A youngish friend, let’s call him Matt, got a great job with an exciting and inspirational start up right out of college. He was part of the core management team and, although the work load was extremely heavy, he was delighted by the opportunity to grow and contribute at such a high level so early in his career. The feeling was mutual: Matt got many accolades from his boss, the CEO, for his strong performance and great attitude.
Trouble in Paradise
Recently Matt called and was very disheartened. He had just been told that his boss had decided to hire a manager who would now be Matt’s boss. The CEO explained that he himself doesn’t have the expertise in Matt’s function, so he had decided to hire someone with deep expertise. Matt’s CEO emphasized that the new manager would be much better equipped to help Matt develop.
When we spoke, Matt was feeling hurt, insulted and even somewhat betrayed. He had put in effort above and beyond because of the implicit promise of growing with the company. Part of what he valued about the job was the breadth and also his spot at the table among the company’s core management team. There was also a matter of pride, since people would have to be told of his narrower role. He wondered if he should stay or leave.
His feelings were understandable and I felt bad for Matt. But I also felt confident in telling him that there was a high probability that he could turn this into a very good thing for him. Let’s see if you agree with my assessment and advice:
- It is a surprise to you, but it is a very common occurrence. The company has had great success. They are on a dramatic growth trajectory. Like many companies in this situation, bringing in some expertise can mean the difference between scaling successfully or stumbling just when things are going from good to terrific. There is no indication of displeasure with your work, so this is the relevant context. It is not something to take personally.
- You may have dodged a bullet. You were heading into a high risk situation. You are learning the function but nobody else in the company has that functional expertise. Neither you nor your boss know what you don’t know. The company’s success drove a big increase in demands and visibility which, in turn, are driving up your learning curve and the cost of failure. Having someone who knows the function can help with both.
- You can lead from any position in the company. Don’t take on the narrower role with the assumption that your impact on the company needs to be less.
- Successful people always do their job and part of the job of people well above them: They look externally for the new ideas, they communicate inspirationally internally, they find and help fill gaps in the operational alignment of the functions, etc. In fact, you are often in a better position as a “pillar” to drive the success of the company than you would be as part of the “frieze”, top management.
- I have always advised people that the title of a job is a lot less important than the fact that you do terrifically well at it. The latter is what people remember.
- Create a stable relationship platform for creating a great outcome for yourself.
- With your CEO. Senior managers always feel uncomfortable around employees to whom they have had to deliver bad news. It is understandable, but this can lead to guilt ostracism that can have an even bigger negative impact on the employee. Rather than wait for any discomfort to abate, meet with your CEO and present yourself as an engaged, commited employee who has clear ideas (and requests) about how he will maximize the mutual benefits within the new organizational order.
- With the New Manager. Make sure your new boss clearly hears and feels that you are committed to the company and to helping him/her be successful. If the new manager thinks you have one foot out the door, he/she will not invest in you.
- Develop a plan for your personal success at the company and get input and buy-in from your managers and others. Don’t wait to “see how it goes”. You are likely to be disappointed because, Newsflash: Nobody is thinking about you as much as you are. Write down what you want in your new role and what kind of development experiences you want. Since you are losing some visibility, consider including some description of the relationships that you want to maintain or nurture despite a narrowing of your role. Once you find out your new manager’s key strength, actively study that. The important thing is this: Be an active agent in helping the new manager and your CEO make this change as successful for you as both you and they would like it to be.
- Gauge the behavior of the new manager. if s/he is mature, s/he will see your development as an important and will be pleased to give you stretch assignments, visibility, and credit for work well done. If s/he is small minded and insecure, then you’ll see the opposite: Hogging of credit, lack of opportunities for you to take responsibility or grow, treating you like a serf. In that case, leave.
There are some situations in which a change like this would be a signal that it is time to change jobs. This does not seem like one of those. So, take on the somewhat smaller position, make sure you get even more development and measurable experience than you were getting before, do a great job and reap the rewards of growing with what seems like a great company in the making.
Note: If you are a manager who has to demote someone in a similar situation, and you want to retain the employee, manage these same forces and perceptions actively.
If you have a difficult job situation on which you would like advice, feel free to contact me.