‘This experience has taught me, like a lot of the work I do in life, that where you start isn’t necessarily where you’ll end up… the book we’ve written is much more practical and purposeful for our readers as a result of us really listening to [their feedback] and not being afraid to change our minds.’
Diana Marsland and Julie Nerney began their work on Own Your Day just before the pandemic hit, and with a hypothesis that they were pretty confident about. Over the course of the next year, everything changed: their rigorous research disproved their original hypothesis and revealed a different path, and their close collaboration had to shift online as lockdown hit. For some authors that could have been the end, but Diana and Julie found a way of working together that transformed those setbacks into a new creative energy.
In this conversation we talk about how management is changing and the issues faced by those with the Herculean task of translating strategy from the top into results on the ground, and also about those processes of research, pivoting and collaboration. The result is a masterclass for anyone wanting to write a book grounded in the real world, and particularly for anyone thinking about writing with a partner.
Own Your Day site: https://ownyourday.substack.com/
Own Your Day on Twitter: https://twitter.com/OwnYourDay_book
Diana on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianamarsland/
Diana on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dianamarsland
Julie on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/julie-nerney-3641a013/
Julie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JulieNerney
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Diana Marsland and Julie Nerney. Diana’s varied career has seen her work in marketing, project management and executive roles in the corporate, public and third sectors, including Halifax PLC, the NHS, Action Medical Research and City University. She believes that managers’ abilities are vastly underrated and that they can flourish with support and encouragement.
Julie Nerney is a serial entrepreneur, transformation expert, CEO, NED, chair, guest lecturer and public speaker. With insights from working with hundreds of organizations across every sector, she’s certain that how teams and leaders approach work is a far bigger driver of success than what they do. She’s a passionate advocate for authentic, purposeful leadership, and together they are the authors of Own Your Day: New light on the mastery of managing in the middle. So welcome to the show, Diana and Julie.
Julie Nerney: Good morning.
Alison Jones: Really, really good to have you both here separately. And Diana I’m going to turn to you first because I’d love to know, I think you were the kind of the originator of the idea of the book. Where did it come from? What was it about middle management that made you think this is where I need to target the work?
Diana Marsland: I think one of the things is talking about sort of using the words, the middle manager, I think we describe it as managing in the middle. So it’s those people between the executive and frontline delivery which actually is most people in today’s flatter structures. That the focus and the idea came from mentoring teams.
Over my career, I’ve seen some that work really well, some struggle. The common characteristic of those who work really effectively and support their teams is actually around the manager themselves. And that’s what makes a difference. Those people who took ownership and were confident to try new things to solve problems.
It was while I was a non-exec in the NHS and mentoring quite a number of teams. I tried to share things from my experience that I thought would be useful, but also sharing experience when those teams were doing really well, but even though I put a lot of time into it, my reach was really limited.
And that’s where the idea of a book was born, to put all of that in one place and to be able to share more widely. And I think the whole approach is there tends to be different bureaucratic hierarchical organizations any right way of doing things. And of course that’s not the reality. So what Julie and I were talking about was there’s no right way, but a range of things you can try.
And so that was sort of the origin of the book for me.
Alison Jones: And is there something about the current climate, do you think, that has made that space of being squeezed in the middle more problematic than before? Or do you just think it’s always been like this?
Julie Nerney: It’s interesting and we’re doing lots of work with different organizations over the past year, Alison, I think it just squeezes even further because you’ve got that perennial challenge of being in that part of the organization where you’re needing to understand the direction of travel and enact that, at the same time as looking after your team, and COVID has just made it harder.
It’s harder to stay connected, it’s harder to stay in touch with people, it has required much more effort, at the same time as people having to juggle the demands of the lockdown environment on their life outside of work, whether it’s family or other commitments.
And I think that that’s exacerbated it, but I think it’s the perennial challenge. It’s probably made it more vivid and people have felt it more acutely. And certainly that’s my experience talking to people. But I think it’s always been there and that’s why I think Diana’s idea was such a good one. It’s a perennial challenge for people in the middle of organizations.
Alison Jones: It really is, isn’t it? One thing that really struck me in reading your book was the way that you’re kind of poised between the doing and the thinking, and how easy it is for people to get sucked into the doing, which I imagine has been exacerbated hugely by COVID because there’s so much more to do, you know, in terms of just managing the operations of the business. I wonder, would you like to just talk a little bit about how you see that playing out at the moment and just generally for managers in the middle?
Diana Marsland: I think that Covid has made it really much, much more difficult because everybody was forced into using technology that they had to learn as they went along for the most people. But work processes were not geared to online, so things, simple things like meetings, you know, it has a different dynamic online.
There are some better things and some things are more difficult, things like onboarding, bringing new people into the team, all made much harder. So I think the real common area has been time to think, which we identify as being so important, the time to step back. And I think there just hasn’t been any of that recently.
Julie Nerney: Yes, yes, I’d agree. There’s something about the challenge isn’t there between people talking about is this management or is it about leadership? And, I think everybody has a leadership role to play in an organization, whether you’re in a leadership position as defined by an organizational hierarchy and that’s that balance between thinking and doing.
And, you know, I agree with Diana, I mean, I am in back-to-back screen meetings my entire life now and there’s no downtime, there’s none of the, kind of gentle rapport building that comes out of unstructured conversations. It’s much harder to collaborate.
It’s also, I think, much harder for people to, in new teams, to build that kind of trust and confidence in one another. And definitely for people at the start of their career, you forget how much you learn just by being present at events or hearing conversations in an office. And certainly the organizations I work with, managers are really struggling in helping giving the new starters in their team that real experiential learning of observing and witnessing things that just happen in an everyday environment.
So still the same kind of themes that we’re encountering, but again, exacerbated by the way, we’re having to work at the moment.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s so true. Isn’t it? So much learning goes on by osmosis, particularly in the early sort of stages.
Diana Marsland: And if I could just add to that, because I think this whole notion of being online all the time, there is a kind of expectation that people are available because they’re working from home to answer any time of the night or day and weekend. And I think that self-care has been terribly important, but when you’re trying to do your best, particularly as a manager and responding to the needs of your team, I think it’s really difficult not to put that extra bit into somebody else, but often at the detriment to yourself. Lots has been written and is currently being written about self-care, but it is really hard and I think that’s one of the things we tried to acknowledge in the book. None of this is easy. So I think it’s just trying to find something that will help you with the thing that you’re grappling with at that particular moment.
Alison Jones: And you’ve got lots of stories in the book from managers, from a range of different occupations and levels. How did you go about pulling those together?
Diana Marsland: The verbatims from managers came from our research. We actually used a two-stage research approach and that was partly because we had a hypothesis for the book and that was that managers could take action to overcome the barriers that they faced without needing senior manager approval. So we did a lot of interviews with groups and individuals.
One interesting thing was that our hypothesis was disproved by that initial research, but we did find a rich, deep vein of barriers and issues and themes that we then went on to test. Those speech things came from those interviews. So it’s actually what people were saying about situation that they found themselves in
Alison Jones: And it is wonderful, to hear it in people’s words is so authentic. Tell me a little bit more about disproving your hypothesis because it’s a bit of… it’s great, isn’t it, when you disprove a hypothesis, because that’s what it’s there for, but it is also a bit crushing. So just tell me about that whole process. How did that go?
Diana Marsland: Yes. Because we were quite confident about the barriers and what they consisted of, but of course in reality, isn’t hindsight such a wonderful thing, is when you stand back and look at it, individual managers cannot solve the IT problems, the budgets problems, the procurement problems, the HR processes. They can’t.
But from that research, we did find all these themes that came through where the implication was that people didn’t feel competent in dealing with all of those things. So that’s how the book was born. So even though the hypothesis, it was crushing actually at the time, even though it was disproved, actually a whole rich vein of issues was opened up to us.
Julie Nerney: And what was fascinating to me in that process as well, is that the things that came through those themes were perennial challenges. And we talk in the book about how the world of work has changed. And we’ve been talking just now about the impact of COVID. But actually these are perennial challenges that managers have been grappling with for years and will continue to grapple with in the future.
So whilst the context matters and we talked throughout the book about the importance of context, the content I think has a timelessness about it. How it manifests itself changes because of the context. And I think in some ways, you know, I hope that gives it some longevity, but also some real value in terms of what managers can get from it.
And to your point about stories earlier, Alison, you know, Diana referred to the research quotes, but the case studies and the stories in there came from our very first brainstorm around the book where we collected through our 70-odd years of work experience, all the different stories and things we’ve encountered in our working life and had a long list.
And then when the themes came out, we picked the stories that supported those themes, and that meant sometimes letting go some of our favourite stories or some of the things that we thought would have been really interesting to write about, but if they weren’t relevant to the theme that they didn’t make it into the book.
Alison Jones: And yes, it’s such a hard thing to do that, but you absolutely, those stories have to serve the points you’re making. And actually, it was one of the things I love about your book is that you have that kind of top-down stuff, you knew what your themes were, you knew what it was you wanted to say. And you’ve got that organization between the context and the individual. But all of it has come from this ground-up stuff as well, hasn’t it? I mean, obviously you working with people over the years, but then also that body of research. Did you ever, I mean, how did you conceptualize the themes as they emerged from the evidence in front of you and how far was it a case of knowing almost intuitively what the themes were and then finding the evidence to support it? Does that make sense? The, you know, the top down and the bottom up sort of processes that are going on simultaneously?
Diana Marsland: We did a kind of thematic analysis, so what was coming up most, to find what mattered most. But they did chime with our experience. And in order to sort of test that, again, having had the hypothesis disproved, we had a focus group of a range of managers across all sectors. And actually we refined them with the help of that focus group. And that was a very important aspect. And then we validated it with an online questionnaire.
Julie Nerney: And what I love about working with Diana is her discipline around all of this stuff. I mean she went out and led all the research piece. We obviously got the different hypothesis, but then were still determined to make sure that what we produced was grounded in what we knew our readers and our audience would want and need.
Because it would be very easy for both of us to write about the things that we’re passionate and we care about, and they may or may not be the things that managers really need to enable them. And, you know, the point of the title of the book about people owning their day again, to Diana’s point earlier, there are some things that are outside of their control, but there’s a lot that is within their control.
And we really wanted to enable people to kind of fulfill their potential. And we had to listen to what people wanted in order to be able to share things that were going to be of practical use and purpose and Diana’s diligence going back over that research, doing the thematic analysis, then going back and validating again, doing the broader online survey and her thinking style in terms of, I remember the fishbone picture you drew and sent to me in the post, because we were in lockdown, in lovely purple pen, where she’d just organized all the themes. And it was just beautiful. It really sang. And then it gave us the structure of the book.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s brilliant. So you visualizing, conceptualizing it as well, and yes, you’re right, the rigor of this really kind of sings through the whole thing. And I mean, it has been challenging. You’ve been in lockdown, you’ve not had the kind of close collaboration that I know you would have wanted and I know you’ve you’ve had before, how was it writing the book together when you couldn’t just come and sit in a room together?
Diana Marsland: Well, I think like everybody we managed online because there was no option. I remember the days when we did meet up in Brighton, you know, which was fantastic, with a flip chart and you just have to adapt. So, you know, we did meet every week. We just had to work differently. And as Julie said, we use the post, we used online. We did an online brainstorm with Julie, with flip charts up her stairs. And we just had to do the best with the tools we had available.
Julie Nerney: And it was a shift for us as well. And in some ways I think lockdown gave us a bit more momentum around the book. Because both of us, busy working, and so we were meeting probably once a month when we could, as Diana says, with the flip charts, and doing that initial thinking and using your book as the model and the basis, Alison, working our way through, you know, identifying our target and all those steps.
And then when lockdown came for me it fundamentally changed my work and I suddenly had a big lull and I had capacity. I had much more time than I had before. And I don’t know whether we did it consciously or not, Diana, but it kind of galvanized us.
It was March time, wasn’t it? And we just said, let’s write the first draft by the end of May. We just gave ourselves a deadline. And certainly for me, practically and emotionally, on a personal level, having to cope with the first lockdown, which I found really challenging for a whole host of reasons, it gave me such a focus and such a purpose.
And those weekly calls with Diana, we call them, on the zoom calls, they’re called Book Energy. We do it every Monday and it sets me up for the week. It energizes me, it gave me focus. It gave me purpose and we created a deadline and tried to make the best out of what was a difficult time, certainly for me in terms of the change to my work and the capacity.
And yes, as Diana says we just had to adapt like everybody else has. We are hoping that we might actually get into a room together one more time for the launch event, fingers crossed.
Alison Jones: Of course, we’re recording this at the very end of March, and just as things are starting to kind of ease up here in the UK. So there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I love that point though, about this almost being the project that saw you through those really strange first few weeks when we didn’t know what was going to happen and there was this huge sort of sense of uncertainty and the ground below your feet had just sort of fallen away and it’s… yeah, some people baked sourdough and you wrote a book. So tell me more about the book energy and how those calls work.
Julie Nerney: Well, they went through different themes, didn’t they really, Diana, depending on the phase we were at. So, in the early days it was all about what’s coming back from the research and that focus group that Diana refers to was I think the last thing that both of us did before the first lockdown hit, when we were out in the room with people.
And we literally squeezed that in before things stopped. So there were different phases, so to begin with it was reviewing the outputs from research and testing it and thinking about what we needed to do next. And then as I said earlier, sending stuff through the post, meeting in gardens when we could to work through the themes, and then there was the phase of just writing stuff and saying how much we’re going to do by when, but then we went into the whole process of refining it and then the work with the beta leaders and review and with PI.
And then it became much more almost like managing a project. So we’d have a list every week, which became our snagging list. Kind of at the end of each phase, have we done everything we need to do to get the first draft done for example, so Diana was brilliantly patient on all the referencing and the signposting and all the stuff that I would have found dreadful to do.
And then we get to where we are now when we’re coming up to launching the book. And our lists every week are about: have we written the content for our blog posts, is the tweet deck updated with our tweets, you know, all the stuff for the marketing and the planning for the launch event.
So we kind of almost used, kind of quasi project management, but in different phases, as we went through producing the book, researching, then writing, then the production. And now marketing of the book.
Alison Jones: And I can just imagine that anybody listening to this who hasn’t got a co-author is feeling a little bit envious right now.
Diana Marsland: Oh, well, I can quite imagine that because it was right from the very beginning when we had the first brainstorm, when we had agreed to write a book together, we discovered that we had entirely complementary skills. So I love research analysis and I find writing really hard. Whereas Julie just said, I love writing. She said, I hate research. So everything seemed to be really complementary from then.
I think having support in the difficult times and those Monday calls was brilliant, but the one thing that really surprised me throughout all of this was Julie and I’d been meeting annually for a Christmas drink or a Summer drink and, you know, a meal as contacts.
But I had no idea how brilliant she is and also that she has an absolutely limitless capacity to do stuff. So I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with her as a co-author. I couldn’t have done it on my own.
Julie Nerney: Absolutely me neither, right back at you. I’ve been wanting to write a book for almost 20 years. And I jokingly say when I talk about my career narrative, I, at this particular stage, I started writing a book, but I’ve got three chapters and I got bored, which is a lazy way of telling the story
I realized I needed somebody to collaborate with and just the energy and the ideas and Diana’s groundedness in the reader and the research. And she is so widely read in terms of that signposting. And we wanted to have something that was short and pithy and easy to read, but allowed people who were curious to find out more, to go and find that, and she’s got this endless capacity for where to find all that information from.
So yeah, we absolutely couldn’t have done this without each other. And it has been a joy. It really has, and Diana has been a great support to me in what was some really difficult personal times while we’re doing this as well. So yeah, it has really brought so much joy.
Alison Jones: It’s really lovely actually, I know in the acknowledgements, you finish off by basically saying thank you to each other, without whom it would never have been done. And you do get that sense that it has been a very happy collaboration, which is just brilliant. I’m going to ask you for your best tip for a first-time author, I’m guessing ‘find your Julie, find your Diana’ might be one of them. Do you have any other tips for people who are just setting off on this journey?
Diana Marsland: Yes, I think from our experience, finding a way to ground your ideas and reality to gain confidence is really key. It may not be a research process like we’ve used, but testing them in some way. And just listening to Julie speak there, I’d quite forgotten about the moment when the beta readers came back with comments and it was a joy to read because I think we both felt that there was some real value in there for the readers.
That’s certainly what the feedback was.
Julie Nerney: Yes. And for me, I’d say embrace iteration. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who’ve got a great idea for a book and you start out and you’re actually quite rigid and say, this is what I’m going to write about. But I think this experience has taught me, like a lot of the work I do in life, that where you start isn’t necessarily where you’ll end up, but it will be for a good reason.
If you’re listening to your audience and you’re pivoting in response to what they want and need, then you’ll end up in a better place as a result. And I’m sure the book we would have written based around our original hypothesis would have been a good book, but I think the book we’ve written is much more practical and purposeful for our readers as a result of us really listening to that. And not being afraid to change our minds.
Alison Jones: Yes. Brilliant tips in there. It is such a hard ask. Isn’t it? Because you have to have the hypothesis, you have to have the structure, you have to have, you know, a way that you’re going to write the book before you can proceed, but also, you have to hold it so lightly and be prepared as you say, to change, to be quite humble about your ideas in a sense.
Julie Nerney: Yes, absolutely.
Alison Jones: I’d love you both as well to give me a recommendation for, I was going to say a business book, could be any book really, but a book that you found particularly helpful and you think might be helpful to others. Diana, should I start with you?
Diana Marsland: Yes. I would recommend Getting to Yes, which is a book on negotiation by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The reason I recommend this is because negotiation is now integral to everyday life at work, social life and with family. And especially with children in my experience, I remember when I entered the workforce and you could ask someone to do something and it would be done, you know, that’s the way things are done.
And it’s not that way any more. Everything is around negotiation and I’m recommending this book because there’s a very clear process, which is easy to implement. And also it’s a great reminder of basic skills and William Ury he has some fantastic YouTube videos on the power of listening, something in itself, but also as a key tool in negotiation.
Alison Jones: Brilliant recommendation. I have read that, it is a really, really solid and very easy to read book, isn’t it? Great recommendation. Thank you, Diana. Julie, what about you?
Julie Nerney: So I’m going to recommend the Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters, which has been around forever. And the reason I recommend that is because across all the people I worked with or I’ve coached, I find that often the biggest barrier to them achieving their potential is within themselves. And so many people I know who’ve read that book, that has really made them realize that kind of voice in their head that limits them and slows them down.
And right back to the hypothesis of the research here, it was the things that people weren’t feeling confident doing. I think confidence is so underrated. So I find that book’s really powerful for people unlocking their own confidence and then becoming more self-aware, which enables them to take care of themselves, which is what Diana was saying earlier.
Alison Jones: Yes. I hadn’t thought about it as part of the self-care thing, but absolutely. That’s where it starts, isn’t it? Two absolutely brilliant recommendations. Thank you so much. Now, if people want to find out more about Own Your Day, more about the work that you both do, where should they go?
Julie Nerney: So for the book you can find out more at ownyourday.substack.com. We’ve got weekly updates there and you can see some of the content, engage in conversation with us and also get an invite to our launch event, importantly. On Twitter if that’s your thing, it’s at @ownyourday_book.
Like Diana I’m on LinkedIn. There aren’t many Nerney’s, I’m easy to find, or at Julie Nerney on Twitter. And I’ve also got a website which is julienerney.co.uk.
Diana Marsland: OK, and I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you both. And actually the website is a really, really… if you’re looking at websites to accompany your book, I would really strongly recommend this one as well. And the additional stuff that you’ve got on there, the social media stuff that you’re putting out, is textbook. It is really, really strong.
So don’t just read the book, people, have a look at how they’re using the book and promoting the book because you can learn a lot from that too.
But thank you both so much for your time today. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you, and congratulations on the launch of the book, because actually thinking about it, this is going to be going out on the day that the ebook releases, so it might not feel quite there yet now as we talk at the end of March, but in May, congratulations, people.
Julie Nerney: Thank you very much.
Diana Marsland: Thank you, Alison.