Q: After spending most of my 20s and early 30s bouncing between customer service jobs, I’m now an assistant to two executives. I enjoy the work and am not interested in pursuing higher visibility and responsibilities. However, it seems I’m expected to act interested in getting promoted.
In my organization, many staffers eventually move into project-management roles. I am really not interested in that. I feel I have more job security where I am.
How do I reconcile this at review time? I feel like a broken record saying I want to learn new tools and programs to stay current. My supervisor gave me a speech along the lines of “goldfish only grow as big as their bowl, so we want to make sure you are in a bowl you haven’t outgrown.”
A: It sounds like your boss is trying to be encouraging with the goldfish analogy: Don’t limit yourself or let your environment grow stagnant.
But there’s also an undercurrent of warning here: As your salary increases over time, but your duties and skills remain unchanged, you risk growing to a size that your role can no longer sustain. When the company is looking to cut costs, or the executives you support move on, there may not be a suitable role for you.
Maybe you can enlarge your current role by mentoring and training new staffers, or by becoming a liaison to other departments.
It might also help to play pretend a bit. What if you were interested in moving up? What are your unique strengths and most valued contributions? What other opportunities exist to use them? These questions are good prompts for coffee chats with your bosses and former staffers who have moved on. Even if you’re content to just keep swimming where you are, it never hurts to get outside perspective. And in your case, it’s not a bad idea for your bosses to see you exploring other waters.
Q: I am struggling to get a senior manager, a direct supervisor of six people and one of the best-paid people in my small organization, to act in a role appropriate to his position. When I first hired him, he was effective at streamlining operations and implementing necessary policies. Now he rarely takes initiative or suggests solutions, instead working on problems that should be delegated to others. I need him to focus on bigger-picture strategic issues, such as rethinking our approach to professional development.
I believe he loves the minutiae and doesn’t want to take on new challenges so close to retirement. I also think the coronavirus pandemic has been hard on him. He’s the kind of guy who needs to be at the office.
His last performance review was awkward, as he had a point-by-point rebuttal for all my constructive feedback. If he were not so close to retirement, I’d think about bringing in someone new. Any thoughts?
A: So, to borrow from the previous letter, he’s a huge goldfish with a large tank, but he’s trying to hide in the little castle.
Many people (yours truly, for example) find comfort and purpose in anchoring themselves to specific tasks with clearly defined objectives — especially when feeling unmoored and overwhelmed by pending life changes, pandemic isolation or plain old burnout. But when the boss asks you to start doing the work you’re paid to do, “I don’t wanna” is simply not acceptable if you want to keep your status and income level.
You might nudge him back into strategic problem-solving mode by asking him to solve the problem he’s creating: “I need someone who can come up with a new professional development system. You’ve done this kind of thing before, and I believe you’re the best person for the task. But you seem to be balking at the idea. How do you suggest we get this accomplished?”
If he shrugs and indicates it’s not his problem to solve, maybe point out that placing the choice in your hands means he might not like the outcome. (Before you do, check with HR to make sure you’re not acting in a way that suggests age discrimination.)
If he’s not against the idea, but having a temporary crisis of confidence, you may be able to get him on track with just a little hand-holding. Discuss with him how to break the large, nebulous assignment of “rethink our approach to professional development” into a series of smaller, specific tasks, such as identifying flaws in the current system, interviewing vendors, researching other companies’ solutions — and assigning those tasks to people suited for them. Once he has people bringing him answers to those individual challenges, he may feel better equipped to assemble them into a larger strategic solution.