They have many titles [Chief of Staff, Sergeant Major, Senior Adviser, Policy Counselor, Special Assistant, Confidential Assistant/Adviser etc.] but one thing in common. They extend the eyes, ears and managerial control of a decision maker while having little, if any positional authority of their own.
Project/program managers need to understand the role of these individuals for a variety of reasons. First, if you are ramrodding a large enough operation, you may need one of them yourself and knowing how to make the relationship work could be critical to your success. Second, you will almost certainly be dealing with several of them during your career and being able to see yourself and your work through their eyes will make the interactions much more productive. Third, you may end up serving in one of these positions yourself and it helps to know how to do the job.
The first, and most critical, aspect of the job is the confidential relationship between the decision maker and his or her adviser. The two do not have to be friends. Friendship can in fact get in the way. But they do have to trust each other absolutely. The decision maker must know they can bounce ideas off their adviser, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of subordinates, express frustration with senior executives and vocalize anything which is not illegal without having any of the above leave the office when the discussion is over. Not uncommonly, the most important service the person behind the person provides is a confidential audience when the decision maker simply needs to vent. The adviser must know they can bring sensitive issues to the attention of their principal, play the devils advocate regarding projects, personnel, programs etc., advocate unpopular positions and vocalize anything which is not illegal without ending their career as the messenger of bad news.
The person behind the person should extend the principal’s personal decision making capabilities, not restrict them. There is a fine line between filtering issues so the boss can focus on the most critical and usurping authority by making decisions for which they will be held responsible. The principal and their staff should early on discuss expectations in this area. The decision maker may have several staff who gather information and make recommendations but should probably only have one who is authorized to speak for them on any given issue and all of them, including the most senior, should notify the principal as soon as they have made a decision in their name and be prepared to deal with the awkwardness that arises if the decision maker reverses that decision.
The principal and their staff must understand what it means to “represent” the boss. The staff is often dealing with people who are senior to themselves and subordinate to their boss. They must be respectful of the other individual’s position but not hesitate to make clear who is ultimately in charge. Staffers who throw their bosses weight around indiscriminately tend to offend unnecessarily and usually end up losing the influence they need to be effective. Principals who allow subordinates to end-run the staff on even minor items might as well just do the job themselves.
Staffers generally are not project or program managers and may have little if any formal training or experience in this area. Nevertheless, the core of their job is to analyze the work of project and program managers, report back to their boss and make recommendations regarding decisions that will impact, or even end, projects and programs. The person behind the person needs to learn as much about project/program management as possible as well as master the art of becoming a subject matter expert on a wide variety of issues in a short amount of time. They must be able to let their boss know when a project is going off the rails and be able to recommend course corrections before they are too late. They must often do this in an environment where the formal project/program manager has much more formal training and experience than they do. The staff can only be effective if they back up their reports and recommendations with documented facts, good research and demonstrated knowledge of critical issues.
Finally, staff must be prepared to step in and serve as project managers without the title or positional authority that comes with it. Their boss may assign them to conduct research, coordinate the drafting of a cabinet department’s strategic plan, pull a failing IT development project out of the ditch, draft agency policies & directives, coordinate regulatory rule making or any number of other projects within the scope of the principal’s authority. Essentially; any project, program or activity within the jurisdiction of the principal or their subordinates is fair game to be assigned informally to a staffer. This can be the most difficult aspect of the job. Small quick projects are no problem. But staffers who find themselves leading major significant projects are usually doing so because the boss does not trust the person with positional authority for the project to get the job done. It is a sign of serious organizational weakness. Eliminating that weakness should be an urgent priority staff and principal discussion before, during and after the assignment.
The Person Behind the Person is a critical role in almost all large organizations. They are rarely popular but they need to avoid being despised. When they do their jobs well, the principal’s managerial reach and effectiveness is extended by orders of magnitude. If they become ineffective, due to their own or their bosses failings, they become at best a drain on payroll and at worst …..Watergate. Project and program managers may see them as allies, enemies or both but at the very least should try to understand them.