little bit tough when it comes to – it’s hard for a leader to say “I’m sorry,” if something doesn’t go quite right. So is that important, to be that honest?


COLIN ELLIS:  Yes, it is, Nick, so that’s how you build respect, that’s how you earn trust.  And, you know, so a lot of the organizations that I work with these days I said we’re coming into this session where trust is assumed, where we trust everyone to be the best version of themselves, that they understand their job and what they’re doing.

So where there’s a situation where you don’t know what you’re doing, the first thing you do is hold your hand up and say, “Listen, I don’t understand this.”  We have too many people who assume knowledge, try and pass it off, and they get themselves into a bit of a sticky situation, also where they get their communication wrong. And so I think where you get your communication wrong, and there’s a lot of this, is you really have to take a step back, or, if you lose control of your emotion, you have to apologize immediately.

Now, kind of when I was growing up in the ‘80s and working, people used to shout and scream at each other all the time, it was a horrible working environment.  And we’ve finally got a generation of people who understand what it means to be a good human being and to be able to manage and control emotion.  But it’s a very natural thing to do. 

We all feel anger from time to time and sometimes it spills out of our head and through our mouths. And so you really have to, you do have to hold your hand up and say, “Listen, I got that wrong, I’m sorry,” but then move on, to make sure that that other person, you know, they kind of feel good about the situation, it’s not been personal.  That’s how you then kind of rebuild that trust so you don’t lose the trust that you built up in the first place.

Get in Touch with Colin

NICK WALKER:  That is so great, being a leader, but also being a good human, I love that.  Well, thank you for being a good human, it’s so wonderful to talk to a good human. So how can we get in touch with you?  How can our listeners learn a little bit more about you?  Where can we find you if we want to reach out to you?

COLIN ELLIS:  Oh, Nick, I always recommend that people reach out to me on LinkedIn, so I’m Colin D, D for David, D Ellis on LinkedIn, they can do that.  They can also check out my website, which is ColinDEllis.com, and I’m all over the social media, so ColinDEllis all over the social media, as well.

NICK WALKER:  Great, Colin, thank you so much for joining us here on Manage This today, this has been great.

COLIN ELLIS:  My pleasure.  Thank you guys for having me on.


NICK WALKER:  Really a great discussion.  And what an easy way for our listeners to earn PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward recertifications.  To claim the PDUs, just go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button there that says Claim PDUs, and then just click right through the steps.

That’s it for this episode of Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in next time for another edition, so until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

12 responses to “Episode 89 – Keys to Success and Being a Good Human”

  1. Anne-Sophie Drouin says:

    Wonderful podcast! It resonates with my beliefs and what I’m trying to accomplish as a Project Manager and Scrum Master. Thank you!

  2. Mariana S says:

    These podcasts are really good! Thanks for constantly putting this together!

  3. Megan says:

    Great podcast. I enjoyed listening to Colin and his best practice experiences.

  4. Omar Mousa says:

    Great. Thank you

  5. Karina says:

    Really good episode that’s inspired me to re-invent the way of managing my team, especially the point around asking individuals how they would like to be communicated to.

    Quick question though, are you able to provide an Amazon link to the Book “Emotional intelligence for project managers” that Colin referenced please?

    Thank you for keeping this great podcast going, and what’s more- managing to keep filling it with engaging content!

  6. George says:

    I find it very interesting when Colin talked about the honesty hour. I have noticed that people won’t share their real feelings about how they feel in the corporate environment, so I am a bit skeptical.
    In my career that was a rare occasion.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Thanks for your comment George. Yes, it is hard getting people to honestly share how they are feeling and it depends largely on the company culture. Starting out at a grassroots level and having a firm commitment from the top to building the right environment might help with creating a culture of transparency within an organization.

  7. Claire Struthers says:

    I have been listening to these podcasts for some time now and I am thankful for the information as well as the gift of PDU’s. I am recommending these podcasts to others in my local PMI chapter as well (Central Iowa). I will also recommend to the Central Iowa chapter book club that we read Collins’ book. Bill and Nick, you both do an excellent job of putting on these podcasts and I especially like reading the transcripts as I listen to them. Thanks for these!

  8. Dani says:

    Great podcast, Thanks!

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