Superiors are the bane of every project manager’s existence. They’re supposed to be there to manage you and yet most of the time you have to manage them! The time wasted spent answering the same question over and over again is a constant theme for many project managers. It’s a version of managerial dementia. Some of the common management types and disorders will be described in coming postings. Many you will readily recognize, some may be new to you. Some, unfortunately, are manifest in us.
The key psychological fact to remember is that the relationship that is most important to most managers is not between himself and his staff, no it’s between him and his boss. If he’s a strategic thinker then it’s between him and his boss’s boss. His department is merely the necessary accoutrement of his position, rather like having to wear socks, whereas his boss is the fount of all things good, such as pay raises and promotions. It’s a classic “kiss up, manage down” approach. So time spent dealing with your issues is time wasted. He needs this time to dance attendance on his boss.
Remember the industrial corporation is merely the modern version of a royal court from bygone ages. Think of pre-revolution France and the palace at Versailles. Managers are nothing if not courtiers. See how they dance attendance upon their superiors. How the utterances of the CEO are scrutinized for Delphic meaning. How they all crave an audience with this stellar personage. How they regale you with the conversations with this and that executive VP. Reflected glory is their coinage.
If you bridle at the aristocratic description then another analogy is that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a more apt description in these days of down sizing and outsourcing. The double speak about how we are all on a great common quest, glory is around the corner, praise for Stakhanovite style endeavours at annual sales meetings, all have a familiar ring to them. The establishment of the cult of personality, ala Stalin and Mao, built around the current CEO, with books praising their management style and acumen, is rampant in our commercial world. While all the time functionaries’ maneuver to attach themselves to this, or that, rising star. All this against a background of perpetual reorganization and change aka: purges, right sizing, globalization.
So if you can appreciate the fact that you live in a court, royal or otherwise, then you can understand your boss’s lack of attention to detail. The only time he’s really interested in your problems is if they suddenly become his boss’s anxiety points. Then he’s totally focused. Now you get more help than you really need. It’s said by more cynical project managers that there is only one thing worse than your boss’s inattention and that’s his full attention. Just be careful what you wish for!
So, how to manage this situation?
Well, the first thing to mention is that you really do want to work for a good courtier, because their success in navigating the shoals and sandbars of corporate life is essential to your well being. If they fail they could drag you down with them. If you work for a bad courtier then try and move ASAP. Also remember that even good courtiers make mistakes. So you have to evaluate not just your boss but the faction he’s aligned with. A clear warning sign is when the head of your faction retires or leaves for some reason. You’ve just lost air cover and unless you find some soon you’re going to be road kill.
The secret to managing these individuals is to realize that they have a limited attention span for you and your problems. They suffer from a form of managerial ADD; they have the attention span of a gnat. So you have to make sure that any presentation you give to them has only five or so slides, you put the rest in as back up slides, and that these slides incorporate both your recommendations and, critically, the “elevator story”.
The “elevator story” is so called because it’s supposed to be the message you would convey about your project to a senior manager if he asked you about it during a brief ride in an elevator. Now that’s managerial ADD! The amount of time that is spent distilling months of effort into sound bite elements is staggering. But it is a means of managing your attention challenged superiors.
Further, if you do have problems make sure that when you discuss them with your manager you have a plan ready that address them. Always seek confirmation of an approach rather than soliciting advice. If they don’t like the plan they’ll tell you there and then, but you’ll get brownie points for thinking through to a solution.