015: Attention vs. Intention with Neen James

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Today, I am just incredibly honored and grateful to be able to share this episode with you. I have Neen James, one of my personal heroes, I met Neen through my graduate program in public speaking called Heroic Public Speaking. It is just a game-changer and a life-changer for me, and I was privileged to be able to learn a lot about Neen and read her books, Folding Time and Attention Pays.

I knew immediately that there was a lot that we as PMO leaders could really learn from how we make sure that we’re paying attention and are getting attention for our PMO.

In addition to being just a fabulous rockstar in my life, and just a game changer for me, she’s been changing the lives of people for a very long time, has a really long background in project management specifically, which I think is super cool. But she’s also been named one of the top 30 leadership speakers by Global Guru several years in a row because of her work with companies like Viacom, Comcast, and Abbott Pharmaceuticals, among so many others. You will definitely hear Neen’s boundless energy and quick-witted personality as she offers powerful strategies for paying attention to what matters so you can get more done and create more significant moments at work and at home, which is so incredibly important.

Laura Barnard: I asked if Neen would be willing to share with us some secrets, some best practices, to help us as PMO leaders really get the attention that we need in our PMOs and for our PMOs and for the work we’re doing. And as you all know, I am a huge believer that we should not be selling the PMO. The goal is not to sell the PMO, because if you’re doing it right, they are coming to you and begging for your help in achieving their goals. So, we really need to figure out, how do we do that? How do we get the attention we need for our PMO, from our sponsors, from our stakeholders, and instead of having people run the other direction when they see the PMO coming, they’re chasing us down, begging for our support.

Neen, as we dive in today, is there anything else you’d like to share with the audience about you and your background and experience?

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Neen James: I grew up in corporate business in Australia. I worked in retail, banking, telecommunications, and the oil industry. And let me tell you, there’s not a lot of chicks in oil. And when I was really doing the most project management was when I was in oil and I had an all-male team. I love working with men, and when I was in banking, I had an all-male branch. 

I think attention, these days, Laura, gets a bad rap. We go, “Oh, she just wants attention.” Social media has changed that. But the truth remains that attention, is about connection. 

As PMOs, we need to be able to connect with the people we serve in order for us to advance the projects that we are leading, the team that we’re developing, the stakeholders that we’re serving. I want people to look at attention differently. You see, I believe it is the intention that makes attention valuable. And what I learned especially early in my career is that I had to have the right intention behind my desire for attention.

One particular strategy that I developed early in my career that I encourage every PMO to consider is you need to be your own publicist. Here’s what I mean by that. Now, we know what a publicist does. Often we hear about them in the press, when someone does something wrong. A celebrity does something really bad and then in steps their publicist. But you can use publicity in a really powerful way. 

I believed early in my career that I had to be my own publicist. The way that that turned up was every Friday I would send my boss five bullet points. I would send my boss five things the team and I achieved that week. Whether my boss read them or not, I really didn’t care. But what I did discover is often my bosses would cut and paste those five bullet points into their status report for their boss, and we all know that part of our job is to make our boss look good, right? So we need to think about the attention that we want to give to our projects, to our people, and our passions.

As a PMO, how you would do it is every day you look for one very good news story. Did you hear a great client testimonial? Do you have a budget that you exceeded?  A timeframe that you were able to develop? A new contingency path that you were able to create? 

Now, what I have encouraged executives that I work with all over the world, it doesn’t matter if it’s the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or a leader on the frontline, or a project manager I’m talking to at PMI. I believe we all have to be our own publicist. Now you said don’t sell, drive people to you, and here’s what happened with all my bullet points. I always got headcount. I always got extensions when I needed them. I got extra funding when I required it, because I proactively communicated.

As PMOs, we have a responsibility to manage the brand that we have in our organization. And you want to establish a brand where you are the go-to person, that you are the resource, that you are the center of the entire universe that can make things happen. And the way to do that is to build it before you need it. 

Here’s what I mean by that. By proactively communicating your successes and the team’s successes, when you do need help, when you do need an extension, when you do need someone to troubleshoot for you, when you need stakeholder buy-in that maybe you’re not having success with, because you have put in the work before, you can get stuff done. You do this by being your own publicist. 

Which brings us back to attention is about connection. Are you connecting the dots for people? Are you connecting in relationships with people? Are you connecting people with other people so they can help advance their projects?As a PMO we have so many roles that we juggle, but one of our vital roles is we are absolutely the connector in our organization because we can connect thinking, we can connect talent, we can connect resources.

One of my most popular programs in companies, is called Systems Thinking because it’s the way I look at the world. You mentioned, I grew up as a project manager. I always look at things in deliverables, and I believe systems create freedom. And so, we need to think about how can we create more systems as PMOs for the kind of attention we want. We are our own project. We are our own product. We are the brand. And we have to be able to invest time, attention, and energy in growing that brand so we have a really strong personal brand in our role, so people look to us with high regard, as someone they trust, as someone of integrity who does what they say they’re going to do. And it all starts with being your own publicist.

Laura: Oh, yes. I couldn’t agree more. And I went so far as to put an entire lesson inside my deep-dive course called the IMPACT Engine PMO Training Course, and it takes people on a 90-day journey to set up a PMO. In 90 days, not two years, because nobody wants to wait two years to start seeing value. In that program, we have a whole lesson dedicated to marketing and communications. 

Often people say, “What? I’m an internal PMO. I have nothing to do with marketing. That’s not what we do here.” Oh, yes it is. Because every single thing Neen just said is pointing to you have to be responsible for your brand, you are responsible for your messaging, and if you don’t own that message, people will own it for you.

It is so critical to buy-in and support for the PMO that you own that story. You own the case studies of places and ways that you’ve helped provide value. You need to be tooting your own horn and bragging about the kind of results that you’re helping to create, not by saying, “Look, how awesome we are?” but by saying, “Look at the results we helped this person achieve. Look at the pain-points that we addressed in this organization. Look at the opportunities we’re creating. Look at how much easier we’re making everyone’s lives.” All of that story is what Neen’s talking about here, and it’s so critical to the success of a PMO. That’s how you get the positive attention that you want.

Neen: People make up what they don’t know. They just do.

Laura: Right. I’ve had PMO, when I was building PMO’s in side organizations for fifteen years, I remember various times where people would say “Well this is what the PMO would do” or “that’s what the PMO would do” and I’m like, that’s not at all what we’re here for. 

I just  couldn’t agree more, and I have lived the pain of not being intentional about the kind of attention we’re receiving and the kind of message that we’re sending out to the world about what the PMO does. And it’s a painful place to be.

If you’re finding that your stakeholders are saying “Uck, the PMO doesn’t do for me what I need. It’s not meeting my expectations. I don’t need those services anyway. I don’t like what they’re doing.” It’s probably because there is a misalignment between what they need, the business problem they need solved, and what you’re trying to do. Or, they just don’t understand it because they don’t understand the narrative. So you’ve got to create that alignment right from the start, and I think a lot of that goes to where your expertise is.

How do you know what you should be delivering for organizations? How do you know what the PMO should be doing? Again, going back to my course, because I built my course based on all the experiences I’ve had, you need to assess the organization for those opportunities and assess the organization and the people for what, where are those pain-points, you know? And pay attention to them. Can you talk about that Neen?

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Neen: Yeah, I think that one thing PMO’s have to do is you need a seat at the table. And to have a seat at the table you’ve got to earn the right to sit at the table, which means you’ve got to demonstrate to the executive team, or whoever your peers are, that you have an incredible brain, systems, resources, and processes they can tap into in order for them to achieve their results. It should be almost, “Of course we’re going to have our PMO at this meeting! Of course they’re going to add value! Of course they’re the right resource for us!”

What I did when I was a project manager, was I made myself so valuable that they would even sometimes bring me in to be the devil’s advocate. To just use my project mentality to be able to challenge everything to see if there were different courses we could take. 

I encourage you to do a skills audit of yourself. What are you brilliant at? Understand how you can articulate that. I had a genius boss I talk about in the book, Attention Pays, named  Barbara. 

Barbara once said to me when I was early in my project career, she said “Neen, you need to be able to tell me three things you’re good at. Don’t blink. Don’t look away.” And I learned very early in my career, I had to have the ability to articulate powerfully where I added value. If you want a seat at the table, you need to be able to articulate very concisely, how you’re helping that organization achieve their goals.

If you cannot do that, you don’t deserve to sit at the table. Executives, leaders, and people who are your peers are looking at how can the PMO help us progress this. How can the PMO helps us make more money, reduce turnover, increase customer sales? 

I want you to think about this, to earn the right to sit at the table, you want to demonstrate the value you deliver, so they say “Well of course we want Laura there!” But that’s also going back to being a publicist.

One way you can do that, is to learn what your things you’re really good at. We’re great at promoting other people. We’re great at advocating for our team. We are fantastic at promoting our bosses achievements and we often suck at doing this for ourselves. 

What I need people to practice is, you need to be able to help people see and hear you. In order for them to see you, you want to ensure that your brand is aligned with the particular things you represent. Right? 

In order for them to hear you, you need to articulate, very quickly, very concisely, how you deliver value. Now we explore this a lot more in the Summit that you’re doing, as you know, and so I went into some very specific tactics for that, so for those of you who are doing the Summit, you’ll get even more about this.

I want people to think about doing a skills audit, and being able to articulate what they’re really great at. You see, you know what, think about this, when we’re kids, we get told to pay attention. Our teachers tell us to pay attention, our parents tell us to pay attention, my goodness, we tell our own kids to pay attention, and we think we’re paying attention, but we’re not. And we don’t even need a lot of attention, we just need attention from the right people.

What I want people to consider, who are listening to the podcast today, is I look at attention really in three ways:

  1. The first way is personal attention. Which is, who deserves your attention. This is about being thoughtful.
  2. The second way is professional attention, which is about what deserves your attention. That’s about being productive.
  3. The third way we pay attention is global, which is about how we pay attention in the world. As PMO’s, if you want to get attention for the projects, if you want to be involved in the strategic conversations, if you want to help people move their objectives forward, if you want to constantly be invited to have an opinion, to voice the things that are going to help others achieve their goals, their projects, their passions.

I call it “systemized thoughtfulness.” Are you truly having systems in place to be thoughtful with the team you manage, the leaders that are your peers, the clients you serve. Are you being productive and really focusing on the right work to ensure that the right projects get the attention of leadership and help elevate those. And are you really paying attention in the world. Now your world might be your business, it might be your backyard, it might be your community. But what we need to think about as PMOs is, do we pay attention in those three ways? And are we getting the right kind of attention? And are we giving the right kind of attention? Like I said, it’s about intentional attention.

Laura: Wow. You know, my own personal experience, having read both of your books, which I just love, and I’ve already started re-reading Attention Pays for the second time because it’s just, there’s so much in it. One of the sentences that I kept reading about was the intentional attention, and that has helped shape my thinking, with respect to, I am very intentional about a lot of the things that I do, but now I look at it from an even higher level of perspective, and a higher outcome driven perspective, what are the outcomes that I’m achieving by being very intentional in what I’m doing? It’s kind of elevated the way I’m thinking about it because, I just, I live and breathe outcomes. It’s ridiculous. My family thinks I’m crazy. I’m always saying “Okay, this is great, but what is the outcome we’re going to achieve?”

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Neen: When you think about this too, we talk about we want PMO’s to be able to get attention in the right way, for the right projects, at the right time. But in order for them to get the attention, it also means they have to eliminate distractions. If there are things the PMO’s are doing that are not helping them, they have meetings that are too long, they write emails that are ridiculously too long. They may not look the part, they may not use words that make sense to people. They might be talking in too many acronyms, they might be writing reports that are too long. And so what we want to think about is, as a PMO, what particular behaviors do you have that are potentially distracting to people so you’re not getting the right kind of attention that you want.

For example, if you can’t present, in an articulate way, the deliverables, the timeline, the stakeholders, the budget, the resources, and you can’t speak to that very quickly and efficiently, that might be an area of focus for you, so that you can be able to articulate.

If you run into the CEO in the elevator and they ask you how everything’s going, you better very quickly be able to articulate where your projects at, what kind of impact it’s having on the organization, and how excited you are about progressing it forward.

If you are asked to then walk with the CEO into the boardroom as they address the latest agenda, you better have the ability to extend that conversation and speak intelligently at a global level, very strategically, and at a local level, very tactically.

What we need to do as PMO’s is say, “What are the distractions about me?” The way I speak. The way I address. The way I walk into a meeting. Do you constantly give off this air that you’re too busy for everybody else? We explored that in a lot of detail in the Summit.

What you want to think about is, you as a PMO, you have a brand. A brand in your organization. Are you really focused on thinking about me as a brand? What’s my packaging? What’s my experience? What do I smell like, taste like, sound like? Because people are talking about you, and to the point you made up Laura, people will make up what they don’t know, right? So we need to control the narrative, and that starts by proactively being a publicist. By being productive, by choosing who and what gets our attention, and languaging things in a way that makes sense to others.

Laura: Yes, exactly. So, I know all of you listening, if you’ve listened to the first dozen episodes or so, you’ve heard me talk about being a trusted advisor to your leadership team and to the organization, and to build that trust, you’ve got to do everything that Neen just said, and that is how you build that trust. That credibility. And that’s why Neen’s been able to do the kinds of things that we’re all talking about.

Whenever we need to go get resources, we’re constantly in this battle. We’re trying to avoid being on the chopping block. We’re in this survival mode. And I think PMO leaders, that is enough with talking about survival mode. We need to learn how to thrive, and these techniques, when applied, I guarantee you, I know from my personal experience, this is the experience my students are having, this is the experience my clients are having, this actually works, this really does make the difference.

I’ve heard so many of you say “but I deserve a seat at the table.” And the only way you become that strategy advisor for your organization and navigate that strategy navigator to navigate your organization through to strategy delivery and ultimately impact, is by having a very clear message, and knowing what you’re talking about, and being able to walk the walk.

If you want that seat at the table, if you want to be the strategy navigator for your organization. If you want to be that trusted advisor, this is the path that will take you there.

Neen, thank you so much for sharing all of this with my audience today. My community of IMPACT Drivers. Could you let people know how they can find you, follow you, and learn more about all that you have to offer?

Neen: Well, the fortunate thing for me is that there’s only one Neen James online. So you can google me and find me. You’ll find all of my adventures on Instagram, it’s where I play the most. And also join the summit because we go into such depth about some of these things we’ve only just touched on today, so definitely do that.

Laura: Absolutely. So thank you so much for being here, everybody. All of my impact drivers. Neen, once again, thank you for sharing your brilliance and high energy with our community.

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2019-09-13T16:27:07-04:00September 15th, 2019|PMO Practices, Podcast|

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