This week’s guest is Dr Penny Pullan, author of Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams, and one of the winners of my recent 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge!
Penny describes how she fell first into the world of virtual working and then into writing books about it, and shares some great tips for fellow extroverts who (like me) wilt at the thought of sitting alone in front of a screen for hours.
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr Penny Pullan, who’s the director of Making Projects Work. Penny works with people in multi national organizations who are grappling with tricky projects, and by tricky I mean risky, virtual ambitious requirements, disengage people, that sort of thing. She also hosts the annual virtual working summit. She calls this a virtual summit every year for thousands of people from over 50 countries. She’s the author of several books. Her latest which she’s publishing in August is virtual leadership, practical strategies for getting the best out of virtual work and virtual teams. Lovely to have you in the Extraordinary Business Book Club, Penny.
Penny Pullan: It’s lovely to be here. I’ve been following the podcast with lots of interest so I’m delighted to be here.
Alison Jones: And here you are. Tell us Penny, let’s kick off. How did you fall into the world of virtual working in the first place?
Penny Pullan: Yes, well falling is quite apt really because I was about to launch a global program in New York. Everybody is gathering from all over the world. I was working for Mars Inc at the time, and then 9/11 happened. I was due to fly out 2 days later on the 13th of September and of course that never happened. We were grounded all of us for 3 months or more.
We couldn’t do anything except through virtual working. The global kick off in New York didn’t happen but we ran a virtual session instead and that was how I got thrown into the deep end of virtual working. Luckily for me and perhaps for the readers of my book, it worked.
Alison Jones: I love that story because it’s such a great demonstration of how the most … Obviously this is a much bigger context. There’s huge setbacks in life and things that you think have gone disastrously wrong. Actually sometimes then they contain the kernel of a new opportunity.
Penny Pullan: Yes, it’s funny because I don’t think I would have tried doing something quite as ambitious as the kick off for a major global program with many, many senior people from all around the world. I probably wouldn’t have tried to that virtually straight away but there was nothing else. I just had to do it.
Alison Jones: Well, necessity being the mother of invention and all that.
Penny Pullan: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Now, I know of your previous book, you found yourself being approached by a publisher and asked to write it rather than the normal way which is searching for a publisher to publish your book. Tell us about that and also tell us, what do you think is the best way to position yourself as the expert to make that more likely to happen?
Penny Pullan: Well, I really didn’t plan it. Now that doesn’t sound great does it? I probably should say, “Well this is all of my overall marketing master plan,” but it wasn’t at all. I’ve written my first book jointly with a wonderful colleague Ruth Marie Webster who’d already published through the same publisher. That was fairly straightforward once they got the idea that we wanted to write the book about together. That just went straight through. It was quite straightforward.
The second book, I was just recovering from writing the first book when I got this phone call from this publisher Kogan Page. Now I’d not heard of them and they were saying that they wanted me to write a book. I thought, ‘Who ARE you? I’ve only just finished a book. Let me recover.’ Thank goodness I didn’t say no immediately but I thought, I want to find out who these people are.
I phoned up a friend of mine who’s in publishing and I said, “I’ve got this … I had this very strange call from these people called Kogan Page and they want to commission me to write a book about business analysis.”
Alison Jones: They said?
Penny Pullan: At that time my friend was making funny squeaky noises on the phone as if she’s jumping up and down very excited and she said, “Penny, people give their eye teeth to have that.
Alison Jones: Yes, Kogan Page of course, very, very well respected academic publisher.
Penny Pullan: Business publisher too because …
Alison Jones: Yes academic and professional. Yes, you’re right.
Penny Pullan: Yes, yes. Anyway, yes, there we were talking and she said, “Look, you just have to.” I’ve been leaning on the, let’s leave it. I don’t want to write a book at the moment. My no turned into yes. Then I thought, I’m an extrovert so I don’t want to write that book on my own. I invited somebody else to be editor and then we jointly invited 26 other people to write the book with us which I probably wouldn’t’ do again in exactly the same way. It was brilliant fun but quite like herding cats.
Alison Jones: Yes, I’ve edited a few multi-contributor books. It is fun but it’s not straightforward is it?
Penny Pullan: The launch party was brilliant.
Alison Jones: I’ll bet, yes. It’s funny – my second book is going to be all about tactics that extroverts can use to write books. You know I talked about this before haven’t we?
Penny Pullan: Absolutely. Now you asked about how I position myself. It turned out that they found me because I was doing quite a few talks on the topic and they’d found that this area needed more books or they thought so and they didn’t have anything in that area. They looked around at who were the people on the scene if you like and I was doing quite a few talks, had a few articles and they approached me and one other person. It helped that I’d already written a book I think. But yes.
Alison Jones: Yes. Yes, it would de-risk it for them wouldn’t it? Because they knew you could deliver. I think that’s such a great tip for people out there who are thinking about writing a book. If you become the go-to person in your area, if a publisher is looking to publish in that area then they’re going to come to you because they’re going to discover you online. We talk a lot about building your profile to publicize your book but building your profile is just an absolute hygiene basic isn’t it?
Penny Pullan: Yes, super. Yes, absolutely, but I didn’t set it up. It just happened.
Alison Jones: Just happened, because you were out there being who you were and doing what you do really visibly. Fantastic. Now, in the book that is publishing at the moment, Virtual Leadership. I’ve had a look at that, it’s fantastic book. You give away a huge amount of real practical detail on how to lead virtual teams effectively. Funnily enough I had somebody just the other week say to me, “How do you manage that?” How do you … You’re not worried about giving away all your secrets in your book. I feel very strongly that you shouldn’t do that. You should just go for it and give up your best, but I just wondered what your take on that was?
Penny Pullan: It’s interesting isn’t it? Because I read a book last year called Launch, which is by Jeff Walker.
Alison Jones: Jeff Walker, that’s right.
Penny Pullan: It gives away just enough to feel that you’ve had a starter but it doesn’t answer all of the questions of how to do this thing. You have to spend a couple of thousand dollars to do that. Which I did, but I thought, I want my book to stand on its own. If somebody buys the book and reads it and implements it, that’s wonderful. I want my stuff recorded, it makes a massive difference. I haven’t been able to put everything because I can’t put me physically into the book sort of. If somebody opens it up, I pop out and can respond to their exact situation.
But I’ve put as much as I possibly can cram into the pages that are in that book. What I find is, because my books are for people working in corporates, people find a book that solves the problem that they have as an organization then, rather than giving it to everybody and they might or might not read it, they might or might not apply it, they’d rather bring me in and run some sessions with their people.
Actually, I’d rather create the best book I possibly can with as much in it as I possibly can. Yes, loads of secrets and extras and things I haven’t seen anywhere else but I’d rather have it in that book and make a difference to those who read it.
Alison Jones: I think that ‘s fantastic and very, very clear articulation of it. In fact in a sense, the book as you say is hugely valuable but it can never be context sensitive. It can never really answer the specific problems with that specific person in their specific circumstances. Only you can do that.
Penny Pullan: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Yes and I think the book becomes a proxy by which people measure the value of having you in their organization.
Penny Pullan: Absolutely. Well, we’ll see how it goes maybe. Ask me again in 3 years’ time.
Alison Jones: It is a great theory. Let’s see how it works out. Now when you … Obviously as an extrovert, you involved a lot of people in the writing of this book. I loved seeing that map of everybody. Tell me how that worked and why you did it.
Penny Pullan: I’ll start with why I did it and the reason is, that as an extrovert I probably would have gone completely mad if I’d been sitting on my own creating a whole book from scratch. I should say that this is the first book where I’m the sole author. I’ve always worked jointly with somebody else or with many others before. Really the only way to keep me going and to do my best work was to involve other people. Initially I had a survey which involved hundreds of people with their perspective on the challenges of virtual working and also what worked for them.
After that came a small number who were quite happy to tell me stories and told me to share those in the book. That was very useful. I also asked various friends if they’d like to be involved by supplying photos as a map of people around the world which is I think what you were referring to?
Alison Jones: That’s right, yes.
Penny Pullan: I drew that from my mentoring groups and from Facebook friends and so on. It’s lovely having people involved and excited about the book too. I also drew on lots of stories from people that I knew who were inspirational people, who were doing amazing things using virtual leadership to really change the world and the way that they work, for the better. What beautifully it meant that I stayed sane and that although it was tough as an extrovert writing on my own, it didn’t feel as if the whole lot of it was on my own because there were so many people giving stories.
It enriches the book having stories and case studies throughout that are not just my ones.
Alison Jones: I think that ‘s absolutely right and again, it’s on two levels isn’t it? As you write, getting people involved, getting them on your side and making suggestions and cheering on and giving you feedback. That’s all good for the writing process and then for the reader, having that multitude of perspectives brought in and anecdotes and stories from other people’s experience is hugely valuable too. I’m a big fan of reaching out and using your book to kind of build up that network and pull it in for the benefit of the reader.
Penny Pullan: And the benefit of the book hopefully as well.
Alison Jones: Absolutely yes. What did you learn. I mean obviously this is now, what? Your third, fourth book?
Penny Pullan: Third book. I did contribute a chapter to another one but it’s probably third is accurate.
Alison Jones: Third full book, okay. What did you learn about yourself? Every time you go through that process of sitting down and writing a book on your own or with others, what do you learn about yourself and your business.
Penny Pullan: I learnt that I’m quite good at forgetting how hard it is to sit in front of a computer and do that work.
Alison Jones: Like child birth.
Penny Pullan: Yes, I have been there. In fact what I always do is I mind map things on my computer so it’s very colourful and visual. I have been known to get a first draft by simply recording myself talking though the mind map and then getting that transcribed and then I can work from there. But what’s been interesting with this latest book is talking to people who I’ve worked with and I might have done work with years ago and just catching up with them.
An example was, I did a day’s work with some people in the Anglican communion, a worldwide organization, not typical clients. I think I worked with them on a pro bono basis and I did a day with them and worked with them to help a few key people who work with networks around the world some of them were sort of peace and justice, and some of them … Lots of different areas, but one particular group that one of these people worked with was the Eco-bishops.
Imagine individual bishops, they’re leaders in this organization and they’re all around the world, and there were people who were particularly affected by climate change or their areas were badly affected by climate change. Think New York, where they had a hurricane for the first time. Think about Fiji where the beaches where children play are being washed away. Think about native original Aboriginal people in South America or in Canada and various places, whose traditional ways of life are being changed by climate change.
I think the Philippines as well, there’s an Eco-bishop there. They’ve had lots of people dying because of some of the effects of climate change. The lady in the Anglican communion had connected all these people up using all these ideas of virtual leadership, which meant that they could connect with each other and they could work together. They worked together for about two years. Then they sent two people to the Paris climate change conference which happened about… less than a year ago, which had such an amazing result afterwards.
What’s interesting is that I never heard anything back from the Anglican communion so I had written it down to… put it down to a well, that maybe didn’t work so well. But it had a big impact and enabled them to do these things and perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to do without me and the ideas that were in this book.
Alison Jones: A great example of really changing the world though your contribution.
Penny Pullan: Well helping somebody else to change the world. It’s a knock on effect isn’t it?
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s about empowering people to do their thing. How amazing, what great story. Okay, now Penny you have just emerged sort of blinking into daylight from my 10-day business book proposal challenge haven’t you? How was it for you?
Penny Pullan: Well, I saw it and thought, not the best time, but Alison’s brilliant. It would be great to work with her. I dived in and got going, and I’m about to launch this new book. What on earth I’m I doing thinking about book number 4 when I haven’t even the recovering period.
Alison Jones: It’s an addiction, it’s an addiction I tell you.
Penny Pullan: It is, it is. What was it? It was exhausting, it was gruelling, I was pretty much up to speed and then Brexit came along and knocked me for six. It was brilliant, I enjoyed it, I managed to finish. How many seconds to spare was it?
Alison Jones: Yes, I think you were one of the last ones in before the deadline. I think you got it in … was it 20 minutes before, I think you were aiming for 3 seconds before. I think you over delivered that.
Penny Pullan: Oh but the appendices, that’s right. We’re about …
Alison Jones: Oh that’s right. The appendices were in three seconds before. That’s right, yes, hilarious.
Penny Pullan: That was great working with you and I just couldn’t believe that you would work so hard for two weeks. It’s really more than 10 days including a weekend, giving everybody such amazing value but absolutely no fee. If you …
Alison Jones: You know what? There was …
Penny Pullan: If you’re thinking of writing a proposal, get on the next one.
Alison Jones: Yes I will running another one in September. I absolutely loved running it. I couldn’t believe the quality of the proposals that came out of there. I think we had 75 people start the challenge and you know what these things are like. Nobody ever finishes a Facebook challenge. I expected, I was really hoping for 10 but I knew it was more likely I’d get 5… But I got 20 absolutely stonking proposals at the end of it. What’s funny is we’re having this conversation on the 7th of July and I can reveal it here – because it won’t go out until everybody else knows – that I just had an email from Liz Gooster who was doing the judging for me, very kindly (she’s the ex commissioning editor at the Pearson business list), saying that Penny had won the competition, with one other who I won’t announce here. Congratulations. It’s hugely exciting.
Penny Pullan: Gosh, speechless.
Alison Jones: It’s great.
Penny Pullan: Wow! The other thing I was going to say was that that 10-day proposal challenge was a brilliant example of how you can create a virtual community and quite in depth.
Alison Jones: Yes, That’s …
Penny Pullan: Because that group of people really created a virtual team. You were showing virtual leadership there Alison.
Alison Jones: Er, yes, I knew that! It’s really interesting point you raise because I was talking to Bryony Thomas a couple of weeks ago and she made that point that you have on the line ‘community’ on your business plan. You have this line that says community but you don’t really know what that feels like. Then suddenly it’s this living, breathing thing that has a life and a dynamic all of a sudden, and it was such a delight to be in that community and watch it grow and develop its own norms and in jokes, and see the support in it. It as absolutely fantastic. Thank you for pointing that out about virtual leadership, I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I just thought I got incredibly lucky with a great group of people. Fantastic. You said Brexit didn’t help didn’t you? Everybody was a bit floored to that day. I’d say the same, quite extra ordinary. Heigh ho.
Penny Pullan: I caught up days later think. Well it’s a good thing I did. Thank you very much for letting me. I do hope it was a good proposal.
Alison Jones: It’s a great proposal. It wasn’t easy against this tough competition. Yes, it was … And Brexit day, I remember how people cancelled calls because they just couldn’t speak. Quite extraordinary. Anyway, I always ask my guest to recommend someone else that they think would be good to talk to. Somebody who has something interesting to say about business and the business of business books. Penny who do you think I should invite on to the show as a guest?
Penny Pullan: Well, I think David Taylor, who writes the books, the whole series on them around the naked leader,
Alison Jones: Ah I knew I knew the name.
Penny Pullan: The reason is because he was doing the keynote at the first conference I spoke at on business analysis. I had a little pace card in front of me. I was in the front row, keen as ever, little pace card, one of my business pace cards of a lady with her head on her computer, holding a cup of coffee looking completely and utterly exhausted. At the top it had ‘Virtual working not working?’.And he said, “Can you do that? Can you sell that?” I said yes and he said, “Right. You need to write a book. And this is how you do it.” I said, “Will you write the keynote?” and he said, “Yes.” I got suddenly diverted with the other couple of works but in the end, here it was, the Virtual Leadership book. I asked him to write the foreword and he did. He wrote a wonderful foreword and he was lovely about the book. Yes it would be great to speak to him.
Alison Jones: I agree. There is always that person that says, “We should write a book about that.” Just plants the seed in your head. Fantastic.
Penny Pullan: But he also said, here are the steps, which was useful.
Alison Jones: Interesting. Just share with us a little bit . What did he tell you that made a difference then?
Penny Pullan: Well things like getting clear on exactly what you want to do. He also suggested getting an agent, which I did get but then got sacked because I wasn’t doing enough work.
Alison Jones: The agent sacked you?
Penny Pullan: They went to London Book Fair and found lots more of people. He even wrote a book about writing books. There you are. I think he’d be a good friend.
Alison Jones: He sounds like a great person to have. I shall get in touch. I shall drop your name and hopefully we’ll have him on the show. Brilliant. Penny, if people want to find out more about you and more about virtual leadership, where do they go?
Penny Pullan: Okay, well they can go to www.makingprojectswork.co.uk and they’ll see something about the Virtual Leadership book on the front page of that, on the home page and I’m at Penny Pullan on Twitter and that’s P-U-L-L-A-N at the end. I am the only Penny Pullan I think on the internet so shouldn’t be too hard. Unlike you I imagine….
Alison Jones: Unlike Jones, I know, I always have such envy of people with distinctive surnames. Yes, we are two a penny on the internet. Never ever have my name on any social media handle, really annoying. Anyway, congratulations on the book again, and I hope the launch goes very, very well. It was brilliant talking to you today. Thank you so much for all that. Really, really interesting insights into your process and also the more general reflections I’m sure that a lot of people would have got some really interesting tips from that. Thank you so much Penny and congratulations again on winning the proposal challenge.
Penny Pullan: Thank you. I can’t really believe it