There are many questions and concerns that new Project Managers have come to me with over the years. Some of them are highly technical and can stretch my Project Management experience. But my favorite ones are those which aren’t really Project Management problems at all. They are general management or workplace problems, for which Project skills give you an advantage. And none is a better example of this than the question: ‘How to keep your boss happy?’
On the face of it, this is simple: give your boss what they wan. But even that presents problems…
‘I don’t know what my boss wants.’
Oops – that’s looking tricky. If you don’t know what someone wants, how can you be sure to give it to them?
So for this article, I am going to go back on my own experience. As a Project Manager, I have had many bosses. Two have vied for the title ‘worst boss ever’ and, even with hindsight, it’s hard to pick a winner.
Equally, two have been in the running for best boss too. Most of the time, my boss of the week has been somewhere in between. But the same three steps have worked well for every boss I have had. Put simply, they are to:
So, let’s look at each one in turn…
This is the basic thing you need to do to keep your boss happy. So how can you find out what they want?
Luckily, as a Project Manager, you will usually be safe in assuming that one thing your boss would want is a successful Project. So, your first priority is to get a clear definition of your Project and what success means. Critically, your boss needs to be at the center of your discussions and you need to engage them in finalizing your project definition, and signing it off.Keep your boss happy: put them at the centre of determining your Project Definition. #PM Click To Tweet
The framework for creating a Clear Project Brief will help you here, especially if your boss feels a sense of ownership over your project, with a job title like Project Sponsor, Project Director, or Project Owner. For me, there was an added complication. You may have something like it, too.
I was a Project Management consultant. This meant that on any project, I would typically have at least two bosses.
So, my first priority was to find points of common interest so I could easily keep them both happy at the same time. The Time-Cost-Quality triangle is your friend here. Use this to help your bosses figure out what success means.
We have a good range of articles on this critical topic. Start with: Do You Know What your Project Sponsor Wants?
Then move onto:
There are some basics that will keep any boss happy. More important, if you get these wrong, you will swiftly find you have a very unhappy boss indeed. The three big things that I always worked on were:
One thing I am sure your boss will want is for you to get the work done. This is not about serving long hours for the sake of it. Instead, it is about focusing on the work at hand and getting on with your job. Take your role seriously, think carefully about what it involves, and deliver on the things that matter. This should come naturally to you, as a Project Manager.
With diligence comes trust. Your boss needs to know that they can trust you, so being trust-worthy at all times is bound to make your boss happy. The number one behaviour that will create trust is to take your commitments seriously, and to always deliver on them.
Check out our video: Trusted Project Manager: 5 Habits to Build Trust | Video. And, if you want more on this topic, take a look at the video on our sister YouTube channel: The Trust Equation – Gravitas needs Trust.
The trickiest thing I found, as a consultant, was loyalty. If you have two bosses, and they have differing priorities, it is hard to be loyal to both. So what I learned as a Project Manager was to place my loyalty to the project ahead of my loyalty to an individual boss. This way, if I could reflect the priorities of each boss in the way we defined the project, I could show them both loyalty at the same time, through my care for their project. In a more operational role, this translates into a loyalty to the business or the operating unit.
One of the best ways to keep your boss happy is to show them the money. Or, to put it in more professional terms, to show them the benefits of your project. If you are not incorporating active project Benefits Management into your project process, not only are you letting your stakeholders down… You are also likely to lose the confidence of your boss.
We have a great playlist of content on this critical topic. Start with: How to Do Project Benefits Management | Video
Then move onto:
And we have a full, structured video course too…
A comprehensive process that covers every stage of Project and Program Benefits Management.
We cannot help but come full circle. Each boss is different and you do need to understand yours. I have prepared a worksheet to help you build a profile of your boss, and what they want.
And, do take a look at our article: Do You Know What your Project Sponsor Wants?
If you want a simple boost that will really keep your boss happy, make good communication your next priority. Because it is not enough to give them what they want. They must also know what you have done.
By the time your boss comes to ask you what you have done, it is too late. They are already starting to worry. As a result, your standing in their eyes has started to diminish.
So, timing is vital. Each time I got a new boss, I found out their preferences:
If the results didn’t seem to be working, I’d quickly ask them what changes they wanted. Put simply, your boss will assess your reliability on their perception of what you are doing – not on what you are actually doing. Because, if you don’t tell them, they can’t know what you are actually doing!
The basics of good communication are just the same for your boss as for any other stakeholder. Here is my list of the top 6 communication priorities for keeping your boss happy:
The right message at the wrong time can be very annoying. Just as with telling a joke… timing is…
I don’t mean obsequiousness. Be sure to understand the social norms of your project. This is especially so if you are not working in your own culture. Project Managers often need to work with diverse teams, often away from their home ground. If you find yourself working in a new organization, or even a new country, be sure to find out the rules of respectful, courteous behavior. With multi-cultural teams, your work here just doubled!
If this is a topic that interests you, do take a look at our guest article, from expert Samad Aidane: What does Cross-Cultural Leadership Mean for Project Managers?
In some cultures, balancing assertiveness with courtesy can be hard. But remember that the difference between being assertive and aggressive is respect. Aggressive behavior arises when you do not offer the other person sufficient respect. Passive behavior, by the way, comes from not having enough respect for your own needs.
Once again, our sister YouTube Channel, Management Courses, can help you:
If in doubt, increase the proportion of time you spend listening. If you take care to listen, you will often find out what your boss needs, to keep them happy.
For a masterclass on listening, check out our short course: I Beg Your Pardon… The Power of Listening
Most of the bosses I have had, have been in a hurry. Consequently, I have found ways to deliver my message clearly and concisely. And the secret to this is to structure your message. The simplest and often most effective approaches are often two-, three-, or four-part structures.
“Here’s what happened…
“This is what it means…
“Here are our principal options…
“This is my recommendation, which I’d like you to endorse…”
“This is what I’d like to do…
“These are the implications if we do it…
“And these are the implications if we don’t…
“Here is what I need, to get started…”
“These are the problems we are having…
“Here is the solution I have discovered…
“This is what I need from you…”
“This is what we have achieved since I last briefed you…”
“And here’s what we are working on for next time…”
How you frame your message can have an impact on how your boss responds. During a project, you can frame your message as being about:
Take a quick guess at which frame will have the biggest impact!
My more serious point is that I have always tried to listen to what my boss said and how they talked about things. I try to discern where their primary concerns lay, at any point in the project. This would therefore allow me to frame my messages to match their concerns.
We have a good range of articles on this critical topic. Start with: How to Get Project Communications Management Right… Every Time.
Then move onto:
And, for even more content, check out our recommendations in Communication Skills for Project Managers | The Best Books.
The last step is to make life as easy as you can for your boss.
Nothing is more likely to annoy your boss than the feeling that you are trying to wriggle out of a problem. And, if your boss should really take responsibility for the issue, by offering to take it yourself, you are showing initiative and loyalty. As a result, you are also building trust.
Yes, it is true that some bosses will abuse this. I had one who often did. But the boss you resect will be very grateful.
If your boss tries to delegate a task, take it gladly, unless it will compromise your primary tasks.
But can you can jump in and predict what they will need to delegate? If you can, and you take it on before being asked, you will gain that awesome reputation as someone who can read a situation and fix a problem before it arises.
The most successful Project Managers are those with the greatest self-control. Therefore, take the tough feedback as a valuable lesson, and reflect on it.
Getting upset or angry will tell your boss that you haven’t really learned from your experience. And that means you are not ready for the next level of responsibility.
At one appraisal session, my boss at the time gave me feedback that I was argumentative! ‘Robust in testing ideas’ was how I’d have put it. But I decided this was not the time to challenge their perception. I changed what could probably have turned into an argument (and proved her point) into a chance to show I was prepared to learn.
By the way, looking back… Yes, I was argumentative. We sometimes don’t see the truth at the time.
I’ll end with some of my favourite tips that I used to keep my boss happy from time to time. Some worked well with one boss and not with another. So take a few out and try them.
Find a chance to thank your boss for what they do for you and to give them feedback on what they do that you find most helpful.Thank your Sponsor for what they do and give them feedback on what you find helpful. #PM Click To Tweet
Take on more than you are asked to, if you want your boss to see you as a promotable star performer. But don’t take on too much: you will only be promoted if you have the time to do things to the highest standards.
The more often you can initiate meetings with your boss, the more you can control the agenda. This will:
From time to time, ask your boss for advice, or solicit their opinion. Show them that you value their insight and experience. Not only will this flatter them, but you can learn a lot from it too.Ask your Sponsor for their advice or opinion. It will flatter them, and you can learn a lot from it too. #PM Click To Tweet
Share your tips in the comments below. We’d love to hear them and will respond to every one.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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