Who—in your Organization—Controls Your Future?

What follows is a rough excerpt from my new book, coming out in the fall—about how some managers get promoted while others fail to survive. I look forward to your feedback. 

In an earlier post, I talked about how being a strong #2 to your boss can be a great work strategy to get ahead. I have approached my job with that mindset for many years and it has worked well for me. However, what if your boss does not control your future?

Being a strong #2 assumes that you have a strong boss, meaning that that he or she is smart at setting priorities, knows how to hire, fire, delegate, manage up, manage down etc. But what if you have an incompetent boss or worse, a toxic one? Someone who beats up on his people, uses employees as pawns, has a bad temper, and never seeks out the opinion of his direct reports? In this case, it is very difficult being a strong #2, and in any event, who wants to work for such a person, never mind helping him to succeed?

But let’s take a step back and get a broader view of your entire workplace. You need to know who the real decision-maker is, who makes the real calls on your future. In sports there are referees and line judges. In the world of work, things are often far murkier. 

It may be that your boss has no power at all, having no real power or ability to make a decision. Your boss could simply be clueless, someone who got promoted because of a technical expertise, not out of any managerial know-how (that’s why there are so many ineffective managers out there). Or it could be that his boss is a micro-manager, using your boss as no more than a puppet.

The key is to figure out who the real “decider” is, and to do that, you need to find out who holds the greatest influence over your boss. In several companies I worked for, my boss’s boss was the one who made the greatest decisions affecting my life—and the life of my direct reports.  And often you do not figure this out until something happens, some event that causes your boss to show his cards, so to speak, where you can get a more complete picture of what is really going on inside your organization.     

Or, your boss might indeed make the call, but listens to people that would shock you. I’ve worked for managers who listened to their peers (which makes sense in many instances), but also to people levels below them. That could be a positive development, but not if the boss is playing one person off of another, causing one manager to bad-mouth his peers. I have seen situations in which back-biting, turf wars, and petty politics are permitted to triumph over what should take center stage: competence, loyalty, and the ability to put company goals above personal goals.

If your company more closely resembles the back-biting one with petty politics, then you might want to seriously consider a move to a different company. That’s because an organization which permits such God-awful behavior is much like a dead fish—it stinks from its head. In my experience companies that have such managers not only tolerate such behavior, they know about it and are complicit in it. You probably cannot make a move now, in the midst of such a serious recession. But when things look like they are turning around, get ready to make a move. I know is is difficult to ponder such a huge change, but it is necessary. Have your resume in order and compile a short list of organizations that you would like to work for. Believe me, there isn’t much of a future in turf wars and pettiness.        

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