When the boss is on holiday: How to cope?

When Gordon Brown took his annual leave he left three senior Cabinet members to take of the country in his absence. It’s a scene oft repeated throughout the UK and none more so than at this time of year as our airports play centre stage for a mass exodus of millions of people escaping in earnest for their summer holiday. As the boss takes time off to recharge their batteries – soaking up the sun while holidaying at some exclusive resort, sipping a glass or two of Château Margaux or some other fine wine considered too valuable for their owners ever to uncork – their deputy steps up to the plate and assumes responsibility for the ensuing two weeks. But while the cat’s away, the mice won’t have too much time to play – especially in today’s ever-increasing no-room-for-error workplace. 

Tempting though it may be to celebrate this temporary cessation of authority from above, those charged with the responsibility of deputising for the CEO may find stepping into the bosses shoes a somewhat tricky proposition. Aside from doing your own job you need to understand the job your CEO does and see things from their perspective rather than simply concerning yourself with how things work within your immediate comfort zone. The next few weeks are an opportunity for you to raise your own profile within the company – providing you go about it the right way of course. 


According to Peter Drucker, management consultant for some of the world’s largest corporations, including General Electric, Coca-Cola and IBM, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”. It can be tricky stepping into the boss’s shoes and it requires a certain degree of tact, delicacy and confidence. While some managers may seem reluctant to take to the helm in case their team might resent this, others will embrace this opportunity to demonstrate their ability to lead and gain respect by instilling an atmosphere of working together, taking charge without taking control. 


In the Christmas 2003 episode of The Office, we return to see Gareth Keenan now in charge and running the office with military precision. Many of us have heard about people becoming power-crazed Hitler-esque figures but that not only alienates your colleagues it makes it increasingly difficult to reintegrate with the team when the boss returns. So instead of bellowing out orders, use phrases like “Would you mind looking at…?”. 


“Many of the problems that can occur during the absence of a senior figure can be avoided,” says Zoe Tizzard, human resources manager at Ystrad Mynach College, one of the UK’s largest further education institutions. “Simply conducting a detailed hand-over of duties before your superior leaves, delegating shared accountability among your team, and communicating the new – albeit interim – chain of command with all key stakeholders, should ensure a smooth transition of responsibility.”  


Make an impression, yes. But don’t use this time to settle old scores with those colleagues who have annoyed you in the past. And avoid looking like you are eyeing up your boss’s job for yourself at all costs. Your boss is your boss and they have entrusted the company to you, so instead of trying to expose their flaws offer a welcome contrast. “It’s a good idea to subtly add what your boss doesn’t have. You can afford to look like the relaxed alpha because your boss was probably looking like the stressed alpha before the holiday”, says body language expert Judi James. But, she adds, “You want that kind of look where people say you look right in that job.” 


Whatever you do, don’t let this new found authority go to your head. “Someone previously a peer is technically now a subordinate. It’s important that the deputy acting up doesn’t get delusions of grandeur,” says Edinburgh-based corporate psychologist Ben Williams. Leading people who were once on the same pay grade as you can have its challenges with some colleagues’ personal career ambitions and jealousies causing some resentment to be aimed in your direction. And although the working relationship needs to change somewhat whilst you are in charge, you must never lose sight of the fact that you will be rejoining the team when the boss returns, so you need to limit any potential damage to these relationships. Simply briefing co-workers before the boss departs on what authority you will assume in the interim period minimises back-stabbing. 


Professor Chris Brady, Dean of the BPP Business School in Bournemouth and author of The 90-Minute Manager, says: “The guiding principle is doing the job as if it’s your job for the rest of your life. Do the right thing and don’t be thinking ‘It’s only for a week so I won’t do this and I won’t make a decision about that’.” This is your opportunity to have the limelight shine on you for a change, to show you have what it takes to lead from the front and have the confidence to make decisions – even if that means bringing people into line when they are not performing, some of whom may be colleagues that you work alongside during the rest of the year but are now managing albeit temporarily. “The stand-in boss must be responsible for decisions. You don’t want him or her to be a highly paid answering machine. It’s wasteful and creates the wrong impression.”



You’ve been given a chance to run the ship for a few weeks, now is your chance to earn some valuable Brownie points with both your colleagues and your boss alike. Ask around to unearth those ‘one small thing’s’ that get in the way of productivity or service; these are invariably simple things that have an immediate effect in improving efficiency or customer satisfaction and can be fixed quickly, easily and cheaply. Identify what they are then move ahead with providing the solution, says careers and outplacement coach John Lees.  These quick wins can enhance your position within the company and earn you the respect of your colleagues.

When the captain of the ship is away from their post it shouldn’t really matter all that much – providing there is someone at the helm with a hand firmly on the rudder. After all, we know it’s the first mate that does the real work anyway – taking charge as a good second-in-command should. So this time should be seen as an opportunity to shine not shirk in the face of the impending demand and workload soon to be thrust upon you. And how you manage this workload can more often than not make a difference between standing still in your career and taking the next step up.

About yourcareermatters
CareerMatters was founded as part of MacKenzie-Cummins Communications in 2006 by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins MICG (Member Institute of Careers Guidance), regarded as one of the UK's leading career's advice and guidance writers and specialist PR consultant for the UK recruitment industry. Since 2006 Paul has been the leading advice writer for Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com - the two biggest careers website in the world -tackling all aspects of workplace and management issues, job seeking, career change and hiring trends. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 his writing contributed to Monster winning the Best Employment Advice on the Internet Award for an unprecedented three times beating the likes of The Guardian, Learn Direct and Personnel Today on each occasion. And his work was a runner-up for the same award in 2009. In 2009 Paul was a nominee in the prestigious HR Journalist of the Year Award and Recruitment, Retention & Motivation Journalist of the Year Award. Paul has been commissioned to write more than 500 careers advice and guidance articles for a number of lpublications, from regional and national newspapers to industry publications and various career-specific websites in the UK and USA. Recently, Paul was the Technical Editor for career psychologist Dr Rob Yeung's Job Hunting & Career Change for Dummies (John Wiley & Son, 2007). Dr Yeung is better known as the TV psychologist for Channel 4's Big Brother and the BBC's Who Would Hire You? series. Clients include: Monster.com CareerBuilder.com MSN Careers (Europe) TheLadders TotalJobs SalesTarget.co.uk IntaPeople Recruitment Lifetracks/YouthNET MediaSalesJobs The Press Gazette

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