Episode 105 – Managing Up for Project Success

Episode #105
Original Air Date: 05.18.2020


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Our Guest This Episode: Dana Brownlee

When you “manage up”, you do whatever it takes to make your boss’s job easier. But, what if your manager is difficult, or your project has pressing needs? Our guest Dana Brownlee is here to help us juggle those tricky scenarios. Dana wrote the book on managing up – it’s called "The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches" and provides practical and helpful advice you can easily implement.

Prior to writing her book in 2019, Dana conducted research on the topic of Managing Difficult Bosses. The results are both eye-opening and entertaining! From the Clueless Chameleon, to the Tornado, to the Meddlesome Micromanager, Dana introduces a few of the management personality types she describes in her book. Then, she offers the best approach to managing up those managers or stakeholders. Listen in for some valuable steps to take if you need to manage up.

A dynamic and energetic speaker, Dana Brownlee has presented to PMI audiences around the world. She founded Professionalism Matters, an Atlanta based corporate training company, and her business expertise has been featured in Forbes.com, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and other notable publications. She holds a BS, BIE, MBA, and PMP.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“And as project managers, sometimes we’re great on the technical side. But the EQ side, the social side is a little bit harder. And the best project managers get work done through other people.”

- Dana Brownlee

“...it’s all those little things that someone can do to really try to be proactive and make their life easier.”

- Dana Brownlee

“...the beginning of turning it around is just identifying these characteristics within ourselves because I think we all have them in one way or another.”

- Dana Brownlee

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. Dana Brownlee shares tools for managing up that challenging boss or stakeholder, while creating alignment and clear communication.

Table of Contents

00:58 … Meet Dana
02:18 … The Inspiration for The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up
03:54 … Managing Up Research Study
07:02 … It Begins with Self Awareness
08:20 … A Definition of Managing Up
10:05 … Managing Up Mistakes
11:30 … Six Difficult Boss Personality Types
14:32 … A Closer Look at the Clueless Chameleon
19:03 … A Closer Look at the Meddlesome Micromanager
22:40 … A Closer Look at the Tornado
25:22 … The Compliment, Document, and Pivot
27:37 … More Taming of the Tornado
29:32 … Self-Analysis for the Project Manager
31:28 … Get in Touch with Dana
32:24 … Closing

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hello, and welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds and with me in the studio is Bill Yates.  Bill, I have a question for you today.  How often have you experienced a difficult stakeholder or a difficult boss?  What’s your experience?

BILL YATES:  Oh, man.  This is such a loaded question.  You’re going to get me in trouble.  Andy…

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, we don’t have to talk any current.

BILL YATES:  Okay, good, yeah.  I was going to say, Andy Crowe’s not in the room right now, but he will definitely listen to this.  So, got an outstanding manager now.  But yeah, I mean, this is just a part of life; right?  We have managers who – sometimes our boss, our manager is super supportive and great.  Other times there are challenges, and so fortunately we have Dana to talk with us about some of those challenges.

Meet Dana

WENDY GROUNDS: So our guest today is Dana Brownlee, she is a PMP, and she founded Professionalism Matters, which is an Atlanta-based corporate training company.  Her business expertise has been featured in Forbes.com, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, to name a few.  And Dana likes to give project managers tools they can use.  Dana, welcome to Manage This.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Thanks so much for having me.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Dana, won’t you first tell us just a bit about yourself and how you entered the project management field?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Certainly.  Well, I started my company back in 2003.  I’m dating myself a little bit, can’t believe it’s been that long.  But I started in project management I guess in the early ‘90s.  And in fact I remember it was so long ago, I remember applying for my PMP in handwritten paper.

BILL YATES:  Oh, okay.


DANA BROWNLEE:  Like printing it off and writing it out and actually mailing it in, putting a stamp in, so I’m officially old.  But I worked in corporate for a number of years, and then I started my own training company, and I went out, and I teach training classes and give speaking events.  But I do think that I’ve always been wired kind of as a project manager, I dot my I’s; I cross my T’s. In fact, my husband laughed.  He said, you know, “This is definitely for you.  You’ve got a knack for telling other people what to do.”  So some of it is kind of in my blood.  But I love it.

The Inspiration for The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up

WENDY GROUNDS:  Dana has written an excellent book that Bill and I have both enjoyed reading.  It’s called “The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up:  Project Management Techniques from the Trenches.”  And in this book we read about different types of bosses and techniques that you can implement when working with these different types of managers.  Dana, what inspired you to write the book?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Actually, my audiences inspired me to write the book.  I never intended to speak on this topic, to write on this topic, but let me tell you what started happening.  I give talks, and I provide training on a wide range of topics.  So I might be out speaking about communication skills, about how to run more effective meetings, how to deal with a difficult person in the meeting.

And what was happening was invariably, irrespective of the topic, when I would get to that Q&A section at the end, where I would open it up to the audience to ask questions, one of the first questions I would always get is, yeah, I love that tip, but what if the problem person is your boss?  Or what if it’s the executive that’s pushing back or causing you problems?  So I started seeing a lot of energy around this, a lot of interest and curiosity.

So back in 2010 I wrote a whitepaper that I sent to PMI, the Project Management Institute, called “The Project Manager’s Guide to Dealing with a Difficult Sponsor.”  And then from there I just started developing more collateral and speaking more on the topic.  But really the genesis was the audiences, they really were struggling with this.  It was a hot topic, and so that’s how I got into this arena.

Managing Up Research Study

BILL YATES:  Could you tell us more about that research that that led to?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Yes.  So I was giving a talk in Chicago, at a PMI event in Chicago, I think it was 2016.  And actually a publisher reached out to me, once they saw the speaker lineup, and they said, “Yeah, we’re kind of curious about this topic.  We want to come sit in on your talk.”  And it was standing room only, and I promise you, it wasn’t because of me, it was because of the topic, because people were really interested in that. And so from there they asked me to write a book.  They said, “Hey, we think there’s a book here.  We think there’s a lot of urgency around this topic, a lot of interest around this topic.”

So they asked me to write the book, and of course I said yes, I was really interested in writing the book.  But I said, you know, I don’t want this book to just be informed by my personal experience.  I want to hear from other people, and so I said, “I’m going to send out a survey.”  Now, as soon as I said that I got nervous because I’m like, who’s going to respond to the survey?  I didn’t have – I’m not Beyoncé, I mean, I didn’t have like a bazillion followers, and of course everybody hates surveys, I hate surveys.  Nobody responds to surveys, but I could not believe it, I sent out this survey, and within about three weeks I had 1,173 responses, unique responses.

BILL YATES:  Wow, that’s outstanding.  And you got really  good response, I mean, reading through the book, some of the quotes that you pulled out of those surveys are just hilarious, and they’re so brutally honest with you. 

DANA BROWNLEE:  They make you laugh and cry at the same time.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

DANA BROWNLEE:  I mean, some of them really almost brought me to tears.  Some of them were hilarious, with the little names they gave for their crazy bosses or crazy stakeholders.  So, yeah, it was great, I felt like it was kind of cathartic for a lot of people.  And so maybe that’s why they didn’t mind it quite as much.  But they got really granular, they told me their horror stories.  I remember one person told me she went out on disability, she was so stressed out in her situation, and she wasn’t unique, but I was really, really grateful to get great feedback.

BILL YATES:  And then if you summarize – and I know you’ve got some great graphics that you share in your presentations and in the book.  Summarize some of those findings.

DANA BROWNLEE:  When we use the term “boss,” we’re using that pretty liberally, we don’t necessarily mean it has to be the person you’re reporting to.  As project managers, a lot of our struggle is we have too many bosses.


DANA BROWNLEE:  That we’ve got all these stakeholders – maybe it’s a senior executive, maybe it’s a client, so maybe it’s even a difficult vendor that’s important – that you’re trying to maintain a strong relationship with.  But at any rate, going back to your question, one of the stats that I use sometimes at the beginning of my speaking events is I ask them this.  I say, okay.  I surveyed 1,172 respondents.  How many of those do you feel said they’ve never had a difficult boss experience?  And then I wait, and out of that number, almost 1,200, only two, only two people said that they have never had that experience. 

So it’s common, you know, we need to not think of it as a negative thing, or feel embarrassed about it.  I promise you, if you live long enough, you will have a difficult boss experience.  It’s just part of working.

It Begins with Self Awareness

WENDY GROUNDS:  I was telling Bill yesterday that many years ago I worked in a hospital.  And we had a professor in charge of radiology where I worked who, when he had a bad day, he would wear something yellow.  And we knew when he was walking into the department, if he had a yellow tie or a yellow shirt, keep away from him.  It’s not going to be pretty.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Well, that’s great self-awareness because awareness is the first step, so I actually like that.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Absolutely.  But they don’t do that, bosses don’t go around with a color code and say, you know, I’m wearing turquoise today, so I’m in a good mood.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Well, you know, we say that, and we’re laughing.  But actually in the book I have a little bit of a checklist because the beginning of turning it around is just identifying these characteristics within ourselves because I think we all have them in one way or another.  In fact, my husband was telling me, you know, “Yeah, you’re great, so you’re the perfect person because you’re the Micromanager and the Tornado, like all rolled up into one.” 

But it’s not a negative thing, I think that we all have a little bit of some of these tendencies. And acknowledging that in yourself, being able to kind of pull yourself back and say, well, wait a minute, so maybe I am micromanaging a little bit. I need to pull back, so awareness really, really is the first step.  And so we have that checklist in there so people can start to see some of the qualities within themselves.

A Definition of Managing Up

BILL YATES:  Dana, before we get into some of these fun personalities, I want to start with a basic definition.  It goes back to the title of the book, “The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up.”  Managing up, so let’s get a definition for that.

DANA BROWNLEE:  I’m sure there are lots of great definitions out there, and I probably have a more formal one in the book, but the way I like to think about it colloquially is managing up is about taking steps to make your boss’s job easier.  Okay?

BILL YATES:  I like that.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Are you adding things to their plate, or are you taking things off their plate?  That’s the way I like to think about it.  So it could be something as simple as you know they’re getting ready to start research for a new project, and offering to do some of that research for them.  Or maybe they’re not the best with PowerPoint, so you offer to come up with a draft for them to help make their life easier.  Or just stepping in where maybe you might perceive there’s a risk that they’re not aware of, or you find out about something that they’re not aware of and giving them a heads-up.  But it’s all those little things that someone can do to really try to be proactive and make their life easier.

BILL YATES:  I like it when people take things off my plate.

DANA BROWNLEE:  I know, and that’s…

BILL YATES:  This is good.  This is helpful; right?

DANA BROWNLEE:  And you know what was interesting in the survey?  I got so much feedback from people who were bosses, who said, “I love it when people do this.”  In fact, one person I remember in the survey, she said, “You know what, so I tell people when they join my team, we can do things one of two ways.  Either I can hound you or keep asking you for updates, or you can kind of manage me. Look on my calendar, figure out what I have coming up and try to, not read my mind – although some bosses I’m sure would love that – but stay one step ahead of me.”  And that’s really what we’re talking about.

Managing Up Mistakes

WENDY GROUNDS:  What’s the biggest mistake people make when they try and manage up?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Well, so I have to say the biggest mistake is not doing it, or the biggest mistake is thinking that managing up means trying to take over.  Like I’m trying to do your job.  Like now I think I am the boss.  They’re completely different things.  It’s not that I’m trying to take over or maybe create some sense of tension, but I’m just trying to be helpful, and I think it’s another mistake to think that bosses will automatically be intimidated by it.

So I actually wrote an article for Forbes called “The Six Managing Up Questions That Your Boss Will Love,  and that’s a way that you can try to get a sense of how much is okay for your boss.  And I also say in the book, if you start asking those questions, or you start volunteering a little bit more or taking a little bit more initiative, and you sense that your boss is responding negatively to it, I mean, use common sense.  I mean, stop.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, stop.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Yeah, exactly.  It’s like the Hippocratic Oath in medicine.  “First, do no harm.”  So if you see that it’s having a negative effect, maybe that person isn’t as secure, or maybe they’re misinterpreting what you’re doing.  But certainly you want to pull back and maybe even have a conversation with them about it to clarify.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, so I may have stumbled into a trigger point.  It’s like you’re getting a massage, and all of a sudden the masseuse hits that one spot, and you’re suddenly on the roof, and you go, “Okay, my boss just went on the roof.  What did I do?”

DANA BROWNLEE:  Right, right.

BILL YATES:  You need to back off.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Right, exactly.

Six Difficult Boss Personality Types

WENDY GROUNDS:  So Dana, in your book you give recommendations for managing the six different personality types, and I just loved reading through these different difficult boss personalities.  Could you tell us a little bit about them?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Yes.  I love this.  So we narrowed it down to six, I will say that in the survey I must have gotten 20 or 25 different types, I mean, people just went on and on with the different labels.  It was hilarious, so we narrowed it down to these six because these were the ones that people tended to talk about the most.  So the first one is the Wishful Thinker, we all know that person, this is the person that wants you to boil the ocean and solve world peace by tomorrow.

Then the next one is the Tornado. Okay, this is the one that’s a bull in a china shop. So they just have an over-the-top personality, they might be cutting people off in meetings, they tend to talk more than they listen, so you’re really trying to figure out how to rein them in. 

The next one we call the Naked Emperor, and so we all know what that means.  They love the sound of their own voice, they love all of their ideas, they think they’re wonderful, they think that they’re brilliant.

The next one, I love this one. So this probably is the one that I get the most feedback on, I had a woman come running up to me after a speaking event a few months ago to talk about the Clueless Chameleon. This is the one that keeps changing their mind, so they told you one thing on Monday, and then something else on Friday.  The requirements keep changing.  And I like to say there are two different types of the Clueless Chameleon.  The first type they change their mind, but they know they’re changing their mind.  So they say…

BILL YATES:  Okay, so they’re aware.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Exactly.  There’s awareness, again.  Remember we said awareness is so critical.  So they say, okay, I know I told you before that we’re only going to do domestic, but now we want to change it to international, as well.  So there’s an acknowledgment, we kind of can work with this person.  But then flavor two is the one where they told you something, and then they tell you something completely different.  And when you point out the difference, they’re like, “What did you mean?  No, we always said international.  What are you talking about?”  So that’s a different variety, and that one is a lot more challenging to deal with.

Then the next one we call the Missing in Action boss, the MIA boss.  They just want you to do everything; and they’re off here, there, so not really providing the support that the team needs.

And then, finally, we had to add this one in. So we didn’t initially have it in the survey, and I tell you what, people let me know loud and clear, they said, “Where is the Micromanager?”


DANA BROWNLEE:  “That’s the one we need in there.”  So we added in the Meddlesome Micromanager, okay, who has empowered you, but then they want an update every 30 minutes.

BILL YATES:  “Well, see, I’m so much better at that, actually, than you, so I’m just going to keep tabs on that.”

DANA BROWNLEE:  “Right, you could do it your way, but let’s really do it my way.”

BILL YATES:  Yeah, because my way is the right way.  Those six are so good, and I know listeners right now are picturing in their mind, okay, let’s see.  I’ve had that manager.  Got that one currently.  Got that, yeah, these are really good.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Right.  Right.  Then you could have the combo, yeah.

A Closer Look at the Clueless Chameleon

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  I want to jump into the Clueless Chameleon.  I could sense a little bit of passion there from you, first, how do you recognize it?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Unfortunately, they’re pretty easy to recognize.  You feel like you’re getting lots of different direction, and things keep changing, and then you’re not exactly sure where you’re going or what you should be doing.  So one of the things that I try to do in the book is provide lots of different techniques for each one.  So there’s not one silver bullet, if there was, it would have been a much shorter book.  But there are lots of different techniques I want you guys to have in your arsenal.

So for the Clueless Chameleon, one thing that we need to realize with a lot of senior executives is sometimes – and this is why we call it “The Unwritten Rules.”  Sometimes they don’t know what they want.  They think they know what they want, or they’ve kind of given us direction when they’re maybe still 50 percent foggy on exactly what it is they’re looking for.  So part of “managing up” in that way is taking a more iterative approach with them and helping them think through and figure out exactly what it is they want.

And sometimes it’s something as simple as coming up a mock deliverable and say, hey, you know, this is kind of what I sketched up, and then putting it in front of them.  Is this what you’re looking for?  And unfortunately sometimes they’re like, “I don’t know what I want, but it’s not that.”  You know.  So it’s really your teasing it out of them, and it might feel, you know, difficult or frustrating.  But sometimes that’s just the reality.

BILL YATES:  I’ve heard some people describe it this way.  They say, “I’ve got a manager who says ‘Bring me a rock.’  So I keep bringing him rocks, and nah, that’s not it, that’s not it.”

DANA BROWNLEE:  Right, right.

BILL YATES:  I think of “Whiplash,” that movie, and J.K. Simmons, he kept saying, “Not my tempo.”  And so he drove the poor guy crazy; right?  I’m thinking that’s us as project managers sometimes.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Right.  But that’s reality, and that’s where the managing up comes in, you’re helping them think through it, or helping them come up with a goal. So the other element, bringing it back to project management, is maybe getting clarity on the triple constraint.  You know, we all know “good, fast, and cheap.”  And so it’s so important at the beginning when you’re dealing with that sponsor or client or stakeholder, to really clarify, in terms of what they’re looking for, what’s really driving this, or where are the priorities, because we all know we can’t have – all three can’t be the top priority.  So helping them figure that out, like good, fast, cheap; cost, time, quality, which of these is the most important?  Or which of these is fixed and cannot move?  To really get a sense of where they are and where their priorities are.

Another analogy I like to say sometimes is sometimes a person will ask for a Lamborghini when a skateboard will do.  Okay?  And they’re just asking for kind of their pie in the sky, you know, what they think they want.  But it’s our job to kind of ask those clarifying questions, back them up and really figure out is it a want?  Maybe we’re looking at requirements.  Is it a want, or is it a need?  So they might give you a laundry list of 12 requirements, but you might come back to them and say, hey, let’s just kind of try to prioritize this a little bit and take each one.  Is this mandatory, or is this optional? 

And then you might walk out of that room with, we started with 12, but now we’ve got five that we know are mandatory, and then we’ve got seven that are optional.  And so that’s just all part of walking them through that to really provide more richness and clarity to what they’re really looking for.

BILL YATES:  Dana, one of the things I appreciate is, for each of these six and the approaches that you have, the techniques that you recommend, you’re not using it as, “Hey, so here’s how you can get that manager cornered, or hold them down.  This is how you really show them how dumb they are.”  It’s just, “Hey, we’ve got to work together here.”

DANA BROWNLEE:  It’s collaborative.

BILL YATES:  You’re collaborating.  You’re trying to, okay, this is how this person’s wired.


BILL YATES:  I recognize that, so I realize I need to show a prototype as soon as possible, or I need to document scope and have them help me rank it.  And I probably have to remind them of that once a week when they come to me with these crazy change requests.

DANA BROWNLEE:  And I love that you said that because it really should be more of a partnership.  It’s really not fair to just put all the onus on you, the manager, because you’re the manager.  Just because you’re the manager doesn’t mean you’re perfect.  And sometimes, honestly, because you’re the manager, you’re further removed from the day-to-day work, so there are lots of things that you may not know, you may not be privy to.  And so it really is incumbent upon me to have more of that partnership mentality, to ensure that we’re really working together, and that’s really what it’s about.

A Closer Look at the Meddlesome Micromanager

WENDY GROUNDS:  Dana, I want to hear about the Micromanager.  How do you stop that Micromanager from hovering?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Ah, you know, this one is a little tricky.  I have to be honest.  So the Micromanager is one of the trickiest ones, and one of the reasons why I say that is there are different types of micromanagers who micromanage for different reasons.  And so one of the first steps is really trying to assess why are they micromanaging because that will really dictate the type of approach you need to use.

So let me give you some examples, are they micromanaging because they’re just paranoid about this one particular project?  Meaning normally they don’t micromanage, but for some reason with this project…

BILL YATES:  There’s something, yeah.

DANA BROWNLEE:  …they’re really clamping down.  In that situation, what you might want to do is what I call almost immerse them in information from the beginning.  It’s almost an over communication strategy.  So with those type situations, what I’ll typically do is maybe invite that executive to participate.  Say we’re having a one-day kickoff meeting.  Maybe invite them to be there for that full day so they really get a sense of confidence that we’ve got it, we’re working through it, we’ve done a risk mitigation strategy, things are on track.  And so that tends to allow them to release the need to micromanage, like we really immerse them.  They know what’s going on.  They feel more confident. So I’m really quelling those anxieties that they might have about this particular project. 

BILL YATES:  That’s such a key word, I’m so glad you brought that up.  Anxiety or fear is many times I think the root cause for that micromanagement.  If I’m being micromanaged, I tend to get so defensive and ticked off that it’s like, okay, just shake it off, and then think about root cause.  And many times when I do that I realize, okay, it is, there’s something unique or high stakes about this project that has special interest.  So there’s a fear there, you know, a fear that my manager’s going to look bad if things don’t go well.

In the book you relate that right back to risk management.  You know, you say, okay, so yeah, there are risks, there’s a fear on the side of that micromanager about something that’s going to happen.  So maybe you engage them with some of the risk identification and the planning that takes place early on, something I wouldn’t normally include a sponsor, maybe, or whoever that person is. Maybe I need to include them in that so that they have a sense of ownership and, okay, this really is being taken care of.

DANA BROWNLEE:  And another great technique because sometimes that anxiety is normal, maybe this is a big, huge project.


DANA BROWNLEE:  Maybe their job is on the line.  Maybe, you know, the fate of this particular team is on the line, so sometimes it’s a normal reaction.  But another great technique, just to follow up on what you were saying, is acknowledging that there might be that anxiety about it, there might be stress and pressure, and getting ahead of them from a communication perspective.  So instead of waiting for them to hound you for status about the project, right at the beginning say, “Hey, I know this is high stakes, I know that you want to stay informed. So I was thinking about proposing a communication plan where I would update you every Monday and Wednesday.  Monday would be in person, Wednesday would be via email, so do you feel like that would work?”

I mean, A, it shows you taking on more leadership.  You’re stepping up, but also it naturally helps to quell that anxiety.  Because if they have a question on Tuesday, they’re much less likely to come find you and nag you when they know they’re going to get their update on Wednesday morning anyway.  So that’s something else that I really recommend.

A Closer Look at the Tornado

BILL YATES:  Great techniques.  So one of the boss types that you mentioned early on that I want to go back to, I want to hear more about the Tornado.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Well, I like to say there are different flavors of the Tornado, but there are also different levels of intensity.

BILL YATES:  There are categories of Tornadoes, yeah.

DANA BROWNLEE:  We have our EF1.


DANA BROWNLEE:  We’ve got our EF4.  And we’ve probably all seen different ones in between, so of course you want to gauge your response based on the type of person that you’re dealing with.  So, for example, if you know you’ve got that EF5 personality, and they’re going to be sitting there in your meeting on Friday, don’t wait until Friday for them to do their thing in the middle of your meeting.  Instead, you want to get to them maybe on Monday and have a conversation to try to prevent or preempt that Tornado behavior, so what might that look like?

So, for example, let’s say you’re my boss, or you’re my boss’s boss.  What I might do is have that Monday meeting and say, you know, “Hey, Jeff, I’m so glad you’re going to be there for the kickoff on Friday. Let’s be honest, it changes things when hierarchy’s in the room.  That’s a great thing because people show up.  The thing that I’m concerned about, though – everybody respects you, everybody looks up to you, so I’m a little concerned that, as soon as you voice an opinion, everybody’s just going to agree with whatever you said.

So I know how important it is early on that we really get their unvarnished feedback, we really hear what’s on their mind.  I’m a little bit concerned that they’re just going to acquiesce, or just going to defer to whatever you say.  That’s the only challenge I’m thinking about, and I so was hoping maybe you could come up with some ideas or help me unpack that.  What are your thoughts?”

So there, I’m not saying, hey, I need you to pipe down, you know, I need you to shut up necessarily.  But I’m just surfacing a very common issue, a very common challenge, and then I’m respecting his authority.  I’m coming to him for coaching, for counseling, for support, and most senior executives are much more comfortable in that role, and so that feels more respectful.  And then, to be honest, he can come back with whatever he wants to say. There are lots of different ways you can address it, so I just want it to be addressed.  So I’ve had some execs who’ve come back to me and said, “You know, Dana, you’re right.  Maybe what I’ll do is I’ll just show up for the first 20 minutes, and then I’ll leave, and then you guys can take it from there.”

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Or they might say, “You know, let’s hear from them first, and I’ll kind of hold back, I won’t really say anything until we’ve gotten their opinions first.”  But the point is I bring it to them as a real issue, and then they help me solve it.

The Compliment, Document, and Pivot

BILL YATES:  That’s great, that’s proactive, so that’s prior to that meeting and trying to get ahead of the Tornado, let’s say the Tornado happens in the meeting.  One of the pieces of advice that you share in the book that I had not come across before was the CDP – the Compliment, Document, and Pivot, so just what is that?  Talk us through that.

DANA BROWNLEE:  I love that one.  I know, I love it.

BILL YATES:  Because some listener’s going to use this, this week.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Okay, this is one of my favorite techniques that I really just started using because it was an issue, where I would have someone who was more talkative in the session.  And then, when you add talkative and hierarchy together, that becomes a really difficult combination.

BILL YATES:  That’s potent.

DANA BROWNLEE:  And what do you do?  So one of the techniques I recommend is called CDP – Compliment, Document, Pivot.  So when that person is going on and on, usually we have something in our mind that’s telling us, or the pit of our stomach, like I wish they would shut up.  I cannot figure out how to get them to shut up, but instead of just shutting them down, you’re going to do the exact opposite.  You want to jump in, and so most people are okay with your jumping in if you’re complimenting them.

So then I might jump in and say, “Oh, Jeff, I just want to pause you for a second, sounds like you’re bringing up such a great topic. I hadn’t really thought about that, so you’re saying maybe we need to look about diversifying vendors and actually consider a Spanish vendor or a French vendor, hadn’t thought about that.  Let’s get that on the board because I want to be sure that we’ve all got that.”  So I’m complimenting him, then I’m documenting it in a way that’s visible for everyone.  Or even if we’re remote, and we’re on some sort of platform, I could write it out so we can all see it.

So now, again, the anxiety that he’s feeling because a lot of times we repeat, repeat, repeat because we feel like they’re not getting my point.  So I’m quelling that anxiety, I complimented him, I documented him.  And then I’ll check in with him, say is that pretty much your point?  Have we captured it?  Now we can pivot, either to a different person or a different topic, and so then I could say, “Well, Shelly, I’m just wondering, if we did diversify vendors, or if we did look at migrating to France, what impact would that have for you guys from a marketing perspective?”  So I’ve kind of addressed his issue, but now I’ve pivoted to a different person.

BILL YATES:  That’s gold.

WENDY GROUNDS:  It really is.

BILL YATES:  That’s a great tip.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Just neutralize that Tornado.  I like that.


More Taming of the Tornado

WENDY GROUNDS:  Do you have any more tips about how to tame that Tornado?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Yes.  One of my favorite techniques is called the “round robin.”  And you probably have heard that, and so that’s another technique that can be really useful with the Tornado.  So if they’re kind of going on and on and dominating, what you also might want to do is call a little timeout, again document their point so that we see it.  It’s heard, but then introduce the technique.

And so it might sound like this, “gosh, Jeff, thank you so much.  I’m so glad that we got that point, I don’t know that we had talked about that or even thought about that.  We’re running short on time today.  I know we’ve only got about 10 more minutes, so I want to be sure to get one idea from everybody sitting around the table, or if you’re on a conference call.  I want to get one more point from everybody on the call.”  So if my dominator or my Tornado is sitting immediately to my right, I’m going to start with the person sitting immediately to my left, and so now I’ve instituted a process.  He’s still going to get his chance, but now he’s got to wait till we get back to him.

BILL YATES:  I like capturing written suggestions and comments, too.  That was a great technique that you talked about. So it reminded me, we talk a lot in our classes about nominal group technique, you know, for brainstorming, many times you’ll have one person you’re afraid is going to dominate.  In this case it’s a manager, so one way to overcome that is have everybody start by writing.  So you write out your ideas, and they’re all there, and you can consolidate the list and speak off of it.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Yes.  Get people to write down their idea, even if you don’t have time in the session to talk through all of them, you’ve gotten balanced feedback from everyone. So you can collect all those Post-its, and even if they just talk about their first idea, it’s creating more equity and balance in the discussion.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We’re not going to have time to get into all of the personalities, so I would suggest to our listeners that they buy your book.  I think it would help them if they have some bosses with the personalities that we haven’t had time to talk about today.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Thank you.

Self-Analysis for the Project Manager

WENDY GROUNDS:  But as some last advice, what would you say to project managers if they are trying to analyze their own management skills and how they can correct and improve them?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Yes.  And as we mentioned before, I think that awareness is so critical, I mean, let’s be honest, none of us are perfect.  I definitely have had these personalities myself, so it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person at all.  But what I would recommend is you taking some time to be introspective and then gathering feedback from your team. I’m a big believer in 360 feedback, so whether you do a formal 360, or maybe it’s more informal, where at the end of the project, or maybe halfway through the project, you gather some real feedback.  And as people make it anonymous, because usually that works better, they get that anonymous feedback so that you have a sense of where you can improve, what you might need to do differently, et cetera.

And then also ask people that are close to you.  You’ve got a few people – I mentioned my husband a couple times – who are more than willing to point out some areas where you might need some development or some support.  But the key is that you start to acknowledge it so that you can start to work on it.  So really just be honest with yourself, everyone has something they can work on.

WENDY GROUNDS:  You have a great quote in the book:  “Relationship skills are the currency of organizational savvy.”

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  I often quote Scott Berkun.  He’s an author.  So he wrote a book on project management that really influenced me, gosh, 20 years ago, and he’s got a similar quote that I use in class, he’s got this technical background.  He worked for Microsoft, did all these things, he doesn’t talk about programmers being most important, or great code leads to project team success. So he says it’s all about relationships.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Absolutely, and as project managers, sometimes we’re great on the technical side, but the EQ side, the social side is a little bit harder, and the best project managers get work done through other people.

Get in Touch with Dana

BILL YATES:  Dana, one thing, we may have prompted people to go, “Wow, this is an area that I do need to grow in, so I’d love to reach out to Dana directly.”  Is that possible?  How should people reach you?

DANA BROWNLEE:  Certainly.  Feel free to reach out to me at my website, ProfessionalismMatters.com.  And so there is email and all that good stuff there.  And also, if you want to just keep in touch, keep getting my tips, et cetera, follow my Forbes page. You can find me there, and probably the most important, connect with me on LinkedIn. I love LinkedIn, I accept all connections unless you’re crazy.  Unless you send me a crazy message, but yes, please connect with me on LinkedIn.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Dana, thank you very much.  We really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today and talking with us, so as a thank you, we would like to give you this Manage This mug.

DANA BROWNLEE:  Thank you so much, thank you guys for having me, it was awesome.

BILL YATES:  Great to have you, Dana, thank you.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for this episode of Manage This. So you have just earned some PDUs towards your recertifications, to claim them, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

7 responses to “Episode 105 – Managing Up for Project Success”

  1. Nitin Dave says:


  2. Mister Spankavelli says:

    The explanations of the various types of bosses were equally luring as the title of the book. The podcast was very useful and I’m actually going to forward it to my teammates.

  3. Pietro says:

    Actually amazing webinar, now I am really ready to deal my stakeholders as they are exactly as Dana describes

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      She does have some really great advice. Best of luck with your stakeholders Pietro. 🙂

  4. Hawa Iyamabo says:

    Great talk, one i will listen to again!! very useful information.
    thanks Dana.. i will check out your resources

  5. Claire Struthers says:

    Wow! Phenomenal information on how to get more accomplished on our projects. I’m looking for the book now. I’m also going to try to connect on LinkedIn. I always have favored managing through relationship skills. This is going to help me take it to the next level.

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