What does it really mean to be the “popular” PM?
Galen Low is joined by Thako Harris—VP of Operations at Skully Rebels—to talk about what it means to be the project manager that everyone wants to work with, and how it’s got way more to do with organizational politics than it does just minding the triple constraint.
- Project Manager’s Role in Organizational Politics [0:50]
- Thako started as a teacher, initially unaware of advertising opportunities in Minneapolis.
- Encouraged to explore advertising by people who recognized creativity. Engaged in informational interviews, visited every agency in Minneapolis. Two years of interviewing, faced rejections, considered giving up on advertising.
- Received a text offering a job as a project coordinator, timing aligned with the end of the school year. Progressed from project coordinator to operations, overseeing new business and resource management.
- Worked with diverse clients, spanning tech, healthcare, animal products, and more. Involved in various projects, from TV productions to packaging and rebrands.
- Joined a smaller agency with two colleagues, wearing multiple hats in business operations. Positioned the agency as a go-to for quick, high-quality work, emphasizing versatility and adaptability.
- Effective Project Manager’s Importance [9:09]
- Resourcing person acts as a bridge between different teams, understanding and communicating in their “love language.”
- Importance of a well-prepared kickoff meeting, providing a safety blanket for creative teams with brand guides and specifications.
- Pressure in advertising often leads to urgent requests, making proactive preparation crucial to avoid time-consuming setbacks.
- Efficient resourcing creates calmness for creative individuals, allowing them to focus on their work without additional hassles.
- Strategy and production teams also benefit from a well-prepared resourcing person, ensuring timely delivery of specs and information.
- Managing expectations and avoiding entitlement behavior by setting clear communication boundaries.
- Recognizing when to adjust and provide extra support when team members are overwhelmed.
- Emphasizing the importance of holding the line on communication methods to maintain efficiency and avoid unnecessary duplication of work.
As the resourcing person, I believe it means speaking everyone’s language, understanding their love languages.Thako Harris
- Developing Interpersonal Skills in Project Management [16:18]
- Operations perspective is crucial in identifying effective project managers through body language and communication cues.
- Recognition of signs of burnout or overwhelm in PMs, emphasizing the importance of open communication within the team.
- Positive feedback about a PM often reflects their ability to handle project scoping, team resourcing, timeline management, and material organization.
- Ops perspective involves knowing the team intimately, investing time in non-work interactions, and coaching team members on setting boundaries.
- Growth in the role involves learning to establish fair boundaries and valuing personal time.
- Operations role encompasses project management, resourcing management, and ties heavily to financial goals for the business.
- Balancing coaching and mentoring becomes challenging when ops responsibilities are intertwined, as financial implications become more critical.
- The importance of proactive guidance, communication, and understanding team strengths to foster a positive and productive work environment.
From an Ops perspective, you can tell if a PM is someone everyone wants to work with and is performing well. You can gauge this through their body language – whether they convey confidence or signs of impending burnout. When people endorse a PM, it means they handle everything well.Thako Harris
- Navigating Project Politics and Building Relationships [24:04]
- PMs possess a diverse skill set, often labeled as “project magicians,” navigating traditional and digital roles.
- Recognition of the political dynamics in project management, where each role is perceived as valuable, leading to potential conflicts.
- Importance of avoiding internal squabbles and focusing on delivering excellent results for the client.
- Advising PMs to expand their focus beyond their comfort zones, considering strategy, production, and digital interfaces in project planning.
- Imagining an agency as a serial killer investigation board, mapping interactions, relationships, and communication dynamics.
- Facilitating better interactions by preempting issues in meetings and having solutions ready.
- Building relationships and understanding team members’ roles, language, and nuances to enhance collaboration.
- Staying engaged in meetings, observing presentations, and noticing noteworthy details to facilitate better communication and understanding.
- Evaluating PM competence beyond baseline questions, focusing on their engagement, eye contact, and ability to convey a sense of understanding and trustworthiness.
- Trust and Engagement in Project Management [30:17]
- The impact of a PM’s presence on how they are perceived, with strong presence leading to fewer follow-ups and more trust.
- The significance of non-verbal cues, such as circling back on information, in establishing credibility.
- The potential for overt expressions of preference for certain PMs creating tension and distrust within a team.
- The challenge of addressing false perceptions of PMs, particularly when high-performing individuals may inadvertently create them.
- The ops role in managing communications about project teams to prevent misunderstandings and foster a positive work environment.
- The need for PMs to contribute to the team, provide insights, and problem-solve rather than boasting about their performance.
- The importance of addressing and understanding any negative perceptions or misunderstandings within the team to maintain a healthy work atmosphere.
- Evaluate Compliments and Feedback in Workplace [42:21]
- “You’re a rockstar” is a highly positive and praised comment. The impact depends on who is giving the compliment and the context.
- Being called a rockstar is a significant acknowledgement. Such praise may lead to benefits like raises, title changes, and opportunities for more senior roles or projects.
- “I would do it, but I don’t have time, so I’m glad you’re here.” The statement expresses a lack of time to perform a task, leading to gratitude for someone else’s presence to handle it.
- Thako suggests letting the comment roll off like “water off a duck’s back” if it doesn’t bother you. Recommends considering the context: if it’s a one-time incident, it may be best to let it go. If there’s a pattern of dismissive behavior and it makes the individual uncomfortable, it’s advised to escalate the issue.
- “I love that you are doing your job.” – this sentiment is commonly observed or encountered. Thako’s advice is to assess and address the recurring issue to maintain a positive and productive work environment.
- “You’re the positive thorn in my side” – characterized as having potential for humor. The comment can be funny, especially if there is a good rapport with the person. Thako recommends responding in a similar bantering manner, perhaps by jokingly requesting timely submissions or cooperation. The overall tone is not perceived as negative but rather as an opening for friendly exchanges or collaboration.
- “You’re like a secretary on steroids.” – strongly criticized as dismissive and negative. Thako emphasizes the need to pay attention to such remarks and monitor the relationship with the person who made the comment. Consider building better rapport with the individual, not as an admission of fault, but as a proactive approach to address any underlying issues.
- “You’re a great communicator.” – is acknowledged as a positive compliment. The comment is linked to the idea of understanding different team members’ preferences and communication styles. Thako emphasizes the importance of tailoring communication to individual team members, considering factors like humor, motivation, and personal quirks.
- “Thanks.” – expresses a lack of positive feelings when receiving a minimal “THX” as a form of thanks. Conveys a mix of dissatisfaction with the minimal expression of gratitude and a sense of questioning whether the task was delivered on time.
- “You’re a rockstar” is a highly positive and praised comment. The impact depends on who is giving the compliment and the context.
- Career Growth for Project Managers [48:52]
- Despite uncertainties, Thako sees the value in accepting challenging projects with high visibility, recognizing the potential for personal and professional growth.
- Thako emphasizes the learning process that comes with stretching beyond one’s comfort zone, making mistakes, and experiencing wins.
- Personal growth is linked to embracing challenges, learning from embarrassing moments, and avoiding repeated errors. Enthusiasm, engagement, and a proactive approach to problem-solving are highlighted as crucial factors that others notice and appreciate.
- Thako encourages saying “yes,” embracing fear, making mistakes, and learning from them to achieve continuous improvement.
- The importance of admitting mistakes, seeking help when needed, and actively participating in projects is emphasized. The overall message is to embrace challenges, be open to learning, and actively engage in professional growth by stepping out of one’s comfort zone.
Meet Our Guest
Thako Harris is the Operations and Resourcing VP at Skully Rebels who approaches Project Management with the attitude of a long distance cyclist. No extra baggage, no mucking about. As frugal with your time and resources as he is with bananas and gels in his jersey. When not using cycling similes or metaphors, he’s actually cycling or hanging with his dog or drawing.
Say yes, stretch, be scared, do it anyway, make mistakes, take lumps, admit to your lumps, learn from them, and you’ll make fewer mistakes in the future—rather than just continuously saying yes without growth.Thako Harris
Resources from this episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Subscribe to the newsletter to get our latest articles and podcasts
- Connect with Thako Harris on LinkedIn
- Check out Skully Rebels
Related articles and podcasts:
Read The Transcript:
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.
Galen Low: Hey folks, thanks for tuning in. My name is Galen Low with the Digital Project Manager. 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 amplify the value of project management in a digital world. If you want to hear more about that, head on over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
Today we're digging into what it really means to be the project manager that everyone wants to work with, and how it's got way more to do with organizational politics than it does just minding the triple constraint. Also, along the way, we're going to be doing a very special segment where we'll take vague compliments that DPMs in our community have been on the receiving end of, and we're going to translate them into the context of the political dynamics within your typical digital agency.
Joining me today is Thako Harris, a seasoned agency leader and business strategist who is now putting his chops into practice as VP of Operations at Skully Rebels. Thako, thanks for joining me on this, man.
Thako Harris: Hey man, it's good to be here.
Galen Low: I'm excited to dive into this because we got started on this in just a sidebar conversation and it was such a juicy thread and we were going and going on this and we were like, you know what, this needs to see the light of day.
People need to hear this because there are so many things that are just very vague and unspoken strategies and skills that a project manager can have, especially within an agency context. And it doesn't really get talked about a lot and then people have to find out about it like the hard way. It's very difficult to explain or train about. So that's what we're going to try and unearth today.
Thako Harris: Yeah, it's a mixed blessing.
Galen Low: It is a mixed blessing indeed. We're gonna get into like cloak and dagger here, but it'll be lots of fun. Just before we dive in, Thako, could you tell us just a little bit about your journey from project manager to agency operations leader?
Like what got you into project management in the first place? And what types of projects have you gotten yourself involved?
Thako Harris: Oh my goodness. This is in the way back machine now. I was a teacher before and people are like, you're creative. Think about doing something creative in advertising or something.
I'm like, Advertising, what? Isn't that in Hollywood? You make ads in a bunker somewhere in LA, like I didn't know. And in Minneapolis is a hotbed of advertising. I was there and I had no idea. But I happened to meet a few people that were in it and they were like, yeah, cool. Let me, we should meet some people.
We'll do some informational interviews and we'll see what happens. No, noncommittal, but I did that. I did a ton of informational interviews. I went to every agency in Minneapolis. I asked people like, how did you get in? What'd you do? I wore a blue suit. I danced on the desk and I was like, that's what I got.
And I'm like, I'm not dancing on it. So it took two years of interviewing and getting back and forth and Hey, I think we got a thing. Sorry, no. I gave up. Honestly, I was like, okay, I guess my road is to be a teacher and I like teaching. I'm going to keep on with teaching until I got a text. I got a text at night and I'm like, oh, wow, are you still interested in, can you start the summer?
And so the timing of school year ending and the job starting just, it lined up and I started as a project coordinator and eventually worked my way up. So that's how I got into advertising and operations specifically. I think if you keep saying yes and you keep, like your projects go, you will eventually, it maybe sounds like something director, but it's really the thing that no one wants to do.
You're in charge of new business. You're in charge of resourcing. That's one that people really, like I need a team. You're like, Oh, you need a team, but if you like that sort of thing and you can cope and you can deal and just keep on going. That's my story anyway.
Galen Low: I love the, say yes to things as a policy for climbing said corporate ladder, or agency ladder, or wherever you may be. That's how opportunity finds you.
Thako Harris: I mean, that person before me did not want to do it anymore. This is too much, and she's do you want to do it? And I'm like, Yes.
Galen Low: Say yes for now, figure it out later. Let's go. I love that. Talk to me about the types of projects as well. Are these kind of, like what kind of advertising did you find yourself into?
Thako Harris: It was honestly everything. It was tech, electricity with Xcel Energy and there's analog devices and CSG, there's a lot of tech. There was a lot of healthcare, some light touch animal products, some medical devices. But clients and brands aside, it was everything. It was TV productions, it was banners, it was infographics, it was LinkedIn ads, it's PowerPoints.
It's, like product launches and swag installations in Vegas. Honestly, just if it's a thing that people need, packaging, rebrands, everything, absolutely everything.
Galen Low: That's the whole gamut. I love that. And it's actually one of the things I love about the industry overall is just like you get exposed to so much, like so many different verticals, but also so many different like types of media or technology, or just ways to get the message out or ways to build a tool.
Thako Harris: We did ads for a yacht company, and what's funny is, you think that they would have money, right? No, if they sold the yacht, then they would have money. And then it was wait until they sell the next yacht. It's interesting. It's just not something you expect.
Galen Low: I haven't thought too hard about margins on yachts and how that business works, but absolutely it gets you immersed in it and you need to want to understand it. And you've clearly understood enough that you've found your way into leadership roles, in operations at agencies. And now you've just recently joined up with Skully Rebels, you're the VP of operations, just wondering how that's feeling and just what are you working on over there with that team?
Thako Harris: Yeah, that's a great one. Darren and Jordan, I've worked with both of them for a while and we've been talking and I've hired them actually to come in at my other agency where I was to do pitches, to cover, to work on campaigns, and those guys were always solid. So, after leaving the agency world and moving to space, they're like, hey, come work for us and come work with us.
And it's when it's three of you, the title is, I mean, you end up doing the thing that needs to be done, so there's no stay in your lane. I guess I'm not going to write copy for Darren and I'm not going to do design. But as far as running the business and interfacing with clients, it's honestly, I do a lot of new business stuff.
I do, it's almost like an account manager kind of a situation with working with clients, but then it's all that back end organization and scoping and timing and just project management kind of stuff is also happening. But then there's vendor relationships with as we scale and expand for things that we might not do in-house, like illustration or video projects and things like that, where we have post production.
Know, kind of Swiss Army knife of agency work.
Galen Low: I love that bootstrap mentality, and obviously with scale in mind, but in the interim, all hands on deck in the green room, you described it to me as almost I framed it as kind of like a SWAT team that you install to get a thing done. The specialists.
Thako Harris: Absolutely. That is our sweet spot. We definitely want to be the go-to guys where we just need some help to get this done for us quickly, and we need some solid work here. And I've been in the situation where I need a team, please give me a team and like we need to rock this for someone and that's us now. We're that.
Galen Low: For some reason, I'm picturing a TV show House M. D. Put this in your mouth, under your tongue, hold it. Well, it's like they're solving these medical challenges that no other team could. And they're a small team, they come in, and they're like, whatever. Hugh Laurie figures it out, right? By being a curmudgeon.
Thako Harris: I love that. That's what I'm imagining. Let me just steep you in some grumpiness here and all.
Galen Low: Yeah. You seem like the least grumpy person that I've ever had on the show. Awesome. Well, listen, let's dive in because as I was saying, this all kind of started with a conversation you and I had about what it really means to be a PM that everyone at your agency loves to work with and equally, everyone at your company loves to work with.
It doesn't have to be an agency, but we do have a lot of stories under our belt. We realized about what that actually means. Oh yeah, everyone loves working with you and it's one of those pieces of feedback that's coveted, right? For a lot of PMs, this is coveted feedback to receive. But actually when you like rewind and reread it, like on paper, it's super vague.
It doesn't mean anything, right? It's oh yeah, people love working with you. You're like yes, I did it. And you're like, Dude, what? I thought maybe we could unpack that. And just based on your experience, what does it even mean to you when a project manager gets told that they're the popular PM?
Thako Harris: Well, it's almost like caveats on caveats here, but let's just take it at face value. And at face value, what that means is as the resourcing person, what I think that means is this person speaks everyone's language. They speak everyone's love language. So if it's the creative team, they know how to bring the good and bad news and they know how people have their quirks and they have their thing that they look to like after a meeting is the brand guide and the brand guides boulder is like, are the fonts ready?
And it's, they just have this. It's like a safety blanket so that once they see, oh, okay, I can do my work. I don't have to chase, I don't need to like do more work after the kickoff meeting to get situated and settled and start diving into this creative process that is really, it's subjective. So in light of that, having all of these things in a row can create calmness in a creative person. So that's on the creative side.
And then there's the strategy people on in advertising and then there's the production people and do you have specs? Do you have, and if you have all of that stuff and people know that you're going to have that stuff and they know that if you don't have it for some reason once or whatever, you can get it to them quickly and you'll get it right.
And it's not going to be like this. No, but you didn't get, and that's a time suck, it's a, we don't usually have tons of time. So the more that runway into the project is smooth, like I have my tools and I have my bench and I have the things that I need to like make this cabinet, then it makes the feeling of ah. And I think on the plus side of this, I think that's what people mean when they're like, Oh, I like working with this person.
Galen Low: I love that. I really like that framing because like in my head, I'm thinking like, Oh, that PM makes my life easy. But it's actually more than that. It's actually this trust. And I like the love languages thing because I think it is so like core to a good, especially digital project manager where you have to speak those languages and get everyone set up for success and show that you know what needs to happen.
And that you're priming that path for folks because folks can trust that what actually does have to happen. And so you can guide the team and lead them and unblock them along the way. It's not just about making their lives easy. It's about understanding what they need to do to make this a success.
Thako Harris: Absolutely. And it's a pressure. A lot of times there's pressure. Under pressure, people, they're not coming with the namaste to you. They're coming with and the fact that they're coming to you already means you're behind the eight ball. So if you're greasing the tracks and they don't have to even come to you because everything's are, you've prepped it, you've said where everything is in the meeting, you've covered all your bases and people are off and running and they don't need to go back to you to ask.
That just creates beauty,
Galen Low: yeah, there's like proactive kind of thing.
Thako Harris: Yeah, they don't have to go look and then, because once they find one thing missing, then they're like, Oh, well, now what? Is this missing? And then they're looking at the timeline, like now everything is in question, like the timeline's in question. Do I have enough? Is this crazy? Are they going to, know?
Galen Low: I have 100% seen that I've worked on teams where you'll get someone who's kind of been in the thick of it for a while. Maybe they're a developer or designer. And that first sense of this PM doesn't know, they latch onto that and they like, okay, well, I need to look at the timeline.
I need to help make suggestions about dependencies. And I need to PM this PM because I'm not confident that they are going to be speaking our language and understand what needs to happen.
Thako Harris: It's such a fragile thing to keep your reputation.
Galen Low: Absolutely. You mentioned something earlier. You said, on the plus side, that is the definition. I'm wondering, is there a sort of negative or the minus side to this kind of compliment?
Thako Harris: Yeah, it's less and less. I think it's, maybe fumes from a bygone era of entitlement-y kind of behavior where you're kind if you're the specialist, you're catered to and you can post the stuff in the usual places and tell everyone where it is.
And then they're like, where's that timeline? Just because they feel like I asked, you deliver. And that's extra work for the PM at that point. And if you do that, then you're doing double work. And if like you have a team of 12 people and they're all doing that in various degrees, then you're just burning.
You're just burning time, every effort, brainpower, sending them this invite reminder and this path to this file and you can never get ahead of that. So sometimes people can say, I like working with you because you, even if you add them in a comment in Teams, they didn't get it or they have too many notifications and they can't dig through it and they want it in a Slack or they want it in email, like whatever.
I think you got to figure out how to hold that line.
Galen Low: That's the gray zone, right? Where it's you're right. It's a fine line between being like appropriately proactive and helpful. And just being like the person doing the bulk of the work where everyone gets to sit back and be like, don't worry, that PM is going to take care of everything.
All I need to do is like type some words into the slide deck or design a couple of things. But really, it's just the PM will just take on everything I don't want to do.
Thako Harris: And I think that's where your own intuition and experience comes in and you realize, Oh, this person is super underwater. I'm going to get it to them, whatever. It's high pressure.
Galen Low: Cool.
Thako Harris: Do it. And then other times you're like nah.
Galen Low: Good, but not.
Thako Harris: Go back to your desk. I already provided this and you'll know that you'll know after working with teams who is in which camp.
Galen Low: Yeah, 100%. I love that. I want to dig into that a little bit more, but I'm wondering because I feel like you've got from your work experience, we talked about like sort languages, right?
Creative. We talked a bit about dev. You mentioned something about like your role. Like in Ops, like the Resource Manager, do you have any stories about just like a PM who has just been like that excellent PM from an Ops standpoint and like what language that kind of comes out as?
Thako Harris: So from an Ops perspective, you can tell if it's the PM that everyone wants to work with, and that PM is rocking. You can tell. You can tell by their body language, by how their email responses are they truce, are they, there's just telltale signs of maybe like looming burnout, or I got this, or I'm underwater and I'm not gonna make this. So and then there has to be a comfort with the team where they're willing to say that to you yeah, I can't. I'm underwater, can't take this extra thing. So when people do say I like this PM, they do everything.
Usually, it's really interesting now that I'm thinking about how much is body language and how much is the unspoken, I know this person, I know where they're coming from. I've worked with them a lot. When they say I like this person, I know what they mean, even though they're just saying I like this person, I know what they actually mean is.
They're on top of everything, they scoped it they have the right amount of resourcing on their team, they have the timeline is great, the materials are organized. And then sometimes I hear it and I'm like, you like that PM because they just always cleaning up after you in some way. And so from an ops perspective, that really boils down to knowing your team, like really, really knowing your team and that means just being interested in non work stuff with them.
Spending time with them, not just talking about work, just as humans and you get to get to know them and like they're not able to say no. So then and then coaching them on these things on how to establish boundaries that are fair for everyone and important because you value your time also.
So there's just growing in your position as you grow into your boots.
Galen Low: I love that call out on coaching as well, because like, we're talking about things like instinct and intuition and there's no course for that really. You can't go and get trained on that.
Some of the things you just learn by working with people over time and paying attention. But what I really love is like this notion of. I don't know, the symbiosis, I guess, right? Where especially with ops and project management. Ops again, you mentioned coaching, you mentioned like looking out, knowing your team, because you need this team to function, it's not just a bunch of, you know, "resources". We call them resources, but what we mean is people.
And on the PM side, it's like kind of this awareness, knowing that they're not just executing projects in a vacuum on their own things have to work operationally they've got a responsibility to, make sure they have things buttoned up and that their, projects are running on time or at least using the resources that they're supposed to use.
And helping out the ops team I think one of the best relationships, best, I guess, the most important relationships I had in an agency situation as a project manager was actually with the resource manager or the traffic manager or whoever is allocating the team. And again, not just buttering them up and bribing them, but like understanding, speaking their language, making sure that you're being considerate of what that individual needs to do to make all the puzzle pieces fit. Not just, Oh, I need this person for an extra week. Like no matter what, like wah.
There's other ways to approach it to understand their language and what they need from it and how it all works together in the operation.
Thako Harris: Yeah. And the ops thing is in my previous role, it was ops, project management, resourcing management, project management, all mixed together and it was a little bit like right now I'm functioning as a resource manager. Now I'm functioning as a project manager. Now I'm like taking all this and then I'm functioning as an ops person and, ultimately the ops person, that's a more hardcore position than I think maybe is usually understood or considered or thought about because it's that's tied to money that's tied to money pretty heavily and goals for the business.
And so the coaching part, it starts to get in, the role of mentor and coaching, it's hard, it's harder to do when you have that ops responsibility as well, because now you're, you're not just, Hey man, like you can improve your skills to make this flow better and you'll help the team. But no, it's money now, but in that role, it becomes a little more hardcore and that if you see those things, then, days can be numbered.
Galen Low: No, honestly, it really forces that urgency. And I would say even some like project managers, especially in an agency context, when you're talking about not huge profit margins, like the really good project managers that I know understand the urgency of what they're doing, not just I'm executing a project in a vacuum.
And as long as I land the plane, it should be fine. Or I could go a bit over on this and as long as I'm doing a good job, like it should be fine. Not thinking about the broader ecosystem of, okay, well, if everybody's doing that, yeah.
Thako Harris: It should be fine is not, that's not a thing. That might be a thing for three months and then that will no longer be a thing.
Galen Low: No, the stakes are high, right? And I think it's very important to understand that. And I just a swing it all the way back around. I think that's what that, popular PM or the being the PM that people like to work with. Is that knowing sort of the language to speak, but also understanding what the stakes are, like, in general, and also why, I do see some folks make the same journey, a similar journey to yours, right?
Through project management, up into operations. And I think you hit the nail on the head earlier. You just said you have to wear multiple hats and understand what it means to wear those hats and get exposed, expose yourself to different parts of the business so that when you are, yeah, in operations, you have that sort of like high level view of what needs to happen.
You understand the stakes, what needs to happen when and what to say to people. And from that mentoring and coaching standpoint, but with urgency.
Thako Harris: Yeah, when you start seeing the numbers, but, that's, let's, we can just bring it back to the popular PM because those guys, if you could have a team of them, man, but you know, like life, like a classroom as a teacher, you have, this person has these strengths.
This person has these strengths. You want to, you want your whole team to rise up, so can't just sleep chop heads, like that's, that doesn't work either cause then no one wants to work at your company and they realize, Oh my God, this is a, a sweatshop or something. So yeah, it's a lot of knowing people and being proactive with guidance and their, and communications.
Galen Low: I wonder if we could dig into that just a bit more, right? Because I think, if I'm picking up what you're putting down, it's like it's, you can't just hope that you hire a team that all operate the same way like robots. Everyone's going to have this sort of nuances and individualities and that's something that you can coach and work with.
But, coming back to that thing we were talking about, right? This instinct, this intuition one of the things that we've been talking about, at least to me, has been this ability to observe people and their motivations, but I guess equally, right? The dynamics between people, and also just I mentioned it at the top, but just like the politics too, right?
And I think part of that whole being the PM that everyone likes to work with is like finding this balance between sometimes conflicting forces, whether that's client and agency or whether that's, between different teams creative and tech or like leadership, and their sort of approach.
But like we were talking about, there's no like course you can take. Given that maybe, yeah, you've got a team of project managers, they're all a little bit different. How would you advise your project managers to develop this like skill of reading and understanding the dynamics between people and like their motivations?
Thako Harris: I don't know, man. Michael in the newsletter said project magicians. The more that we're talking about this, it's so many skills that they have to succeed. Just, one of the things that I'm always thinking about is the interface between traditional roles and digital roles.
There's so much going on in there, so if you're going to advise the team on how to best navigate the politics, because it's rife with politics, because everyone feels their role is valued and valuable, rightfully but then there's dependencies in a project. So dependencies can imply that a role is more important because you can't start yours until I do mind, but that's not necessarily true because the client is the one who will ultimately, they need a good, excellent deliverable.
So internal, squabbling or chest pounding or whatever, like that doesn't help anyone. So the PM has to, a lot of times I see in younger, when you're starting, even myself, you get comfortable in, I really like working with the creative team. And so you're just heads down building timelines, creative team in your mind.
Scoping, timeline, creative team, but did you consider thoroughly strategy? Did you consider thoroughly production at the end? Did you consider thoroughly the interface with digital and that it's not a, okay, now your turn. A baton, like they need to be brought along the way. So there's just, fully understanding the entire picture of the project and then how every single person in the project fits and how do they fit?
If you could look at the, what is it like a serial killer, who did it? Every single person in the agency has this yarn board of they interface with that person, and that person, and this one's a really good one, they get along great, and this one is yeah, but they do good work, and this one's oof, they do not like each other.
So if you know that in your mind of everyone, and how they interact, and communicate with each other, and get along, don't get along, but like you can facilitate how those interactions can go a little bit better by preempting things in meetings. Like I have this ready for you because they're going to call it out. That's probably going to be wrong or missing or what's your QL plan or whatever.
Do we have time for bug fixes after the second Q, I don't know. Someone who is really deep in there and knows the only way to do that is you have to talk to the people, get to know the people, know what they actually do, know the words they use. There's some esoteric Jira terms. They're escaping devil, but something like about a something in board. I, anyway, I'm, I can't give you a great example right now, but knowing all that, that will get you a long way there.
Galen Low: I totally hear that. Actually, that's such a good visual, even though I know it's like that conspiracy theorist, like serial killer visual of like the pinboard with all the yarn tinfoil hat kind of territory. But honestly, that is the right, in my mind, like I agree with that, I agree that you have to be paying enough attention that if you had to build that board, I'm not saying go and build this board at home,
somebody comes over and they're like, wait a minute, this is your entire company and like what they eat for breakfast? But like just being able to do the mental math on the people you're working with and what their motivations are and what they're feeling and the language they speak and what's going to get their back up.
And how you can get ahead of that, I think, again, it comes back to that sort of proactiveness of just, wanting to use your knowledge and your critical thinking to stay ahead of it. Not that you can control every outcome, but you can at least have considered it so you don't like, step in the big trap, right, in that client meeting.
Thako Harris: By no means am I suggesting you make a web of yarn. That's just the visual of, building relationships, build relationships, understand what people do. And, you have to also stay engaged in meetings when it's not your turn or you're not, you're not contributing, officially, but you're noticing, Oh, he's presenting at this point.
He presents in this manner. Maybe there's a stutter. Not like a physical stutter, but a like misstep because you don't notice that. And then think back, why did that happen? Was there a line lost or, just try to stay on top of anything that's noteworthy, out of the ordinary and then piece together in your mind later.
How did that go? What I have facilitated there, or maybe I can follow up and ask, Hey, did your slide not admit? I don't know. I don't know. I'm just inventing stuff right now, but just banging beans, not like really engaged on everyone's time. And then that I think will come naturally to you.
Galen Low: There's this like analysis component to it. Like we're doing a retro on everything to learn the lessons in real time and then apply them. And that's how, arguably it's how you get better at anything, but I think especially project management where, we go in and we get trained, like whatever, like how to do estimation or scope or, like status reports and all this stuff.
Whereas actually this stuff, like the stuff we're talking about, like it's so critical to being an effective project manager and yet it's a really difficult thing to either teach or, like actively practice or train for, but it's at the center of it. I wonder if we flip the coin around though, especially in your sort of current role, we're talking about, maybe building a team.
And, if you're out there and you're like, okay, I need to hire some project managers. Like, how do you hire for this particular set of skills? Is it even something that hiring managers should be thinking about? Or is it something that you just find out along the way once they're up and running?
Thako Harris: I feel like I can feel it. When I'm talking to someone and I can tell that they're engaged and they're giving eye contact and they're noticing the things that I said and then maybe saying a thing that you know, has referenced something that, there's just ways of perceiving that person is really actually paying attention, not just tell me about a time that you struggled on our project.
And what did you do about it? And, what did you learn? And then they're like, one time I struggled on a project. And then my problem is that I can't turn it off. I just work work, and...
Galen Low: Yeah.
Thako Harris: What did you google things saying when you come across that awkward question that inevitably, I don't put that much stock actually on, I do on like the baseline things. But more than that, I really am feeling like, how do they present do they present like they're engaged and they know what's going on and they can share a sense of as a project manager, so weird because you're leading from this weird, not authoritarian place.
You're leading by your just competence, how much things cost, how many hours, the dates, names of people, where stuff is, the historicals of what things were before and why that was wrong. And there's this library of information that you have in your head at a moment's notice when someone asks you and that conveys a sense of, Oh, like they know what's up.
I trust them. And so that's a quality that I'm looking for that, if I ask people things and they're like, well, they can't tell me a thing that's already like a, I don't know,
Galen Low: but yeah, I hear you. It's actually interesting because as an interview strategy, I guess the person conducting the interview and the situation, like you're almost looking for them to practice that skill with you to be like, I'm gathering things about you you mentioned this thing earlier, I can take that in real time and I can spin that back into my response because I'm paying attention to you as a human.
Not like, going through my little Rolodex of interview answers that I practiced, that I rehearsed before this interview where you can actually like, okay, well, is this person actually paying attention to me, picking up what I'm saying if I had a hesitation or stuttered are they noticing, are they like picking up on whatever certain cues.
I wouldn't say this is like a by the book interview guide, but I do like it as this well, actually show me that you have at least the sensibility to engage with me and speak my language in this interview.
Thako Harris: dEvs, they're notorious. Like they're just, at least in my experience, they're notorious for just asking for things that are hard. They're usually hard answers to get back to them quickly. And I don't know, like sometimes is that like a strategy to buy time?
Galen Low: Hey, let's ask the PM a really difficult question and then go for a break.
Thako Harris: We're gonna ask the PM if they have X, Y, and Z and then I know they're gonna go on a wild goose chase and they won't bother me for the next 45 minutes.
Galen Low: But sometimes it is that either like absolutely legitimate or even that test of goodwill to be like, okay do you have the competence to engage? Are you going to have a response? That's not right to move things forward. Even if the answer is I don't know, let me chase that down.
What can we do in the meantime? Like that kind of conversation. And again, swinging it back to the beginning of just yeah, like building that trust and confidence by understanding people and speaking their language, I think is, it's massive.
Thako Harris: LinkedIn is littered with confidence and trust just advice about it all the time. And when you see it so much, you it just becomes background noise and oh yeah, this is marketing, this is business speak, this is whatever.
But oh my gosh, it's so true, if you walk into a room and the, you just have no presence, then you'll either become that project manager, maybe, who just has to continuously follow up and follow up on additional requests. Because the people are just like, they will do it, like they don't have a spine or like they don't, I don't know, like you'll get tested that way.
It's, I don't know. I think it's just a fact of life, or maybe.
Galen Low: No, I agree. It's human interaction. More than it is projects and, delivering projects or being in an agency. It's, people and trust.
Thako Harris: You're a nice guy. You have a very approachable, but I can tell that stuff just from your presence. You've circled back on something that I've said and I was like, oh my god. Wow. I considered that so that's super awesome.
And then I know that you would bring that to teams and so you also would then carry that when you go into a room the team would be like I'm not gonna ask Galen like where that thing is because like he already said it and so I'll, I will just follow what he said, like they, I don't think they would do that to you from a way that you just carry yourself.
Galen Low: Cheers, man. I think you're probably right. I wonder if we could swing around. I'm just like, I want to play the devil's advocate a bit, right? Because we're talking about this, like being the PM that everyone loves working with. We're talking about how there's a fine line between being, helpful and proactive, but still holding people accountable.
And just like getting drawn into just doing everything that, no one else wants to do. And then I was thinking about it at an ops level, right? In a world where you're, you are that PM, or you have that PM that everyone loves working with, and they're this unicorn role does that mean that person is an, a maverick outlier?
That isn't helping the business scale? Because you're oh, well, people love working with this individual for very specific reasons that are different than, all the other PMs on the team. And they're doing something that's different. But is it ever something that's actually that difference is bad because they're being maybe too helpful, or they're setting the wrong expectation for the rest of the team.
And now they want to work with that person because they don't like working with the other PMs as much. Even though those other PMs are like, are by the book following the standard, operating procedure. Are in some ways, is being the PM that everyone loves working with, actually, does that mean you're the person who's actually preventing the business from growing and succeeding?
Thako Harris: That's an interesting angle. And, yeah, in some ways, it can cause, it depends on the culture of the, where you're operating. Because sometimes people can say that very conspicuously. Oh, you're on the project? I love working with you! And so an earshot of maybe other PMs, as a shot across the bow and this, off camel sideways.
Let it be known that I don't like working with other, I dunno, that's just one of those am I crazy? Is that, or are they just super exuberant or then if as a PM, you're like in your head, like, why don't they like working with me? Oh my God. So then that can create tension and distrust and strife and poor morale.
And, then you're like, well, are the other PMs not up to snuff? And so then that can create a scenario where maybe you're having to do reviews. And then that could further either erode morale or you realize, oh, that's just a, that's a thing that's a specific instance. And I need to, work with that particular person.
So I think from the morale standpoint and creating tension, which leads to poor performance, which leads to project failure can, I think from a disease or like you've created this like infection at that point that needs to be addressed or it can grow and grow. And then maybe other people are like, Oh my God, I really love working with so and then you have this team that maybe people are perceiving that, are doing a less stellar job.
And again, that, just like how you have to manage communications or anticipate communications or have a strategic way that you're communicating. That becomes then the ops role of how do you communicate who is on projects to which team at what time, where, why, all that stuff.
And there's ways of doing that which can contain and not disseminate craziness or it can, like it's the same thing you have to know who you're talking to, when you're talking to them, what they, you might anticipate, how they might react. I don't think because the PM is performing stellar, and they're doing like, really great work, that is somehow undermining the business.
But I do think, maybe creating false perceptions of other people lacking, that's definitely, has to be addressed immediately like I can't live.
Galen Low: I love the ops perspective on that. In other words, if you're a PM and people like working with you don't stop doing what you're doing unless somebody has come to you and been like, listen like we need to find this balance, right?
And communicating that from an ops perspective of, okay, well, like careful messaging and making sure it doesn't become this infection that spreads and takes down morale and, causes attrition that can be made a good thing and not let it be a bad thing.
Thako Harris: Exactly. If it's a person that is truly just rocking and they have, the people that rock in my book, they're not beating their chest saying what a great PM they are and they're not really lording it over the rest of the team. They are definitely chiming in on solutions with the team. They're like supporting, they're providing insights, they're problem solving with the team.
They're, they get that from legitimate insights, knowledge, experience, and that's a great for a team to have access to and can lift the team. It's just, if for some reason it turns, it curdles, if for some reason that perception curdles and sours, then that root right there of why that curdled has to be addressed.
Galen Low: 100%. I was wondering if maybe we could shift gears a bit. It's related, right? Because I think, we started at the beginning talking about, this sort of compliment, this coveted compliment of being the PM that everyone loves working with. And also we touched on what it feels like when you're not that PM, when somebody else is the favorite PM and what that feels but overall, this is we talked about that this is very vague positive feedback. And so you and I, we were talking about vague PM compliments and how to interpret them, which I think we can come and do a bit of a bonanza here. I know I promised only to keep you for a certain amount of time, but I think this is too much fun to skip.
But what we did is this. So we went to our community, to our members, and we asked them, Hey what's an example of some vague, but positive feedback that you've received in your career as a project manager. And we have some really good ones, and I think maybe we could just do almost line o rama, in terms of, Okay, I'll read the feedback, and let's like, you and I just jam on what we think that actually means.
So that people can actually do something with it, right?
Thako Harris: I'm gonna get on my Sherlock Holmes pipe.
Galen Low: Yeah, why yes. Dear Watson. But yeah, I think the main thing is mostly people get these compliments, but they don't know what to do with them because A) they're not sure if they're compliments, and B) they're just super vague.
I've taken some of the juiciest ones, and let's just go through them one by one. Okay, first up, "You're a rockstar." Positive? Very, it's a good thing, but doesn't really add any detail. What would you say about that one?
Thako Harris: You know, I would say that's a very high praised one, depending on who it's coming from. But, you know, being called a rockstar is that's, I don't know. You may have arrived, at that point. At least in our agency if people are calling you a rockstar, you're getting raises, you're your title might change more senior role projects. I think it's positive.
Galen Low: Yeah. I think that's I totally agree with you.
I think it's you're playing at a different level of the game and exactly what you said. You should be thinking about, not like gigging at small bars anymore. You should be thinking about playing stadiums. Cool, cool. Alright, next one was, "I would do it, but I don't have time, so I'm glad you're here."
Thako Harris: Oh man, that's that ego one where none of that is directed at the PM.
That is all, look at my merit badges. So I would say water ducks back depends. If you want to fight it, if it's a pattern of it feels a little dismissive if there's other dismissive things, I would definitely, if it doesn't bother you, let it go. If it's an instant, let it go.
If it's a pattern that's making you uncomfortable, and this person is overall just a little bit or a lot, apparently dismissive of your contributions, I would escalate that.
Galen Low: Yep, I'm with you on that one. I think it's this is where project managers start to think that their value is just picking up all the other stuff that, no one wants to do, and that's not the value of a project manager.
All right, we have this other one. One of our members said that they got the feedback after every presentation. Saying, "I love that you are doing your job." Ugh.
Thako Harris: Man, it's so prevalent. Okay, that is a historical reference. That is a, I was suffering so much under a previous project manager who never did their job.
They didn't follow up. They didn't provide meeting notes. They never did. And they never scheduled, whatever. Again, if it's isolated they said every meeting. Okay. So since they said every meeting, I would confront that and say, that's not really helping me. I guess I would pursue inquiring what they mean by that.
Galen Low: Absolutely agree that it seems like a representation of a low bar, but like also speaks to how many bad project managers people work with where that's a compliment. Like they genuinely are like, this is great. You're doing your job.
Thako Harris: That's not, you don't want to keep hearing that. That's not a thing. That's not the level that anyone, I think, would prefer to work in, so I would see what can be done about it.
Galen Low: Yeah, exactly, there's nothing you can do with it at face value. This next one, maybe? Maybe it's the better version of it, I'm not sure. The next one is, "You're the positive thorn in my side."
Thako Harris: Yeah, if you have a good rapport with that person, that could be funny, like that could just be a funny yeah, I'm going to get you, like I will get you. So I'm coming, give me your stuff on time and I won't be, so it's a, it's an opening, like that can just be an opening to banter.
It can be an opening to like funny. I don't think it has to be bad. I, I think it's, depends who, who it is. If you have a good rapport with them, you can just shoot it right back at them. Even if you don't, maybe you can shoot it back at them. Give me your things and I will be a thorn in your side. Let's go.
Galen Low: And it is part of it, right? I think it's so if you're on top of things and you know the stakes of something being late yeah, sometimes you do have to be that thorn, the positive thorn in somebody's side. But really, yeah, it's yeah, you helped me remember why this should be a priority.
That's the way I take it. Not as hate it when you come to my desk you're so annoying. But I'm so glad you actually did prick me in the side there, so that things stayed on.
Thako Harris: Like a nudge is good.
Galen Low: We got this controversial one that's got a lot of action in our Slack group. Someone got this "compliment". "You're like a secretary on steroids."
Thako Harris: No. Just no, nothing good there. I don't know. It's dismissive. It's a dismissive comment on steroids. Really, like that's one I would pay attention to. Also, if that was something that was said to me, I would monitor my relationship with that person and see if I need to have coffee with that person.
If I need to try and build some better rapport, not that it's my fault, but I would just that's a flag for me and I might just see what, my way of doing it would be to, I would then focus on that person and try and improve relationships so that they understand and again, that's not saying that you're, not that there's need of improvement, it's just something is like not right there.
They need some bringing along of what, what's all involved in the bigger picture.
Galen Low: No, I think it's fair. It's it kind of matters who this feedback comes from, and their sort of involvement in the project. I have two last ones. One is actually from me, and I think we did unpack it earlier, but, you said it at the beginning as well, and I've had it said to me.
The feedback is, "You're a great communicator." And I think we know what that means, but when you start to unpack it, you're like, what does that even what does it really mean?
Thako Harris: Oh man, that is a great compliment though, because if you are a great communicator, and I think I was trying to get at this with the love language comment earlier.
There's just ways of talking to different team members that gets them laughing, gets them motivated, gets them feeling psyched, that doesn't work with other people. And you wouldn't ever do that with someone else, but for them, it's great, and for them, this other approach is great.
And so if you can magically be bringing joy into life, not saying that you, that's the job. But I'm saying by communicating to this person or this group in a way that they appreciate and can take in because you understand who they are and what they do and their quirks and that's, yeah.
Galen Low: 100% agree. And I like that it's it's not just like what you're saying, it's how. Cause a lot of people take that and be like, oh, I must collate the right information and deliver it, efficiently.
Thako Harris: Homie, where is my stuff? I might not say that to everyone, but I might say that to my good homie over here that I've had on 28 projects together and we've been through things, that's just one of the, you would have to know that by having worked with your team.
Galen Low: Yeah, exactly. It's that know your team thing. All right, last one, a joke one. Someone in posted, they're like, best piece of positive feedback, that's vague. "Thanks." And I'm like, I've been there.
I've gotten that like client or that person on your team is grumpy and they never say anything positive. And the one thing you get out of them is, thanks. And you're like, yeah. But what's it really mean?
Thako Harris: Yeah, I've never felt good getting a, just a THX, like a thanks spelled out with an exclamation point.
Yeah! I like that one. A THX is minimal communication, maybe they're feeling put upon, and now they can finally go do the thing that they needed to do, because finally they've, you know there's a lot of that vibe. Is that so weird that, like, all of that is attached to these three lettered THX?
You're Ugh, did I need to get that to you sooner?
Galen Low: Yeah, it could be interpreted in so many different ways. The one that we did have, we went to an agency and we got an email from a client that was just that, THX, thanks. And we printed it out and put it on the wall because for us, it meant that we got to this point with a very tough client where they were starting to bring down the walls, you know what I mean?
They were starting to let us in. It was like, just the very beginning they thought their job was to like, just smash us down, whatever to we're trying to take advantage of them or an agency. The walls were up. And that was like a, hey, the walls came down. Instead of not anything positive, it was something positive, which meant we were getting through to them and we're starting to understand what they're about.
So we printed it. We put it on the wall.
Thako Harris: Yeah. Take your wins, man. Like you got to take your wins.
Galen Low: Alright, that was fun. I've got loads more where that came from, but I think I should try and respect your time here, because I know it's late there for you. I thought maybe we could round out with just one last question.
As someone who's been in leadership roles in a few different agencies, what is the one piece of advice that you'd give to project managers who want to follow your path up the ladder and maybe into operations?
Thako Harris: That's a hard one. I think you really have to stretch. When I said yes, I didn't know.
A lot of projects I got, I didn't know if I could do those projects, to be honest, but I saw that's a big project. There's a lot of eyes on it. That's scary in and of itself, my shortcomings would be on full display. Things I didn't know and didn't even know to ask that, and it did, that, that stuff came out.
There was embarrassing moments, there's shame after meetings, there's, I suck at this, but, then you get your wins, you come through, you get your wins, you anticipate those things, those are burned into your soul, you're like, not gonna do that again, ever.
And so you start stretching and growing and people see that you're doing that because, when you say yes, others may have said no, weren't enthusiastic or squeamishly said, sure, or whatever. If you're enthusiastic and you're like helping and you're driving and asking questions and saying things like, I'm excited to do this, I might need some help here or there.
All of that stuff is noticed, like that stuff, just engagement in general is noticed, like when you're focusing and you're raising your hand and you're networking with teams and problem solving, that stuff is noticed and it's not, you think that's just normal. You think, I don't know this, I'm going to ask and I'm going to move and I'm going to go here and others can sometimes just sit and just stew and fear or something, so say yes, stretch, be scared, do it anyway, make your mistakes, take lumps, admit to your lumps, make less lumps later, LLL, rather than just keep saying yes and you will get there.
Galen Low: Thako, thanks so much for hanging out with us today. This has been way too much fun. So much fun.
Thako Harris: Thanks for inviting me.
Galen Low: Alright folks, there you have it. As always, if you'd like to join the conversation with over a thousand like minded project management champions, come and join our collective. Head on over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership to learn more. And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe and stay in touch on thedigitalprojectmanager.com. Until next time, thanks for listening.