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Meghan and Taco McInerny

Meghan and Taco McInerny

Meghan McInerny, the Chief Operating Officer of Clockwork, shares with us the positive impact of puppies to your personal health, the leadership role that is digital pm management, choosing courage over comfort and what it takes to go from good to great as a Digital PM.

Be sure and see Meghan’s talk Level Up: Project Management as a Leadership Role at the Digital PM Summit this October 15-17 in Las Vegas. Get your tickets now!

Announcer:
Welcome to the Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome inspiring things. Now for your host Carl Smith. 

Carl Smith:
Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It's Carl and with me today I have the chief operating officer of Clockwork, the co-author of Interactive Project Management: Pixels, People and Process, and the owner of literally the cutest puppy in the world Taco. It's Meghan McInerny. How's it going, Meghan?

Meghan McInerny:
Hello. I'm doing great. How are you?

Carl Smith:
I'm doing really well. I do want to spend a lot of time talking about Taco.

Meghan McInerny:
We can.

Carl Smith:
When we were sending emails back and forth and you said you had the cutest puppy I'm like, "No, I'm pretty sure I got the cutest puppy." Then I seriously did not even get in the ring. When I saw that picture of Taco I was just like, "Ugh, so gorgeous." Tell me about Taco. What made you go out and get a puppy?

Meghan McInerny:
I have two children. An 11-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. My daughter has wanted a dog for a really long time and I've always told her it's not the right time, our schedule as a family it just would not be fair to a dog. I work and you guys go to school. 

She's been holding out hope. Over the last probably six months I started to warm up to the idea. We had gone to a few different rescue places and met some dogs. I started to get that twinge of like, "I think I could see myself owning a dog and maybe even this dog." No real strong, strong feeling until I saw Taco's picture online on this rescue site. When he was given up for rescue he was only two weeks old. 

When I send you the picture that was on their website you should sit down first before you look at it because it is so cute. Then we went to meet him at his foster house. I just instantly was in love with him. All of a sudden what people had said to me about, "When it's the right dog you'll just know." I had that. I so strongly was like, "This is the one! This is my guy!" We had to go through a whole application process and a home visit. We made it. We got him. I'm just so happy. He's such a sweetheart. 

Carl Smith:
I'm curious. I know you're a person who gets things done. I know that's your MO. You're also the founder of the Twin Cities Interactive Project Management Meetup, co-founder of Geek Girls Guide, you're on the board of Still Kickin'. It's like how did you find time? Or did Taco give you time in that sense of everything else melted away?

Meghan McInerny:
You know, I think it's a little bit of both. The first thing is that my earlier point about, "Hey, our schedule as a family isn't fair to a dog" part of what's changing in this next year is that both of my kids are going to go to a new school. They are going to be able to take the bus home from school every day. 

Now they're old enough where I feel like, yeah, they can be home for a little while after school. They don't have to go to after school care, which means they can get off the bus every day and let the dog out and take him for a walk. He doesn't have to be alone in the house for as long as he would have been if we would have gotten him a year ago. 

Part of it is like our life shifted a little bit and I could see room for a dog in a way that I wouldn't have felt good about having a dog before that. Part of it too is I think you're right. I was thinking about this last night actually when I was walking him, which is if I didn't have him I wouldn't have gone outside last night and walked around and my soul kind of needed it. 

I needed to just look at some trees and some blue sky. Without the necessity of, "I need to take this dog out or I'm going to have a mess in my house" I would not have given myself the permission to just go do that. I would have been like, "Oh, no, no. I got to throw on a load of laundry. No, no, I have to get through five emails" or whatever. 

I think it's a little bit of both. I think that's a healthy thing. Honestly, somebody like me, I have a personality that can be really conducive to workaholism, which is not healthy. When you're a person who is motivated by getting things done and making things happen it can be really easy to fall into this pattern where you're just working all the time and you don't even realize that you're burning yourself out. 

I noticed this same thing happen to me when I had children, which is, "Oh, sorry. I just have to leave the office at five" or whatever the time was, "Because I have a commitment to this other little human." In some ways, having other creatures to take care of in the world can sometimes help trigger you to take better care of yourself. 

I think to your point there's been a little bit of both where I made room and also he made room. 

Carl Smith:
Yeah. This is fascinating to me. You know about therapy dogs obviously and therapy pets and how they help us just in so many ways. Both chemical changes, right? If you think about it, what you're saying in terms of getting things done, we get all the good stuff when we do that too. The dopamine and all those things. For me, it's the same thing. 

I just found out Sherlock, who is my golden retriever, is 15 pounds overweight. What? No. He's gorgeous. He looks great. No, he's 15 pounds overweight so now the family has come together to help him lose this weight. It's this amazing rallying point for this other being. That's just so important. I think that's why so many people have pets at work. 

Meghan McInerny:
Yeah. I think that's right. He's been coming to work with me because ... I'm a transparent real person. At the end of last year, around October, got a divorce. Now when my kids are with their dad it's just me. One of the things that I'm having to deal with having a new puppy is I have no backup when the kids aren't there. Right now he's too little to stay home all day by himself so he has to come to work with me.

It's just been really amazing how much other people want to take care of him when he's here. I barely have to do anything because people are like, "I'll watch him", "I'll take him out" which is really fun. You can see how it changes the dynamic. Now I think on the flip side you have to be careful because not everybody wants to be around dogs, right?

Carl Smith:
True.

Meghan McInerny:
It also can't be an imposition on people who don't want to be around dogs. I try to be really conscientious about making sure people feel comfortable saying if they don't really want to be around him or if he's disturbing them in any way that I just get him out of there. It can get distracting.

The thing I was going to say is I feel that kind of therapy aspect even with myself because it's been a big adjustment going from living in a house every day, all day, with three other people to 50% of the time I'm in a house with two other people, my children, and then the other 50% of the time it is just me. That hasn't been my life since I was like in my twenties and had my own apartment.

It's kind of nice to have another little being. I find myself talking more because I'm talking to him, right? Whereas before I would just be like, "Yeah, I'm hanging out by myself" and I don't mind being by myself at all. I love being alone. I think it's had a really nice effect on me to have another little guy around. Like you said, he's so cute.

Carl Smith:
There's a book called Paws to Consider and it's a book that's written based on your lifestyle what dogs you should consider getting. If you're a city person it doesn't recommend that you get a Saint Bernard. I was telling a friend we need a book like that for finding people for the team. It's like what are the personality types to consider if you're going to join us? If you're going to start working with us? 

Meghan McInerny:
Right.

Carl Smith:
I know that at the Digital PM Summit in October you're going to be talking about project management as a leadership role. This to me is fascinating. I've often said that digital PMs are the gateway to the future because they can understand what everybody is talking about even when they can't understand each other. I'm curious. When you're talking about digital PMs and leadership ... I've seen the move into operations. That seems to be a path. What do you see that gets a digital PM to the C-level table? 

Meghan McInerny:
God, that's a good question. I think I see digital PMs as being a largely untapped source of leadership, which is part of the point of my talk. I don't know of a lot of other C-level people that I've encountered that come from that PM background. I think it's because PMs need to first see themselves as leaders and understand what leadership is and start to see themselves in those roles. 

No one, in any career, is going to ever just hand something to you. You have to understand what it is that you are working toward and what you want to do. I think there's a lot of PMs who don't see the path to what comes next from PMing. 

I'm doing two sessions at the Summit. One is a keynote and the other is a panel with a bunch of PMs talking about their career paths exactly for this reason. I think there's this whole idea of I cannot be what I cannot see. That's why I'm trying to be really vocal about my own career and say like, "Hey, what I'm doing in this company I love to do and everything I'm doing I can tie directly back to the stuff that I did as a project manager." 

I often tell people I'm still a project manager but now Clockwork is my project. At my heart, I am still a project manager. I think with digital PMs because it's still so new we're carving our own career paths. There's not a really clearly laid out path. Because we are in a position where we're understanding so many different roles and so many aspects of projects and product development the paths in my mind are almost endless.

I've talked to PMs who end up moving into content roles. I've talked to PMs who move into more strategy roles. I think the path to operations is a great path. I absolutely love it. I think that the skills that you develop as a project manager align exactly with the types of things that you need to be doing on the operations side. 

As far as what's required, a lot of it comes down to ... Let me back up for a second. You mentioned that about Paws to Consider and sort of wishing that there was a book out there that would do the same thing for teams, right? Like who is going to fit into this team. What is the combination of skills that we need? 

The book that I've read that I think comes the closest to that is called First Break All the Rules. That book talks about this really evidence and research-based approach to what makes for a really good manager. Part of what they talk about in that book is being able to identify talents. They define talents as those things that we have that are innate to us, things we are naturally good at versus a skill which is something we can learn. 

The importance of defining what are the talents required for this role versus this other role? In the book, they list off a whole series of the talents that they've identified through this research. One of the things that we did at Clockwork as a result of several of us reading that book was really to think about in the hiring process what are the core talents of a project manager versus the core talents of a front-end developer or a QA. Trying to design interviews that helped us understand whether somebody really possessed those talents or not. 

As an example, one of the critical talents of a project manager is basically the ability to orchestrate things, which sounds like, "Oh, yeah. Shouldn't anybody be able to do that?" No, quite a lot of people can't do that. It's the ability to just bring the right people together at the right time to talk about the rights things. There are some people who are naturally talented at that and others who aren't and that is almost impossible to teach somebody how to do that. I think that it's really worth thinking about what are the talents that are really critical for those different roles for PMs and everything? 

Carl Smith:
It is a new role and it's a new industry, right? I wouldn't say we're mature.

Meghan McInerny:
I feel like we're awkward teenagers.

Carl Smith:
We are. Just in that adolescence kind of. The thing is for a digital PM they're not necessarily working for good managers. Not that they're bad people but most digital agencies were started by people who had a skill and they were good at it and it grew. There was so much work and things just got bigger and bigger. 

Clockwork I would say is a shining example of a company that's run by good people who are good business people as well, right? I think that's why all of those awards come in and why that understanding of people are being treated so well. A lot of shops, again even though they're good people, they're just confused. Digital PMs kind of get stuck and don't necessarily get to make that move. 

One of the things that's interesting to me in what you're saying, when we had design leadership camp a couple of months ago we had all these people, a lot of people from Silicon Valley, a lot of people from other big product companies, and big corporate environments and the question was asked, "Have you fired somebody in the last year because of a technical issue they couldn't do their job?" No hands went up.

Then the question was asked, "How many of you have fired somebody for a soft skill in the last year?" Almost 75% of the hands went up. You were kind of hinting at that a little bit. Yeah, there are these skills that, your talent, are inherent to you. You also have to be able to do it in a way that engages the team instead of repelling them. 

Meghan McInerny:
Yes. You know, one of the reasons that I think PMing is such an area of ... It's a job with so much potential to become and learn how to be a leader is exactly what you just said, which is even though your title is project manager you don't actually manage anyone directly. No one reports to you. 

There's a difference between being a good manager and being a good leader. A leader is someone who just is. A leader is not a title that's given to you and then people follow you. It's a thing that you do. You can be an inspiring leader without anyone reporting to you. 

Now eventually if you want to get to a place where people do report to you you are better able to fulfill that role because you look at leadership not as a thing that people have to listen to you but as something that you are constantly earning. How are you serving the team that you are trying to lead?

That's why I have this argument that PM is, A, it's a leadership role and, B, it's an excellent path to other kinds of leadership in organizations because you have to figure out how to motivate and inspire people who don't report to you. You can't literally hold their feet to the fire about anything in a real technical way. You have to just get them to come along with you and just by having a natural leadership ability.

The mechanics of building a timeline and sending a status email those are important. Those are table sticks. You have to do those things. That's not what makes or breaks a good PM. That's not what takes a PM from good to great. Part of what my talk really goes into is what does a great project manager look like? Beyond just the basic skills. How do you really act like a leader in the role of project manager and what does that look like? 

Carl Smith:
Now I know you worked in the advertising industry for a while. I did as well. That question what does a good digital PM look like? We had account managers and account service and all this type of stuff. We had one person, Mary McDonald, who was a project manager. I brought her on at Engine for a while. She was a writer. I think writers are also great PMs because they always have to struggle to get their input so they can do their content. They still know all the aspects. 

When we tried to boil it down at the agency we were like, "Why is Mary so good?" We realized it's because nobody wanted to let her down. She was not the whip wielder. She wasn't trying to barricade everybody into their offices until they got it done. She was just so nice and always wanted to help but also was able to let you know the repercussions, "This is what's going to happen if we don't get this done. It's going to fall onto this person and we're going to lose time here and then the client is going to get cranky there." 

That, to me, was something I took with me from that when I started Engine was we want people that are charismatic but honest. To me, I think those are two of the characteristics we always look for. 

Meghan McInerny:
Yeah, I think that's right. There's an aspect of what you're talking about that I think is really critical to leadership, which is that idea of how are you serving the team that you are trying to lead? Instead of how am I forcing them to do things my way? 

I've worked for people for whom that was their leadership style. It's really demotivating. It's really demoralizing. What you're describing with Mary is how I try to lead project teams as well, which is what can I do for you? We all have this destination we're trying to get to, which is we want to launch something really great for our client or for our organization. We're in this together and I'm working with you and for you. You're not just doing it for me. You're doing it for each other. 

The other thing is I think what is more powerful than your leader or your manager or your boss, whoever the person is who you think of as being "above" you, what is more powerful than them being disappointed in you is your peer being disappointed in you. If you can create a culture on your project team of peer accountability that's extremely powerful. Nobody wants to let the other members of the team down. 

As a project manager making sure that our shared goal is really clear and that the accountability is for who is doing what, when, to get us there are really clear then I've found a lot of success in that model because people don't want to let their friends down, the person sitting next to them down. It matters less what I think and more what the people that they're working with think. I think that's how it should be. 

Carl Smith:
This is where it gets to be such a challenge for distributed teams because you have to build in that extra time for people to get to know each other. We actually had a retreat and I realized half the team had not met the other half of the team. They had never met in person before. I will tell you our productivity after that retreat went through the roof. 

There was a lot more goofing on in Slack and there was a lot more all that kind of stuff but it was because they liked each other now. I think there's so much value in what you're saying there. It really is that peer accountability as well as the sense of leadership, which as you described it, and has been written about, a leader is somebody that you follow. Not somebody that's got a title.

Meghan McInerny:
I have seen among PMs, and I know this isn't specific to PMs, but I have sometimes seen this desire where someone will say, "I want to be a senior PM and then X will happen" or, "If I get this other title then Y will happen." My point to them is, no, you do that first. You act like you have the job that you want before you have it and that's how you get that job. Don't let your title or your role hinder you from exhibiting the leadership skills that you think are necessary in the organization that you're working in. You don't magically get it when you get a title.

Carl Smith:
I think that's so true. Especially in this industry because a lot of times we don't even know that a job exists until somebody starts doing it.

Meghan McInerny:
Even among PMs, right? You could be a project manager. You could be a product manager, and even though those should be two totally different things, I've seen plenty of places where the lines are very, very, very blurry. Maybe you're called a producer. There's not even consistency in the names of our jobs and our roles. 

Yeah, the leadership doesn't come from a title. It comes from the things that you do and the choices that you make every single day on the teams that you're working with. When I was working in advertising I was not in a leadership role in those organizations. I was a straight up project manager. There was one organization in particular where there was sort of a lack of leadership in that group and I found myself just stepping in to fill that vacuum because I wanted us all to succeed. 

I was just like, "I'm going to do whatever I need to do to help us succeed." At one point that meant there was something happening in the department that everybody was really concerned about but nobody wanted to talk to the CEO about it because they were scared. I said, "Great. I'm going to make a list of all of the things we're worried about and I'm going to go meet with him and tell him what we're concerned about."

I did. It was scary to me at the time. I was in my twenties and what business did I have marching into the CEO to say, "Hey, these are some concerns that we have in this group"? But I did because I wanted us all to succeed and I thought if nobody is willing to tell him these things then we're never going to get anywhere. I don't want to be the kind of person that silently waits for us to fail. 

I want to be the person who speaks up and says, "I think there's something we could be doing differently" or, "Hey, I think there's a perspective that you don't see because you're the CEO and you're busy. Let me make sure that you see that perspective." 

Carl Smith:
I had somebody recently tell me that they made a decision to choose courage over comfort and that changed their whole career. It's the same thing that you're saying. I literally that day changed my mind on three things I had to do because I was just trying to avoid pain. 

Meghan McInerny:
It is amazing what we will do as humans to avoid discomfort and confrontation or even just talking to somebody who has the power to fire you and telling them what you honestly think. Those are scary things. I don't want to minimize that that can be a really scary thing. I also think it's really necessary and if the reaction that the person has to you expressing your opinion is to fire you then that's probably somewhere that you don't want to be anyway. Get out. 

Carl Smith:
It's good to get that out of the way. It's like, oh, okay. I've got the rest of my life now. I could waste another two years here.

Meghan McInerny:
I also think there's an aspect to this of one of the other critical talents of a project manager is the ability to empathize and to see other positions because often you're in a place where you're having to mediate between two parties, whether it's the client and the team, whether it's the dev and the QA, whether it's the designer and the ... Whoever it is, you do a lot of mediation and it requires you being able to see both sides. 

I think that becomes really useful when you have to have those difficult conversations because there's a world in which that conversation I had with the CEO could have been me as a know-it-all, annoying, twentysomething person saying, "Here's all the ways that I think you're doing this wrong." Instead, it was a conversation where I was saying, "Hey, we work for you. We all have the same shared goal as a company. We're in this together. Here are some things that are affecting my department that I would like your help with" or, "I want to know that you understand these things and I'm interested in how you think about them." 

I think when you're having those scary uncomfortable conversations when you come at it from a place of positive intent and really empathizing with the other person's position versus coming in and telling them all the ways that they're doing something wrong. It changes the dynamic of the conversation. The reality of most people in a leadership role or an operations role, like me, is most of what you're hearing all day every day are the problems. Nobody comes in to involve you in all the things that are awesome. They're just like, "Oh, awesome? Yeah, that's us. We're awesome." Then when something is terrible they're like, "Ugh, you're the worst! Why is this happening?" 

When you go to somebody in those positions if you frame it up as, "Hey, I see an issue and I want to help" that totally changes the dynamic. Then I'm in it with you. Yes, I want to help you too and I see you as a leader who is going to help me. It changes the way you are seen in the organization to have the bravery to have those conversations in a constructive and productive way. 

Carl Smith:
You've got the experience as a digital PM. It's a lot like the Japanese model for leadership or for management where you work in every department. Now a digital PM doesn't work in every department but they work with every department. There's nothing that comes out of a project that a digital PM isn't involved in. Who better to have the vision of where things could be better?

Meghan McInerny:
Yes. Absolutely. Just going back to this sort of tactics of how PMs can think about this in their daily lives. Asking the members of your team, "Hey, what's getting in your way? What makes your job hard? How can I help with that?" Your team will ride or die for you if you take the time to understand how you can make what they're going through easier. 

Again, as you said, as the PM you have that larger visibility. If the front end developer is saying, "Oh my God. It's such a nightmare when this happens with the design or when QA does this" that you can be able to say, "Oh, I can do something about that. Yeah, why do we do it that way? It's dumb. I didn't know that was making your day harder. Let me go fix that so your day can be easier." 

That means so much to people that you take the time to understand what it is that they're doing and to help them work through fixing the problems that they're having.

Carl Smith:
Well, Meghan, we could have a seven-day podcast I'm confident.

Meghan McInerny:
I think we could. We could just filibuster this podcast for days.

Carl Smith:
We totally could. Unfortunately, we've got to go. I just want to say thank you and I'm so excited to see you again at the Digital PM Summit. That's this October 15th and 17th in Vegas. If you love Vegas or hate Vegas you can blame me or thank me because I made that decision without asking anyone. 

Meghan McInerny:
Executive decision.

Carl Smith:
Decision made. Thank you again for being on the show. Everybody else, thanks for listening and we will see you next time.

Meghan McInerny:
Thank you. 

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