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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Ahead of Your Boss? What An Opportunity!

Hiring and promotion decision-making is not an exact science. Its highly subjective and often you won't agree that the person to whom you now report was really that good of an idea. You may feel that you're more qualified, and you sometimes may feel that you're just plain smarter than the person you report to. When I've dealt with these complaints from an HR perspective I've generally found them to fall into three categories: the new boss is from another discipline (but quite capable), the new boss has traits you haven't seen or appreciated yet, or the new boss is a Pretender. Let's briefly discuss each.

Another Discipline - Often a promotion decision is made based upon general leadership or managerial skills identified in one discipline, but the next promotional opportunity is in another. Supervisors in this situation will get off to a slow start because they have to remediate in the new discipline first. Over time, however, their gifts show through once they understand their new areas of responsibility. Over time, you'll see them shine.

Unrecognized Traits - Sometimes we're just wrong about the new boss. I have been, and probably will be again. Regardless of first impressions, hold out the possibility that you might have missed something.

This leaves us with The Pretender and sadly every organization has them. Their traits are universal across any employer with which I've ever dealt and include:
  • the ability to marvelously manage up and hide their lack of cooperation or even abusive behavior to peers and subordinates
  • super political power based upon equity they build in the managing-up process
  • an almost preternatural ability to take credit for other people's work (at staff level) and other people's financial performance (at the leadership level).
  • an insistence that you help them immediately (which you must do due to their up-chain political equity) and at the expense of your other duties if they need help, but...
  • an absolute refusal to reciprocate (and what are you going to do about it?)
Now, every executive uses the labor of their staff to get things done, builds equity with their peers and boss, and can lose touch with the day-to-day details of how things get done due to the breadth of their responsibilities. What distinguishes The Pretender from the typical leader is the intentional failure to credit their staff for the work done, the fact that they couldn't do the actual work if they had to, and a win-lose rather than win-win attitude toward others.

Sounds bad, huh? Well, actually my point here is that regardless of which of these three bosses you have, you have more power than most people imagine. Rather than develop a victim mentality you can seize this as a major opportunity. You just have to realize two truths about this situation: (1) all three types need your help and (2) Pretenders always implode in time.

Resistance is Futile, So Be Helpful! All three types of "underpowered" bosses share the same trait in that they have super credibility with the leadership that put them there. You can spend your own credibility and break your career by seeming to undercut any of these, and in the first two cases you'll be wrong. Instead, come alongside them and help show them the ropes. Don't, as one respondent to my blog (in a government job) recently did, by saying to her boss that she "didn't know anything so why didn't she listen". That just throws up defensive barriers and relationships go south from there. Genuinely offer suggestions in a supportive, non-threatening manner and make yourself the staff member that on-boards the new boss. I've seen this pay dividends countless times both personally and in observing others.

Patience with The Pretender! One of the benefits of doing this job in three industries over 25 years is that I've seen a lot of these and can usually spot them quickly. I've also seen enough to know that a Pretender's self-destruction is inevitable. In a managerial position it usually takes 2 but no more than 3 years. Initially they'll get grace from the leadership team that put them in the new position, and in the intermediate term they'll blame everyone around them for their shaky start: the current staff can't do the work and the numbers are the poor leadership of their predecessor. However, about two business cycles out enough good people have walked away from them and enough peers have complained that doubts start to form in the minds of senior leadership. Then the bad financial results come in that are completely from their watch. At that point their demise is sometimes stunningly sudden. Ride out The Pretender if you're not the target of their blame-share strategy, and transfer out quickly if you are so you can watch their implosion from a distance.

Speaking about the illusion of death and the truth of the Resurrection, Martin Luther King once said that, "Easter comes around every year to remind us that no lie can live forever". So too does the business cycle come along to remind us who performs and who doesn't. So be patient and supportive with that boss who you think is under-qualified or even just not-that-smart. Year-end financials will prove that either you missed their talent at first impression, or the situation will take care of itself because, in the business cycle as in life, no lie can live forever.

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