Do what you believe is best, or what your boss expects?

Imagine the following scenario:

This is the original cover for my novel, LEVERAGE.

This is the original cover for my novel, LEVERAGE.

You have a new opening within your organization, a significant position that most of your subordinates would love to have.  You also have an internal candidate that you believe can do the job (based on a well-established track record.)

Unfortunately, you have another employee working for you, one your boss “found.”  This employee has shown middling performance and is located in a remote office.  This other employee is viewed by your boss as a “wunderkind,” a high potential person that he has worked with in the past and in whom he has supreme confidence.

When you discuss filling the job with your boss, he says your preferred candidate is “too inexperienced” and “not ready” for the job.  His fair-haired boy, on the other hand, is his favorite candidate.

Who do you promote?

You can win the battle, but lose the war.

This exact scenario was presented to me recently by an acquaintance.  She knows she can probably push hard enough to get her boss to accept her preferred candidate, but it will come at a price – second guessing, criticism of any mistake no matter how small, never being able to produce results that are good enough, etc.  Alternatively, she can simply take her boss’s recommended candidate.  Doing so will result in a difficult logistical situation, consternation (or worse) from the other team members, and quite possibly mediocre performance from the entire department.

Not an easy call.

There is a third alternative available as well, one where the job is effectively carved up, and each candidate is given a piece.  That might be a reasonable compromise, or it might simply be a delay in the inevitable.

A similar story.

During my career, I filled many key positions.  Usually I wasn’t interested in my boss’s input on who to put where, feeling like I knew the capabilities of the candidates better than anyone (yeah, I’m kinda stubborn like that).

In one particular instance, however, I shouldn’t have ignored his demands.

I was recruiting a senior manager to fill a position he once held.  It was a high pressure, critical role, but it had changed significantly from the day when my boss handled it.  The role had once been focused on “bagging elephants” (as in landing huge, one-off orders.)  It has become a managerial job where the incumbent had to handle hundreds of distributors, not to mention the operation of four factories and a distribution center.  The job had evolved.  And while opportunities for elephants hadn’t completely evaporated, they were on the way out.

My boss had a favorite candidate, a young man from one of our international factories.  While I was less enthralled with the man as a candidate for the job (he was, however, doing spectacularly well where he was), I decided to discuss the job with him.

I was relieved to discover he wouldn’t relocate at that time.  It was a deal breaker.  I asked him three times, just to be sure.

I then moved to my top candidate and offered him the job, which he eventually accepted.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my boss felt this man was a poor fit.  And while the boss never came out and said it, I think much of his criticism was driven simply by the fact that the person I hired wasn’t the one he wanted for the job.

Things were quiet for a couple of years, and then I started to get hit with a series of criticisms about the manager I’d hired.  He wasn’t “salesy” enough.  He couldn’t land the big projects.  He wasn’t doing enough to develop new markets.  The incumbent and I huddled and tried to address each criticism with programs, projects, and efforts.  I thought we did a pretty good job covering the bases.

But the criticisms kept on coming, unabated.  I was getting hints that maybe I should consider a change.

Of course, all this was taking place in the midst of record sales and record profits in the business during each of those years.

A short time later, the foreign candidate announced he was “ready” to relocate.  That’s when the pressure really started to become intense.  The theme became “out with the old, in with the new.”  Except the “old” was doing a “bang up” job, at least in my estimation.

I searched for a compromise, offering a proposal to bring the boss’s man to headquarters in a different role.  That was deemed to be unacceptable.

Eventually, I was moved to a different job.  Within a few weeks, the swap was made.  While my job move was ostensibly a promotion, one could easily argue it was a lateral.  There was no question that it was a higher risk position.  I have never been able to get it out of my head that my move was at least partially motivated by the boss’s reaction to my stubbornness.

I’d won the battle, but definitely lost the war.

What to do?

The right answer to my acquaintance’s problem depends on three factors:

  1. How willing is her boss to allow her to make her own staffing decisions and hold her accountable for the results.
  2. What is the basis for the relationship between her boss and his favored candidate (Past performance?  Personal relationship?  Compromising pictures?)  How critical is taking care of this relationship to the boss?  No matter what, the pre-existing relationship pretty much assures the ending situation isn’t going to be very comfortable for my acquaintance.
  3. Is there any kind of compromise, a possible third alternative that makes sense to everyone, and meets their needs.  For example, can the job’s responsibilities be split between the two candidates?  Is there another role for the boss’s favorite?

Of course, my acquaintance should push for her preferred solution, but I wouldn’t recommend pushing too hard.  While tempting, it is usually a good idea to shy away from “third alternatives” because, in my experience, rather than satisfying everyone these types of compromises often make no one happy.

That leaves giving the boss what he’s asking for.

If she goes this direction, she should definitely register her reservations about the boss’s candidate and not let him forget it.  That way if there are performance issues, there is a ready-made scapegoat, but if things go well she will only be lightly criticized for being a doubter.

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To the right is the cover of LEVERAGE.   This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery.  It's sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, should be released within the next 60 days.

My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.