Galen Low is joined by Laura Lussier, a lead technical project manager at 10up. Listen as they share some meeting strategies and tips on how to navigate complex and politicized stakeholder environments.
- Laura Lussier is a self-professed project management geek with a soft spot for people management. Armed with a background in psychology and digital art, she leads her teams and her clients with deliberate clarity and efficiency. But she also loves coaching and mentoring others in the dark arts of soft skills. [0:58]
- Presently, she’s a lead technical project manager at 10up where she leveraged scrum agile methodologies to deliver large-scale digital content management projects. And outside of work, she’s in the process of getting her master’s in psychology and also writes novels under a top-secret pen name. [1:16]
- Laura does meditate quite a bit, but she is also a big gamer. She’s been playing Final Fantasy 14 for the last seven years! [2:41]
- Laura was a producer of short animated films when she was back in college. That was her profession, but she wandered into tech after that. She started project managing mainly WordPress website builds. What she loved about project management and where her skills kind of come into that is that even though she’s a project manager, she’s also a writer. [4:21]
“I’m managing a project, but I’m also interested in the people that are there and making sure that those people have what they need to actually give me what I need back in a less stressful way.” — Laura Lussier
- Normally, meetings are made because the decision can’t be made independently without someone else in the room, or it’s too complicated to sort out via email where you can just write up. Usually, meetings are meant to work out things or to present concepts to people. [17:21]
- Most times a meeting is to come out with a very specific outcome or a very specific direction. There actually needs to be a meeting strategy behind it. [18:06]
- Sometimes you can’t know in-depth how a person will react, but at least knowing why they’re in the meeting and whether they’re a decision-maker — just understanding that at least helps. [19:55]
- Normally, when Laura is in a meeting with a client’s boss or just a big stakeholder, they’re usually checking their progress or just wanting to understand, or like there is a very specific thing that they as a team and their client have decided. [21:56]
“As a team, we’re able to frame the information in a way where this person can make a rapid decision.” — Laura Lussier
- Usually, when Laura is preparing for a meeting she will actually create either a deck or a PowerPoint or some kind of consumable that is very easy to walk through for her specific audience. [23:16]
- A project manager does not want to be the final crutch on any authority, especially subject matter experts. That’s already like project managers could proxy because they should know the project well enough to answer something, but it should be from your subject matter expert’s point of view. [41:37]
“It really is more of an optics lens of you’re trying to reassure your clients, that you have the right team in there, which means you need some opportunities for this team to speak.” — Laura Lussier
- As the project manager, Laura will usually take the role of facilitator. Instead of just letting awkward silences sit, she will actually hear things and understand things and clarify things. She will call out people to answer just to kind of help drive the conversation and her role in that usually is of clarification. [43:50]
- In most interactions with people, aside from just some very bad apples that Laura encountered in the past, most people aren’t actually out there to get you, even if they might say something that is miscommunicated or offensive or whatnot. [53:26]
Laura first got her start in project management back in college as a producer directing animated shorts at the Art Institute of Los Angeles. Back then she didn’t know what project management was, or that it could be a career. What she did know was that she loved helping highly talented people get together and produce great work.
After college, she wandered the digital web as a freelance copywriter until 2012 where she landed a job as a project manager with a WordPress development agency. Already familiar with WordPress to launch her freelance business, she excelled in her new role, pivoting to manage WordPress developers instead of digital artists, to create beautiful, efficiently built websites. It was during this time that Laura truly fell in love with the platform, and its ability to make content creation as simple and intuitive as possible for everyday users like herself.
In 2016, she moved to content26, a digital ad agency whose bread and butter was helping manufacturers compete on shopping giant Amazon. Here she got her real taste for enterprise clients, managing the digital catalogs of big brands like Newell, Abbott, Unilever, Belkin, and Coty.
Her two crowning moments were first with Newell, leading a giant digital catalog refresh that averaged 1000 new product descriptions per month across 8 different brands. Then most recently with Coty, managing a team of advertising strategists that resulted in her client reporting a net positive return on their eCommerce business within 3 months of engagement.
It was at content26 that the first thing she ever learned and loved about project management came back full circle: unblocking talented people so they can do their best work. Laura loved being the pillar that her team relied on, first as a Sr. Project Manager, and then as a Manager of the PMO team, helping her project managers, writers, editors, designers, and strategists focus on their best work while she handled all the nitty-gritty details. Under her watch, she made sure everyone was marching in the right direction. This drive to help teams run to their best ability is a passion and a calling that she now brings to 10up.
Outside of work, Laura is an avid reader and loves to both write and draw (she can do math too!). A former animator and digital artist, you can find her sharpening her drawing skills on her tablet, or working on her next urban fantasy novel with her writing partner. Laura lives with her husband and two silly furballs in Washington State, but more often can be found roaming the landscape of Eorzea on Final Fantasy 14.
“My philosophy about project managers is really to be able to keep the project moving and really that spirit of unblocking, fostering a good environment for your teams and your clients to work in.”
— Laura Lussier
Resources from this episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Check out 10Up
- Check out Laura Espinosa
- Connect with Laura on LinkedIn
- Follow Laura on Twitter
Related articles and podcasts:
- About the podcast
- Article showing I sucked at saying no to stakeholders until I discovered this
- Article explaining the what should be covered in a project kickoff meeting?
- Video on managing website content + how to get website content from clients
- Podcast about do project management certifications matter in digital?
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Read the Transcript:
Well, here you are again, in a meeting that is going completely off the rails. Someone passed the invite to an executive stakeholder without properly briefing them and now they’re on a tangent that is making your client’s side. Counterpart looks pretty unprepared. Your team isn’t sure how to react.
Other stakeholders are starting to nervously check their email, and you’re trying to find a way to politely interject to steer the conversation back on topic, but to no avail, it looks like that decision isn’t going to get made today after all and it could take another three weeks to get back in people’s calendars. If this is a situation you can relate to and keep listening to, we’re going to be talking about how to create a solid meeting strategy so that your products build momentum and trust with every key stakeholder.
Thanks for tuning in my name is Galen Low with thedigitalprojectmanager. We are a community of digital professionals on a mission to help each other, get skilled, get confident, and get connected so that we can deliver projects better. If you want to hear more about that head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
Hey everyone. Thanks for hanging out with us on the DPM podcast. My guest today is a self-professed project management geek with a soft spot for people management, armed with a background in psychology and digital art. She leads her teams and her clients with deliberate clarity and efficiency, but she also loves coaching and mentoring others.
The dark arts of soft skills. Presently she’s a lead technical project manager at TenUp where she leveraged scrum agile methodologies to deliver large-scale digital content management projects. And outside of work, she’s in the process of getting her master’s in psychology and also writes novels under a top-secret pen name.
Today, she’s going to be talking to us about meeting strategy and tips on how to navigate complex and politicized stakeholder environments. Folks, please welcome Laura Lussier.
Laura, when you and I first connected you were leading a massive multi PM project while also starting in on your master’s in psychology and you’re also prepping for a talk that was like organization-wide, all-hands events. Uh, so I know you described yourself as an overachiever, but. Where the heck do you find all this energy?
Um, that’s a very good question because I actually also don’t drink coffee, so I’m not sure.
So not caffeine.
Not caffeine. Um, I do actually get, um, at least seven hours of sleep.
So for those of you who sleep actually works.
That’s a power tip for our listeners is, you know, like the typical project manager working late, not sleeping much. Um, there’s your secret? Sleep more. I love that. How about when you have a, when you’re like looking for calm, what’s your preferred source of like calmness?
Do you meditate? Do you watch like low-brow TV? Uh, what helps you keep your center?
Um, I do meditate quite a bit, so that does help me, but I am also a big, uh, Gamer. So I tend to do a lot of downtime when gaming, I am, I have played final fantasy 14 for the last seven years. So if you want to know where I am.
I’m amazed that you have time for like that level of gaming. Like we’re not talking candy crush here. We’re talking like quest saga.
No, that was a commitment and I was dragged into it. So
I love that. I love that. Um, I think let’s dive into it. Let’s dive into it. I’m really eager to talk about this. Uh, we’re going to be talking about, uh, what I call what I characterize as stakeholder politics, meeting strategy, and using a bit of psychology to deepen the relationships and amplify the outcomes of your projects.
I know that sounds like an advertisement, but it’s really about. You know, managing people and using your soft skills to make sure everyone’s collaborating well. Uh, it’s something that you and I, I know we could nerd out on this all day and actually, we’ve done it before. This time we’re recording it. So I thought maybe we can just set the scene for our listeners.
Um, and maybe you could just tell us a bit about yourself and how you use your unique background as your, uh, how you use your unique background in your role as a lead technical project manager?
Yeah, well, um, I don’t know, uh, if our listeners have the same, um, thing, but I fell into project management. I didn’t actually go study for it or try to get into it.
Um, I was a producer for a short animated film when I was back in college. That was my profession and my love but, um, I wandered into tech after that and, um, started project managing, uh, mainly a website builds. Um, WordPress website builds and, um, what I love about project management and where my skills kind of come into that is that, um, Even though I’m a project manager, I’m also a writer.
So I write fiction on the side. I’m actually very interested in people and their stories in general like I just like seeing people grow and kind of figure out why they tick in a way and so that kind of combination of storytelling, um, behavioral psychology and project management kind of led into, okay, how do I get these certain people who I can tell there’s something going on in the background to listen to me for five minutes?
Um, how can I get them to, um, believe in the cause that we’re, we’re trying to do or the problem we’re trying to solve? When a lot of these environments, I go into meetings and I realize that people coming into them are very, very stressed. Which is not really the best environment for collaboration and so that’s kind of the lens I take to this is yes, I’m managing a project but I’m also interested in the people that are there and making sure that those people have what they need to actually give me.
Well, I need back in that ideally non-stressful way or less stressful way. Um, tech will always be stressed. My leads is always stressed for example, but, um, I try to make sure they, um, at least have what they need to know I have their back.
I really like that and like, it’s something that often gets overlooked or else we just don’t, we’ll talk about it enough.
You know, we talk about, you know, all these like artifacts that you need for your project, your statement of work and your status report and your RACI chart and all this sort of technical project management, as in the sort of, you know, the craft of project management but so much of what we do is actually managing people.
We’ve got our teams, we’ve got our stakeholders, our sponsors, our clients, um, ourselves, uh, and, uh, I love that notion of just having that sort of environment to sort of not be as stressed as we probably are coming in so that we can collaborate. I really liked that and I think it’s like a really good tie-in.
Um, just because, you know, I think there’s a lot of technical training available for project managers. You can sort of learn the foundations and the fundamentals of project management as a craft. Um, but you know, soft skills is a little bit different and something you’ve been talking to me about is that.
You really enjoy mentoring your team members and helping them navigate their work environment. Um, talk to me about why you think it’s so important to have mentors that help you hone your soft skills?
I think it’s well, I don’t like is that it is the mentorship route and it’s not normally formal training.
It’s not widely available or encourage, but like, I think it’s important to have mentors that are willing to teach you soft skills, because I think in our career environment, especially tech. It’s assumed if you’re working here and you’re successful, you already know it or, um, if you see someone that is really easy to work with and whatnot, it’s kind of written off as like it like ingrained talent, like, Oh, that person just has it and you don’t really realize some of it might be natural skill a lot of it is just practice and, um, a lot of it is behind the scenes work that everyone kind of thinks its magic and so it’s really important that there are mentors there that are willing to take on soft skills because I think our environment tends to be like, you should know this if you’re a professional and that’s not entirely true like I can really go off on how many people assume you know how to write an email and that’s not true.
I love that example.
Until you find an example of a horrible email that went out to a bunch of people. You’re like, no, that is not an innings. That is not an ingrained skill. It’s just not.
I think your idea, you hit the nail on the head. I’m like, you know, it’s probably difficult, um, to like craft a course, like a classroom course on soft skills and teach it to like 30 people at once but that notion of sort of having a coach and practicing and sort of, you know, getting advice before. Getting some coaching after for each instance of this is kind of how you could sort of build up the craft without just learning the hard way by sending a bunch of horrible emails and then finally somebody taps you on the shoulder and goes, actually, you know what, maybe you should do this.
Maybe you shouldn’t do that or like maybe you shouldn’t copy everyone just a thought.
What’s the company-wide alias. Let’s use that at five in the morning and see how that goes. No, I love that. I really liked the, that you’ve sort of taken up the mantle to like coach on that cause I think it’s really important and I agree with you.
I think it’s something that people assume, but it’s absolutely something that we’re all learning and getting better at all the time and can always improve that. Yeah. Um, so in that case, let’s get our listeners oriented. So I characterize it earlier as politics. Um, you know, we talk about stakeholder politics.
We talk about project politics, and I think a lot of people, when they hear that word, they’re immediately going to come up with this picture of like backstabbing cloak and dagger your steel cage match, like real adversarial like rivalries within a project. Is that what we mean?
Um, no, it’s very far from it.
Um, and we’ve talked about this before. I don’t like, uh, the word politics to kind of describe what we’re doing here. Um, it’s unfortunately the word that I think people orient to the most to kind of understand what I’m talking about, but really it’s talking about team dynamics it’s talking about understanding motivation of other people and going off on that a little bit, a lot of the assumptions, like you said, cloak and dagger is like understanding the motivation of someone else may mean like mean face value to someone like, Oh, you’re trying to figure out the carrot for them and that the carrot is a bad thing that I have to bribe them to do this, or I need to do this one thing so that my boss can understand what I’m talking about and it’s not necessarily that like people can take it that far, but it’s more like instead of a carrot it’s like understanding the context of maybe you have a developer during COVID, who is underneath a lot of stress and may not be communicating that properly to you might be a bit sniffy, like sniffy at you but in that context, you understand what it might be able to support versus maybe just face value of like, Oh, I need to somehow reduce this person’s schedule or some other drastic thing to, in order to accommodate
It’s more of the nuance of the environment you’re working in and the people you’re working in and being able to support that or in some cases, if someone’s kind of barreling into your team, how the block that. Uh, which I’ve done. I played shield quite a few times. Tiny tiny 90 pound me has played quite a few times.
Uh, and is that like, is that something you kind of see coming? You’re like, okay, I see that coming from a, you know, a few miles away because I’m kind of tuned to it that somebody is going to come barreling in. I’m going to go and be the shield or it’s something that just kinda, you know, you see it happening in real-time and you’re like, okay, I’ve got to, I’ve got to tackle this.
Um. In most situations, we’d hope to have been prepared, um, knowing, especially if it’s a meeting or whatnot or a personality type, um, that I’m as a project manager who is also trying to get the most out of her team, I would be predicting something like that, especially if it’s high risk enough. So this is the project manager, part of me, the risk of someone barreling through my project.
How high is it? It’s do I need to put effort into it? Um, so ideally I would be prepared in some situations, especially when I used to actually manage personnel. That’s not always the case because personnel can be a bit interesting. Um, but I feel like my philosophy about project managers is really to be able to keep the project moving and really that spirit of unblocking, um, fostering a good environment for your teams and your clients to work in and so I’m always kind of looking out for that kind of stuff, especially again, if it’s considered high risk of derailing a team if they even heard about certain things happening.
So I’ve also not said some things because I know it will be distracting.
I really liked that. And actually that kind of answers my next question, which is, you know, why is it the responsibility of a project manager to manage or influence these sort of people dynamics these nuances? You know, why is it important to navigate it? But I think you answered it, which is that it’s a risk. It can derail a project. It’s something that sort of needs to be mitigated. Um, and to your earlier point, you know, it’s the soft skills that are the things that can address it. And now it might not be in your risk register. Like stakeholder may come barreling in highly likely.
I mean I’m tempted.
Right? Like your internal risk register. I think we might all have that actually. It’s like, I can’t write this down on paper, but the real risk is this.
Yeah. I think project managers who are in tune to people, um, tend to, I think, internalize this and that’s where it comes out as instincts.
Um, and people are like Marvel as like, Oh, how did you know that was going to happen but I you know, with any skill it’s having seen it a lot of times as well. So I’m like, for me, who learned it on the fly as well, it was seeing train wreck slowly come more quickly come towards me and being like, yep, that was painful.
I’m never doing that again or like seeing certain behavioral patterns in psychology, like, okay, that person specifically is pushing out some kind of negative energy that I’m like. This is not going to play well with certain people on my team. So how do I deal with this? Do I just talk to this person one-on-one?
Do I actually call a group meeting? Just because culturally, we always do group meetings, even though it’s not going to be helpful like sometimes the choice is don’t have the group meeting.
I like that. I like that sort of context for our conversation, especially when, you know, there’s probably going to be some friction or it’s going to lead to sort of this unproductive conversation and it might mean, and like, you know, as dramatic as, hey, let’s cancel the group meeting that was in everybody’s calendars for weeks so that I can have this one-to-one meeting with this person, just trying to, you know, dig in and sort of remove some of the friction that I see coming.
Um, and I also really liked that notion of. It’s experienced, right? Like it’s happened before and, you know, we got run over by the plow before. Um, and now we, now we can see it coming, but then coming back to your notion of coaching, I think that’s a really important one where you can sort of be with somebody, mentoring them and they’re telling you about the situation and you’re like, oh, I’ve seen this before. Here’s what I did when it happened to me and maybe you can not get run over and not have to learn the hard way every time, which I’m a huge fan of.
Not the hard way. It’s still enough for it to stick, but not the catastrophic hard way, right?
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I really liked that framing for sure.
Uh, alright. Let’s dig into the juicy stuff. So talk to me about meeting strategy, or just like having a strategy for any key interaction during a project and I think coming back to this like idea of, you know, getting, getting run over, uh, especially in terms of meetings, I think everyone listening has had at least one or two.
Big important meetings go sideways on them. Uh, and I’ve personally had everything from like really awkward foot and mouth moments to like shouting matches between partners. Like, like things have gone fully sideways. Um, there are certainly less extreme examples, uh, where just like obstacles just suddenly appear and it impedes your ability to sort of like, get done what you needed to get done or get what you came for.
You know, it’s just sort of, there’s like those meetings that just kind of. Yeah sucked. Um, so I mean, you, you touched on it earlier in terms of like being able to sort of prepare, but I think overall in terms of like project management, philosophically, like why does it matter that a stakeholder meeting or some other big key project interaction, like a, an important email to an influential person?
Like why does that matter? That it goes as well apart from like simply not wanting it to be painful for yourself. Um, what is your motivation for having a strategy for some of these key project interactions?
Um, yeah, so let’s focus on meetings specifically where a bunch of people or one or two people are coming together, um, normally meetings are made because the decision can’t be made independently without someone else in the room, or it’s too complicated to sort out via email where you can just write up, like, this is the approval I need and I just need you to say yes, Usually meetings are meant to work out things or to present concepts to people. In my case, that needs to approve things that they may also not be following my project that closely, but they are still the inevitable approvers. So you have a bunch of people kind of meeting together, usually to make some kind of informed decision.
So that’s why like, in those situations where most times a meeting is to usually come out with a very specific outcome or a very specific direction, there actually needs to be a meeting strategy behind it. Because if your goal is to get person a, to agree with plan C and you’re not prepared to. Maybe do something with planning, plan B to make it less appealing, or being able to answer what A and B is and why it’s not good.
If you’re not prepared for that, then you’re not actually going to get the outcome that you want and so I think always at the very minimum, going into a meeting with a very, very firm idea of the outcome that you want, not necessarily like how you get there, but. Inevitably, what is our goal? It could be as simple as we need to just have a decision, not necessarily A, B, or C, but like a definitive decision at the end of this call, and holding that intention helps you kind of corral the meeting in an of itself.
Like I’ve seen meetings derail because someone was married to option A when really the broad thing in the meeting was we were stuck and we needed just a decision, whether it was A, B, or C. And instead we honed in on A and we still didn’t have a decision because one person wanted A as the best option.
So knowing what you need out of the meeting and making sure you prepare that way is one thing about meetings. Um, the other thing too is knowing the people in the room, um, because like that’s where you get into a specific meeting strategy. Like. Who is in the room? Are they corporate vice presidents? Are they end users?
What did they care about? Like that’s where some of the psychology comes into play like even if you don’t know this person, there has to be a reason. This person is invited into this call and so knowing that is helpful, like knowing if it’s everyone, same level as you, and you can kind of shoot the shit that’s knowing grades or knowing if someone accidentally or on purpose stuck their boss in it’s that changes your entire meeting strategy now, because they’re like, I want you to come in here and look at this with me and we’re all like, no, I didn’t. Why do people give other people for them privileges? I don’t know.
Okay. So, um, knowing who’s in the room also helps. And again, sometimes you can’t know in-depth, um, what, how this person will react, but at least knowing why they’re in the meeting, if they’re a decision-maker, um, just understanding that at least helps.
I really liked that lens, that like probably the meeting is happening because it needs a decision or something to move it forward in some way. Some way to get sort of out of ambiguity. Um, and like you said, like it’s not necessarily that, you know, you need a strategy to make sure that the influencer decides on option B, even though they’re married to option A.
What you need is the right information, um, to A land with the people in the room so that they understand it and be like, have something that moves you forward and even if that’s not, you know, the approach that the creative team wanted, uh, that stakeholder to choose and at least gets it moving forward, but if it doesn’t land, if it’s not communicated in the right way, if there’s people in the room that you don’t understand and you don’t understand their motivations, it might just be a nothing meeting and then you might have to have another meeting and you have this like status in your project where it just kind of stagnates unless you are approaching it.
Like in a deliberate way and are like considering the audience in a very strategic way, not to sort of cram an option down their throat, but to just make sure that you are delivering it in a way that they will be able to sort of unpack and understand and even if they don’t love the decision at the end, or even if your team doesn’t love the decision at the end, at least kind of moves forward. I like that lens. Um, I, we’ve been talking a lot about preparation and I wondered if maybe you could sort of talk to us a bit about how you prepare for a meeting.
Um, and especially like a meeting that’s going to involve a group of like influential stakeholders. Like you mentioned, you know, maybe you find out that somebody’s boss is coming. Um, but what does that sort of preparation look like for you?
Okay. The lens of someone’s boss coming because that’s very different than my other meetings.
Um, um, well, so. Again, it’s really understanding the purpose of that meeting. So normally, like when I’m in a meeting with like a client’s boss or, um, or just a big stakeholder, they’re usually checking our progress or, you know, just wanting to understand, or like there is a very specific thing that we’ve all as a team and my client have decided, okay, this is actually a bigger decision than everyone in the room can make.
We have to escalate it up. So those are kind of the situations where I would be involved with someone that I would consider a high stakeholder and in those situations specifically, people that are in a position of like a corporate vice president or someone who is an executive, do not know your project details at all.
Even if you told it to them two weeks ago, they’re not going to keep that information in their head ever and so, uh, when you’re preparing for it, especially if it’s to solve a problem versus like the other example I gave where it’s just an update of how we’re doing, if it’s get them to buy into something, when they’ve been removed from the project for the last six months, it’s really important that as a team we’re able to frame the information in a way where this person can make a rapid decision. And so a lot of the times when I’m preparing for this type of meeting, um, I will be actually creating either a deck or a PowerPoint or some kind of consumable that is very easy to walk through. This is where we’re at right now. This is the problem we’re trying to solve.
Here’s the relevant information related to it. From that executive’s lens of like what they care about and here are our options like I never go into this with like, this is the problem and then end it there. I’m like, that’s, I’m going to, I’m going to get fired. I will be like, here are informed options of this, and this is our recommendation, but these are the things we’re not clear of in terms of impact and this is why we want your opinion on it and so I really frame it in a sense of like, this is what this person normally would care about.
Here’s all the relevant background of like, why we feel, it’s not something we need to decide because it has broader impact or higher impact that we don’t have good info on and then we’ll do that and so I do that kind of rapid context setting. In the meeting itself when it starts, and we can get more into that later but before that, I will be prepping with whoever else is involved in this meeting to basically present this problem and what normally happens with these meetings.
When I do this specifically, the problem one is. We have this presentation, we do some rapid context setting and I daily, what happens is either this person makes a decision immediately because all the information is there or they start poking out of like, we can’t make this decision because we don’t have this information.
We need this information, which is good information to us because I’m like, I didn’t know. I needed that lens. This is all that I did have and so our executive is like, you need these other pieces and then I can make a decision and either way we have movement and so that’s normally how I prepare for someone who will basically come in, not decide on like, need to be able to decide and then come out.
Um, I’m fortunate in a way to have. Some executives who operate that way. I know some are a lot more Skylar right. To put nicely and so in those situations, I still wouldn’t quite change my approach, but in those situations, I’d be prepared for like trying to bring them back of like, this is specifically the framework we’re looking at.
We’re not looking at XYZ. I’m happy to look at XYZ later, but I need to focus on this first and just understand from your perspective what your thoughts are.
I really liked, like, and the thing that jumps out at me is that you know, some of us as PMs and some of us have been there where you’re like, okay, I need to set the context.
I’m not going to assume that they know the context. So that’s like, sort of tip one. Uh, and then I’m not going to use the deck that I used to like brief the team, because it doesn’t have the perspective of an executive. You know, they don’t want to like talk to someone the other day and they’re like, you can show your executive, a Gantt chart.
That’d be like, that’s nice, but you know, where’s the money or like, whatever it is that they care about, right. Where it’s actually, you know, you need to look at it from, from, from the lens of what’s actually important to them and the context that’s actually going to create this path for them to sort of get to an informed decision or at least understand that more information is needed to make that decision and, and then the other thing is, you know, tip three is like the soft skills to say. Okay. Maybe you’re a little scatterbrained. Uh, and I’m going to just help you focus on this one thing. We’ll talk about those other things that you know, you want to talk about later on, but this is about, you know, uh, sort of getting to the end of this, of this short path here.
Um, and I really liked that and I guess, I mean, Okay. Tell me if I’m over-indexing on the psychology bit, but you know, are you like yes, like executives care about X and Y, but are you kind of digging a layer deeper like it’s kind of researching the individual a little bit? I don’t mean like a creepy stalker-ish stuff, but just kind of trying to figure out, you know, maybe they wrote a blog post, you know, last week about this topic, or you kind of digging into that level of. Who is my stakeholder here?
Um, it depends if I have that information available, like, um, if I’m going in blind to someone, I don’t know. Yes, if they have a LinkedIn profile or if they have like some kind of written or if someone else who knows them, that’s on my team like, let’s say my designer actually has a more interaction point I might ask for their opinion and just get a sense of like their communication style.
The thing that I would want to find is just how they’re consuming information or how they’re thinking about information because if it’s someone who loves in-depth, analytical reports, the abbreviated version might actually not work at all. Um, if it’s someone who cares about like, For example, the environments, or like, that’s the lens of how they want to look at everything, but they haven’t spoken that, but it’s in their blog posts.
Then it’s a lens that I might consider if there’s something about my proposal or my work that can tie back into it. So there’s a little bit of it. You can’t get too much into it because sometimes the information is not good but like when it’s someone you do know, like in, in, uh, previously. Like having a client who is very familiar with their boss and so my client can actually tell me how their boss behaves. I’m like, okay, so this person really cares about this. Um, or this person really, really likes charts. I don’t like charts, but if that’s how they think, okay, I’ll figure that one out.
I’ll make a chart.
You know, just what it’s, um, I’m not too familiar.
I read about it or heard about before. There’s a couple of ways that you can do like, um, psychology studies or you fill out a form that says your communication style or how you consume information. It’s kind of looking at it from, from that lens of like, it’s not, um, and again, going back to politics, this is not like me sucking up to the boss.
This is like me realizing the boss speaks in French and I speak in German and I’m not going to speak German to the French boss. I’m going to translate it into French. So that’s really what’s going on.
I like that the sort of translation process, I think that’s exactly the right way to look at it and it’s, sometimes it does feel, um, icky.
I don’t know, like,
You know like extra work.
You’re talking about this person in this way. Right, and extra work. Um, but like, man, I know it saved my bacon. A number of times everywhere. I’ve worked, where we just have like this brief conversation, like, Oh, I’m going into a meeting, like exactly your point, uh, with the sort of creative director.
Uh, at our, at our client’s design team, uh, and our design team goes, Oh, here’s what you need to know. Okay. Like here’s how he, or she thinks. Uh, and here’s some of the like landmines we’ve stepped on before. Um, and it’s not icky. It’s just like this communication style that we tried last time didn’t work.
Uh, and this did so, you know, let’s, let’s, let’s go in with that information so that we can move the ball forward. I really liked that .
And part of its also efficiency too. Like if the higher up you go, the less time they have, and if you’re really wanting to unblock a project from someone that high up, you need to be very, very efficient because you don’t, I’ve seen cycles where we were interpretations and then it just turns into giant blown up email chains until the next meeting and it’s like, this is.
Uh, and I actually I’ve liked, I’ve been there, we’ve been in a project and we, you know, we spent 55 minutes of an hour long meeting, setting the context for a C-level actually he was a CEO. Um, and like, it went well because it was a very like, you know, friendly, decisive, uh, CEO. Uh, but afterwards our point of contact was like, okay, just tip for next time.
Like, like every minute. Of time with our CEO is like, treat it like gold, please. Yes, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Um, and which actually like reminds me of something that you touched on earlier. Um, you said when I’m preparing with my clients, Sometimes, and I think that might be something new for some of our listeners, which is that, you know, we talk a lot about having a strategy, you know, maybe you work in an agency or maybe you’re working in an in-house digital team, and you’re trying to sort of come up with a strategy on your own, maybe in a black box.
Um, but it sounds to me like in a lot of cases, you’re actually preparing with your client, whether that’s like the PM on the client-side, or, you know, somebody who is, um, a stakeholder, uh, or as involved in sort of. Rallying and coordinating the other group of stakeholders. Um, but in other words, you actually preparing with that person, is that, is that the case?
I’ve been on both ends. Um, I prefer the, what you just described because it’s much easier. It’s more dynamic. It’s a lot more responsibility, honestly, that to the trusted to do that, but, um, I’ve been on both ends where it’s been a black box and it’s more and sort of the client it’s, you know, the team, your internal team, or maybe the salesperson who asks talk to the clients.
So they’ve had more points of contact with them, um, that kind of thing but yes, in, in some of the examples I’m giving, it’s more either preparing with a client or preparing with an internal team that is going up to their internal team boss. So like this would apply to people like project managers within their own company and as a team and trying to go talk to their boss about those types of things cause I’ve also, um, yeah, so, um, again, not always having that lens, there’s a benefit to it. Um, but I think it definitely like when you’re in. Like, uh, an in-house PM team for like a private company or whatnot.
Um, these type of dynamics definitely apply because you’re doing project management for your company and not like a, an agency model and you’re, I think in those situations, the office politics are more ingrained in Steve, Dan than ever.
And arguably more information is available as well cause like, you know, with the agency lens, um, you know, I’m like, okay, yeah. You know, to my client PM, I might say, okay, well I’ve never met your boss, you know, like, um, you know, what are they like? And that might be the conversation. Um, whereas I think for in-house teams, like. By reputation, some of the, you know, some of members of the senior leadership team and the C-suite people have interacted with them enough. Yeah. There’s more information available and actually, you know, I, it sounds like, I mean, I’d be like, okay, well, you know, it’s worth it for me to take the time to sort of seek this information out and get some other perspectives on the right way to approach how to get, you know, this meeting to be a success.
Whether that’s the decision I want or not.
And even if I’m doing back to, I know being prepared, but maybe not having this information, if you’re in an agency and going into a client meeting or a client stakeholder meeting kind of blind in terms of who this person is, um, rapidly. So I think the context is really where you can if this can help.
So like maybe you don’t know how this person will react, but being prepared with like, with the purpose of the meeting, having an agenda. Sending it ahead of time, just in case you send it and they’re like, oh, I’m not the person making the decision for this. You need someone else cause that’s happened.
Um, but going into that meeting and saying, this is what we’re talking about, this is what we need to solve upfront. Helps whoever is in there. Even if you don’t know them, understand, okay, I can make this decision. I can’t, I don’t think I have the right information. Like basically in this situation, you’re laying out all of your cards, front and center, very, very early but then everyone can oriented like, Oh, this meeting is about this. Well, I need to be in here. That person needs to not be in here. You don’t have enough information at least, you know, all of that within the first five to 10 minutes, even if you don’t know the stakeholder.
And I think that’s like a, it’s a huge point because like the thing that’s doing in my head that might be stewing in like our listeners head is like, wow, I can’t spend that much time like preparing for a meeting.
Um, You know, even if it’s really important, maybe they’ve just got a lot on the go and they don’t, you know, they’re like, where am I going to build those hours too, for example, or what about this other project that I need to pay attention to? Um, but what I like is that, you know, what you’re describing is sort of these layers, right?
It’s like, you know, at bare minimum, having an agenda, bounce it off the person who’s going to be like so that somebody can be like, yeah, yeah, yeah, and I had to share it with enough time for people to react to it, uh, so that they can say, Oh no, that like, then don’t invite this person, or this is not the right person and then you can avoid having like, just, you know, what I would see as a bit of a catastrophic meeting. Okay. We’ve got an hour today. What are we talking about? Oh this, Oh, we’re not the right people.
I mean, while everyone’s blocked out an hour of their calendar, you know, maybe they’ve known for weeks and we’ve been sort of shuffling things around to make it happen and nothing will happen.
So I think that’s like layer one layer two, I think is like having at least a chat with your team to like, figure out like the strategy. Um, and I feel like layer three is that sort of collaborative approach where, you know, maybe it is your working method to sit down with your point of contact and go, okay, for this meeting coming up, let’s get a strategy together.
Um, and taking the time to like, build that trust so that you can have conversations like that so that you can build a strategy together because fundamentally. Some of our listeners might not agree, but fundamentally the way it should work is that okay, I’m a PM on my side and you know, either European on your side or you’re a point of contact that is, you know, uh, motivated, uh, or incented to have this project succeed and go well, So why would we fight?
Let’s like, make it go with them. I know a lot of our listeners will be like, my clients aren’t like that. They’re like, you know, they’re my adversaries, you know, they’re trying to poke holes all the time and so maybe it won’t work for every project, but I think what’s like, what’s insightful here is that if you can invest the time to like, build this relationship with your point of contact, then you can have some of these things go a lot smoother than.
You know, then if you didn’t have that trust. Um, and so you mentioned like it is your preference. You will always have a chance to like, build up that relationship, but when you can, um, I feel like it’s sort of, you know, uh, added to your success or like maximize the probability of success for some of these.
Yeah, and I think to add to that point two things came to mind, um, and maybe this will be another podcast we’ll talk about, but like the idea of being brief and efficient, I mean, like, I think everyone can still appreciate, even if they don’t align with people to not waste each other’s time and so I feel like there’s ways you can, um, get people to agree or collaborate.
If it’s with the intent of like, this is going to save us time, or this is going to make this go a little bit more smoother and, you know, adding to your other comment about layers. Like PM’s traditionally not having time. It’s like, it, it depends on the severity. Like if you’re. Trying to just meet with someone who’s about the same level as you, or just sort things out, maybe you it’s okay.
You’re alive. You can be less prepared because there’s less stakes involved. But the moment someone says they’re going to be in front of like an exact I think you need to stop. Like, even if there’s like, we’re going to do this, like whoever is driving is like, we’re just going to go in blind. I’m like, no, stop.
Just to stop. Back them off the ledge just a little bit and say, can you give me more information about this? Because this might be a problem like I would highly encourage you and it was very uncomfortable with tell whoever this person is to stop and that we need to prepare because that’s not going to fly.
And I liked that approach. Like, it’s a risk. Um, and I mean, equally, I suppose, like if you had a stakeholder that was just like, yeah, Maybe not an executive, but just really vocal and really influential within that organization. Like equally. True. Okay. Hold on. That’s a risk because if that person leaves that meeting with the wrong idea and starts trumpeting about, you know, something that maybe isn’t even the case, um, that could, you know, that could be a huge, um, I could sort of torpedo your project, um, and looking at it that way as like DD to have a strategy.
To make sure that the project is, you know, stays on track.
Proper meeting management is actually risk management.
I like that. I really liked that. That’s very cool. And actually, so that, that actually touches on something that you and I have talked about before that I found really interesting, which is that like, sometimes the strategy might be having the right people.
Deliver the right message and the thing that we were talking about is kind of like roles and responsibilities for the meeting and I thought that was fascinating and like brilliant in a way. Um, and sometimes we do it when we’re preparing for pitches for some reason, but,
Um, but I thought it was a really good one. Right?
Um, talk to me about, uh, sort of roles and responsibilities and how you sort of define those and communicate that to people who will be attending the meeting.
Yeah I think, um, it’s good would your team like it even, let’s just say it’s the smallest a group is the agency that’s dealing with a, an outside client.
Like it’s good within your team to at least understand the reason why your team specifically is on there and what roles they play. So normally, like for example, you’ve have a project manager, a lead in my case of developments, maybe a designer or maybe, um, Someone also looking at, um, adds in revenue.
Let’s just say that’s the makeup and, um, in those situations, like technically. I could lead all of those conversations if I knew enough of each subject matter, but there’s also an optics point of view on this of like, if your lead designer isn’t there, your lead designer should be, you know, racking up some points of authority with why they’re there and also similarly, like
I think it, it really is more of an optics len of like, you’re trying to reassure your clients, that you have the right team in there, which means you need some opportunities for this team to speak, even though in this case, it might be more efficient if you were the only one in the room and talking about everything, but that’s not necessarily what your client usually pays your agency for, it’s for expertise and similarly you don’t as a project manager.
Even though the most versus how a project manager does not want to be the final crutch on any on authority, especially subject matter expert. That’s already like project managers could proxy because they should know the project well enough to on the fly answer something, but it should be from like your subject matter experts, point of view and so that’s.
We’ve done things before, for example, where I will say, I will know what the answer is, but I will say, I think, um, I need to check back on that. I think this is what we’re doing based off of, you know, some of the things, but let me go talk to my designer about it. We’ll confer on it. She’ll know what I want to do and she’ll be right in response back of like, yes, this is this because of X, Y, Z, and my client will be like, okay, but it shows some, I think, due diligence and research.
I think and I liked that. Um, I liked the notion of like what you said like you did know the answer. Uh, but also you want it to like, the value is actually the team.
Um, and I think like I’ve been guilty of that before as well of just kind of being the face of the project to my clients or to my point of contact, uh, and them not appreciating the value that the team is bringing, because maybe they’ve never seen them, you know? And I think a lot of our listeners can relate.
They’re like, okay, I work at an agency we’re really focused on billable hours. Um, and you know, if I bring someone to a meeting, I’m going to get grilled about it later, because you’re gonna be like, Oh, why did you take so-and-so off of, you know, uh, like she could have been working on this other project and instead she wasted an hour in this meeting and just being able to sort of justify that and defend that, um, especially from the like perspective of yeah, well, yes, they delivered value. They weren’t just sitting there on their hands. We had a strategy, we talked about it. Um, and we really want that voice to be present in the conversation for our clients.
So that expertise comes through. Um, and I like, that’s a sound use of time for me. Um, as long as that person does have a role and then is it like, is it as simple as that in a lot of cases where you’re like, okay, we’re about to go into this meeting, um, design questions, go to our creative director, technical questions, go to our technical architect, or is there sometimes more than that?
Um, it depends on the meeting and we could talk all day about that but, um, what I usually like doing that works best is, um, I, as the project manager, will usually take the role of facilitator. So, um, instead of just letting awkward silences sit, because I could have like two engineers on the call for example, and neither one of them knowing which one is supposed to answer, I will actually, as I hear things and understand things and clarify things, I will call out people to answer, um, just to kind of help drive the conversation and my role in that usually is of clarification like that. Someone says something back to me, It didn’t sound that clear. My engineer is backchanneling. Maybe clarify it then like when they’re having the discussion at the end of it also reclarifying back and then moving on to the next subject. So it really is a of me moving things while we have different subject matter expert discussions and just making sure that, um, The right things are at the right information is actually flowing back and forth and depending on the why I kind of caveat, it depends on the meeting .
Some meetings tend to be really high stakes. Like it might be like the lead designer of the entire company or, or whatnot or someone who’s highly opinionated. So in those situations, if I have that information, um, I will usually prep the equivalent on my side of like, this person has this specific ax to grind.
Please don’t say this. If I know like one of them, if I know my side is opinionated, I’m like
Yeah. So, definitely
This is more yeah. Knowing your actual team, your internal team as well, and how they tend to respond to things and like, um, you know, knowing when your team actually responds to stress. So like, one of the reason why I prepare them sometimes is because I don’t want them reacting in such a way that says.
I was not prepared for this question. So I’m going to do my automatic default reaction, which may not be the best thing. Right, and so at least letting them know, Hey, this person might be prickly at you.
Then, you know, it’s about like, wanting everyone to succeed and look their best. Um, and not just your team, but also, you know, your clients and, and even the, you know, uh, influencers or the executives that are in the room as well, because nobody wants to look bad.
That’s going to sort of, you know, make things a bit Rocky and everyone wants that meeting to be a success. Like nobody wants it to be a terrible meeting.
Yeah, and I think that’s why like I prep our team on our side cause like we are an agency I’ve worked in a lot of agency models. Um, we want to make our clients look good.
We don’t want to poke a hole and that makes them defensive either and so when we’re suggesting things, we try to like, I try as much as I can to prepare them for if something is going to backlash.
If I have an information, it doesn’t always happen, but at least, you know, we are in a service agency or, you know, a service model and we’re here to provide solutions.
Not really bring more conflict than so. We know something’s going to be a little sticky. Um, I at least try to prepare our sides so that no, one’s doing a gut reaction.
Yeah. Yeah. And again, that context-setting as well, like I remember going into a meeting and our client had just spent like half the year deciding on a CMS and had finally gotten approval to like invest in site core and my TA my technical architect was going to come in and be like, why didn’t you choose Drupal? You could have done this on Drupal. I was like, probably I think we’re beyond that point. So maybe just don’t say that to them. This is the CMS we’re going with and let’s just kind of move on from there.
Uh, and you know, that was just, and they were cool with that, but it was just there. It was just their personality and their sort of knee-jerk reaction to that was to sort of challenge, um, and make sure that they put enough thought into it. But I knew my client was going to be like, ah, excuse me. We just spent like half the year deciding on this and allocating budget and it took 25 people to do this. Uh, and, and no. So again, just like wanting everyone to look good and wanting everyone to, to succeed so that people, and I think the thing that you opened with, which is that. People often come into a meeting, you know, it’s stressful, even just an assembly of people and talking in front of people that you might not know very well.
Um, and just to be able to kind of diffuse that and set up, like create a context in a situation that people feel a little bit more relaxed in. Um, and knowing that, you know, knowing the things that are gonna set people off and trying to just level those peaks and I think when it comes down to dynamics and I’m an audio person. So when I’m like dynamics, I think of a compressor, right. And you have this like a really loud sound that you need to kind of like, just flatten a little bit so that it doesn’t, it’s not so spiky. Um, and that’s kind of like, I’m like, okay, yeah. Team dynamics, meeting dynamics, just making sure that it’s not a bumpy road so that you can, you know, move your project forward.
Yeah, and I think you actually hit on a good point about like people being nervous or stressed in meetings and whatnot and I think this is why, like, I always set with this is the problem or solving. You might not realize this, but I have horrible stage frights and I hate people will actually paying attention to me.
Absolutely. Like I will go, like I used to sing when I was like a five-year-old on stage and like, I would be in the background, like horribly sick before I went on sale but, um, uh, but having the meeting focus on the problem diffuses any individual focus on a person, the people coming in. And even with me, who’s leading, like I’m trying to solve something versus like, people are looking directly at me all the time.
And I think that helps people be like, okay, where no one, they want my opinion on this problem. Not necessarily focusing on that. I saw that all the time or that I’m. I don’t want my camera on ever, or, you know.
I mean, and that’s like, that’s like a whole nother topic as well. Um, so yes, we’re making this a series by the way.
Um, but I really like that notion, Hey, I like this idea that you know, you have stage right and then decided to become a project manager who is like a leader of a project and is, generally speaking, facilitating these meetings but I like that tactic of like, you know, like making it about the problem more than about, you know, your personality.
Yeah. Uh, I think that’s.
That’s the only way this works for me, by the way.
Uh, really, and like, like, not even just that, like you were hosting like a, an all-hands events, uh, or an organization-wide event. So I’ve just, I’m going through this, like, uh, our conversations in my head going like, wow, I did not know that about her and she still does.
That one was worst cause that one was a recorded like I talked for five minutes and I get no feedback because you know, we’re not live and I was like, yeah, this is this so badly.
That is the worst. Right? Like not having an audience, but that’s sort of like a studio audience, um, is actually, is actually really helpful thing
Yeah, no, I still have stage frights. So it hasn’t gone away
That is episode three for episode two, so I have this whole pile of questions that I think are going to be so useful about. In the room tactics, like what to do, like being fast on your feet and managing things as they come and as they happen in a meeting, but we’re going to make that episode too.
Uh, and let’s, uh, yeah, we’ll do a separate session, but I think like just there’s so much value here just in terms of like, Meeting strategy and that preparation and I think one thing that really resonated with me is this notion of like layers that we’ve kind of come across. Right? Because I think a lot of folks are going to be like, Oh, I would love to be best friends with my point of contact, but I haven’t got the time I’ve got, you know, 40 other projects on the go, I’ve got 15 other projects on the go and I can’t invest the time, but there is the sort of bare minimum that you need to do to prepare and even if that’s just an agenda and that agenda might not even be that formal, maybe it’s just like an email that’s like. Here’s who I think we should invite. Here’s the goal of the meeting. I think it should be this long and we want the outcome to be this at least something for people to react to and say, Oh, well then we don’t need this person or that decision needs another bridge.
Yeah. I might even if you’re suspicious as a project manager, I might even call out, like, please make sure the right people.
I like that. I like that as a tactic. Yeah. They might not be the person who would think of that either. Um, and just giving them that prompt to make sure things go.
Well I’ve had people join meetings just because they were on the invite and then go, and there’s like, Oh, I didn’t know why I was here and I’m like
That upfront contract is very important.
It was like, it was on my calendar.
And honestly, like I’m sometimes I got, I’m like, okay, actually I can think of a couple of meetings in recent history where I’ve just kind of shown up and I’m like, uh, dialed in and I’m like ready to rock and I’m like, wait a minute.
What is this about? Um, am I now on the like environmental committee what’s happening? Like. So I live and die by my calendar sometimes, but yes, all of these great strategies to make sure that A, that doesn’t happen, that we’re being respectful of, everyone’s time that we’re being efficient and that we’re moving the ball forward.
So I think that’s really important. Well, uh, we’ll swing back to the, uh, the, in the room strategies, tactics, tips, and techniques but, just to maybe round this conversation out. What advice would you give to folks who want to improve their soft skills when it comes to things like people management, meeting management, and just strategic communications overall.
Yeah, So we could talk for days about soft skills in general.
Um, I think at the core of this, or at least what’s, what’s helped with me is just understanding that in most situations in most interactions with people, aside from just some very bad apples that I’ve encountered in the past. Um, most people don’t, most people aren’t actually out there to get you, even if they might say something that is miscommunicated or offensive or whatnot.
Most people aren’t really doing it with a malicious. I want you to get fired or something like that. Kind of intense. Again, there are some people like that and I would never, ever go near them ever. Um, but in most situations, it’s, that’s not, that’s not the intention of people, especially in collaborative teams that are trying to get a project together and so when you’re thinking about trying to up your game and people are relationship people, management, or team strategic management, it’s really trying to see more than, what your initial reaction is to someone’s response like the example I gave earlier of someone kind of stress because of COVID, everyone kind of understands that, but maybe it’s something even more obscure.
Like it could be something private going on or it could be this person just doesn’t communicate a certain way like I have a lot of people who are visual communicators need pictures and as someone who writes like thousands of words, this concept to me, it was very foreign that I knew the provide pictures, but it’s not like it’s not that they’re trying to make my life harder or I’m trying to make their life harder.
It’s just, this is how they communicate this and I think under having an actual curiosity of like how other people outside of yourself, work process information, like receiving information, just understanding and appreciating that everyone’s different and that they may just have a, a certain way that’s not like yours.
Um, that helps them be more efficient and happy in helping, like having that lens can help a lot with soft skill management. I think it’s just. By just that act alone. You are getting more information about someone you work with that you might’ve had a narrow view of like, Oh, I write all of these tickets and I put all of this text down and they give me one-word responses back.
I don’t understand what’s going on. Um, but really that’s not actually how they process information and that you’re drawing wall of text is actually overwhelming them. That might suddenly help your communication with this person.
I like that. I love that awareness alone is like that first step of awareness of who you are communicating with and how they communicate is that first step to sort of mastering this dark art of soft skills.
It’s not a dark art. We’re going to, we’re going to desensitize it. Primary like mysterious art.
I like that. That mysterious soft skills, uh, mysterious art of soft skills. Uh, we are Laura. I would love to have you back. I’d love to talk about sort of in-room tactics. I’d love to talk about just the overall, uh, like psychology behind.
You know, being the face of a project and being a project leader and what that means, uh, we’re going to make this a series, but, uh, let’s cap it there for now. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been great to have you on the show. I always enjoy our chats.
I love doing this. Thank you. Thank you, everyone.
So what do you guys think is having a strategy for meetings and important communications and obvious thing to do? Or is it overkill? Tell us a story. What meetings have you had that have just totally gone off the rails? Why and what was your greatest meeting? What made it go super well?
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