Are you a Good Back Seat Driver? 5 Leadership Lessons for Project Managers

By Lakecia Carter, PMP

Are you a good backseat driver? A backseat driver is a vehicle passenger who is not driving, yet seems to be nervous and uncomfortable with the driver’s skills and/or wants to teach the driver while he/she is at the wheel. If you are a backseat driver in this context or know of someone who is, we all can agree this can be very annoying and counterproductive. PMs have a lot a common with backseat drivers, but I believe it is in a positive and productive way. In most cases, we are not the persons directly responsible for completing the tasks on the project.  However, we don’t have to uncomfortable, nervous or criticize the driver’s actions. Instead, we can be ‘good’ backseat drivers and develop stronger and better drivers on our teams.

Here are 5 leadership tips to keep in mind while driving:

1. Create value for the driver from where you are

Recognize that you do not need to be in the driver’s seat to influence positive outcomes. Learn how to release the need for direct control to be comfortable without control over the task at hand. The truth is, our true value comes not from position, but from power to influence positive change.

2. Support the driver

 Be supportive of the driver even though you would drive differently. There are three ways to support the driver: Listen, Learn and Serve. Help the driver to be productive in his/her role.

3. Empower the driver

 Equip others with the tools they need to succeed. Allow the driver to fail and help them recover from the failure. Drivers who experience freedom and empowerment are more confident and effective in their leadership role.

4. Coach and Encourage the driver

 Encourage the driver in two simple ways: Ask, then Tell. Compliment, then Construct. You don’t need to tell others how to do their jobs. On the contrary, you can offer suggestions for improvement. You can also build the driver’s confidence through encouragement and timely feedback.

5. Watch out for danger signs that the driver may not see

 Because you are not in the driver’s seat, you have a full view of what’s going on ahead, above, around and behind. You can add value by raising yellow flags and helping remove the roadblocks that may get in the way.

All Project Managers are backseat drivers in the sense that we drive business results through our leadership on projects. Remember, your influence can inspire others to lead even though you are not in the driver’s seat. This month as we focus on Leadership, think about some ways that you can influence others to achieve success in their leadership roles. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

4 Responses to “Are you a Good Back Seat Driver? 5 Leadership Lessons for Project Managers”

  1. Abhilasha Singhvi, PMP says:

    Great article Lakecia. Another Key Leadership Lesson for the PM I can think of is – Understanding your own definition of success. How do you envision success? That is how you will lead the project, and that is the direction in which you will lead. The answer to your own definition may be as simple as.. completing the project on time, within cost and within scope. The answer could also include another definition. Take for example – In a software development project, if additional requirements were deemed a business need, and added to the project – the time factor will change. the cost factor will change and then success is no longer simply completing the project on time and within cost but with delivering the project with business value and re-planning to allow for more development time, more testing, and ensuring that a bug-free solution is delivered even if takes longer and costs a little more.

    Knowing what the definition of success is, can help the back seat driver influence the driver in the right direction.

  2. Lakecia says:

    Thanks Abhilasha!

    Thanks for contributing another great tip for “backseat drivers” It amazes me how many different definitions there are for success on a project. Another advantage we have is to see success in a much broader perspective than those focused on the tasks at hand. Awesome comment – one I will keep in my toolkit!

  3. Chris Allison says:

    Great article. What I have learned is that whilst projects focus on the successful delivery of agreed outputs, a far more interesting dynamic of success, perhaps even more difficult than producing output, is managing expectations.
    Many people I work with are immature project professionals (by this I mean they have little project experience and perhpas do not fully understand their roles and responsibilities). Before a project starts, each member will have a pre-conceived idea of what working in a project environment will be like…more often than not, these are totally wrong.
    Lets take the back seat PM analogy. The car is full with your project team members, you’ve planned your journey and it’s full steam ahead. The Senior Engineer is driving the car, so we put all of our focus and attention on them to ensure we get to our destination, afterall they’re the ones ‘doing all the work’. Man…this journey is going to suck…why?
    Even though the journey is progressing as expected, we have neglected our fellow passengers…do they want a drink? Is the temperature OK? Do they want to stop? Perhpas they didn’t realise we were doing the journey in one go and are now uncomfortable. Perhpas they thought they were going to be driven in a limousine, rather than the saloon we’ve turned up in.
    We must NOT neglect our other passengers, especially if this is their first ride! Take care of them, make a fuss, make sure they’re comfortble…talk to them.
    PIDs and other project documentation (in my experinece) is rarely read as thorughly as it should be. Talk to your project team and set the expectations at the beginning of your project, don’t rely on your documentation. Your journey will be a much smoother ride if you do this.

  4. Lakecia says:

    Wow Chris! Great expansion on the ‘backseat’ analogy, especially as it relates to a car full of ‘passengers’ and our role in making sure we take care of them too! I agree – setting expectations is so important BEFORE we leave to go on our journey. I appreciate this insight – keep on drivin!

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