Colin D. Ellis   , Project Leadership Expert, International Speaker & Best-Selling Author

Colin D. Ellis, Project Leadership Expert, International Speaker & Best-Selling Author

Digital transformation is the implementation of technology. Partly true. But organizations can’t get ready for better, smarter, different ways of working without putting time and effort into building a culture that's ready for digital transformation.

Colin D. Ellis is in the business of cultural evolution. A project leadership expert, international speaker and best-selling author, Colin helps companies to define and evolve culture in order to transform business. As Colin defines it, culture is the sum of everyone's attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and traditions. And it’s these same attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and traditions that can hold organizations back.

To build the future, organizations need to put a shift in, and hold people accountable for change. Each of us has a personal responsibility to change the way we think and the way we act. Colin joins us to talk digital transformation, emotional intelligence, mistakes companies make and his go-to karaoke song.


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Carl Smith: Hey, everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and with me today, not from Melbourne, Australia, where he lives, or Liverpool, where he was born. But from Auckland, New Zealand, it is Mr. Colin Ellis. How are you, Colin?

Colin Ellis: Carl, I'm great, thank you.

Carl Smith: Now, you speak all over the place, you're a trainer, best-selling author of The Conscious Project Leader, what is the day to day like for Colin Ellis?

Colin Ellis: It's a bit of a Tornado Carl, I kind of blow into cities, get all excited and energetic for about 90 minutes and then go again. So, it's a mix of airplanes, taxis, being on the site with clients and then coming back to the hotel, debriefing, and writing some things down and then doing it all again the next day.

Carl Smith: Well see, now, there's that guy who tells us to stay thirsty my friends, you're supposed to be the world's most interesting man. I think you may be up for the title.

Colin Ellis: I'm going to give it a roll-

Carl Smith: And-

Colin Ellis: Yeah definitely.

Carl Smith: Amazingly well dressed, I have to say. I know that there's a story behind the suits. Tell everybody what is this. It's like every time I see you, you're wearing this amazing suit.

Colin Ellis: Well, it's one of those things where I often joke how being from Britain I was born in a suit, which is, of course it's not true. Since my early 20s, I've always taken a lot of care with the way that I dressed, and I wanted to demonstrate to people that I take pretty much everything about my professional life seriously.

It's just something that I love doing, Carl. I really like getting dressed up. One of my friends recently had the good fortune to meet Richard Branson. He said, "Oh, you would hate him." "Hate him, why? He [inaudible 00:01:52] people's ties off? I could never meet Richard Branson, because I like wearing them. I'm odd in that way. So, I do like to dress well?

Carl Smith: That to me is beautiful because that's how you want to dress. For me, I was forced into it early on, and ended up in a corporate, advertising type career, had to wear ties, do all that stuff. As soon as I started my own company, it was just like that's over with. It was [inaudible 00:02:21] I think, it might have been a while ago, but he said beware of any enterprise that requires a change of clothing.

So, you showed up in a suit so you stayed in a suit. I think that's amazing. If the two of us ever got on stage together, I'm going to be wearing shorts and a T-shirt and it's going to be obvious which one of us is still trying, and which one of us has given up.

Colin Ellis: I met someone on the street in Melbourne who I knew three or four weeks ago, and I had all of the stuff on. She said to me, saying, "Do you always dress like this all of the time?" I was like, "No, when I go to bed, I change." I was like, "But I have a motto is you only dress once in the day." I was like, "So, when I get up I do this and then when I want to go to bed, I do something different."

Carl Smith: All right, but is it full on like silk pajamas?

Colin Ellis: No, it's way more casual. My time to be casual is when I'm asleep.

Carl Smith: Okay. We've probably just started going into that part of the podcast where you may want to warn your children, it's going to get a little racy. No, just kidding, not going to get a little racy. Tell us about your book. The Conscious Project Leader.

Colin Ellis: I've been in the project management profession for 20 years Carl and one of the things that I noticed particularly early on in my career, there's no how to guide for project managers. Now, there's lots of textbooks and programs out the can tell you the theory of stuff. So, in theory, you do this. And there's a lot of process stuff and obviously in the US there's the Project Management Body of Knowledge in the UK, Australia, New Zealand it's [inaudible 00:03:58]. It is a mix of stuff.

But there was no kind of honest assessment of this is what it's like to be a project manager, and also, here are some tips on how to do it. Now, I'm specifically talking about things like, we've made leadership too hard, we've made it too big, we've made it too complicated, we've made it hierarchal. One of the things I do in the book is I break down what leadership actually is, into the set of behaviors and you're a role model for others.

Also, I break down how to build great teams. Because essentially ... And it doesn't matter whether you're a digital project manager or you're an agile or working in Scrum, we've still got to build great teams to do great work. But there was no how to book. So, I thought, well, I'm going to write it. So, I did.

It was way more popular than I ever thought that it would be if I'm completely honest. I thought I was writing it for me. To demonstrate to my parents what I actually did because literally every time I spoke to them, they were like, "What are you doing again?"

Carl Smith: It's funny, my parents tell people that I'm a motivational speaker. I just go with it. My kids once told people that I was like one of those people that talk at TED, only it's not TED. I was like, "Wait a second, I don't understand. What was that?" How long has the book been out?

Colin Ellis: Been out three years now Carl.

Carl Smith: Three years now.

Colin Ellis: Sorry, three years, two years. Two years, and I wrote a second book last year called The Project Rots From The Head. Which is all about how project managers need to change the way they govern projects. So yeah, it's been about two years.

Carl Smith: Okay, great. And then the second book, how is that doing?

Colin Ellis: That one's doing really well too. I think because there's a hell of a lot of humor in there as well, Carl. I posted it on LinkedIn at the weekend, this quote from Dame Judi Dench, the actress. She said, "I think you should take your work seriously, but not yourself. That's the best combination."

The book is full of practical stuff to help you do things differently. But there's also fair bit of humor in there as well, which is represented in the title. Projects do rot from the head. Senior managers are still the biggest factor in whether projects are successful or not. So, I have a bit of a dig in the title of it.

Carl Smith: Well, now, you're going to be joining us this September at the Digital PM Summit. I'm so glad. When Brett first sent me a video of one of your talks, I was like, "I love this guy." The energy that you're going to bring, that you're going to start the show with is going to be great. You're talking about digital transformation. I just have to say, I first heard about digital transformation probably about three or four years ago. It was from friends of mine at Clearleft in the UK.

It's one of those things where I was like, "What." But one of the things they said to me that I thought was so brilliant was that there used to be a Chief Electricity Officer back in the day. This was the person once electricity was shown to be ... Steams are great technology, don't get me wrong, but once electricity shown to be better, it's like how do you incorporate electricity into your business? Then they were like, "Well, that's what digital transformation is.? It's like, now there is these people in companies who are responsible for making sure that we get digital.

Your talk is about digital transformation starts with you. So, what are you going to cover?

Colin Ellis: I don't want to spoil it. But what am I going to-

Carl Smith: Don't, just give that tease, just enough.

Colin Ellis: What do I cover Carl, it's a good question. I joke a lot about digital transformation because digital transformation is just the natural evolution of a business. But consultants they do the thing? What are you doing in a digital ... Literally, if you're not doing digital transformation, what are you doing?

I joked yesterday, going even farmers are doing digital transformation because they're going out and buying different phones. But the important thing is for any kind of transformation, what we forget is we think that digital transformation is the implementation of technology, which is only partly true. Because digital transformation is how do we evolve our culture such that we're able to leverage different tools and different ways of doing things?

That's the bit that everybody forgets. So, what you end up doing is you invest, the organizations invest millions in digital transformation without ever changing who they are, or the way that they do things, and without getting the organization ready for better, smarter, different ways of working.

So, at the minute, going agile is very much on Vogue. It's my favorite topic to cover. We're going agile, okay, well, great, that's that then. You're going to be massively successful. You're going to take care of a CEO in front of the [inaudible 00:09:07] going, look, we're agile. Not really mate, no. And they think that that's digital transformation, it's all we're going to be doing scrums, and we're going to change your team names to tribes and squads. Is like-

Carl Smith: More posts in notes.

Colin Ellis: Yeah, more posts in notes. It's 3M. As soon as people invented agile, the 3M must be like, "Come on, bring that on."

Carl Smith: Here we go.

Colin Ellis: We've got $6 billion, come on. I very much talk about personal responsibility with digital transformation, is that we've all got a responsibility to change the way that we think to change the way that we act. Organizations have a responsibility to put time and effort in building a culture that's ready for digital transformation, rather than just star in technology projects.

Carl Smith: When you're talking about some of these companies, if you're talking about millions, you're talking about pretty large companies. How do they start with the cultural side? I can only imagine that they look twice and go, "What? How do we change our people?" What do you recommend to them when you go in and you're working-

Colin Ellis: It's already started. So, Dutch bank, ING based out of Holland in Europe their model for this. Where they started Carl, was they sent everybody on EQ training, right? So, emotional intelligence for years and years and years. I played the role of emotional intelligence in our lives and our businesses. We've even called it soft skills to make it sound ... But we all know it's the hardest thing to change.

Carl Smith: It's so hard.

Colin Ellis: It's so hard. It really really is. What they did is they made sure that everybody was self-aware. So those things that I do when I work with organizations to change their cultures, is we do personality profiling. But personality profiling on its own isn't enough. Firstly, we have to dumb it down to a point where everyone understands it. Like if you get a profile back, and it says, you're an astronaut physicist. Really, how is that applicable to work? It's just not.

Then you give people a series of choices to say, here's the stuff that you're really good at, and what we need you to do is to coach other people that they're really good at this stuff. Here are your blind spots, here are some things that you may or may not be very good at. What we need you to do is to plug those gaps.

So, I help individuals, I get to pull those gaps by saying, "Well, listen, you're not very good at being passionate when you talk because you're an introvert, right? What comes natural to you, it's quiet soul work." I help them to do that. Also, to help extroverts to shut up and listen. Oh, the irony. It's like every now and again, you've got to shut up and listen. You start with the likes of Deutsche Bank ING, they did this. They did it for nine months. And at the end of that nine months they made everybody redundant and apply for their own job, reapply for their job.

What they said, well, [inaudible 00:12:13] was the COO at the time, and he said, we lost a lot of people who had the right skills, but the wrong behaviors. They started there and then they gave their staff the opportunity to redefine the culture. I pretty much do exactly the same thing except with the redundancy things. I don't want people to lose their jobs. I want people to see what can work, I want them to become the best version of themselves.

But that cultural definition piece is really, really important. Is actually taking the time with staff because you can't tell people what the culture is, Carl. You have to involve them in a conversation where they get to define the culture they believe that they need in order to deliver transformation. We neatly package all that up in a little culture deck and you've got the recipe for success. Then, the key is everybody holding each other to account

Carl Smith: Culture is what the people who work at a company make it, right? That the thing. I've been in this discussion several times about, can you create a culture, or can you only enable it? Can you only give it what it needs? And for me, it's always one of those amazing things. I always see culture as the way that the internal team defines a company, and brand is the way the rest of the world defines the company.

Colin Ellis: Yeah.

Carl Smith: It's one of those things if they're out of sync that you've got this real issue. But when you're talking about these assessments, and the individual assessments. I imagine there's some team dynamic stuff in there as well, how are you determining .... Is it a Myers Briggs type thing, or what's going on with your assessments?

Colin Ellis: It's a type thing. I use a tool called Clarity4D, which is, you base most of these things are on [inaudible 00:13:55] work around personality. I just make it easy to understand, because too many of them are too complicated. I got good accreditation. It's a really straightforward easy to understand tool.

What people forget Carl, is that culture is a sum of everyone's attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and traditions. The things that hold organizations back, are people's attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and traditions. So, what you need to do is to redefine that. You need to do at the start and say, from today, our culture is this, or needs to be this. And there's a whole bunch of things to work on.

Netflix's culture deck it's been around with May for a few years now. And so, people like me, I ate that work a little bit. Obviously, my process is different to get them. One of the great things it says in the culture deck is that we're a team, not a family. Straight away, they're talking about the fact that we're in this together, right, but we're not here just to play nice and be nice to each other. That's part of it. It's part of it, but it's not all of it.

Then they go on to say, we're a pro sports team not a kids recreational team. I remember one, it's one of my favorite stories. My son played for a soccer team, and they were beaten nine, nil. He came off the pitch and he said, "You know what dad, even though we got beat nine, nil I really enjoyed myself." I'm like kind of conventional parental wisdom day, that's a great thing and I'm so glad ... Yeah, no, I didn't do that.

I said, "Dude, that's really good. But just imagine how you would have felt had you won nine, nil?? I think we often lack that in our teams, and in our cultures. I talk about it on stage. Everyone's got to put a shift in. If you don't put a shift in, then there should be consequence. When you look at all these high performance teams, and high performing cultures around the world, and this is inherent in the work that I do with organizations and their cultures, is we talk about, well, what does it mean to put a shift in, and how we're going to hold each other accountable to that Carl?

Otherwise, what you end up with is the same old attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and traditions that have held organization back for years and they never transform in the way that they want to.

Carl Smith: As an ENTP, what I can tell you right now, it's funny, you brought up the, we're a family, we're a team. The Netflix culture deck when that came out, I was like, "What a brilliant marketing move." It is amazing content. But it was like the way they released all of that. It floored me. It went through the digital services space as fast as it went through the rest of the world, I think.

But the thing that got me was, so many agencies, digital agencies, traditional advertising agencies, they've got that family feel. When they talk about it, I think you're right. That's why you don't go home and say, "Where's dad?" "Oh, we had to let him go. It wasn't working out."

Colin Ellis: [crosstalk 00:17:03] years ago, where's daddy's [inaudible 00:17:07] let's get rid of him and get someone else in.

Carl Smith: He always complained about things that he did. He never did the dishes, the yard was getting a little shaggy, and he kept eating off other people's plates. It just was not going to happen, we had to let dad go.

I'm glad to hear you say that. It's also one of those things that yeah, it holds you back. A lot of times in my experience, both with large organizations and smaller, they accept the change on a superficial level, knowing that it's probably not going to stick. Do you see that sometimes that they've been through this series of ... I'll give you my favorite example. We were working with AT&T a fairly large division. The guy was explaining the mission to us, and over his right shoulder, I could see the mission statement, it was completely different than what he was saying.

He saw the look on my face and he was like, "What?" This is the head of a pretty big business unit. I'm sure this guy had multiple cars, and all that kind of stuff. I was like, "What you're saying is not what's on the plaque behind you." He turned around and he literally ripped it off the wall. He said, "This is old." And he threw it in the garbage . That to me summed up so many quick moves that corporations make that the people just realized-

Colin Ellis: Just wait it out.

Carl Smith: It's not really going to change. How do you get that message across that this is a real show stopper?

Colin Ellis: Great question. Organizations make mistakes all the time because they bring in consultants to define their culture for them. So, immediately, you're someone else's responsibility, not the stats. The inner child in those, Carl, just goes, "You know what, that's not mine. I didn't create it, not me."

It's like being told what your values are. Your values are ... No, I have my own set of values, and they are not those five things that you're telling me that they are. Which is why people have to be involved in the definition of it in order to make it theirs. The visions and thyre an interesting one, because I always say that a vision is there to be lived, not laminated.

As soon as you put the vision on the wall, you've already failed. It should be short enough to be memorable. Again, the staff are involved in the creation of the vision so it feels like theirs. Even though they might not use any of their words, but it drives every single decision that you make the vision. Every single decision as an individual done at my job and as an organization in terms of what we're going to take on.

The quick fix solutions, quick fix is, bring consultants into the final culture, go agile send people on the training course, you expect things to change immediately. Let's call that a digital transformation project, everything will change. They're just not proven to work, they're not proven to work. Organizations continue to make those mistakes, Carl.

Carl Smith: Vision should be lived, not laminated. I am going to pretend I'm a wall and just see if anybody understands the joke. That is right there worth the price of admission. Seriously, for me, there's so many times when you hear something, you're like, "Oh, that's not me at all. Why am I acting like I would ever do that?" But it ends up on somebody's wall. It's one of their 10 truths or it's the so and so way, or it's ... To me, it's always one of those things where, if a company's constantly changing, and the culture is evolving, it's got to be an ongoing process.

This idea if you put something on the wall, you fixed a moment in time. It's not even necessarily going to last two weeks.

Colin Ellis: I've met with the CEO recently. And he said, "Oh, yeah, I've heard you do a really good culture change project." I was like, "That's not what I do at all." I was like, "I'm in the business of cultural evolution. I give you a start point from which you can build the future that you need in order to deliver whatever it is you do successfully." Because culture never stops evolving, it never stop evolving.

You can't click your fingers and change. You can change over three, six months. But then you continue to change because of the way that we introduce new technology, and new people, and you're thinking all those kinds of things Carl. So, yeah, culture never ever stops evolving. So, thinking you can fix it and say, "Right, that's it, we're done." No, not really.

Culture, the work that I do, the culture's got an end date of one year. Because if you're not, then we're redefining it every year, you've failed because you're saying that these attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and traditions of last year are still relevant. Well, they shouldn't be.

Carl Smith: I knew I was going to really really like you. I knew that. Coming into this just having read so many things, and this just proves it. I'm so excited to say hello in person. The other thing is, there's a rumor going around that you may love karaoke.

Colin Ellis: It's so not a rumor. I tell everybody.

Carl Smith: Is this true?

Colin Ellis: I do. I do love karaoke. Someone said like, "Oh, did you always want to be a pop star or something?" I was like, "No, it's just an extreme way for me to get my extraversion out into the public domain." I do, I like a good sing song, I can't deny it.

Carl Smith: All right, go to song.

Colin Ellis: Video Killed The Radio Star by the Buggles.

Carl Smith: The Buggles?

Colin Ellis: Way back in the '80s.

Carl Smith: Oh my goodness. That's so good. That's awesome. I'm either Pride and Joy Stevie Ray Vaughn. Although, occasionally, I will go with a little-

Colin Ellis: Oh yeah, one of the classics, one of it.

Carl Smith: Got it. It is a Digital PM Summit tradition sir, and there's a karaoke bar in the guest houses at Graceland. So, we will definitely share a stage together. We'll figure out a way to do it.

Colin Ellis: That sounds good. We can do-

Carl Smith: Thank you so much [crosstalk 00:23:34]

Colin Ellis: Song called you and me.

Carl Smith: We can do it.

Colin Ellis: What a talent now for the other guests who are going to be there, wow.

Carl Smith: You know what, at that point the show is over. I don't want to say anything, but I really don't care. If they want to leave, they want to leave. Now, there's also a history of ... There's a lot of different names for it, I'm not going to use any of them because they're all pretty bad. But where somebody picks a song for you.

It was two years ago in Philly where somebody picked the Divinyls for me, I Touch Myself. I was halfway through the song, I sing in other words, I don't know how that's possible. And realize the videographers from the event are in a different row capturing all of it.

So, a quick little called my wife said, "Hey, funny thing happened. Got up in front of a few hundred people and may have danced inappropriately." But that's what you can expect to be in the summit. That's what's going to happen. I think it's going to be.

Well, I can't wait to meet you. Thank you so much for swinging by today. Wow, it's just over a month away, and we'll be doing Islands-

Colin Ellis: [inaudible 00:24:50] Carl, thanks so much for having me on mate.

Carl Smith: You got, I appreciate it Collin. For everybody listening., thank you so much and we'll talk to you next week. All the best.