As project managers, we’re in the business of managing teams. But are we managing them, and leading them well? Ben Aston chats with Karl Sakas, author of, ‘Made To Lead’, to discuss how can we lead our teams be more effective, cast vision better, and manage with strategies that are effective for delivery.
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Ben Aston: I’m Ben Aston and this is the Digital Project Manager Podcast. As project managers, we’re in the business of managing teams but are we managing them well and are we leading them well? For those of us who are managing teams of project managers, how can we manage our team of project managers to be effective? What can we do to cast vision better, and how can we pragmatically lead our team with strategies that are going to be actually effective for improving delivery? Keep listening to discover how to be a better manager and leader of teams especially if you’re leading other project managers.
Today I’m joined by Karl Sakas, and Karl is known as the Dr. Phil of agency owners and managers. He’s an agency consultant and he works to help agencies make work more fun and more profitable. Karl, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Karl Sakas: Ben, great to be here.
Ben Aston: Cool. Today we’re gonna be talking about leadership, and Karl has written a great little book, It’s called Made to Lead (Made to Lead: A Pocket Guide to Managing Marketing & Creative Teams), we’ll be giving away a copy at the end of the show later so keep listening to find out how you can win. It’s a book full of wise and some practical tips on how can you could be a better agency leader or if you’re managing teams, how can you could be a better team leader and help your team and your firm blossom and improve as a consequence. That’s relevant to us whether or not we’re thinking about how we manage the people in our own teams, if we’re a manager ourselves, or managing other project managers, how we are managing those guys.
In the forward, there’s a guy called Jay Baer who makes quite a valid argument that actually agencies are pretty much all the same when it comes to delivery and execution. Although agencies might try to pitch themselves as being having proprietary processes and being unique, we’re pretty much the same. So, really the only thing that sets us apart from one another is the quality of the people that we have and how we lead them. The reality is that leading a team is tough and when you lead an entire company or team it’s even harder.
Good management is really about getting results through other people. You’ve got to still work hard yourself but as a manager, your primary job is leading other people, inspiring other people to get stuff done. We talk about our team is going to accomplish far more than we would by ourselves and they need our guidance to do that but before we dive into the book Made to Lead, and talk about that I just want to introduce Karl and find out a bit more about what he does. Karl, can you tell us you’ve obviously written this book about leadership and you’ve helped agency owners, but how did you get into this position where you’re able to give people guidance?
Karl Sakas: My belief is that running an agency and being a PM and potentially both, it’s never gonna be totally easy but it doesn’t have to be so hard. I got into the industry in the mid to late ’90s, in high school I learned HTML, I started building websites and found that I was good at helping people solve business problems.
Fast forward to more recently, I served as a PM and head of business operations at two agencies and ultimately several years ago decided I would put all of my experience together around the digital marketing, the advising and consulting, and that experience being the number two employee after the owners of the agencies, and put that all together and enjoy helping make life easier for agency owners.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. So, you went from a … So, your career, you started out as a web developer, then went to PM, and then kind of climbed up the ranks to leading an agency. Is that kind of how it went?
Karl Sakas: My work was as a web designer. This was back in the days of Dial-up and Internet Explorer 3.0, that was part-time while I was in high school and in college then serving as a PM for digital work anywhere from a few thousand to several hundred thousand dollars in budget, and then ultimately serving as Director of Operations for two different digital agencies.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. Tell us what you actually do now? I know you go into an agency and you help agencies get better at what they do but when you go into an agency and you’re helping an agency out, how are you helping? If someone was to get you to help them, what’s the kind of things that you might be able to help with?
Karl Sakas: It’s kind of like office space. What do you say you do, here? What do you do here?
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Karl Sakas: Ultimately, the agencies I work with are having growing pains of some sort. So, it might be that revenues are up but profit margins are down. It might be a case that things are slipping through the cracks on delivering things to clients and maybe they’re having trouble attracting clients in the first place. Maybe they’ve been depending on word of mouth and that’s kind of petering out. My job is to analyze the data, make recommendations and support them in making it happen as of what any consultant would do and we are as a coach helping people through on an ongoing basis as a sounding board. A key thing is that I only work with agencies and digital agencies in particular.
Ben Aston: Cool, sounds good. What are the … can you kind of give us some … I mean you talked about agencies undergoing kind of growing pains or realizing that income’s up but profit’s down. What are the kind of like typical strategies that you use to turn agencies around and for someone who’s listening and they’re thinking, “Hold on, that sounds a bit like my agency.” What for you are kind of like the first steps for getting things back on track?
Karl Sakas: The first step is to speak with the owner or owners. They could be one partner or a few partners, and sort out where do they want to go? As Stephen Covey said begin with the end in mind. For instance, knowing if the owner or owners want to sell the agency versus if they want to keep things going on a lifestyle business basis. That’s important. If you want to sell, you’re ultimately building valuation of the firm, so you can get whatever your target price is, and terms when it’s time to sell. On the other hand, if your goal’s to keep running it forever, or at least for the foreseeable future, things need to run smoothly but you may not have quite the pressure to maximize the valuation.
So, know where you want to go and then look at the symptoms. For instance, one common symptom is projects are running late, we aren’t meeting the deadlines. That’s the symptom that’s not the root cause so part of my work is to dig in to figure out what is the root cause. I had one case where, I do most of the work remotely, but I had one case where I did an onsite with the client, and he had said, “Well, I’m trying to figure out, why is the team always getting things done late?” I did a sit down with his management team without him in the room and it turned out the cause of the problem was the CEO. He was a great salesperson, he would way overpromise things and inevitably his team would have trouble getting it done.
He also would do what his team described as desk-side briefings so he would close a deal, he would walk across the room and they had grown so a few rooms, and he would grab someone and say, “Okay, here’s the new deal. Here’s what we’re gonna do.” The person had no time to prepare, they were probably in the middle of something else, they weren’t always the right person to lead the projects, sometimes their job was to take what he said, interrupting them, and then the game of telephone to relay it to someone else. That’s not the ideal way of doing it.
There can be all kinds of problems behind the symptom of things running late, you have to figure out what is the root cause and in his case I talked through about no more desk-side briefings. He also had a tendency to come out of his office sort of waving his hands saying, “I’m not saying it’s an emergency, but it’s an emergency.” Sometimes the team was sharing, sometimes when he would say it’s an emergency, they’d panic and they’d drop everything and do it but they mentioned one time he said, “The client has got to get this information. We’ve got to get to them right now.” So, Wednesday morning, he’s like, “You’ve got to get to them by the end of the day. This is really important.”
So they are working all day to get things done, to get things turned around, and right before five o’clock at the client’s timezone they get things in and a few seconds later, they get an auto responder from the client. The client it turns out is on vacation until the following week.
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Ben Aston: Nice.
Karl Sakas: A bit of the boy who cried wolf there. Ultimately I think one of the things that I’m doing is providing an outside perspective. I’m not there every day all day long so I can ask questions that people may not feel comfortable asking their coworkers or asking their boss or asking their team and people share. My job of course is to filter through things. Is this a broad problem or is this more like one person doesn’t like someone else and it’s about that. That’s still a challenge but ultimately it’s kind of like being a doctor, diagnosing things. You take the symptoms people describe, you take the history and you’re ultimately trying to diagnose a solution to the underlying problem. Often times people are doing fairly well and it’s how do you go from as they said good to great?
Ben Aston: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m intrigued, you must go into a lot of different agencies, you see the kind of function and disfunction of many teams, but I know one of the things that our listeners are always interested in, any tools in particular that you’ve found to be really helpful when you’re going … because it sounds like you’re often going into agencies when they’re at some kind of crossroads. Is the introduction of kind of process and tools part of what you do and are there any kind of tools that you’ve found recently that you’re like, “Oh, this is great. This is a game changer.”?
Karl Sakas: I mean, process is important. Certainly you don’t want to reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. One of the things I’ll do frequently is a culture survey. This is an anonymous survey of all of the non-executive employees asking about what’s working, what’s not working, how’s the management team doing, how do they feel about the agency’s future versus their own future at the agency, and I’ll customize that as well depending on the particulars. But after, you know if you’re running an agency, you want to know how things are going with your team. It doesn’t really makes sense to bring me in to do a culture survey every month every quarter. The solution there is to use employee engagement software to provide some degree of consistency and automation or semi-automation to get that done.
Two that are particularly popular. One is know your company, which … or ultimately is helping people as the agency grows, helping the leadership team stay on top of what’s going on. Know your company is one that’s a spinoff from 37 signals in our base camp and another is 15/5 and the idea there is that people are spending 15 minutes answering five questions each week and you can also go beyond that to add additional accountability to it. You’ll ultimately define what works for you. If you use some sort of a SAS program for your HR management, you may have Employee Engagement software built into that.
Ben Aston: Sounds like some good tips there. Let’s talk about your book Made to Lead. I had a quick read through it and it’s a great book you can kind of read in about half an hour and it covers four different … actually it’s five different sections. It talks about kind of some really kind of practical tips around attitude and acceptance, coaching and development, the way we run meetings and communicate and motivation and accountability and then there’s the final bit just of thinking about applying that in your own agency.
Thinking in terms of motivation and accountability which you just met mentioned, I’m interested to know what your kind of recommendations are in terms of holding yourself accountable and how we can do that to … as we lead teams of project managers, how do you … how do we track our own progress and our teams progress, what are the kind of tools or dashboard that you use to be accountable?
Karl Sakas: When it comes to accountability we all need someone holding us accountable. I coach clients but I have my own coach because you can’t coach yourself. You don’t have that outside perspective on yourself so some of the accountability piece is you know, if you’re one of the owners maybe it’s your business partner or maybe it’s your head of operations or one of your PM’s. The idea that someone is checking in with you once a week on your ongoing goals and maybe quarterly on some of the bigger ones that’s separate from software it’s more about the fact that you’re going to sit down and talk through where things are.
One of the tools that I use is something I’ve developed called an advance retrospective and that’s where you write about the future as if it’s already happened. For instance say you’re heading into 2018 you would say, today is December 31st 2018, it’s a great day because, then you fill in the blank you go from there and you could write that for any period of time. Usually in December people will be writing them for the next year but sometimes clients will be writing it five years out. Sometimes they’ll be writing it as of a milestone birthday for them maybe they’re turning 40, 45, 50 years old, what have you. In an extreme case one of my clients is writing one as of 20 years from now and the idea there ultimately with begin with the end in mind is you can work backwards.
If you know where you want to go you can figure out how to get there and importantly, you know I talked about casting a vision earlier you can enlist others to help you reach your goal. That certainly fits into accountability as long as … as wells as strategy.
Ben Aston: That’s helpful. In terms of … you talked about you have your own coach and you talked about the importance of staying accountable but I’m curious as to kind of what format do you think that should take and like particularly thinking of some of our listeners who they are managing a team of PM’s and they’re checking in with their PM’s maybe every week maybe every two weeks. How do you … what do you find useful when you’re kind of coaching or mentoring teams and thinking about particularly how we help prepare them for leadership themselves. What are the kind of things that you find useful when you’re doing coaching and mentoring with them?
Karl Sakas: Keep in mind that the higher up you go within your organization, the more your coaching is going to focus on people and systems rather than specific tasks. So if you’ve got one direct report and they’re a subject matter expert, if you’re coaching them you’re coaching them about getting their job done more smoothly. If you’re a designer at Ciena how do they get design done effectively and that sort of thing. As you move up maybe you’re at the point where you’re managing a team of people who are managing others, in that case most of your coaching conversations are going to focus on their leadership skills, their management skills. To some extent it’s less important about exactly what one of the designers on their team is doing, it’s more about how are they helping their designer improve. How are they helping them get through obstacles.
Ben Aston: You talk about … one of the things in the book Made to Lead you talk about having warmth and competence in your management style. Do you want to … can you unpack that a bit and explain for those that haven’t read the book yet what you mean by that.
Karl Sakas: Warmth and competence is a concept from the book The Human Brand (The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies), which is a book by Chris Malone a former Fortune 500 CMO and Susan Fiske who’s a psychology professor at Princeton. The idea of warmth and competence is that any time you interact with a company or another person you are thinking about it in terms of warmth and competence. So competence is are they getting the job done? People can have high competence, they could have low competence, it’s ultimately about are they effective at doing the job they were hired to do or what you brought the company in to do. Most agencies focus on maximizing competence but that’s really just the cost of entry. Warmth is where you can find ways to stand out as a manager or as an agency. Warmth is looking for ways to show your clients or show your employees you care about them beyond just the money, beyond just the transactional boss employee or agency-client relationship.
Ben Aston: In terms of the … kind of practically working that out in the day to day, how do you apply that warmth within your … say you’re managing a team of PM’s what are somewhat are some of like the practical ways that you see you applying warmth to that within that kind of mentoring coaching environment because … are they sometimes at odds with one another?
Karl Sakas: They can be, I mean if you’re focused on results, results, results there may not be as much time or space for the warmth side but part of the reason I wrote Made to Lead was that I saw that agency owners struggle with managing people because it’s a tough job. Most people don’t start an agency with any kind of management training or maybe the management training was from a terrible boss who inadvertently trained them on what not to do kind of thing. The idea there is you don’t have to be a great manager to start an agency or to start leading a team of PM’s but you better become one or else everyone is going to quit.
Ben Aston: Yeah definitely.
Karl Sakas: Looking at warmth on a day to day basis managing your team, one is just getting to know people as people not just you know, an asset that you expect to be billing 80% a week kind of thing, as is some of that small talk asking how the weekend was, if you know that they have a particular focus outside of work right now ask how that’s going. For instance as a shortcut on this routine probably feeling warmth from you, I would ask if they’re married or in a relationship. Do you know the name of their spouse or their partner? If you don’t, they probably don’t think you know them very well. Do you know their pets names, you know their kids’ names?
If you’re not great at memorizing all of that like you can write it down you don’t have to memorize all of that but those are some examples of if you know that, it probably means you’re focused on the right things when it comes to warmth.
Ben Aston: I think one of the interesting things I think you wrote in the book as well is knowing people’s birthdays, knowing their T-shirt sizes, just knowing people so that you can be a bit more … which allows you to be a bit more spontaneous sometimes in the way that you reward them.
Karl Sakas: The T-shirt size piece is if you’ve got say team T-shirts and you want to surprise people with something, it’s more of a surprise if suddenly you were… screen printer rather than, “Oh by the way everybody fill this out by 5:00 pm with your T-shirt size. I’m not going to tell you why but I need you to do it.” I did a version of that with a volunteer team involved with a marketing trade association venturing as president of the group but before that I was our conference director. So, this six figure conference almost 500 guests and I sent a survey around things like for instance what’s your favorite type of candy, what’s your favorite adult beverage, what’s your T-shirt size, so when it came time to for instance to do team T-shirts, we had that that was the way to go. When it came time to do team meetings and it was you know, we were able to have beer at the meeting or other beverages, I was able to have what people liked. It’s a small thing yet it makes a big difference.
Ben Aston: Yeah, definitely. Okay that’s really helpful now. Finally, one of the things that you talk about but I think is a really sound piece of advice is always be recruiting and I think … I’ve done this myself I’ve the reality is that there’s going to be attrition on your team. Even if you are a good leader or particular if you’re not a good leader there’s always going to be attrition on your team. People are going to leave and you’re not always going to be able to offer them the opportunities that they want or they’re looking for. I’m interested in that from your perspective who’s been in the business for a long time what are kind of you’ll tips for hiring good project managers in your … in the book you talk about avoiding wet twine and finding the new rope but what are the things you look for in a good PM?
Karl Sakas: Ultimately the PM’s job is to get results through other people. They are coordinating, they’re getting effective outputs from the team through managing and they’re also keeping the clients happy in a profitable way so it’s a lot of pressure. You need to be good at working with people, you also need to be good at managing budget and identifying when you need to push back and so ultimately a PM, a good PM is good at juggling that, finding the right balance rather than being too extreme in one way or the other. A great way to keep a client happy is to give them lots of free work but that’s going to hurt the budget. On the other hand you could also be really hard lined about that’s not included we’re not going to do that and that’s just going to make clients unhappy.
You need to find the right balance. For instance free work is okay if it is strategically free, that is maybe you’re like oh you know you’re you’re a valued client, normally a rush fee would apply to this work but we happen to have some additional capacity this week we’re not going to charge the rush fee. The key thing is you frame it as this was an opportunity, a one time kind of thing, it’s not going to happen every time, people can feel special. In terms of hiring, a lot of it comes down to their experience as a PM at other agencies or at other teams. You ideally want a lot of experience you can’t always afford it and so some of it comes down to asking some questions certainly about how they worked with the team you know, tell me about a time when. The behavioral type interviewing questions.
You can also ask about things around specific examples that are or indicators of experience. For instance, if you’re doing web development at some point they’ve launched a site and they forgot to embed the Google Analytics code. You can say, tell me about a time when you forgot to blank, maybe a … has that happened? At one point I was helping one of my clients hire a PM at their agency and one of the questions was around to tell about a time where you had conflict with the team you’re overseeing and the candidate said oh that’s never happened. Okay, you apparently have not been a PM for long and in that case they had been but I think they were just lying and the point is not that as a PM You’ve never had conflict, it’s how do you resolve it because it’s going to happen. It’s about how you handle it.
Ben Aston: Yeah definitely and I think that’s one of … actually telling the real stories of project management is something that we’re trying to do more of on the digital project management because the truth is there’s plenty of best practice out there but the reality is we all make mistakes and it’s how you respond to those mistakes that make us better and that’s how we improve as we learn from that.
Karl Sakas: I mean the industry is only changing. We’re not going to know everything but we can always get better.
Ben Aston: Yeah, for sure. Other than reading the book and we’ll just come back to that in a second when we do the giveaway but what would you say is the one takeaway for listeners who are thinking okay I want to be a better manager, I want to be a better leader, for you where does that start? You’ve talked about looking at … thinking about where do you want to … looking at the end goal in mind or kind of working back from there but what are the other kind of steps that people can take to being a better manager and a better leader?
Karl Sakas: There are things that are going to come up in your work as a PM or as a manager in general. You’re going to have a client who is unhappy at some point. You’re going to have team member an employee who isn’t pulling their weight and getting things done, you at some point are going to have a project that gets behind schedule or is going to go over budget, you are going to have an employee quit at some point and the thing is although you don’t know exactly when all of these are going to happen and there are certainly things you can do to reduce the likelihood of their happening, the timing may be somewhat random but the fact that it’s happening at some point is not random.
The more you can do to prepare, the easier it is in the moment and ultimately my phrase for that and I think this is really a theme to all of my work as I’m helping agencies make things more fun and more profitable is this, if you plan for the expected you’ll have time to improvise the unexpected.
Ben Aston: Yeah, I think that’s helpful especially thinking about those kind of scenarios that you talked about. There’s some other ones that you talk about in the book as well like firing people for example which is like … it’s something that will happen and something that you need to be prepared for but having thought it through properly beforehand rather than just being … finding yourself being reactive I think is really important. We’re going to give away a copy of Karl’s book, a signed copy of Karl’s book to anywhere in the world. So if you have enjoyed the discussion today why not comment on the post below and if you’re listening to this on your phone head over to the digital project manager and click on the podcast section and you’ll find the transcript of the article there. Just leave a comment and we will choose a random winner and Karl will send a copy of the book to you. So Karl thank you for sharing that with the community here.
Karl Sakas: Absolutely.
Ben Aston: It’s been so great having you with us, thanks for joining us today and if you’d like to contribute to the conversation if you’d like to share your thoughts on leadership or management head over to the community section of the digital project manager to join our slack team where you find all kinds of interesting conversations going on there but until next time thanks for listening.