“Dear Elizabeth: My boss wants a lot of work done, and he’s put me in the project management role. But I don’t think he really understands what a project manager does.
I have previous project management experience in my old job, and I’d love to be able to run this project properly. But it’s hard to get time with him. On top of that, there isn’t the executive interest in good practice, software tools, etc. even though I know these would make it easier for the team to do what we need to do successfully.
How can I gain buy-in from a boss who isn’t interested in managing projects effectively?”
Wow, there are quite a few problems there! Let’s unpack what’s going on.
First, your boss isn’t available to you.
This is an issue. It says to me that he just wants you to get on with it and not bother him with the details. I get that. Everyone is busy. But you don’t want time. You want support. That’s very different but equally tough to get.
Be specific. What is it that you want from him but are not getting? Once you have truly questioned this, can you go to him (schedule a meeting so he isn’t cornered or too busy) and spell it out. It’s highly likely he thinks he doesn’t need to do anything because you have it under control.
This is even more of a problem if he is your project sponsor. An absent sponsor is never a good thing for a project because it slows down decision making. Thus, you lack the directional steer and vision that helps the team move forward.
Can you get a different sponsor? Many project managers find that their line manager isn’t the best person to be sponsoring the project because the client, a senior user in another department, or the product owner is a better fit. So think about switching out your sponsor.
It sounds like you are in quite an unstructured environment, so you don’t have to do this formally. Just switch allegiances to the person who best fits your understanding of who should be the sponsor.
Trust me, bosses soon find time for you when they feel you are overstepping your boundaries. As long as what you do doesn’t make him look bad, his reaction is likely to range from not caring to thinking you’ve done a great job.
OK, next problem. Your boss doesn’t understand what a project manager does.
As a project manager myself, I love it when people get me. I spent a pleasant hour chatting to another project manager whom I’d only just met recently. I couldn’t believe how fast the time went. We clicked, and he completely understood my challenges. But let’s face it, most people, even our friends and family, don’t really understand what a project manager does.
The textbooks will say that it’s your job to educate your line manager about how valuable you are and what you do, and there is some truth in that. But pick your battles!
Maybe right now isn’t the best time to be explaining your role. He’s not going to listen. Let your results speak for themselves at the moment, and think of ways to shout about the team’s successes so that he can see what you do rather than being told what you do. (Novelists call this technique “show, don’t tell”).
Third, you’re lacking the support you need to implement best practice and software that will make your lives easier.
One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me by a colleague was this: “You have more authority than you think you do. Step up and lead.” This is definitely true in your case too.
One of the top benefits of a line manager who leaves you alone is that you can implement best practices. As long as it doesn’t cost anything, set up the processes and use the templates you want for your project. You want to write a Project Charter? Write one. You want a risk log? Keep one. Create reports to your own standards and send them to him monthly. Make them awesome and helpful. Then in three months, explain some of the issues you’ve found.
Talk authoritatively, using experience from your previous roles. Say what you could achieve if you had a project board, Gantt chart software, a collaborative project environment, whatever. Tell him that what you’d like to do next is… and would he support you with time/cash/training etc? It’s fantastic if you can throw in a few examples of where your team has wasted time or worked on the wrong specification document, or didn’t finish something when another team needed it through not tracking dependencies or some other issue that good practice would help avoid.
To summarize: Get the results then make the ask. Sell the benefits of what you want. The benefits are not “because project managers always work like this.”
Professional project management approaches and tools help you deliver faster, work more effectively, avoid duplication of effort, and be more productive. Speak the language of the exec and make project management meaningful, not administrative.
I hope that makes sense! Be aware this is a long journey. Turning someone round from indifferent to supportive of project management isn’t something that is going to happen overnight, but armed with a strategy to get there you will hopefully manage to get him on side and get the support you need.