One piece of valuable advice I was given early in my career was to always work to make my boss’s boss look good. Another was to always work as if I were the one responsible for the outcome. These two lessons had a profound effect on my career trajectory, helping me progress through ever-increasing levels and scope of responsibility.

They are also relevant to each of us working on a project, regardless of industry or country. One key reason is that your project manager will take leave or be away on business at some point in the project’s life cycle. When that happens, does the project go on hold? Probably not.

How do you keep the project moving forward while making your boss’s boss look good and acting as if you were the one calling the shots? Two words: preparation and action.

Preparing for Acting in Your Project

This issue is relevant to me. As a program manager for an $800 million infrastructure design and construction effort, I have commitments away from the office. When I’m gone, I don’t want the program to come to a halt awaiting my return. I want my team leads to step up and keep the program moving forward according to schedule.

No doubt, your project manager wants the same thing happening on their project. Here’s how you can prepare for action when your project manager is away:

Define Expectations Up Front

While project managers want team members to step up, they don’t want them to get out of their swim lane. You can prepare for your project manager’s absence by determining what their expectations are for leadership, monitoring, and control of the project during their absence. Never assume that this has been determined, because if you do not know what is expected, then it’s unlikely the project manager knows.

Questions to ask include the following:

  • What meetings are occurring during the absence and who’s covering them?
  • What material needs to be prepared for the meetings?
  • What deliverables or artifacts are to be produced during the absence and to whom?
  • Are there any governance meetings scheduled? If so, what needs to be done to be prepared?
  • Are there any reports due? If so, what type, who produces them and what does the project manager do with them?

The list could go on, but you get the point. To be prepared to act while the project manager is away, you need to know what the expectations are of the project manager. Never assume this has been discussed and planned in advance.

Maintain Situational Awareness

By definition, situational awareness is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status. Although it comes from the aviation industry, it’s very relevant to project management.

I simplify the definition to this: knowing what’s going on.

I also simplify the level of situational awareness (or SA) to the 80/20 Principle, being that 80 percent of the project team members lack SA while 20 percent have it. You want to be in the 20-percent category.

You get there by asking to attend project review meetings, asking to obtain project status review updates, and keeping a pulse on the project’s status while in production. This puts you in a great position to act in a manner that supports the project positively from day to day. It also positions you to step up in the project manager’s absence because you are already aware of the bigger picture.

By maintaining situational awareness, you position yourself to support the project manager when they’re present by acting in advance to create positive outcomes. You also support the project manager by being prepared to step-up when they are away.

Act “As-If”

You won’t find the adjective “audacious” affiliated with mainstream career success advice or used in mentoring discussions. It is, however, the surest way for expanding your skills, enhancing your career success and maximizing the effect of each of your days. Applied in the right mindset, being audacious can lead you to achieving each of your goals and making your project manager (and their boss) look like a rock star.

The concept of being audacious and acting As-If go hand in hand and are both necessary for you to advance in your project management career and perform brilliantly when the project manager is away.

To simplify this concept, you need to act with the mindset that you are responsible and accountable for the project, even when you are not. When you’re operating with this mindset and an emergent issue arises, you provide constructive input to your team to resolve it as soon as possible. Project managers the world over want team members who are acting As-If. When this happens, they know they have backup, they have team members with skin in the game, and they can feel confident being absent without the project going off the rails.

Respect Who’s in Charge

There can be a fine line between acting As-If and overstepping your bounds. I’ve seen repeated situations where project team members took positive actions, only to be slammed by the project manager for overstepping their bounds. Often times, this happens because expectations weren’t sorted beforehand. Sometimes, this happens because the project manager has a large ego and lacks the confidence to let others on the project team step up.

Your job is to make sure expectations are clear and then use your emotional intelligence to figure out if your project manager is going to crush you for acting when they’re away.

I don’t have an answer for how to overcome a project manager with a confidence shortfall. From a career of experience, I can only offer these tips:

  • Always respect who’s in charge. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s your job to get along with the project manager, not the project manager’s job to get along with you.
  • Figure out early on if the project manager is going to have a confidence issue or not. If you have any emotional intelligence, you’ll be able to figure this out. If you lack emotional intelligence, then make sure you have clear expectations. (Usually if you can’t get any expectations from the project manager, they have a confidence problem.)
  • If the project manager has a confidence issue, then you have two alternatives: live with it and do what needs to be done to get by or find a new job.

Understand the Project

As a project professional, nothing makes me happier than to see a member of my team have their finger on the pulse of the project. Not only the performance/time/cost status, but an understanding of the risks, actions, issues, and other factors affecting delivery and outcome.

You won’t go wrong by having a really good understanding of your project. By doing so, you position yourself to be named the project managers deputy when they’re away. Short of this, you are developing the knowledge and experience you need to be the project manager without having the responsibility by learning from experience.

Don’t Wait to be Told

If you need to be told by the project manager to do any of the things I’ve told you, then you’re not ready to be a project manager. Lean forward and start acting As-If today. Understand the performance, cost, and schedule facets of the project you’re working on. Make certain you are coherent on the risk, actions, issues, and decisions affecting the project. Know the project’s battle rhythm and pay attention to the dynamics within the team. Including the project manager’s capacity for having other people provide counsel and act.

As a project manager, I want project team members who are situationally aware and prepared to step into the breach if I am absent. While I can direct my staff to get situationally aware and understand the project’s quantitative and qualitative aspects, it’s way simpler if they do this without prompting. The result tends to be more positive for everyone involved.

How to Step Up When the Project Manager Is Away was last modified: February 11th, 2019 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PgMP, PMP