Tony Sattout - Project Exec | Change Catalyst

Interview with Tony Sattout

Lightly edited transcript of Tony Sattout’s interview, conducted by Louis Taborda.


Tony Sattout has had a successful career starting in construction projects and moving to the executive ranks in a large Australian financial institution. He consults widely as a change catalyst and executive coach for major programs in diverse industries. You can learn more about Tony from his LinkedIn profile.


Louis: I have Tony Sattout in front of me, a highly experienced business executive. Thank you for talking with Projectize.Me, Tony. Could I start off by asking you to describe the variety of business contexts in which you’ve worked? As our readers are interested in the project management aspects of your career, could you explain what part projects have played in your various roles?

Tony: Okay, well, I’ve been in projects, almost my whole business career – started off in the property business, doing refurbishments of heritage buildings and other types of buildings, then moved into financial services where I was managing very complicated change type projects, including improving performance in sales environments, right through to running mergers and acquisitions of large competitors. I’ve also worked in banking, I’ve worked in industrials, I have worked in logistics. And I’ve even done work in educational services. So, I’ve pretty much covered the whole Australian gamut of organisations, driving projects, managing funding, reviewing the quality governance, all the roles that are potentially in projects, I’ve played them at some stage in my career.

Louis: Excellent. And that’s why I’m interviewing you.

Tony: You’re too nice.

Project Organizations

Louis: So, one of the areas of interest is what we call project=oriented organisations or just project organisations, which simply means organisations where a large chunk of the work, a large chunk of the business, is done through projects. Would you say, many of these organisations, any of these organisations, have had those characteristics and perhaps described some of them for us.

Tony: So, in the property business, where I worked for is one of Australia’s premier property business, that’s all about projects. Whether they’re internal clients or external clients, 90% of the employees and almost all of the work is defined and run as a project. That’s where I cut my teeth as a young engineer. And then from there, I’ve seen a big shift over the last 30 years, away from changes being managed as BAU (business as usual) exercises to change is being managed as project exercises. And the rationale for that is a couple of things. One is change requires a different type of expertise that quite often operational managers don’t really have. And so, from an efficiency point of view, you try and isolate that and run it as a project to bring in those specialist skills. The other thing is that the pace of change these days has required big organisations, many organisations to think differently about how they get things done. They need focus, action, rather than being a part-time piece of work. So, I’ve seen a massive shift in the Australian industry towards project-oriented activity.

Louis: So, the word sometimes used is the projectization of work. Exactly to describe what you have experienced through Career?

Tony: Absolutely. So, the thing that it does, which I find quite interesting, is the it brings more clarity to what you’re trying to achieve. Because you’ve got to go through the exercise of defining it and getting somebody to execute it, it is not necessarily in your operational part of the business. Which means you’ve got to spend more energy, getting that clarity and that actually increases the potential for success. The danger with running things yourself is that you think you know what you need, number one, and number two, you don’t feel the need to communicate it to others. And the consequence of that is you end up with something you weren’t looking for.

Louis: So, you’ve almost made a case therefore a professional project manager being involved. That’s what I’m interested in and my students are looking to do to enter into a career in project management. Is it always necessary to have a project manager? And what are the expectations of the rookie project manager?

Tony:  So, the first thing is you don’t necessarily need a project manager, but you need somebody playing the role of a project manager. So, it’s a very clear and well-defined role in order to get things done that are not BAU. In other words, they’re not highly repeated, day in day, out where you’ve got regular processes for. In terms of students and what the expectation is of them. Well, there’s kind of two paths to success there. One is biting off a, an initiative that sized appropriately for your level of readiness. So, you would start with something relatively small in scale, and relatively controlled in terms of its impact on others, as a way of cutting your teeth. That’s one kind of path and then the jobs get bigger, more complicated with more stakeholders.

The other path is really to be an understudy to a more experienced project manager. And through that experience, they allocate responsibilities to you and coach, guide and prepare you for something bigger. I’ve seen both streams work very effectively.

Louis: So, in a project organisation or project-oriented organisation, obviously there are many projects – we talked about a portfolio of projects. What can you say about the way projects play as a group, are they interdependent, do you find in your experience that can be managed separately? What do people try and do?

Tony: So, for me, there are two very distinct examples. In the property organisation that I worked for, really the only coordinating effort was the allocation of resources. So which project managers, which site managers were allocated to which project? Because the clients were external, and you were building physical things in different locations, and therefore the interdependencies were basically resource allocation.

However, if you take a bank, for example, you’re part of a large bank, which runs many projects. And in Australia, each bank would have a project portfolio of greater than a billion dollars a year spend. So, they have a lot of things going on at the same time. So not only do you have resource contention, which needs to be managed, but you’ve got technical contentions that need to be managed. Such as availability of the technology that you are trying to deploy to. And unless that’s coordinated well, you end up in some pretty serious problems. So for example, if you’re testing your solution on a particular application, and then the next guy comes along who’s parallel testing, and you happen to deploy first, it’s highly likely that they will fail when they deployed. Because they tested a different version to what you what they deployed.

So, the environment, new controls and new ways of thinking are necessary to manage those interdependencies. So, you’ve got resource contention. You’ve got technology contention. You’ve got take-to-market, or what we call, take the market types of [contentions]. How you release things, not to clutter, whether it’s an external consumer or even an internal consumer, they’ve got a bandwidth limit in how much change they can accept in a period of time, in order to not just implement, but to bed things down and move into what I call the continuous improvement side, which happens mostly in BAU. So, they’re the major things from a project point of view. But then you’ve also got the executive view of the world.

How, where am I spending this money? And am I getting the best return on investment that I need to get? And that’s an aggregation of all the different projects and none of the project managers are responsible for that aggregated view. But without that aggregated view, I can’t walk up to the board and basically say, “you’re spending that billion dollars well.”

So, there are things that are outside the gamut of the project, but they are contributors to making sure, that from an organisational point of view, were achieving a level of success in the areas that we want to succeed in.

The Project Management Office

Louis: Excellent, thank you. That leads nicely on to my next question, which is about project management offices, which are often used, the organisational structure, to manage the portfolio to get this consolidated view. Now, what’s your experience with PMO’s? Were they contributing to the business? How are they successful? How are they not?

Tony: Where I see these things, struggle is how they are conceived, in terms of what is the intent, what the belief is, of what this thing is. And so, the person that runs that function needs to have a clarity about what they’re trying to achieve. It could be as simple as a reporting function, for example. So, we just need the aggregated information of the projects so the executive can make a decision about what to stop, start, or do more of. All the way to managing the commonalities across projects, such as resource allocation, such as quality and assurance within projects. Managing the learning and improvement of how projects are done in that organisation. Things like, where they innovate in how projects get done. That in my view are the things that a very successful PMO should be thinking of. And I’ll be a bit of a heretic here, they focus way too much on tools and way too little on intent and the development of capability.

Louis: So in a way, if I paraphrase that from my worldview, they look down into projects and project management too much as opposed to looking up, into the business and connecting with the strategy and innovation that’s necessary.

Tony: That’s a good way of looking at it. I think they focus, it’s easy to focus, on the tactile. It’s easy to measure your improvement when you focus on that. So, on things like tools, reporting, etc, they are physical manifestation, so it’s really easy to navigate or be attracted to that part of the value chain. Whereas, in my view that is commoditized. You can go to the internet and download stakeholder matrices, all the tools that you think are in project management, they’re freely available. They may have been a different colour and a different format but in reality, they are pretty much the same thing. Whereas I think the value-add is in the soft skills of portfolio management, how are stakeholder’s managed, how can you create a power base that enables you to get things done? They’re the secret sauce to real success of big portfolios of projects in large, complicated organisation. So, looking up and out or looking down in the sense of assessing the capability in projects and what the intervention needs to look like to enable those projects to be more successful now and into the future.

Delivering Change & Outcomes

Louis: I guess getting the balance right is key. What you described, sort of resonated with me when you said tools and techniques and templates are so freely available now. The struggle seems to be to get agreement and to get standards and to get, shall we say, to change to adopt some of these best practices? What are your thoughts on a) the need to do that and, b) the techniques to achieve it – if it’s worth doing?

Tony: Firstly, A lot of project managers I’ve worked with don’t think that’s part of their job. So, the way they frame the project in their mind and how they structure and then implemented it, their desire is to manage what’s in their control. Whereas when I’m working with project managers, I encourage them to broaden the definition of the project from delivering a series of tasks, to achieve an outcome. And by understanding that you need to achieve an outcome, a whole bunch of new sets of activities become necessary, and you can see them as being necessary because you’ve changed your view of what your what this project is, and how to succeed in it.

Louis: So, the scope can even change as actors get a better understanding what the outcome should be?

Tony: Absolutely. And, you know, I do a lot of project reviews as well as training and teaching in this area, and my observations Is that they have an expectation that the sponsor is going to do all that. And so, my view is that the project manager needs to think about their role quite differently. It’s not about getting stuff done. It’s about causing things to happen.

And by thinking of it that way, then they can reframe how the project works. And then they manage the sponsor and the other stakeholders actively. They don’t necessarily need to get them to do the work, but they need to know and understand that the work gets done. By taking that mindset, a whole series of new activities emerge in terms of how you manage stakeholders, etc.

Louis: So, it’s a much bigger picture of project management than just “sticking to our knitting” and doing Gantt charts?

Tony: Way beyond that, if you go back 15 to 20 years, this whole new stream of activity and a project called Change Management came about as a result of the Projects not being successful. So, you create this concept or construct called Change Management. The problem is, we haven’t gotten that much better. And my view is that it’s because we’ve tried to componentize Change Management into a series of tasks, whereas it’s actually a behaviour modification exercise. Which is not defined by task it, is defined by symbols, emotion, culture, etc. Much more intangible, but a skilled project manager knows how to pull those strings in a way that you get true success.

So, for example, one of the first things that I would test for in a project is “what is the level of commitment of the manager.” Not the project manager, the manager of the organisation, or the component of the organisation you’re influencing, to the success of this project. Way too many project managers assume that their project’s importance, whereas I encourage them to go and ask the question.

The first thing I would do in a project is go and see the sponsor and ask them the question: How important is this project? Because without that you have no success. I don’t care how good you are as a project manager, unless you have the right commitments – and you can orchestrate things to occur if you’re clever – then you’re not going to succeed.

The Sponsor Relationship

Louis: It’s a little like an analogy of an individual who wants to, do everything and tries to multitask, but obviously not achieving all the outcomes. If you’re a boss, you get to hire a project manager for every one of these wild and woolly schemes. What are your thoughts about disciplining your sponsor in terms of getting priority for your project, or maybe not?

Tony: Well, without that the I wouldn’t do a project – if I didn’t have that. And if I had not asked the right questions and tested that commitment, I’ve even gotten to the point of asking for things I don’t need, believe it or not, to see how committed this person is to the success of the project. So, you want to test those commitments early somehow. It may not be with request for resources or whatever.

Louis: It is also the time isn’t it. Getting them to come to meetings or review.

Tony: That actually triggers another behaviour that I encourage when I’m setting up a project. I have another statement: The project manager is at their most powerful the beginning of the project, because somebody needs you to get something done. Therefore, you’re in a position of power.

Louis: And there’s hope.

Tony: That’s right. So, while you’re in that position, that’s the time to ask for the things that you need, including time and access. So for example, I work quite often with CEOs and board members who are very time poor, but the established agreement that I will have with them is that I have a regular time slot, half an hour, or whatever, duration which I have no right to change. I have the right to cancel – they don’t. And it is based on my need. And it’s based on making their life simple. So through that simple routine, I get the access I need, and they get the clarity, and they’ve got the rest of the time to do whatever else they need, but that half hour belongs to me. So simple strategies like that can really change [the relationship] and if they’re not prepared to commit that, then you’ve got other problems you’ve got to solve.

Louis: Now, obviously, you are in a very senior position to be able to negotiate that access. We are talking about rookies here and chances are they are getting the lower end of the project prioritisation, even in terms of sponsors. They cannot walk away.

Tony: Change sponsors.

Louis: But if you can’t risk losing your job. What do you do?

Tony: There are a number of things. This is what I coach in. What does the conversation look like? It might start off with: I’m here to do the best job I can for you. And part of that is making sure that I understand my role and you understand your role, right? What would that look like? How important is this project you like? If it is a three out of 10, that’s going to be an alarm bell to you, number one. Number two, what is it going to take to make this project an eight out of 10? Or nine out of 10? If the answer is nothing? The next question is, are you the best person to sponsor this project?

Louis: This is what I was going to ask. Is it better to have a high-ranking sponsor, or to ask for a lower ranking delegate, who can give you more time and hopefully be as committed – but not ask as much time of the head sponsor? Is there a hierarchy in sponsorship?

Tony: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So, there’s two things for me. One is having the right person with the right level of authority to make things happen and if that’s through a delegate and you can achieve that, then I’d absolutely support that. You want somebody who’s committed to making things work as opposed to somebody who’s absent.

Louis: Especially if you are a junior player, as I said, with an early-stage, smaller project that obviously can’t demand the time of the executive – so maybe you take someone lower.

Tony: In some organisations I’ve worked with they have rules about who can be a sponsor and sometimes those rules get in the way. Maybe I have to be a sponsor because I happen to be at a GM level or, or something like that. Whereas, in reality the project needs somebody more junior than that, but I’m locked in because of the rules of the organisation.

Louis: Based on the project budget?

Tony: Well there may be some other reason – the skill is to work around that. Just make sure you’ve got the right sponsor who’s going to be have the right level of influence to get their role done, in a successful project.

Moving Between Industries

Louis: Now, there are many things I could ask you, but in your personal history, I think there’s one key thing that students would really like to understand in what you have described: How you’ve moved from cross industries? Yes, I think now we are teaching, only relatively recently, project management courses, undergraduate degree or masters, that is not linked to a domain. It is a generic management discipline. Now, you didn’t have that because you are a Mechanical Engineer. So, you had engineering domain experience and then became a project manager. But then you also moved on to be a project manager in spaces that had nothing to do with mechanical engineering. Could you tell us a little bit about that? Was that shift difficult? What made it possible for you to switch industries as your career progressed? And what can the newbie do about that? Can they move jobs like you?

Tony: Absolutely. It is like a finance person can move from one industry to another with relative ease because there are methods and processes around how project management is done. Just like the methods, standards, etc. in finance. But it needs to be then contextualised to the industry that you’re working in, and the organisation you’re working in. But the key skills are transferable.

In my view, there are a few really fundamental skills possessed by all successful project managers. One is that they learn at the speed of light. The second is that they know how to ask the right types of questions in the right way to get not only the technical answer, but the behavioural answer they need in order to succeed. And the third thing they do really well is they know how to delegate and empower people in order for them to succeed and be able to make sure that things aren’t going on off the rails by observing without interfering with what’s being done. If you master those skills, you will master project management.

Louis: So, project management bit like, John Sculley coming from Pepsi Cola and then taking over Apple? It is possible for us to move industries as well.

Tony: Absolutely. In fact, it is probably easier.

Louis: Well, Tony, thank you for your time. I appreciate it. And I’m sure my PM students will too. Thank you.

Tony: Pleasure.