Episode 139 – Project Managers, People Managers

Episode #139
Original Air Date: 10.18.2021

34 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Ken Wagner

What is the project manager’s role in creating a self-sustaining and cohesive team? Behavioral analyst Dr. Ken Wagner shows us how to translate human potential into project success. In this episode, we’re sharing Ken’s advice on leadership development areas that are important to project managers. For example, Ken talks about how to create a healthy culture and strong team alignment in a hybrid environment. He also shares steps for building high-performing teams that function independently and effectively.

Are you struggling to get feedback from your team? How can you know if your remote team is just as productive as when they were in the office? How can you know if they’re doing their work? Are you trying to strengthen a relationship with a senior manager or a project sponsor? Take a listen as Ken answers these questions and talks about providing constructive feedback, applying reward and recognition systems, and encouraging our team members to look beyond their function to maximize the value of the entire project.

Ken earned his Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis from Florida State University. Ken is a Senior Principle at Alula Management Consultancy where they strive to translate human potential into business success to drive profitability, operational excellence, employee engagement, and leader performance. Ken’s deep subject matter expertise in leader development, behavioral science, motivation, learning, and systems analysis has given him a highly diverse understanding across a broad spectrum of private and public industries ranging from complex, multinational organizations to specialized boutique companies, in more than 20 countries, across 6 continents.

Learn More About Our Course: From a Good Project Manager to a Great Leader

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...the more information that people have about the bigger picture, the more they can connect their piece... not just to the overall mission, but also their piece of the overall outcome, the more they are to contribute in ways beyond their specific function."

- Ken Wagner

"If I’m good at really assessing or asking good probing questions, and you’re giving me detailed examples, and you’re giving me situations that are on point, I have a high degree of confidence that you’re doing the right thing."

- Ken Wagner

"So reinforce behavior means we attend the behavior to have it repeated, and then we celebrate the outcomes."

- Ken Wagner

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The podcast by project managers for project managers.  Project managers or people managers? In this episode we talk about leadership development and the project manager’s role in creating self-sustaining and cohesive teams. Hear about steps for building high-performing teams that function independently and effectively, and how to create a healthy culture and strong team alignment.

Table of Contents

01:37 … Leadership Development Areas for Project Managers
03:00 … Adapting Leadership to Evolving Teams
07:40 … Behavioral Differences in High- and Low-Performing Teams
09:26 … An Agile Approach
10:05 … Healthy Culture in Hybrid Environment
11:52 … Being Intentional about Equity and Inclusion
13:27 … How do I Know They’re Doing Their Work?
16:13 … Creating Project Team Alignment
17:58 … What is Getting in Your Way?
21:01 … How Do You Get People Aligned?
24:00 … Reward and Recognition Systems
27:13 … Providing Constructive Feedback
29:22 … Strengthen Relationships with Senior Manager or Sponsors
33:06 … Get in touch with Ken
33:23 … Closing

KEN WAGNER: …the more information that people have about the bigger picture, the more they can connect their piece to the, not just to the overall mission, but also their piece of the overall outcome, the more they are to contribute in ways beyond their specific function.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and in the studio today with me is Bill Yates. I must apologize, there are a few gremlins in the audio for some reason.  So we apologize if the audio is not quite as clear.   Today we’re talking with Ken Wagner.  Ken is a senior principal for ALULA.  ALULA is a management consultancy.  And he’s talking to us from Jacksonville, Florida.  Ken has a passion for helping leaders be successful.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Ken is an expert.  He’s even got his Ph.D. in Behavioral Science.  And we know project managers have to get things done through people.  And people are complex beings.  Right?  Some days I’m excited about working.  Some days I’m not as excited about it.

WENDY GROUNDS:  It’s a complex thing.

BILL YATES:  Yes, yes.  So not only does Ken have expertise in an area that’s of keen interest to me and project managers, but he’s also worked across all industries.  He’s coached managers and C-Suite level executives in all different industries, and I know he’s going to be able to add a lot to our conversation about managing projects and managing people to get things done.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Ken.  Thanks for joining us, and welcome to Manage This.

KEN WAGNER:  Well, good morning.  Thank you for having me.

Leadership Development Areas for Project Managers

WENDY GROUNDS:  We want to pick your brain on leadership and leading project teams today.  What leadership development areas are important for project managers?

KEN WAGNER:  Ah.  Boy, that’s a great question.  You know, many project managers are certainly skilled at change technology and project technology.  But much of that job, as I see it, is about influence, and ultimately about positive influence skills.  And so when I think about the most effective project managers, I notice that those that give direction in objective terms, can clearly describe what they want people to accomplish, what they want them to do, tend to have more success.  Those who frequently do alignment checks, so they ask probing questions to make sure that people are hearing what they think they’re hearing, or understanding what they think they’re understanding, they provide lots of feedback – feedback not only on outcomes, but on what people are doing and how they’re doing it.  And they do that in ways that are timely, and they do that in ways that are actionable.

And then the last skill that is often overlooked is that they tend to be good at positive reinforcement, meaning they attend to the things that they want more of, things that add the most value.  So they focus more on getting good things repeated as opposed to trying to correct the few things that aren’t quite right.

Adapting Leadership to Evolving Teams

BILL YATES:  These are powerful.  You just filled up my cereal bowl with, like, you know, five really powerful points there.  That’s great stuff.  One of the things that I think we all experience with teams is, you know, teams are like kids.  They grow up.  So my kids need something, you know, when they’re six to eight years old, and then they need a different parenting skill when they’re 12 to 14 years old, as teenagers.  Sometimes our project teams have all been to those teenage years.  Then they step on out beyond that.  How can project managers adapt their leadership as teams grow up, as they evolve?

KEN WAGNER:  First of all, that’s a fantastic analogy.  I love that.  Teams do evolve, and project teams, but also intact teams evolve, as well, and the skills required for even implementing initiatives change over time, as people get better and expectations change.  So I guess there’s a few things that we often see are helpful.  The first is in the beginning of an initiative or beginning of a project.  We want to build a behavior roadmap.  But we have identified critical behaviors for all project team members.  What are the most important things we need people to do in, say, 12 months from now?

So towards the end of the project we’re looking at sort of ideal state.  What does a high-functioning project team look like?  That’s a great place to start, but that’s usually a long way off where people are.  So we plan it.  Twelve months is arbitrary, but we build the ideal state.  And then we back up and we say, first 30 days.  What do those behaviors actually look like in the first 30 days?  And essentially they’re an approximation.  You’re either doing part of the ideal behaviors, or you’re doing them in a different way.  And then in the intermediate step we build maybe a 120-day plan.  So how do those behaviors evolve as the project matures and as the team matures together?

So we have an ideal state.  We have a first state.  We have a mid-state.  And those behaviors change in either frequency, consistency, or some behaviors change altogether.  The other couple of things that I think are important when you do that is adjusting the metrics, as well.  So we often start a project with frequency metrics.  So how often are we doing things?  How often are we meeting?  How often are we adding input?  Over time we want to shift those metrics to more quality metrics.  So we’re meeting more often.  But when we meet, are we accomplishing things?  Ultimately we want to build metrics that account for collaboration.  So the metrics require two or more people’s input to achieve them.

The last thing I would say is, and this goes to your first question, the skills for project managers, the best project managers then create an environment where they’re facilitating peer feedback and peer reinforcement, as well.  And that’s not going to happen in the beginning.  So as you talk about evolution, that’s the project manager’s responsibility until the team really begins to become cohesive.  And then that project manager fades out that role, and the team is really self-sustaining.  And when you get that, you can have high-performing teams function largely independently, but effectively.  But if you try to do all that stuff right up front, to your point, if you try to parent in a teenage way for a toddler, you’re really going to miss the mark.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  This really hits home with me.  As you’re describing the kind of a 30-day, 120-day, 365-day plan, it’s so logical, and I’m sitting here kicking myself, thinking why have I not seen that connection between what I do with an individual employee, when I onboard a new employee, I should be taking this same mindset to a team, and I think project managers should, as well.  There’s a great book out there, “The First 90 Days.”


BILL YATES:  This advice is so logical for project managers to step through and think, okay, describe very clearly and upfront, what is ideal team behavior?  What does it look like?  And then do those check-ins.  And I think for some of our project managers who want a checklist, and they want to put stuff on their schedule, you’ve given them that formula.  So this is good, useful stuff.

KEN WAGNER:  Yeah, and I think one of the key points that you just said is important, that most people start the project, and they’re thinking right now, what do we have to do to get going?  But a lot of the things that we teach are about starting with the end in mind and working backwards so you can get alignment along the way.  It’s a little more effortful and time-consuming upfront.  But, boy, it pays off in the long run.

Behavioral Differences in High- and Low-Performing Teams

WENDY GROUNDS:  There has been such a change in our work environment in remote and hybrid teams.  What are some differences, some behavioral differences that you’re seeing in high- and low-performing project teams within the context of remote and hybrid workforce?

KEN WAGNER:  Yeah, boy, this is becoming so common, where we’ve got a group of people working onsite and a group of people remotely.  The high-performing teams that we’ve seen, they make an effort to establish the norms.  And those norms of the team working together are obviously different than if they were together.  And so upfront they set the expectation of are we working flexible hours?  Are we not working flexible hours?  Are we going to work issues together simultaneously?  Or are we going to work them offline and then come back together?  And really look at people’s strengths and people’s preferences and then create those norms around that situation that they have.

Another thing we see, and you’ll hear this all the time, but it is still true:  more communication.  And so it’s not just over communicating.  But it’s checking for understanding and checking for alignment.  So here’s what I’m saying.  Are you hearing what I’m saying?  Are you hearing what I think you’re saying?  And are people on the team aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish, how we’re going to get there, what the cadence is, and those kinds of things.

The other thing I would say is often important in hybrid teams is we have more milestones that are shorter, so more frequent opportunities to say, okay, we accomplished that.  Now let’s reset, let’s keep going.  So shorter, more frequent milestones where we’re coming together and then making sure we’re on track. 

An Agile Approach

BILL YATES:  And Ken, if I’m following you, you’re not describing micromanagement.  You’re just saying we just – it’s more of an Agile approach.  We need to take our work and break it into smaller chunks so that we have more frequent feedback.

KEN WAGNER:  That’s exactly right.  And mostly with targets; right?  So we want to accomplish Phase 1, but Phase 1 may have seven components.  And in a normal situation you might just have a target for Phase 1, knowing that people are going to be working together in various ways.  Let’s do a check-in after Component 1.  Let’s make sure we’ve got what want, and we’re all together.  Then let’s move to Phase 2 or Component 2 and keep going in that way.

Healthy Culture in Hybrid Environment

BILL YATES:  Got it.  So how can a manager create a healthy culture in a hybrid environment?

KEN WAGNER:  Ah, boy, not easy; right?


KEN WAGNER:  You hear a lot of talk these days about psychological safety, and certainly that is key.  Question of course is what does that mean?  So the project managers that I’ve seen that do this the best, they create an atmosphere where people are comfortable talking about mental health issues, first and foremost.  And what I mean by that is people have a high degree of stress.  They have a high degree of anxiety with the uncertainty that’s going on in the world.  Burnout is more prevalent because people are working from home and working crazy hours.  And people obviously have conflicts between their work and family obligations, now that they’re working at home, which they didn’t have in the past.

And so creating an atmosphere where people are comfortable talking about those things, accommodating those things, you know, if my in-laws are coming to visit, if I was in an office, it wouldn’t affect my work.  But no matter how much I shut my door, knowing that things are going on outside my office, we have to understand that’s going to have an impact.  So I think creating that atmosphere, I think arranging calendar time that promotes some kind of social interaction among folks and some kind of breaks are important.  I think project managers that are skilled in being authentic.

And what I mean by “authentic” is talking in the moment about how you’re feeling or what you’re experiencing.  And so I’m getting the sense now that you’re uncomfortable talking about this, or you’re uncomfortable with doing this.  Or by your reaction, it sounds like you don’t think we’re going to hit those deadlines, but you’re not saying that.  Let’s talk about that.  So authentically describing, here’s what I’m seeing or feeling in a moment.  Let’s really talk about it.

Intentional about Equity and Inclusion

A couple other things that I think are important when you’re talking about a healthy culture, clearly being intentional about equity and inclusion.  You know, there’s a lot of talk these days about things like proximity bias.  Meaning the people that are in the office tend to get more opportunity.  They tend to get more communication.  And being intentional will make sure that we’re not favoring some over others unintentionally.  And arranging personal connection time, again, so people have that water cooler time, building that in so people really have an opportunity to remain connected to their colleagues on a personal level, not just a task-oriented level.  All those things together really create a healthy working environment, even if people are spread remotely.

BILL YATES:  Those are good points to think through.  And I know we’ve talked with groups about software that helped set up some of this.  It’s almost like you’ve got an AI Genie sitting on your shoulder going, “Hey, you need to talk to Tom and see how he’s doing,” things like that.


BILL YATES:  It’s one thing when you’re all in the room, and you can see faces, and it’s more present.  As project managers we tend to get absorbed in our work, and we forget about some of those personal connections that keep things going.

KEN WAGNER:  Without a doubt.  And, you know, when we’re face-to-face, there’s always a bit of idle talk in the beginning of a meeting, and when we do that through Teams or through Zoom, we tend to just get straight to it.  And so people, you know, they miss out on that quite a bit.  So it’s important to not only allocate time for it, but set the expectation that that’s okay.

How do I Know They’re Doing Their Work?

BILL YATES:  So I want to flip this a little bit because I know some project managers are thinking, how do I know my remote team is just as productive as when I was able to have eyes on them in the office?  How do I know they’re doing their work?

KEN WAGNER:  Ah.  How do I know?  You know, first and foremost it’s about the metrics that you already have; right?  It’s are we hitting the targets that we set out?  Especially if you go back to our earlier discussion.  If we lay out metrics that are evolving over time, and we have behavioral expectations that say these are the things we want now, are we seeing people do those things?  Are we seeing people hit those smaller milestones?  And that’s one of the reasons why we have more frequent milestones is to ensure that we don’t get too far off track, or we’re remaining on track, or if we’re accelerating what we need to do.  That’s just sort of the overall context.

I would argue that one of the most important things for a project manager to do with her team is to establish trust.  Right?  To build trust.  Trust in team members and trust in the project manager.  You know, active listening, listening to understand when people are talking.  Helping people connect what you’re asking them to do to the overall outcome.  When you’re providing feedback, making sure that it’s value-added, it’s not just extra information.

The other thing I would argue is the idea of asking really good probing questions.  I think question-asking is a highly underrated skill.  And I would argue there’s a difference between good coaching questions and evaluation questions.  So did you do that?  That’s a question that generally annoys most people.


KEN WAGNER:  What I want to know is what happened during that conversation you had with the customer?  What are the best reaction you got from your team or your colleagues today?  What was the most difficult challenge you solved in this last week?  When we’re asking those kind of probing questions that help people connect their behavior to how it worked, people not only find that reinforcing, but it gives a project manager much deeper, meaningful information about how people really are spending their time.

And so I don’t have to look over your shoulder.  If I’m good at really assessing or asking good probing questions, and you’re giving me detailed examples, and you’re giving me situations that are on point, I have a high degree of confidence that you’re doing the right thing.  If you’re giving me pretty vague answers, or you have blank stare, then I’m not quite sure what you’re doing, so I know I need to drill in and inspect a little bit closer.

Creating Project Team Alignment

WENDY GROUNDS:  Ken, we want to talk a little bit about creating project team alignment to enhance performance.  What advice would you have for project managers?

KEN WAGNER:  Ah.  So, boy, this is a difficult challenge here.  You’ve got people on a team that are there for their specific expertise, and usually pretty focused on their own accountability.  First and foremost, I believe it’s critical for a project manager to help people see the entire value chain.  So to help people understand how what they do adds to the bigger picture, that they understand the roles and accountabilities of everybody else, they understand how everybody else gets input and what outputs they produce.  Also that they understand other people’s barriers.  So if they can see those things, they’re better able to adjust and understand why we’re asking them to do what we are.

Again, I say we start with the end in mind.  And as we work backwards, we identify, not only what we’re trying to accomplish, but what are those leading indicators that tell us we’re making progress and moving in the right direction.  Once we know those leading indicators, we can then identify, what do we need people to do?  At every position, whether it’s up and down an org chart or side by side, what are the critical kinds of things?  We then identify what are the teamwork-related behaviors we want people to do.

So what does collaboration actually look like among the group?  We just don’t assume that people are going to work together.  We ought to be doing a good job of outlining, here are the critical behaviors we want people to do that produce the handoffs that are sort of in the white space that help collaboration, how we want to actively be paying attention to those kinds of things. 

What is Getting in Your Way?

BILL YATES:  Ken, this is great stuff.  Again, I keep thinking about, okay, so many project managers, they’ve got blinders on because they know these are the results that I need to produce for my team.  I’ve got to have my team focus on that.  To your point of knowing how to ask the right questions, I think about redundancies and obstacles, impediments that all project managers deal with. 

There have been times when I’ve had to use two tracking systems for tracking time for my team, once for billable purposes, and the other is for internal purposes so we can see how much effort we’re putting into different project tasks.  So like they were created differently.  They’re two different software systems, et cetera.  And it’s a pain; right?  And it’s inefficient.  There are things like that where as leaders the project managers can ask, what is it that annoys you?  What systems are in place that annoy you?  What policies are in place that just get in the way of you getting things done? 

Those are things that I think project managers can relate to.  But again, I think our challenge is they have to step out of the results for a minute and look at the people, the process, the systems that are in place, and be strategic and think through those and ask those deeper questions.

KEN WAGNER:  I can’t agree more.  And I think this is particularly important in a hybrid environment.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, right.

KEN WAGNER:  I think it’s stopping on a regular basis and saying, what is getting in your way?  And if people are comfortable saying, look, I intended to do this, but my child was sick today, and I’m home with them.  Or I was going to work this weekend, but my daughter has a softball tournament.  Those are legitimate things that are on people’s minds, or legitimate barriers.  And they may not have been as relevant if people were in the office and had focused time. 

And so I think as part of the regular conversation, if I’m speaking to people two, three times a week, what barriers are coming up for you?  What things are getting in the way?  And then saying, this sounds like a trend.  We need to have a relatively permanent workaround.  Or this is an anomaly, and we need to just sort of deal with it.  Or if this seems to be coming up regularly, we need to figure out what kind of barrier it is.

Generally, if we look at these barriers, you know, there’s basically four kinds.  There’s some barriers that say, look, we need to find a way to get rid of this.  Or this is a barrier, but it’s because it’s the way it’s designed.  We need to redesign it in a way to make it more efficient.  This system is just overly complicated.  Maybe it’s a barrier that says, you know, quite honestly, you need to delegate this to somebody else.  This is not something that you ought to be doing.  Or it’s just something you have to deal with.

For me, those four categories thinking about get rid of it, redesign it, delegate it, or just deal with it, helps people say I hear what you’re saying.  I’m empathetic to the situation, but I’m trying to be strategic and trying to help you be successful, not just sort of assume you’re going to figure it out on your own.  The more you do that, the more engagement you’re going to get from your team, and the more credible it is in this new world we have now, I believe.

How Do You Get People Aligned?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Project managers need to provide this clear direction for their team of where they’re going with the entire project.  So how can we encourage our team members to look beyond just their function and to maximize the value of the entire project?

KEN WAGNER:  Part of it is the more people understand about other people’s accountabilities, the broader perspective they have.  And so we often say it’s about managing that white space.  So creating metrics that are interdependent, that require multiple people to contribute.  Helping people understand other people’s accountabilities and barriers.  Being intentional about positive reinforcement for teamwork and collaboration.  Now, what have you learned from somebody else?  What are you sharing with others?  Asking people to share best practices.  And then creating cross-functional plans.

So the scheduling, the barriers, the resource needs, making sure that we’re not creating those in isolation from one team member to another, but we’re creating them as a group so they really intertwine with each other.  The more intentional we are about saying we have the task work of the team, what we’re charged to accomplish.  But we have a whole set of activities that are about how we work together, that teamwork and collaboration.  I have to manage that, in as an intentional way as I do anything else.  And the more information that people have about the bigger picture, the more they can connect their piece to the, not just to the overall mission, but also their piece of the overall outcome, the more they are to contribute in ways beyond their specific function.

When you think about that connecting it to meaning, most people want to know that their job has some value.  It means something, some contribution.  So even the most routine jobs can be connected to something bigger.  I worked at an automated pharmacy once, and they were bottling medication.  And one of the jobs was called a “bottle spotter.”  And their job was to straighten up bottles that they tipped over.  Now, that is a pretty routine, monotonous job.  But the manager was brilliant in that she would cascade down the message to her team that what they did in that pharmacy was improve the health of the patients.  Everybody’s job contributed to other people’s health.

And so even the smallest jobs.  In the realty company that I work with, they really talk about helping people put down roots and become part of community.  It’s not just about buying an apartment or renting a place to live. So if project managers can help people connect what people do to the mission, to the greater value that they’re providing, they’re more likely to see the entire enterprise chain itself and really stay engaged in it.

Reward and Recognition Systems

BILL YATES:  Project managers are using people to get things done.  So how should a project leader approach reward and recognition systems?

KEN WAGNER:  The first thing I’d consider is to differentiate what they’re paying attention to.  And it’s ultimately we reward and we recognize achievement.  But then we reinforce behavior.  So reinforce behavior means we attend the behavior to have it repeated, and then we celebrate the outcomes.  The most effective influencers, whether it’s a project manager or a coach or a teacher or an executive, they have to do both.  You have to strengthen the behaviors you want.  You celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments.

And go back to our earlier conversation again, the more opportunity you have to celebrate achievement, the better you’re going to be.  If you think about the way almost all sports are designed, there’s lots and lots of subgoals.  Lots of opportunities for people to take a pause and say, okay, we haven’t won yet, but we’re making progress.  We’ve accomplished something.  We’ve moved forward.  So first and foremost we want to make sure we’re doing that.  We also could create reward systems that actually encourage teamwork.

So, for example, I want everybody to have an equal opportunity to be successful.  Right?  So I want competition within my team.  But one of the most common recognition systems in companies is the Employee of the Month system.  It’s the second worst system there is.  Because if you think about this, at the end of the month, you have one winner, and by definition, that makes everybody else a loser.  Right?  The only thing worse than that is the Employee of the Year program.  Takes a whole year to become a loser.  What we want is to establish objective criteria and say, everybody that makes that is a winner.

Now, if you really want to enhance collaboration, you can design a system that says, look, here’s your individual criteria.  If you hit this target, you win, whatever “winning” means.  However, if two of us hit our targets, everybody wins, plus some.  If three of us hit our target, everybody wins, plus some, plus some.  And so first and foremost I’m accountable for my own performance.  And then there’s some incentive for me to help other people be successful, as well.  If I create that kind of system, then I get not only people trying to maximize their own performance, going out of their way to be good teammates, be good collaborators, those kinds of things.

And so thinking in that context, I want as many successful people as often as possible, and I want to create a system that will encourage that.  And I want to make sure that they’re getting those results in the right way.  Which means I celebrate outcomes that everybody contributes to, and I attend to the way those outcomes are achieved so we’re not getting off-track behavior or simply shortcuts.

Providing Constructive Feedback

WENDY GROUNDS:  What’s a good way to provide some constructive feedback to your team members?

KEN WAGNER:  So when we talk about constructive feedback, the first thing I would say is, it depends on the frequency of your positive feedback.  One of the things that we’ve seen from behavioral science research is the ratio between positive feedback and constructive feedback actually makes a huge difference.  And so the common notion is that managers ought to be at a four-to-one ratio.  What that means is, in a given period, in my general repertoire, I ought to be saying to folks, “Hey, keep doing that,” four times as often as I say, “Hey, stop doing this.”  And what we find is those managers and teachers that are four to one, five to one, maybe six to one ratio, get higher performance in general.

But what that also does to constructive feedback is it makes it more likely people will be receptive.  Because they know that every time they’re talking to me, it’s not about criticizing.  It’s not about what I’m doing wrong.  You’re generally trying to say to me, hey, you’re doing these things right.  Keep doing that.  And so then I’m more receptive to say, okay, I missed a step here, and I’m willing to adjust in there.

So when people talk about constructive feedback, I want to know what you’ve been doing the last three weeks, the last four weeks.  What does that ratio look like?  And if your ratio is good, your constructive feedback is likely going to be received well.  As long as you’re delivering it in objective ways, so you’re using specific pinpointed descriptions.  “Here’s what I saw you do.”  “Here’s the impact it had.”  “Here’s what I heard you say.”  “Here’s the impact that I saw.”  And so if we could be objective about describing behavior, and we can describe how that behavior had an impact on either the performer, the company, the world, me as a manager, whatever that might be that puts it in context, it becomes more actionable.  And if I do that in appropriate ratio, people are much more likely to attend to it and be receptive to it.

Strengthen Relationships with Senior Manager or Sponsors

BILL YATES:  That’s a good goal to aspire to.  So Ken, the reality is project managers report up to senior leaders.  And often it’s a sponsor they’re reporting to.  Give us some advice for project managers.  How can they strengthen that relationship with a senior manager or a project sponsor?

KEN WAGNER:  Boy.  This is so critical to a project manager’s success.  And I do spend most of my time with senior leaders.  And they often hear feedback like, “People say I don’t support them.  I think I’m doing all the right things.”  Or “People think I don’t know what I want, but I’m trying to be flexible.”  So my recommendation is that project managers think very deliberately and purposely about how they continue to build a relationship with their sponsor.

And I think there’s a number of things they should do.  One, make sure the requests that they’re making are clear and direct.  Not vague requests.  Not hinting around.  But here’s what I need that would be helpful.  Most senior leaders want to know.  Don’t make me figure it out.  What exactly do you want?  They have to make sure they close the feedback loop.  Right?  So we often ask for something from our manager.  We go and do it.  But we don’t say, hey, I did it.  Here’s what worked.  Here’s what didn’t work.

But one thing that gets senior leaders more willing to help in the future is to know that you’ve actually tried something that he suggested in the past.  So closing that feedback loop is absolutely critical, to let them know, I did it.  It worked, or it didn’t work, whatever that might be, bringing them information that makes their life easier.  So recommending suggestions and then asking for agreement or advice rather than asking them to generate the ideas themselves.  So here’s what I think we ought to do.  Are you okay with that?  Or do you have any other suggestions?  As opposed to saying, you solve the problem for me.

Sharing information early and often, sharing your intentions, here’s what’s happening, here’s what I plan on doing.  Going back to that alignment check, it’s not only within my team.  I’m making sure your project sponsor is aligned with what you’re about to do, so we can make sure we’re on the right track.  I would also take it upon myself if I was a project manager to initiate frequent short interactions with my project sponsor.  So more frequent, shorter, high-frequency, low-dose, as we say.

One or two things I would say is your manager, whether it’s your direct manager or dotted-line manager, they have their own accountabilities and their own responsibilities.  And so the more you understand that, and the more that you can coordinate the things you’re doing so it contributes to that, the more support you’re going to get.  If what you’re asking or what you’re pushing is in conflict, what that manager’s accountable for; you’re going to get resistance.

And so the last thing I would add is demonstrating that you’re listening to understand.  That when the project leader or sponsor is describing what she wants or what she needs or what she’s expecting, you demonstrate that you hear it, you understand it, and you can execute it.  Again, you’re on the same page.  You’re sharing information.  You’re making it easier for them to help.  And you’re closing the loop, and you’re being clear in what you want.  If you do those things, most leaders will go out of their way to support your project in every way they can.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Ken, this has been really good conversation.

KEN WAGNER:  Thank you.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We have enjoyed having you as our guest.

BILL YATES:  We appreciate your insights, Ken.  Project managers work across all industries.  And you’ve had experience with managers at all levels across all industries.  So I was really looking forward to this conversation.  I appreciate it.

KEN WAGNER:  Thanks for having me.

Get in touch with Ken

WENDY GROUNDS:  If you’d like to get in touch with Ken you can always contact him on LinkedIn, or at his company’s website which is ALULA.CLG.com


WENDY GROUNDS:  And that’s it from us here on Manage This.  To our listeners, you also have just earned some Professional Development Units by listening to this episode.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com.  Choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.

Thank you for joining us.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

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