Dr James Brown is a world-class project manager who spent many years with NASA. Much of his time there involved working on the space shuttle programme.

I had the good fortune to meet him some years ago at an American conference and was delighted to reconnect in Auckland a couple of months ago. He was here to speak at an international project manager's conference and managed to squeeze in a few hours of tourist-time so I could show him something other than the inside of the hotel and the airport.

He saw the scenery of the Waitakeres and Huia; I heard some pearls of wisdom.

We were both delighted with our respective sides of the exchange.


Here are just a few of his pithy words of advice.

Know what to ignore:

Almost everyone in any business has more demands than time, an over-crowded schedule and limited resources. It's critical to become comfortable about ignoring 'stuff'.


Meetings are 'sinkholes of time'. If you allow them to meander on and waste time, thereby requiring you to stay late at work, you're cheating on your family and personal time.

Many meetings are not aggressive (focused) enough. 'If you're the leader of a team, allow your staff to walk out of a meeting if there's no value in their being present'.

Waiting for information or documents:

Take a proactive stance in following up on items you're waiting on others for - look for a gentle way to 'bird-dog' (his phrase) the person or people you're waiting on.

If you're managing a lot of deliverables you can't assume they'll be provided without some prompting.

Dr Brown: 'If I can make them feel guilty, that's my job! However, it's important to be graceful about the way you do it.' He said that people hardly ever missed his deadlines, and yet he hadn't nagged.


• Before the deadline, call the person from whom you're expecting something. 'I know you'll be working on ..... for next Tuesday. I'm just checking in to see if there's anything extra you need in the way of help or information from me.'

• You might say, 'Thank you in advance for ... [the deliverable].' At the same time you'll possibly explain the importance of what they'll provide.

• Sometimes you might use a bribe, i.e. a candy bar.

Management by walking around at the working level

Dr Brown: 'So many managers are so busy in meetings or listening to presentations that they're not out with the people who have their hands at the wheel. You won't know what's transpiring in the organisation if you're not amongst the action. It is the most important thing for a manager/leader to do.'

Bob Sieck, a highly respected space NASA shuttle launch director, always went out on the floor to find out what the hands-on people were doing. He regarded it as the most valuable part of his day and critical to his role as a leader.


• You cannot lead people without a feel of what's going on.
• Your direct reports will lie if you don't know what's happening. Your job as a leader is to ferret out the truth.
• People want to look good so, rather than ask for help or indicate uncertainty, they'll think: 'I can fix this problem without help'. The problem might need high level help but if the leader doesn't know about it, he or she can't help.
• By being amongst the workers on a regular basis you accelerate trust, which is the foundational skill set of a leader.

Last words from Dr Brown:

If you can't build trust, it doesn't matter how good you are at spread sheets
and going to meetings!