Originally we wanted to speak about managing remote teams only. The interview with senior IT project manager Ken Tillery however turned into a masterclass on building a winning team and leading a successful project.
You can learn a lot from this 35 minute video!
I recently met Ken on a train to the city where i’m currently leading an IT project. When I told him I was working on creating the best project management blog and that I was looking for the best project managers to share their experience on a Youtube video, he was all in.
Ken works for one of the largest IT companies in the world, and he has been managing virtual teams since 2005. You can bet he has a ton of wisdom and tips to share with you.
It’s all about communication and trust
What should be your #1 priority when starting a new project?
Ken’s advice: focus your energy on establishing a good and strong communication as well as on building trust with your team. This is particularly important in remote projects, where people are scattered around the country or even around different continents.
What is great about Ken is that he gives very detailed and actionable tips on how you can build trust with your team and set up a solid communication plan.
What really struck me was to see how much effort he puts into building great relationships with his team members. In one case, he sat quiet for 15 minutes and listened to his colleague speak about his passion for windsurfing. This is how you build trust.
It all pays off in the long run. Not just for the project, but also for the project manager. As Ken says: “I’m feeling successful when I’m sitting there and someone hears I’ve taken over a project and they say, “Oh, I would like to work for him again.”
Transcript of the interview
Adrian: Welcome to this new video on Tactical Project Manager and the topic today is how to successfully manage remote projects. The guest today is Ken Tillery. Ken, just introduce yourself. Welcome.
Ken: My name is Ken Tillery. I work for a global IT company. It’s one of the largest. Unfortunately, I was unable to clear getting permission to tell which company I work for, but for the last 10 years you could say 90% of my projects were from global.
I think for over 17 years almost all, every team I worked in was a virtual team where everybody was spread out around different countries, in some cases different continents. I’ve been managing these types of teams since 2005.
Adrian: All right, so you have a lot of experience managing remote teams. For the viewers, we met on the train recently, just two weeks ago from Stuttgart to Dusseldorf, and when I was asking you about what you were doing, it was funny.
You told me you were a project manager and that’s why I wanted to have you on the call. So that’s really great. What are the main problems when managing remote teams from your experience? What is different?
Ken: Communication and then the misunderstandings that can happen because you’re dealing with people, for example, obviously I don’t have a problem with when we’re using English as the main language for the project, but you’ll have teams that are working together.
For example, I know of a gentleman that’s running a project. He sits in Germany. English is not his mother language and he has people on his team that’s in France, Italy, parts of Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe, and so nobody is speaking their mother language while communicating so you run into misunderstandings there.
Then you’ll have the fact that a statement that will mean one thing in one part of the world can be totally misinterpretated in another part of the world. Like a person will be trying to say something sarcastic like.
He’ll hear a new idea that should be tried and the person will roll their eyes going, “Yeah, let’s try it.” And the people on the other end can’t really see the eye rolling and think oh, we should try it. Obviously the person didn’t want to. These are the main challenges. It’s the communication.
Adrian: Right, and you only notice after weeks or months that there’s an issue probably. It doesn’t pop up immediately, right?
Ken: Exactly. If you don’t build up a good strong communication from the beginning. Another thing is building up trust because if you never met face-to-face that’s another thing that has to be built up is trust.
Adrian: Yeah. What do you recommend to anyone who is doing his first remote project? What are some best practices you have implemented?
Ken: Well, the first thing you can do, and that’s why I was in Dusseldorf when we met, is whenever possible do your best, even if you have to find a way to bend a rule because it’s easier to get forgiveness than to get permission.
Do your best to get the team the first couple of days together that you’ll have two or three day workshop where you’re discussing the project, going out in the evening, getting to know each other and then once you’ve gotten to know each other, seen each other face-to-face, it’s easier to trust someone that you’ve actually been able to physically reach out and touch.
But in some cases it’s just flat out simple. You’re going to run into a project that has a certain executive that just refuses to hand out money, so the next thing to do will pick up the phone and call the person.
Find the time to say, “Hey, how are you doing? I just wanted to call and chit chat.” And schedule that you’ll have 10 to 15 minutes where you tell them about the job, but another 20 to 30 minutes where you just, “Yeah, I like this soccer team. What kind of sports do you like? You don’t like sport. Oh okay. What’s your favorite food.” Just to get to know each other. They get to know you, to build up the trust and the good feeling. That’s one of the things to do.
Adrian: Yeah. So it’s not just about discussing work topics, but also to connect on a personal level, which is really important. But it takes additional time, which you cannot dedicate to the project work itself.
Adrian: But I guess it will pay off in the long run.
Ken: Exactly because when you have a team that trusts you, and I have actually had that.
Before I was working as a dedicated project manager I was a service delivery manager and I had two people reporting to my team two years long, and not once did we get a chance to meet face-to-face, but you know, we shared a few pictures. We got to know like one of them, I knew that he was a botanist on the side and I learned his different plant life.
I even made sure during that time he was working for me when I went to visit my parents in Florida to send him nice pictures of plants and stuff he liked. So it kept that good relationship going.
Eventually I did meet him six months after I left that department and he immediately was happy to finally meet me face-to-face, but we have already built up a good relationship.
It was a non-factor, if I ever had a project again and he was there I would immediately get him because we had already built up a relationship and we had that trust.
Adrian: How does it change the work relationship and also the, I wouldn’t say efficiency, but the level, the quality of the collaboration in a project? How does it change once you or after you have met? What have you observed here?
Ken: Well, once you meet face-to-face, it’s easier to understand a person’s, what they’re coming from when they’re trying to make extra schedules and extra meetings. That’s why you want to try to at least have one face-to-face meeting at the beginning. But if you can’t do that, then you do the telephone call where you can meet the person. That’s what it is is you’ve got to get the trust.
Of course the next thing is building up the communication plan. Like right now even I was complaining that since we got back there was a design that has to be built up and I was just shaking my head. On one side I’m like, “Oh, I’m just so sick. We’ve had five calls today on this same thing.”
Then on the other side I know for a fact we have to have these five calls because we’ve got people from Czech Republic, France and Germany trying to explain to each other and understand what they’re saying. You just have to invest more time to get the communication in.
Adrian: Yeah, and do you, when you have this kind of schedule team, do you ask your team to collaborate between each other or are you always part of these meetings?
Ken: In the beginning phase I’m usually a part of the meetings. I’m in some cases I’m almost like a dictator, authoritarian leadership. You know the different levels so you’ll start as the authoritarian and then move to democrat and then in the end laissez-faire. Very often because I’m usually with a team that’s worked with me before, I’m from the beginning to the end a laissez-faire leader.
Like currently one of the guys in Dusseldorf asked me, or not in Dusseldorf, but in this current project asked me if I’m going to schedule the meeting and I just said, “I don’t need to schedule the meeting because my IT architect is already doing that,” because I know him. I’ve worked with the IT architect that’s directly on my team before.
He just simply took the lead and started doing it so with him personally I can be from beginning to end a laissez-faire leader and with him my job is to make sure everybody else, all the other stakeholders that have something to say leave him alone, which is even in a face-to-face environment, but we’ve already built up that trust. I’ve met him face-to-face three times over the last three years, so with him I have phone calls.
Adrian: That’s something I’ve noticed as well. Like after you have met and have built this trust people respond more quickly to an email or they provide the work in a faster way, which helps the overall project. Whereas when you haven’t met it’s very anonymous and you don’t know whether the person’s working on a topic or not. But whereas when you have met, it’s kind of you know the person is providing the input you are asking him to do. Yeah.
Adrian: So you mentioned like in the ideal case you meet physically at the start of the project to build up this trust, you connect on a personal level, and now you mentioned the communication plans. How does that look like?
Ken: Well that one from day one you have to sit together and build up what do you call them? A set of rules, ground rules on how you will communicate, especially when you’re getting with people you haven’t met before. Like okay, what are we going to use? Can we have like our online chat tool? We use Sametime in our company and come people have a version of Skype.
We log into that all the time. Then that works for most people. I have one incident where the person was physically going into a data center and he couldn’t be logged into it at all times, but he promised and we made sure of it and he did, whenever we wrote him an email asking for information, within two hours because of the time we had to give him the time he was working in to serve in the data center building stuff, within two hours we would have a reply.
We even said, “Please reply saying at least that you’ve received the email and some cases if you use tools like Lotus Notes, when you send an email you can have it said when the person opens it and reads it, it automatically let’s you know oh, he just got my email. He’s reading it. Then you have written in there and in the ground rules from day one he writes back, “Yes, I have your email. I’m looking at it.”
Then immediately if he doesn’t send that email, you write back, “When can I get an answer?” Whoever is the project leader, that is the most important to remember, especially in a global team where everybody’s spread out, make sure you have a deadline. I would like an answer by this time. If they don’t give an answer you pick up the telephone and call them. “How come I do not have an answer?”
Sometimes there is a legitimate reason. They didn’t yet have an answer. Some, like in one case, especially when you’re dealing with people that are working for your project and they’re somewhere in Nigeria, they will have a power outage and can’t contact you. But the phone works so you just have that in your mind. You know that.
You pick up the phone. Yes, he’s in a country where the infrastructure is not that great. I’m going to pick up a phone and call him and he answers immediately. Yeah, that’s just common sense. Communication, communication, communication and trust, trust, trust.
Adrian: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah because otherwise if you don’t have these kind of rules established, as a project manager you’re always thinking about you know, why am I not getting a response? It’s Friday and I need this. It’s the deadline today, but if you have told your team to communicate back whether they have completed a topic or not, then it kind of helps to plan, plan for the next steps and you know where you are right now.
So besides rules you also mentioned scheduling meetings, so I think a lot of people including myself, we always think how and what frequency should we set up meetings? Weekly or bi-weekly and what time? So what are some ground rules for having a meeting structure?
Ken: For those we try to set that from day one and usually, especially if you can’t get a face-to-face meeting you’ll have a daily meeting.
You’ll have one what I sometimes call an initial kickoff we call it, but not the actual kickoff to the project where we all meet, “Hello. My name’s Kim.” “Hello. My name’s Billy.” And everybody goes around introducing and a primary part of this discussion is when are we going to have meetings? When is everyone free?
Of course you’re bouncing between a democratic leader and an authoritarative leader because they’re all going to have 1,000 reasons they can’t make a certain schedule and then you just sit there and say, “I will schedule a meeting at this time,” and you make it very clear. Eventually they’ll all agree and then to begin you might have five meetings a week each morning and then the following week after with an agreement you can have like Monday, the meeting. Okay, this is what needs to be done this week.
Any discussion, any reason. Then Friday you have a what have we completed. Sometimes the Friday is actually a Thursday meeting because as the project manager you’ve got to go to some director or vice president, whatever, and let them know what happened so you need that information Thursday.
Every now and then if the team is not too big it’s enough if you have for example, sometimes I’ll only have an IT architect and two IT specialists, so it’s enough that by Thursday before close of business IT architect writes down this is what happened and then I take that to the primary stakeholder. This is what we’ve got done. This is what we still need in accordance to the IT architect.
Adrian: Right, right. So basically you start with a high frequency of meetings, maybe even daily at the beginning, right? Then you can reduce the frequency over time.
Ken: Exactly. And it can happen that towards the closing of the project, in the last days when you’re putting in the last minute stuff and you’re doing all the testing and hand overs you’ll have a high frequency of meetings again, but you can be a little bit loose on the people that are actually doing it because you have your IT architect and IT specialists as in my area, they’re really sitting there in a room doing stuff so you don’t want to make them spend too much time in a meeting, but you really want to make sure that the customer is happy and sees that you’re doing it. The only way you can explain it is having a telephone conference with them, but that’s on the management side and not so much on the side of the ones doing the actual work.
Adrian: And one thing I’ve heard also from my team is that people complain when there are too many meetings.
Ken: Yeah, that’s the problem.
Adrian: The meetings are necessary. But how do you counter this argument?
Ken: I just say, “Okay, we’ll have some meetings and if needed we’ll start skipping some meetings and we’ll cut down the number.” Like I said, we start out from having five a week to two, sometimes just one. I don’t think I’ve had it happen where just about every time you turn around I’ll reduce it, have one, and then one or two of the people that complained and wanted fewer meetings will start, “Well, let’s have another meeting.”
Sometimes let’s just have the once a week meeting and then I’ll end up with three other meetings. That being architect or the specialist wants to have afterwards.
Which is quite funny because that’s the one that didn’t want the meetings, but then he’s scheduling some more meetings.
Adrian: Yeah, yeah. Okay. And tell me, I mean a core part of tracking the tasks and letting the team know what they have to do. How do you technically organize that? You have a web-based task management solution or how does it work in your projects?
Ken: You know, we have like a web-based tool. There’s a new one they just introduced. I saw it. I logged into it the first time yesterday. They talk about it three times in Dusseldorf, but Lord help me, I can’t remember the name of it. But it’s not much different than having a version of an online version of MS Project or now because my company switched us to Macintosh Books I have the Open Project.
I just have a list of milestones that has to be reached. Sometimes I just use MS Excel and I put it on a box on like a box that when a person logs in nobody else can touch it and they go in. This was my task. This is what I did and then it’s closed and then I know they completed that task. If at the end of the day one of the for example, when an IT specialist that’s doing hands-on work, he isn’t necessarily going to be online, I usually end up picking up the phone.
I haven’t don’t I as often, but I’ve had it happen where especially with a case with a gentleman in Nigeria because literally he was losing IT connection. So I would pick up the phone, “Okay, I don’t see anything in the book.” “Yes, yes. This is what happened.” He immediately lets me know and after a while he just starts picking up his phone and calling me telling me his update. I’d say, “Okay. Thank you.” Then I would write it down.
You make sure that each person’s milestones are written in, that they know what their milestones are and with me, I just sit back and say, I’ll tell them, like I told the IT architect on my current project, I said, “You’re the guru. You’re the expert on this. That’s why you have that title. That’s why you’re doing it. You tell me if this project plan is doable and then each week we’ll measure up why it was reached.” They know that.
When you get new people on the team, then you make sure to make extra effort to let them know. I have a task list. We worked on it. You agreed to it. I want by a certain time, whenever each milestone is to be met, I want a statement of if it was met or why it was not met and what is to be done to reach the milestone or if there’s a work around, whatever.
Adrian: So there are a lot of discussions between you and the team. Do you also regularly write minutes or how do you document these decisions?
Ken: I keep a list of meeting minutes. They’ll sit there and they’ll see the file that they can go through and discuss with me afterwards. I’ll sit there at the computer and recently I had another project manager, Sydney, saying let’s each write minutes and then we compare the notes and then we put on our little team room that can be reached by everyone a copy of the minutes. Then they can go through there, read through the minutes.
No, that’s not what was discussed. We meant that. Okay, we’ll change it, but that’s how we do it. We keep every meeting, someone keeps the meeting minutes. Primarily I try to, unless I’m sharing a presentation. Then I’ll get someone else to write them. That’s how it works.
They’re documented and in writing.
Adrian: Yeah, yeah. I see. And Ken, overall you’re a project manager with many years of experience. What would you recommend anyone who is new to the field what to focus on?
Ken: Trust and communication, those two areas.
Adrian: Those two areas. That is also where you spend most of your time on I suppose.
Ken: Yes. Well, to get the project running of course a lot of time documenting it and filling it, that people see the written proof. Lots of writing.
Adrian: Yup, yup. All right.
Ken: I know a lot of project managers, they spend more time than I do making a perfect project plan. Everything looks beautiful in writing, but then the project is done because the team wants it done and I prefer having the people want to work for me. I’m feeling successful when I’m sitting there and someone hears I’ve taken over a project and they say, “Oh, I would like to work for him again.” Because I’ve built up that trust. That’s my goal.
Adrian: That’s awesome. Yes, I know that feeling because then you know really you have done a good job. Not just on a technical level but people actually like working with you, which is really great. Okay. You have observed also many young project managers. In what areas do you think they should improve?
Ken: The communication. Flat out and simple. Communicate and building trust, but like I said, communication is the top most important. And making sure that the others are communicating with each other too because when you’re communicating with them you ask them, I think you mentioned this before, “Are you communicating with that team? Have you spoken with that person? Do you plan to set up a meeting on your own with that person?”
Because I had an IT architect saying, “I need a meeting with this person at this time.” The first couple of times I set the meetings for him, then after I while I came back to him. I said, “Look, can you not set the meeting with him? It’s more important that you …” He thought about it and then he wrote back to me on the chat tool. “You’re right, I can schedule these meetings on my own.” I’m like, “Yeah.” Sometimes that’s kind of funny. I’ll run into a lot of project managers, they’ll micromanage because if I keep setting the meetings for the other people, then I’m micromanaging too.
Ken: In a global team, micromanagers, well …
Adrian: You drown.
Ken: Yeah. They don’t work too.
I schedule the first two initial meetings to make sure I have everyone. Then I immediately, because the trust is most important and I’m not running the fire department trying to put out a fire, I want everybody to know I’m the project manager. Then I don’t want them to feel that I’M the project manager, so then I immediately, the moment I step in and let them know who I am and what’s expected I immediately go, snap into the democratic mode. That means saying, “Okay, when should we have the meetings? What time does everybody have? Who’s dedicated 100% to this project? Who’s not?”
I try to get that all out of the way the first day, the first couple of meetings that everybody can get relaxed and get into the working mode with the team building and everything. So the dictator is or the authoritarian of leader, that’s done within one hour. I could even go back to my military experience because even a soldier, the stereotype sergeant in the army who’s running around, “You’re going to do what I say,” he doesn’t do that.
In fact, if he does do that and goes to battle, he’ll be the first one to get shot. He builds up trust as well. He’s drinking stuff because he wants to build up trust. The same goes because I left the military a long time ago and the one thing I learned there is you need to have your people trust you. The same goes as a project manager. Your people have to trust you. If you’re from day one like as I mentioned, you have the first day you’re kind of the authoritarian because we have a meeting, we need you here. Here’s our set of rules.
They have to be followed. This is the communication plan and why it’s the communication plan. That’s yeah, maybe for the first hour, but after that you go into a democratic mode and when people really get to know and you can really trust them, then you’re laissez-faire and you can just sit back, relax knowing they’re doing and write your project plan, get your presentations together for the stakeholders.
But be prepared because it has happened that it can happen, it will happen, and everyone is just starting out as project manager. Be prepared. You’re going to have someone, “Can you have this done by this time?” “Sure. I’ll have it done.” It’s not done. You don’t know why and even in an environment, because I’ve ran into people that said, “I hate people that work from home.” I’m like yeah, I’ve caught these people. Example, first I was in a company. We caught a guy. He spent the entire day hiding in the elevator.
He never got any work done. He was hiding in the elevator right there in a team that was all located in the same office. You’ve got to be prepared for that. If this guy’s not meeting milestones, you’ve got to be prepared to escalate him. Then you turn back into the authoritarian. “Either you get it done or I’ll find someone who can. I will speak with your first line manager and my first line manager and we’ll take care of it and find someone else.”
You’ve got to be prepared for that one. But lucky for me the last couple years I haven’t had that happen. I had it happen one time and it wasn’t very nice. Quite honestly, I don’t like having to escalate a person, but it can happen. You’ve got to be prepared for it.
Adrian: Sometimes you have to do it, yeah.
Ken: Exactly. You just show it. I had this task to be done. He agreed to it. He didn’t do it.
Adrian: Yeah, but it’s particularly hard in a remote environment when you can’t just walk by and see what the person’s doing, whether he’s surfing on Facebook or doing his job, so it’s really hard.
Ken: We look at that, but as I said, the fact the guy that I caught riding in the elevator, I caught him in the elevator with a subcontractor and he was hiding in another break room the whole day and not doing his job. Yeah, he was only there a month and they sent him back to the, it was one of these … Now I can’t speak my own home language, being in Germany too long. Zeitarbeitsfirma.
One of these companies that loan an employee out to another company. No, I mean you want to catch that no matter what and so that’s why I don’t even worry about whether it’s remote or central. If you want to goof off, you’re going to find a way to goof off.
Adrian: Yes. Yes. I want to ask about this building trust, about building trust. You mentioned asking about the hobbies. What are some topics or some strategies for connecting with people, you know, on this personal level?
Ken: Well, the same thing you do in real life, in the United States we have a saying, two subjects to avoid that will end a friendship: politics and religion. Keep those two subjects out. Be prepared to understand, especially with the thousands of cultures that you’re going to run into that there’s going to be people, for example, they’re a vegetarian and a person that likes to hunt.
You have to accept that someone sees topics different and you look for something because no matter what, I’ve sat there and I’ve watched someone that would if you would talk to them politically, they would be total 180 degrees of each other, opposite sides of the street, but they both like Star Trek or they both like vanilla ice cream. You just try to get them to find common ground on something, that they work together.
That’s the main thing. You try to avoid any subject that you know is in the end it’s never going to be important to your everyday work life and you look for what’s common ground. Like current one I kind of felt weird because I was one of three people that didn’t have a dog.
Everybody loved talking about their dogs. I was able to find common ground because even though I don’t have a dog, when I was growing up I spent all of my summers at my grandfather’s ranch and there we had two dogs we used for driving the cattle in. So I talked about those dogs.
Adrian: Okay. So you are making real effort to find a common ground and to find topics that are of interest to the others. That’s great.
Ken: Exactly. And in one case I ran into a person who was talking about his time as a windsurfer. This is a subject, me, I don’t think I would ever try windsurfing even though I do like athletic stuff, but I just got him to sit there because I wanted him to want to work on our project. So I said, “So you’re a windsurfer.” “Yes.” “Please,” and I listened to him. Now I’m kind of more interested in the subject. At the time I wasn’t, but I got him to explain it and what kind of surfboards, different makes. There were thousands of different models and brands.
I just sat there 15 minutes long keeping my mouth shut while he explained it. That’s what you do. In fact, I would recommend every project manager read Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People and when you’re actually running a project, to read the One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard.
In fact, The One Minute Manager, I can probably explain the whole book in 30 seconds. Someone has a problem, you sit them down and say, “Okay, explain the problem and what you’re supposed to do about it,” and 80% of the time within a minute they come up with their own solution. And that’s the entire basis of the One Minute Manager. I highly recommend that book and the Dale Carnegie book on how to win friends. Those are the two.
Adrian: Yeah. So some pieces from Dale Carnegie’s book is I think like when you connect with people, to mention their name, to call them by their first name.
Adrian: And to probably also to connect on this personal level talking about hobbies, things like that. I think …
Adrian: … some of the strategies, yeah.
Ken: Well, that one I used with a gentleman that now has me more interested in windsurfing than I was before I met him, that came from Dale Carnegie. It was right there in the book and I just poured it right out of the book and got a guy to tell me about windsurfing.
Adrian: Okay. Oh yeah, exactly. To ask questions and to be curious about the other person.
Ken: And as I point out, it doesn’t matter where the person is from, what culture they are from, you will find … Like it or not, if you really want to, you will find something of interest to you that that person knows. You just sit quietly and start asking them questions and let that person talk and be the center of attention.
Adrian: Great advice. I think we can all learn a lot from this conversation or we have learned a lot from this conversation. Like establishing communication rules and building up trust and to have a successful remote team. Thanks a lot, Ken. It was really interesting for the viewers and for me. I really learned a lot and hoping to talk to you soon.
Ken: Okay. Yeah, hopefully we’ll meet again.
Adrian: In the train or in Dusseldorf or somewhere else.
Ken: Or down the road in Stuttgart.
Adrian: Right. Yeah, we actually, around the corner. It’s not too far. Okay, have a great weekend.
Ken: You too. Take care.