How To Grow Business Acumen and Business Awareness as a Project Manager (PODCAST)

How To Gain Business Awareness

Do You Have Business Awareness

Are you aware of your business? Do you know what’s going on in your industry?

I was recently interviewed by Cornelius Fichtner from The Project Management Podcast about The Growing Business Acumen and Business Awareness as a Project Manager.

Here`s a listening guide to some of the key points and tips covered in the episode:

  • 2:20: 4 reasons project managers should care about business awareness
  • 04:00 – how I use business awareness in financial industry projects
  • 05:30 – how to balance project delivery with business awareness
  • 06:25 – how to build foundation skills in business awareness
  • 07:45 – using the NEWS strategy to understand the external environment
  • 09:30 – discover decision making patterns inside your organization
  • 11:30 – how the organization’s financial health impacts project manager’s health
  • 12:45 – why the projects you choose to work on impact your project management career
  • 14:00 – business awareness includes understanding your competitors (including “non-traditional” competitors)
  • 16:30: how to borrow ideas from other industries to boost innovation
  • 17:00 – the quick and easy way to identify best practices in any industry and grow your awareness
  • 18:00 – the limitations of traditional risk management and how to overcome it
  • 19:30 – how to make business awareness an ongoing habit and improve your project procurement as a result
  • 20:00 – how business awareness improves your ability to network with executives
  • 21:00 – what are the online tools and resources (free and paid) you can use to boost your business awareness
  • 29:00 – using the “rule of 20” to guide your networking efforts

Play Now:

If you are a regular listener to The PM Podcast then you heard me say on many occasions that projects are the mechanism by which companies turn their vision and strategy into a reality. And it is us — the project managers — who are asked to bring these projects to a successful completion so that the business needs are met.

This means that we project managers need a great deal of business acumen and business awareness. But many of us are accidental project managers, who at some point in our career found ourselves to be quite shockingly thrust into the position of a project leader. We were taken by surprise back when that happened and now they suddenly tell us that we also need all this awareness?

Well, fear not because Bruce Harpham is here to tell you how to grow your business know-how as a project manager. In this interview we review what foundational skills you need, how to access internal business knowledge from your organization and how to look for information and trends in the broader environment outside the four walls of your company.

Our goal is to help you grow the situational awareness that you need day after day on your projects by adding business awareness.

About The PM Podcast: Cornelius Fichtner, PMP is a project management trainer who helps his students with their PMP Exam prep, and since 2005 he has published hundreds of interviews with project managers from around the world. The interviews are free on

Would you like to hear more podcast interviews? Check out the links below to find a few of the other interviews I’ve done:

Winning Tactics For Tracking Construction Projects

[Editor’s Note: Today’s article is written by Chris Cook PMP. If you like his article, please visit his website The ENTREPMEUR]

Image Credit: Pixabay

Image Credit: Pixabay

Imagine yourself sitting in a room full of your peers. Some people you work with daily and others you have never met before. You are all there to be a part of a leadership conference hosted by your employer. Your selection was determined by your place in the company. To your organization, you are in a position to lead. The conference is a three-day event packed full of speakers and activities geared towards making you a better leader. During the breaks, you hear rumblings of people wondering why they are there and why the event even takes place. Overall, people are frustrated by the event and would rather be working.

On day two, there is a Q&A with the company’s masters of construction. They are a group of four senior managers who have a combined 100+ years’ experience in the industry. One of the board members is orating the ceremony. One of the emphases is change orders. The company is performing work without getting paid because the work is outside the scope of the original contract. Even with leading questions towards obvious answers, the masters continued to respond, “$50,000 on a $30 million project isn’t that much.” After a few follow up questions and receiving the same answers, the orator finally let the audience know that $50,000 is $50,000 and should not be overlooked. The dismissive answers of the masters mirrored the dismissive attitudes of the audience. No one was paying attention. The people at my table were on their cell phones. During the break, I was asking individuals if they noticed the lack of follow through on the questions and no one noticed. The active listener rate must have been me and me alone.

For the next day and a half, I was trying to take away as much information as possible. There were speakers from all backgrounds delivering techniques on team work and leadership. No matter what presenter was on stage, I continued to think back to the masters.

I struggled with the idea that a point of emphasis was being glossed over not only by the presenters, but also the entire audience. An issue of documentation and an hour’s work was not worth $50,000.

Key takeaways from the presentation:

  • Pay attention. We have all been in meetings we did not want to be in or thought we should not be in, but there are still ideas to take away from them. This enormous oversight was swept under the rug because no one was paying attention or wanted to be there. Imagine being in a 4-hour meeting and at the end, the owner tries to slip in a work package outside the scope. If you are bored or on your cell phone, you may not notice the change and have to live with the consequences.
  • Know your message. Stay on the script when presenting an idea or topic. The message to a large group should be clear. In this case, the orator had one message to convey while the presenters had quite another.
  • Stay humble even when you’re experienced. The presenters had a combined 100+ years in the industry. While they have forgotten more than I have learned, they have not remained a student. They have become content. Their ways have worked so they will continue on their path. No matter how long you have done something, there is always room for improvement. Why were these managers letting $50,000 change orders slip through the cracks? Because their mindset stays the same. The money is a speed bump (not a roadblock) in their world so keep driving over it.

What Can We Do to Better Track Construction Projects?

How can we, as project managers, meld old with new? Why not have the best of both worlds? Teaching is the best way. Have the older managers teach the younger managers their ways, and vice versa. Put an emphasis on learning. Far too often, there is an attitude of “That’s the way he does it so let him do it his way.” Or “That’s how it’s always done.” Why continue traditions with evident flaws? I understand change is difficult. Losing money unnecessarily is even more difficult.

The experienced managers should give the younger managers a checklist for mental audits. The checklist should include:

  • Look for ways to save. Often times, the emphasis is on making money. Ways to save money include recycle material for road base aggregate, cut and fill to limit trucking off site, and salvage materials to reduce the expense of buying new.

The younger managers need to drive technology. Whenever they find the opportunity, go for it. Show managers how useful the technology can be. Instead of driving 2 hours to check out a job site, Google Maps has street level views that can bring you there without leaving the office. Use formulas within the program to calculate how much stone you will need for backfilling the excavations instead of a scale and calculator. Not only is it quicker, but also more accurate. You cannot go from 0 to 100 on day one. Ease them into the capabilities. Open the dialogue for change.

Further Reading On Construction Projects

Construction projects tend to be in public view so we can learn from them. Explore the following resources to learn more about recent mega-construction projects.

Major International Construction Projects That Went Billions Over-Budget

The World’s 25 Most Impressive Megaprojects (Popular Mechanics) If you’re looking for inspiration on what can be accomplished with projects, look no further.

Megaprojects: The good, the bad, and the better (McKinsey) Imagine working on this project: “Dubai’s international airport is the world’s busiest, accounting for 21 percent of Dubai’s employment and 27 percent of its GDP.”

The Trouble with Megaprojects (The New Yorker). An interesting data point to consider is the rise of China: “China is most responsible for this explosion—according to the scientist Vaclav Smil, the country used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did during the entire twentieth century”


Podcast Interview: How to Make Remote Work Productive

Cornelius Fichtner and Bruce Harpham, PMI Congress 2015

Do you work with people in different locations? I often work with people in different offices and countries. It’s an interesting experience to navigate.

This week, I appeared on Cornelius Fichtner‘s excellent podcast the Project Management Podcast where we discussed remote work. As a side note, I recommend the PM PrepCast if you are studying for the PMP exam (created by Cornelius Fichtner’s company).

Here are highlights from the podcast to whet your appetite:

  • 03:20: the two principles you need to learn to make virtual work effective
  • 04:30: what does “remote work” and “remote teams” mean anyway?
  • 07:32: the impact of the shared talent factor on remote work
  • 10:10 the danger nobody talks about when it comes to working from home (nothing to do with web cam mishaps!)
  • 13:00: why you – the project manager – needs to go first with remote work (i.e. lead by example)
  • 14:08: what you need to do before you dive into remote work and work from home arrangements
  • 14:30: why you probably don’t have to buy anything to get started with remote work
  • 17:20: what you need to know about remote work and interacting with executives
  • 19:00: how starting with self-knowledge makes the difference in communicating effectively
  • 21:30: how communication flexibility contributes to your success as a project manager
  • 21:50: what to do if your company says “you can’t buy Slack! Use the tools we provide!”
  • 25:40: get a peak inside my toolbox of the favorite apps and tools I use in remote work

Click Here To Listen To ‘How To Make Remote Work’ Effective Podcast Episode

Does your project rely on virtual teams? If yes, then it means that working remotely is the norm for your project team members.

Are they doing their work effectively and efficiently? And even if you answered yes, there is always room for improvement, right? Good, because how to make remote work productive is our topic today.

Our interview guest is Bruce Harpham who has written about remote workers and how to increase all our effectiveness. He argues that working virtually is simply the reality on many projects and project teams these days.

And so in order to help us improve remote work he recommends the following four steps:

  • Evaluate your current tools
  • Review communication preferences and strengths
  • Analyze the project’s requirements
  • Adjust your communication practices

We’ll go through each of these in detail with lots of examples from his own experience.

About The PM Podcast: Cornelius Fichtner, PMP is a project management trainer who helps his students with their PMP Exam prep, and since 2005 he has published hundreds of interviews with project managers from around the world. The interviews are free on Project Management Podcast.

Proof That Networking Really Works: 14 Examples

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Do you have a “history” with networking?

Maybe you’re like me. My idea of fun often involves reading a book, listening to an audio book during a run or discovering a new wine. Alone time matters! Yet, I know networking matters too – most of my key career opportunities have come through relationships.

So how do you reconcile this tension? It’s different from everyone. There are the “Avoiders”: people – including me at various points – simply avoid the whole activity because of disinterest or discomfort. There are the “Naturals”: folks like Bill Clinton, Keith Ferrazzi and others who connect with ease over and over again. Finally, there’s the third group – the “Curious” who know that networking is part of the story but they don’t quite know how to get started.

How did I make the transition from avoider to curious? I gradually refined my approach through trial and error. If you’re not a natural at networking, don’t worry. This article will have practical networking tips for you.

Experiments In Networking During Grad School: Finding My Groove

In 2007-2009, I earned a graduate degree in information studies. What does that mean? I wrote a Master’s thesis on Net Neutrality Policy in Canada and the United States, learned about book history and print culture and learned about archives. I was looking at (and interviewed for) jobs as a university librarian and an archivist. During those years, I started to develop my networking skills  by experimenting with different methods.

What I Learned About Myself & Networking

  • Struggles With Unstructured events. I find these events somewhat difficult. I found that I tend to perform better when there are explicit points of common ground (e.g. dinner occurs after a keynote address).
  • Started A Podcast. As a graduate student, I started a short lived podcast called “The iSchool Podcast.” I recorded lectures given by guest speakers like Michael Geist and presented them as a podcast. I’m a huge fan of podcasts (see: 16 Podcasts To Grow Your Career In 2016) and it was fun to produce this series. It also helped me to connect with a variety of experts.
  • Prior Research Improves Results. Taking 15 minutes to read he conference program ahead of time makes a difference. Taking the time to read presenter bios, connecting on Twitter or sending emails made it easier to build my network.
  • Set Goals. In sales, it is common to set prospecting goals such as number of cold calls made per day. At events, I started to make goals. I would tell myself, “Ok, introduce yourself to 3 people you don’t know. Once that’s done, it’s mission accomplished for this event.” Sometimes I would go beyond that point. In other cases, I would call it a day and head home.

Leveraging Small Groups: My Approach To The World Domination Summit 2015

Fast forward to 2015. I was excited to attend this unconventional conference in Portland, Oregon. Founded by author Chris Guilebeau, WDS draws thousands of attendees each year interested in creating businesses, new careers and unconventional projects. Having read all of his books (especially “The $100 Startup”), I was excited to attend. Given the costs of travel and participation, I knew it was important to plan ahead to get the most out of the event.

Resource: I wrote a detailed report about the conference here – Field Report from the World Domination Summit: Online Business, Relationships & Great Workshops.

What I Learned About Networking:

  • Play The Host!. I organized a dinner for a dozen people interested in online courses. This was a great success. Kudos to the WDS team for encouraging and promoting these meet ups. The conference organizers had a great online tool that listed conference meetups (e.g. coffee meetings, yoga events and more) and made it easy to start and promote these events..
  • Attend Small Workshops. I attended several smaller workshops that I found helpful. Sean Ogle’s event on “location independent business” was a key experience.
  • Say Hi When In Line. When I was in line to attend a WDS event, I had the good fortune of meeting Jason W. Womack, author of “Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More.” Jason gave me a copy of his book and it was a great read. I have followed his work and learned a lot from him. Jason – if you’re reading this, please say hi in the comments section.
  • Ask Questions At Events. I attended Sean Ogle‘s event on building a business WDS and asked a question about building a business. There were several benefits from pushing myself to ask a question. First, I engaged more deeply with Sean and learned more from him. Second, other people came up to me after the event and introduced themselves to me. They started by saying comments along the lines of “I liked your question!” – what a neat icebreaker.
  • A Missed Opportunity To Meet David Fugate (or Push Myself To Say Hi!). I wanted to meet David Fugate, literary agent to Chris Guillebeau, Andy Weir (author of “The Martian”) and others. Due to schedule conflicts, I could not attend his events. However, I actually saw him on the street nearby a conference venue and could have reached out to introduce myself. I felt shy and missed the opportunity. I’m still kicking myself over that oversight.

Invited Expert: My Experience At PMI Global Congress 2015

This event represents the height of my networking success. In July 2015, I received an email from PMI inviting me to attend the event as a expert. Why was I invited? It was partly luck and partly hustle. On the luck side, the organization decided to promote where I was an active contributor. On the hustle side, I had been active on the website for months publishing articles and delivering webinars. I was determined to make the most of the event because it meant missing a friend’s wedding AND Canadian Thanksgiving.

What I Learned About Networking.

  • Arrange Meetings Before The Conference. I looked up several presenters and exhibitors attending the conference and arrange to  meet with them. It was good to meet a few people 1-on-1 and have that planned in advance. Thanks to Conference Crushing by Tyler Wagner for insight on how to prepare for conferences.
  • Go ‘Off Campus’ To Explore And Bond. The PMI organizers arranged a great night out at Epcot (part of Disney World) which I enjoyed exploring with my fellow experts. The fireworks, food and company were all quite enjoyable. Serious business and learning are priorities at conferences but that’s not the whole picture.
  • Write About My Experiences. In case it wasn’t clear already, I like to write reports on events I attend. I wrote PMI Congress 2015: Lessons Learned for to share a few insights from the event.

Question For You:

What was your most successful networking experience? In the comments section below, please share an example from your experience.


What I Learned About Project Management From A Failed Volunteer Project

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

I like to start projects. But I don’t always finish them. Let me tell you a story about what I learned from a failed project.

For several years, I have been a volunteer with various university alumni associations. I’ve created budgets. I’ve ran events like organizing a dinner to connect alumni and students interested in the financial industry. Those have gone well. Based on that track record, I felt confident about taking on larger projects.

In 2015, I decided to organize an ambitious project to recruit 100 alumni mentors to support students at the University of Toronto. Several people were interested in the project. I had supporters. I had a plan. There was even a small budget to support the project. I also had some experience with mentorship through my participation in past mentorship programs.

How I Failed In The Mentorship Project

The project started with plenty of enthusiasm in the summer of 2015. I created a tracking spreadsheet to track prospective alumni mentors and their interests. I contacted people in my network and worked with other people. By the spring of 2016, I only had about 15 mentors recruited. Believe me, writing up the project report for the board was not a fun activity.

6 Project Management Lessons I Learned

The project did not achieve the goal as defined in the scope statement: recruit 100 alumni mentors. From that perspective, it was a failure. However, I learned from the experience – even small projects need a robust process and routine to reach success.

1. No Weekly Project Meeting

Most projects have a weekly conference call. There’s a very good reason for that! It makes a big difference in keeping everyone organized. There’s also an incentive to have progress to report on each call. Given this was a virtual team, the support and connection from a regular check in call would also have made a difference.

2. No Standard Operating Procedure

This one is painful to admit because I have covered the value of SOPs on this website (How To Improve Quality With Standard Operating Procedures). In the mentorship project, I could have used SOPs for several activities – outreach, conversion and follow-up.

Keep in mind that you need some data before you can create a SOP. I’m still thinking about the tipping point to determine when it makes sense to create a SOP. If I have to do an activity weekly or monthly and it has significant impact, then it makes sense to create a procedure.

3. Vision and Enthusiasm Make A Big Difference

This is a positive lesson learned from the project. I had a positive vision that attracted interest from association members and volunteers. Why? While universities engage alumni in various ways, fundraising is the most common call to action.

In contrast, asking alumni to volunteer their time and support students was a novel invitation. The challenge was understanding the different levels of interest and connecting those people to the right opportunity.

For added inspiration on this point, check out Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk: Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action.

4. Lack of Milestones

The end goal of the project was clear – recruiting 100 mentors. I did not have clear milestones to mark progress through the project. Looking back now, this could have been done in thirds or quarters (e.g. 25, 50, 75 and 100). Each milestone could then trigger a meeting to assess progress.

5. The “Oh, It’s A Small Project” Assumption

If you read the Project Management Body of Knowledge, there is a vast literature of processes, documents and techniques. It’s a great process for building a nuclear submarine, apartment building or satellite. In smaller projects, that level of detail often feels like overkill.

Unfortunately, I went too far in the other direction – too little process. The lesson? Keep systems and processes in place even with small projects so that you can deliver them on time.

6. Ineffective Delegation

In project management, it’s important to recruit and work with team members. In this project, I could have done a better job with my project team. While I did have a few volunteers and went through some light training with them, there was much more I could have done.

Inspiring volunteers to commit and work on a project is difficult. Yet, I could have done better in this area. I think it would have been better to work with a larger team and assign each team member a smaller task (e.g. recruit 20 team members and ask each of them to recruit 5 alumni).

Question For The Comments:

How have you learned from a failed project? It could be a volunteer project, a current project or something from earlier in your career. I know you have great stories to share!

12 Books To Kickstart Your Leadership Skills

Looking for books to read this fall? Here are some highlights from my 2016 reading. Please take a look and enjoy! You’ll find insight on networking, how to learn valuable super skills, become more productive and find biographies of highly successful leaders.

How Do You Read So Many Books?

Reading books is a priority for me so I make time for it on a daily basis. My minimum is 30 minutes of book reading per day. My connection with books goes way back. In fact, I had a part time job in a public library as a teenager. If learning, growth (and yes, entertainment) interest you, then find a way to make time for books.

1. The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful by Michael Ellsberg


After listening to this book twice on Audible, I bought to read in Kindle format. It’s an excellent book. The book presents two arguments. First, that higher education in the U.S. (and to some degree elsewhere) is dysfunctional and overpriced and no longer the only path to living the good life. The second argument, forming the majority of the book, is an explanation of key business success skills: sales, marketing, networking and more.

Rating: 5/5



2. The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever by Bryan Franklin and Michael Ellsberg

The Last Safe Investment

This ambitious book seeks to take on the financial industry and describe a better way. In some ways, the book is structurally similar to “The Education of Millionaires.” The authors start by describing a large scale system they describe as broken (i.e. the financial services industry) and then propose solutions. There are interesting concepts here such as the Happiness Exchange Rate and Super Skills. In some cases, I found that there was no quite enough examples and evidence to back up the book’s points. There is still much to be gained from reading this book.

Rating: 4/5

3. The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

The Productivity Project

What strategies and techniques actually work in productivity? That’s the premise of Bailey’s book. It’s an excellent book that covers both tactical points and big picture issues (e.g. taking care of your mind and body make a big impact). The author’s website is also an excellent resource of articles that combine serious and playful explorations of productivity (e.g. 5 huge lessons I learned binge-watching Netflix for a month and 10 huge productivity lessons I learned working 90-hour weeks last month).

Rating: 5/5

Tip: Curious to learn more about this book? Read my book review of The Productivity Project.


4. Networking with the Affluent Paperback by Thomas Stanley

Networking With The Affluent

Networking is one of the most powerful skills to develop, yet many people struggle with it. Ever heard the tip to “give value to your network” and wondered what exactly that means? In this book, Stanley gives you plenty of practical examples. For example, write to elected officials to support causes that people in your network care about (assuming you have a similar position). Even better, refer customers to people in your network.

Note: the book is aimed at sales professionals and professional services providers (e.g. imagine you are an accountant looking to building your practice with affluent clients). With a bit of creative thought and reflection, you can apply much of the book’s insights to your career even if you are not in sales.

Tip: Readers ask me how to make the most of conferences. Check out this resource: “How To Get The Most Value From Conferences In 6 Steps

Rating: 4.5 / 5 (The book’s dated examples are sometimes tiresome. Don’t let that stop you from obtaining valuable insights!)

5. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant


Earlier in 2016, I had the opportunity to see Grant speak at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Grant’s work shows why being a giver in life and business improves productivity and performance. Grant’s dedication to field research sets this book apart from many books written by professors. The final section of the book covers how to apply the book’s insights.

Rating: 5/5



6. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Originals Adam Grant

What does it mean to make an original contribution? Grant shows that novelty and logic is not enough to bring a new idea to life. Sometimes you have to take an indirect approach. As I grow my platform and see more of the world, creativity is a growing concern for me. It was well worth it to read this book. Oh, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote the forward.

Bonus: Check out Grant’s TED talk The surprising habits of original thinkers.

Rating: 5/5



7. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup

What does it take to create a successful product and business with a minimum of wasted time and money? That’s the question that Ries explores in the book. I like that he refers to his own startup experience in developing the book. If you are interested in finding out more about tech startups and their approach to innovation, this is the book for you.

Rating: 4/5 (I found some of the book’s concepts difficult to apply. However, there is a community of fans and consultants who can help you apply the book’s concepts!)



8. Eleanor Roosevelt Vol 1 & 2 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Eleanor Roosevelt Vol 1

I picked up theses books after I saw that Ryan Holiday recommended them. Wow! What an interesting life – full of change, activity and overcoming disappointments. Did you know that some insiders encouraged ER to run for President in 1940? ER did not hold public office yet she wielded tremendous influence through her network, publishing and activism. These books took weeks to read – it was well worth the effort.

My favourite Roosevelt biography remains The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. His boundless energy, work ethic and accomplishments remind me to keep working away at my goals.

Note: Volume 3 in the series, covering 1939-1962, is expected for release later in 2016. I may well read on my end of year vacation.

Rating: 5/5

9. The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins

The First 90 Days

Executives and managers starting a new job face special challenges to get up to speed. In this book, you will learn how to make the most of your early days in a new role. Watkins emphasizes the importance of listening and learning before you start to make changes. You can read this book in a weekend: short, to the point and helpful.

Rating: 5/5 (Project Managers: think about applying this book’s concepts when you start a new project especially if you are working with a new team).



10. Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do by Chris Guillebeau

Born For This Book Cover

I have followed Guillebeau’s work for years with great interest. In some ways, he is an inspiration for the work I do on this website (see: 279 Days to Overnight Success which inspires me to continue my work). In this book, Guillebeau explores how to find a career that suits you. To get you started, there are some helpful resources on the Born For This book website such as how to start a side hustle.

Rating: 4/5 (I think his earlier book “The $100 Startup” was stronger. If you’re looking for tips on how to make it big in the Fortune 500, this is not the book for you.)

Tip: Curious about Guillebeau’s annual conference, “The World Domination Summit”? Read my article Field Report from the World Domination Summit.

11. Becoming The Boss : New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders by Lindsey Pollak

Becoming The Boss Book Cover

You’ve been promoted! Now what? That’s some of what you’ll learn in Pollak’s book. I like that she targeted her approach to the Millennial generation though much of the book will apply to others. Most career management books for this generation focus on the first job, so it is great to see this broader perspective.

Rating: 4/5




12. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Coaching Habit

The best leaders develop their staff. You can’t accomplish that if you never listen and treat your staff like a pair of hands. In his timely new book, you will learn the fundamental coaching skills. Want the ultra-brief version? “Listen more and ask more questions.”

Rating: 4/5

Hat Tip: Today’s post is inspired by James Clear’s book article: Book Summaries: Popular Books Summarized in 3 Sentences or Less.



Question For The Comments:

What book have you read this year to grow your leadership skills?

Escape From Shallow Work with “Deep Work” (Book Review)

Deep Work by Cal Newport Book Cover

I finished reading Cal Newport‘s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World a few days ago. It has adjusted my thinking on productivity. The classic productivity books like Getting Things Done by David Allen (want to know more? read this: Leading Yourself With Getting Things Done) are often interpreted as a ‘task management system.’ Newport’s book argues that raw task accomplishment is not enough. We need to focus our energy on high value activities or or what he calls “deep work.”

Two Ways To Think About Your Work

Through book, Newport regularly compares and contrasts shallow and deep work. Let’s clarify with his definitions:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The degree to which the work is demanding on your capabilities is a key point. Newport also makes an economic distinction. With few exceptions, deep work tends to produce greater value and rewards. Why? Deep work tends to lead to mastery, new insights and improved skills. If deep work is so great, why don’t we practice it already? It comes down to distraction.

Why You You’re So Distracted: The Impact of Habit Forming Products

What comes to mind when you read the phrase ‘habit forming products’? Tobacco? For many of us, that’s not the challenge. Instead, the challenge is how and when to use what Newport calls “network tools.” In that broad category, he includes Facebook, email, social media, smart phones and more. It’s no accident these products and services are constantly grabbing your attention. A recent book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products delves into the psychology and methods to create this distracting (addictive?) products. If you find it difficult to focus, it’s not entirely your fault. There’s an industry of designers, engineers and consultants who are working at making these services difficult to resist.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, so what can I do about this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading!

Identify The High Value Activities For Your Profession

Doing the right work is underappreciated. Usually, there are a few activities truly matter. For research professors seeking tenure, publishing articles in highly respected publications is the most important activity. For sales professionals, time spent interacting with qualified prospects is the most important activity. I’m keen on this principle. Yet, I’m struggling with how to apply it to analyst roles or project management jobs. “Deliver the project” seems too broad. Perhaps the application is to aggressive manage the most important person (i.e. your boss, the client or the sponsor) because neglected clients will tend to get upset even if the project metrics look good.

Read: “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan.

Use Fixed Schedule Productivity

In the productivity world, there’s an ongoing debate between focusing on your schedule versus focusing on your task list. Clearly both matter; it is a question of priority. I like to use the “3 big tasks” each day strategy where each of the tasks connects to my annual goals (i.e. write and promoting this blog post connects to my goal to grow my email list – you can sign up here: Sign Up For the ProjectManagementHacks Email Newsletter). Newport makes the case for using a schedule approach.

Read the following article for a detailed explanation of this approach: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

Improve Your Email Habits

Handling email is a major source of shallow work for all professionals – especially those who work in project management. Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s suggestions to cut back on email. Remember, the point of cutting back on email is to free up time to work on deep work activity.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

Newport uses his practice of discouraging email correspondents with this example:

If you want to reach me, I offer only a special-purpose e-mail address that comes with conditions and a lowered expectation that I’ll respond: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.

Evaluation: I love the principle but it will likely be very difficult to adopt if you are an employee. If you have a way in mind to implement this idea, please share by writing a comment below.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

It’s easy to dash off a quick response simply to “get it off your plate.” Newport points out this frantic approach often generate even more email because others need clarification. How do you improve? Newport’s solution is to use templates and a process approach to improve email.

The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly (something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you’re not careful about your replies).

Example: You need to arrange a meeting time with a coworker.

Bad Approach: “Let’s meet sometime”

Better Approach: “Let’s meet at the following dates and times (3 options).”

Evaluation: Yes, this is a fantastic principle!

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Could silence be the best solution to never ending email? Here is Newport’s explanation:

As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

Evaluation: An interesting approach! It reminds me of email strategy that Tim Ferriss advocates in The 4 Hour Workweek.

Question For The Comment Section:

How do you improve your focus on high value deep work activities?

JP Morgan Chase & Co Project Manager Profile: Paul Rezaie

Paul Rezaie

Paul Rezaie, PMP

Modern banks offer a wide variety of products and services: commercial banking, loans, credit cards, investment services and more. How do project managers contribute to banking success? In this article, Paul Rezaie, Project Manager at JPMorgan Chase & Co, shares his career journey including what’s he learned working at JP Morgan Chase & Co.

Company Profile: JP Morgan Chase & Co

  • Established in 1799 (The History of JPMorgan Chase & Co)
  • Services and Products: retail banking, investment banking, asset management and commercial banking are the company’s main offerings. In this interview, Paul focuses on the company’s payments products.
  • Global Operations: the bank has operations in over 100 countries.
  • Staff: The global bank has over 230,000 employees.
  • 2015 Revenue: $95 billion (net income $24 billion)


1. What did you study in school? What were your favorite areas?

I studied Information Technology at York University, I went to school to learn about technology and I fell in love with philosophy when I took an ethics course. Looking back, my favorite philosophers were Aristotle and Socrates.

2. What was an early project that ignited your interest in the field?

I met the CEO of Loony Host, a web hosting company, and he asked me to create a project to boost his business. In 2005, I worked on improving the business. He gave me free range: I hired sales representatives, technical staff, wrote sales scripts, schedules, product sheets, support documents, and made sales. The project brought in $100,000 in revenue. After running this project, I was hooked on project management.

3. Thinking back to one of your first projects, what was a mistake you made that you have learned from?

I would do a lot of small projects for small businesses and on a couple projects, there were signs that the client wouldn’t be able to pay, but I still moved forward on the project in good faith. I would deliver the project but wouldn’t get paid. I encountered these challenges when I worked with new companies and single person companies. After those experiences, I decided to change my focus and work with large, established firms instead.

4. What is a personal habit you practice to maintain your productivity? 

I have two regular habits to boost my productivity.

First, I use the website. It’s a cognitive enhancement website that is created by neurologists. After 6 months of practice, I felt like I have a whole new mind. I’ve noticed that I have improved decision making abilities, better memory and improved focus. Second, I have a daily exercise habit where I work out in the morning and in the evening.

Current Role

4. How did you get hired to your current role? What was the process?

I regularly made small talk with project managers in the PMO department at JP Morgan Chase. It turns out that there is little attrition in the department – they haven’t hired anyone in 8 years. But I got my break! I heard there was an opening, I prepared my resume, regularly checked the job board and when It got posted, I was the first to apply. I got an interview, I played my strong suite and then a second interview and got offered the job. My industry experience and the fact that I had a PMP were important factors in landing the job.

5. What is a project you worked on or managed that you’re proud of and why?

I am currently managing the release of a payment product.

Getting the business ready for Debit MasterCard has been a great experience. I worked with a team across North America. I am proud of this project because I got to see all the moving parts involved in payments. For example, I have learned about payment terminals, point of sale payments, credit cards, contactless payments, bank issuers and payments technology.  I feel proud to have brought to market a unique form of payment that will be around for a long time to come

6. What industry trends are important to your work? 

How people spend their money is important to my work. It’s also interesting to notice the rising popularity of credit card and contactless card payments over cash. My work is also impacted by payment terminal upgrades and company budget issues.

7. What is something special about the company’s culture that few people know about?

JPMorgan is a unique company in that the former CEO David Rockefeller paved the way for the financial industry that touches the lives of every person that comes into contact with the monetary system. The company has a huge art collection, and archives that has the first every printed dollar bill in the US. The heritage here goes deep…. 200 years deep and the company proudly displays and shares reminders of the accomplishments and successes. I’m proud of Jamie Dimon, CEO of the company since 2005, for the amazing work he does. Thanks to him, we were one of the few major banks to earn a during the 2008 recession.

Professional Development

8. What was the most valuable professional development activity you’ve completed?

In July 2015, I earned the PMP certification. It has been highly valuable: every company recognizes it and it has a positive impact on compensation.

9. If you could give two books to someone else to help them achieve career success, what would they be?

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. A key lesson from Carnegie’s book: Don’t criticize people.

Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents by William Ury. A key lesson from this book: “You are your biggest opponent” in negotiations.

10. What is your approach to building and maintaining your network? 

I attend events such as Toronto Babel and found it a good way to meet new people. I have also found it worthwhile to attend conferences such as IBM’s Outthink conference about IBM Watson. When I get to know people at events and conferences, I follow up by adding them as a connection on LinkedIn.


11. Any parting words of advice to reader?

Seek help, talk to professionals that can help you better understand yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. From this point you can work on your weakness and market your strengths.

It’s also to work for a company you believe in. The philosophy of JPMorgan has encouraged me to be a better person, a stronger member of my community and more financially savvy.

12. What’s the best way for readers to get in touch with you?

Add me as a connection on LinkedIn.

FedEx Project Manager Profile: Leigh Espy

Leigh Photo

Leigh Espy, FedEx Project Manager

What is like to work as a project manager? The easy answer is “it depends.” That’s true but it doesn’t really tell us much. In today’s article, you will hear directly from Leigh Espy about her journey into project management success at FedEx.

FedEx Profile

  • Established in 1971.
  • Services and Products: global delivery of letters, parcels and packages to over 200 countries and territories. In 2013, the company delivered 1.5 million items on Mother’s Day.
  • 2015 Revenue: over $47 billion U.S. ($2.57 billion net income)

1. What did you study in school?

I studied political science for my undergraduate degree and went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology. This led me to a project coordinator position in local government early in my career. Through many discussions with my husband – who works in software development – I discovered an interest in the technology field.

2. What was an early project that ignited your interest in the field?

In 2003, I managed a project to set up a new customer at my company’s data center. The customer needed a delivery date that was unrealistic and would not be possible the way it was laid out. It was a growth experience for me because it involved coming together with the customer to identify creative solutions to meet their needs. I had to be comfortable with transparency and being honest about what was realistic, and still demonstrate a willingness to find a way to make it work for everyone. We settled on a staged delivery, and first delivered the most critical components within the customer’s required timeline, yet were able to deliver some components afterward. The project was successful and the customer was happy.

3. Thinking back to one of your first projects, what was a mistake you made that you have learned from?

Omitting impacted parties during planning was an early mistake I learned from. I recall a project where we were close to going live. There was one team that would be impacted and we had not communicated with them. As a result, a key question I ask today on every project is: “Who else is going to be impacted?” I don’t want surprises at toward the end of a project.

4. What is a personal habit you practice to maintain productivity each day?

There are two habits that give me a foundation to perform. Sleep: without a proper amount of sleep each night, my performance suffers noticeably. Watching what I eat matters as well – some foods make me feel tired and I avoid these. There are other productivity habits I layer on top of these, but these are two foundation behaviors that I consider non-negotiable for myself.

5. How did you get hired to your current job at FedEx?

I was hired as a project manager at FexEx in Memphis, Tennessee by applying to an online posting. I knew from others who work there that FedEx is a great company. I sent out a query to find out if they knew of any positions available. Fortunately, I had a friend there who told me about an an opening on his team. I applied and got the job, and now I know first-hand how fantastic the company is.

6. What is a project you worked on or managed that you’re proud of and why?

I led an effort to develop a risk-based software development process. We developed the process with input from the user community, including business partners as well. It had global impact so it gave us a great opportunity to reach out and make contacts around the world. It was a process change that had real impact to the use community, to make their work easier while still maintaining the quality and compliance requirements we must meet as a publicly traded company.

7. What industry trends are important to your work?

My team has adopted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) in the last two years. It’s been fun to learn new approaches after having followed waterfall methodology for so many years. I realize that Agile is not the right fit for every project, but I’ve enjoyed adding a new approach to my skillset.

8. What is something special about Federal Express’s culture?

FedEx is well known for the expression: people, service, profit. When we take care of employees, profits and other business results will follow. Staff are well supported here through learning and development, employee recognition and support for philanthropic efforts.

In the community service area, FedEx has a lot to offer. For example, some staff volunteer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. The company is also involved in emergency relief efforts by offering planes and other infrastructure.

FedEx has repeatedly been recognized as a top employer in several publications including Fortune Magazine’s 2013 Best Companies To Work For List.

9. What was the most valuable professional development activity (e.g. seminar, course, conference) you’ve attended and why?

I took two courses with Rita Mulcahy early in my career: a PMP exam preparation course and an introduction to project management. These courses gave me a more solid foundation and added confidence as I transitioned into IT project management. This move impacted the trajectory of my career.

  • Editor’s Note: Rita Mulcahy passed away in 2010. Her company, RMC Learning Solutions, continues to provide a variety of project management books and training resources.

10. If you could give two books to someone else to help them achieve career success, what would they be?

Ryan Holiday’s book, “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.” Drawing on Stoic philosophy, this book shows how and why to view challenges as opportunities for growth. Further, Holiday reminds us that challenges will always be with us.

Steven Kotler’s book, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.” This book emphasizes the importance of a flow state in achieving productivity in our work and activities.

11. What is your approach to building and maintaining your network?

My networking philosophy is to reach out and offer value to other people. To succeed in networking, you need to be intentional and proactive. One way to add value is to share good resources with your network by posting on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m a fan of promoting the great work of others to support their success. It’s easy to do, and can have a positive outcome – either for the producer of the work, or for someone it touches.

  • Editor’s Note: Leigh first introduced herself to me by commenting on a blog post and then joined my email list.

12. Any parting words of advice to reader?

Get comfortable with discomfort! Look for stretch opportunities because that is where you are likely to grow your skills.

  • Editor’s Note: Do you want to get promoted? Author Donald Asher points out that taking on stretch assignments is vital to getting ahead.

13. What’s the best way for readers to get in touch with you?

Readers are welcome to visit my blog, Project Bliss, and contact me by email: leigh AT

How To Ace Job Interviews: 5 Secrets Backed By Research

Image Source: Shutterstock

Image Source: Shutterstock

It’s the moment of truth in any career change: the job interview. You sweat. You prepare and hope for the best. But it usually feels like a black box.

That’s going to change with this article. Based on the excellent research from, “Pedigree: how elite students get elite jobs,” by Lauren A. Rivera, we’re going to break down job interviews.

During her PhD research at Harvard University, Rivera “went undercover” to find out how elite firms (high end law firms, consulting firms and financial firms) hire new staff from America’s top universities.

Do these insights apply to all hiring situations? I would say yes based on my personal experience and research. Of course, there are some nuances specific to the firms Rivera studied (e.g. the case interview in the management consulting industry).

Reporting From The Front Lines Of The Elite Job Market

In her excellent book, Rivera reports on how individuals at elite companies actually think and behave in hiring and recruiting. How? Rivera interviewed numerous profiessionals and personally worked in these firms during recruiting season. This book is the most detailed and robust explanation of how job interviews and hiring work in the wild I have ever seen.

Rivera describes the job interview as a four act process:

  1. Icebreaking chitchat
  2. Autobiographical Narrative
  3. Technical Tests
  4. A Question and Answer Period

You will learn how each step works in this article because knowing is half the battle!

Secret 1: Your Interviewer Probably Has No Training

Hiring decisions matter, especially in professional services firms that sell high priced labor. So you would expect plenty of time and attention would be applied to training interviewers? Rivera’s research on professionals at top firms finds the opposite:

Sociological accounts of hiring often portray hiring decisions – including interview evaluations – as being conducted by professionalized HR staff who have in-depth knowledge of interviewing techniques…However, in the firms that I studied, interviews were conducted almost exclusively by full-time revenue generating professionals who balanced recruitment responsibilities with full-time client responsibilities. Interviewing was a secondary responsibility for them… Because firms gave evaluators little guidance regarding what merit is and how they should measure it, identifying talent was largely up to each interviewer’s judgement.

That means that if you and friend both interview at the same company, you can expect quite different results. How so? Rivera founds that some interviewers rated candidates highly on “fit” if they happen to share the same hobbies (e.g. SCUBA diving or Varsity athletics).

Secret 2: Icebreaking Chitchat Matters More Than You Think In Job Interviews

As you walk down the hallway with the interviewer, the job interview is underway. How you talk about the news, the weather and more all factor into the impression you make. Here is how Rivera reports on this phase of the job interview:

The interviewers I spoke with often began by asking job candidates which they liked to do in their spare time. Yet this conversation was not “cheap talk”, tangential to the the evaluation process. It was the primary basis on which interviewers judged the key criterion of cultural fit… Firms, in essence, sought surface-level demographic diversity in applicant pools but deep-level cultural homogeneity in new hires.

Surprisingly, certain hobbies and interests were considered more “worthy” than others in this process. Having time and resources to indulge in fun is not always possible. Rivera points out: “Concerted cultivation of leisure is a hallmark of the more economically privileged social ranks.” The types of activities that evaluators participated in and valued were also those most commonly associated with white, upper-middle class culture.” If you leisure activities are expensive (e.g. golf), that is more likely to earn your bonus points. However, good leisure activities are not the only factor; your personal story matters as well.

Secret 3: Telling Your Story Is More Than “Just The Facts”

What comes to mind when someone asks you the typical job interview question, “Tell me about yourself.”

At first glance, this appears to be a highly personal question that could be answered in many different ways. In fact, there is right way to answer and a wrong way to answer. Rivera observes the key elements in crafting and delivering an effective autobiographical narrative in job interviews:

A strong narrative had two distinct but interrelated components: the applicant’s past experiences and his or her future trajectory. Interviewers used stories of the past to assess a candidate’s level of “drive,” an evaluative criterion that combined ambition and a strong work ethic. They used stories of the future to assess a candidates level of “interest” in a career with their firms.

Simply thinking about your relevant past experiences and plans for the future is a starting point but not enough. However, Rivera reports that HOW that narrative is delivered makes a big difference.

Not all candidates’ stories were equally successful in eliciting high marks on drive from evaluators. This is not surprising but it is problematic. It means that artful storytelling about one’s experiences is awarded greater weight than one’s actual experiences (enumerated on resumes) in job interviews.

What are the key elements of a successful story in a job interview?

  • A series of decisions in a coherent, linear account
  • an emotionally, exciting narrative
  • a portrait of experiences similar to the interviewer OR a dramatic/unique story line.

Rivera goes on to point out that many job applicants struggle to excel with these expectations. For example, what if your choices reflected surprise opportunities, unexpected tragedies or other limitations? Based on my reading, it looks like candidates are likely to be rejected if their narrative contains anything other than a series of heroic triumphs.

Secret 4: Getting It Right On Technical Tests Still Matters

In some job interviews, you will be tested on technical skills. Years ago, I remember completing a series of tests (including written essays!) for a position in Canada’s civil service. I passed all the tests but did not succeed in the French language test. That level of evaluation in technical skills appears rare for the firms that Rivera studied.


There are two reasons for this lack of concern about technical skills. First, recruiters assume that elite colleges and universities, by virtue of their challenging admissions processes, have already selected highly intelligent students. Second, elite professional services firms are noted for their extensive training programs (i.e. you are not expected to be economically productive right away) so new hires are not expected to have job skills.

Let’s take an example from the consulting job interviews which stress the importance of case interviews:

Although case interviews incorporate the most systematic tests of job-relevant skills across the industries that I studied, their purpose was not to screen for previously acquired job-specific knowledge but rather to identify candidates who displayed a generalized knack for problem solving.

The discussion goes on to provide commentary on how interviewers perceived case interview answers. An effective answer has an explicit structure (e.g. 3-5 bullet points summarizing the main issues was considered ideal). One unexpected surprise? Candidates were sometimes rated favorably in this section based on structure and logic, even if there were errors in the detail of the analysis. In contrast, less organized answers – even with perfect math – often led to lower ratings.

Secret 5: Navigating The Question And Answer Period

Demonstrating interest in a company and profession help in job interviews. Rivera’s research found the following about asking questions during job interviews:

Like other acts of the interview, the Q&A was a ritualized interaction and good performance within it followed a particular script. First, the interviewee has to ask the interviewer something… Interviewers interpreted having questions about the firm or the job as evidence of genuine interests in the firm and an absence of queries as a sign that the candidate didn’t really want the job.

Asking questions in a job interview serves two purposes: obtaining information AND demonstrating your interest in the role. However, some questions are better than others. Here are some of Rivera’s further observations on that front:

A wrong question, though, probed the time commitments entailed by these jobs. For example, asking too many questions about travel demands or working hours made interviewers question applicants’ commitment to the job or the firm and their underlying personal character… Several female evaluators, mostly lawyers, reported having particularly negative reactions to applicants – primarily other women – who asked about work-life balance or family leave policies during the interview.

There’s nothing wrong with being curious about hours, travel and related points. These questions to be discovered through networking rather than a job interview. Ultimately, the Q&A portion is helpful but it does not overcome other parts of the interview. The one exception? Asking “bad” questions (e.g. about hours, benefits, pay) during a job interview tends to produce a negative reaction.

Question of The Day (Write Your Answer In A Comment!)

What have you learned to improve your job interview skills over time?