Emerging Tech

The art of throwing your star under the bus

Ever felt like you're being asked to do work that could result in the end of your career? In this blog, John M McKee outlines how being "too good" can end up hurting both individual and organization.
I have a new client who is a real star at her organization. She’ll be leaving soon.

?? She’s a star - but she’ll be leaving soon? What’s going on?

Here’s a quick review the situation: Everyone speaks well of her. Her employees look to her for inspiration and often see greatness. Her boss sees her taking his job in short order.

Too bad she doesn't feel the same way. In the short time I've known this high potential and high performing executive, it's pretty clear that she's stressed, tired, and often wondering if she shouldn't move on.

I think that’s likely. In my opinion, the place where she works is about to lose one of their best: Her.

Consider the sad details:

My client has been with the organization for about seven years. She has moved steadily and quickly up the organization chart. Well-educated, smart, attractive, and personable; she's been able to rise through the ranks quickly because she always knows what to do - at the right time.

Interestingly, former peers never hold a grudge at her moving ahead of them, because she is clearly a caring individual who goes out of her way to make things better for her teams.

Former bosses, initially cranky when she moved into the big leagues so quickly, quickly fell for her can-do attitude with a style and dedication to getting along with other department heads.

And each time she was promoted, her new boss always saw the greatness within her.

Sounds good, even super, right? So what's wrong with this picture? And why does she seem destined to bail out?

Ironically, because she is just so excellent, so darn personable, and because she’s always come through every situation well; "the organization" has now realized she's the ideal representative to put out-front when things aren't going as well as hoped. In addition to her day job running a huge department, she's now being used to fill a role not unlike the American President's Chief of Communications.

Consequently she's been asked to speak on the behalf of the organization while facing television cameras, the board of directors, and other stakeholders. Always about stuff nobody else wants to deal with publicly. I understand that she's done a great job, and in each case her boss reported afterward that "everyone was pleased" with how she'd handled touchy situations.

So why doesn't she feel good?

"I feel like I keep getting pushed under the bus," she noted in our last session. I know I can deliver bad news better than most people and I'm assuming that's the reason behind assigning me to these difficult tasks. But I can't shake the feeling that my boss would rather let all the negativity from these situations build on me so he's free and clear when everyone is looking at outcomes. It's crappy. I deserve better after all I've done here."

She may or may not be right about her boss. But even if she's not, he's going to lose her because of this perception.

When I asked why she's the go-to person for delivering bad news or dealing with tough issues externally, he was very straight. "She's the best person for this activity, including me. I'm glad we've got her around and intend to continue letting her take point on this."

I noted that he might face a giant unintended consequence (i.e. her resignation) as a result. He said he hoped that didn't happen. But he's not going to change how he uses her.

john

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

14 comments
frostbite
frostbite

I can relate to some degree... Imagine constantly being stuffed to major projects late in the game to ensure the project's success. so on top of continuing on projects I'm already managing, I need to troubleshoot and get back on track projects I know next to nothing about. The response to the usual late inclusion is that the project team needs my skills dearly and I've been great in "fixing" problem projects in the past. everytime this happens I wonder to myself if this is the bus that is going to kill my career or me.

Jim87231
Jim87231

A few observations: 1) From the write up, we can assume The Star is in at least a Junior Executive role, and not a low-level supervisor role. So, the need for effective verbal communications skills in the role (both internally and w/ the public should be a given.) 2) The intentions of the Star's boss seem more in line w/ utilizing her strengths rather than "throwing her under the bus". 3)The Star must realize that if she is to advance to the top rung of the ladder (either at her present employer or elsewhere)she will need to demonstrate, and draw upon, the skills she gains through her current role as "The Communicator". Having said the above, there appears to be a lack of genuine communication between the two of them. The Boss seemingly has not honestly shared his strategy or reasons for using the her in "The Communicator" role. Likewise, given that she hates the role so dearly, she owes it to herself to express her desires and to work w/ her boss to find a reasonable solution.

aureolin
aureolin

I've seen this several times. People who can get stuff done are burdened with more and more until they break. The problem is a lazy and dysfunctional work environment that is willing to use up (really, abuse) workers who are competent. This complements these people's need to be important and wanted. She may be the "Star" performer, but that's because everyone else is willing to do nothing while she gets dumped on. The best thing that could happen to this woman is to move on to a less dysfunctional work environment.

billparis
billparis

I experienced the same situation at least twice (what does not imply that I am as good as your client). Some bosses see people only as ressources and cannot think of anything else but "how I can use them to my benefit or to the benefit of the company". Well, guess what, at some point in time, people get tired of being used and go look for greener pastures where they believe (but cannot guarantee) they will be heard. I went through one full year of coaching my supervisor about the best strategy to provide our services in EMEA, just to be pushed aside at the end and given a dead-end job and the wrong strategy. My supervisor's justification was "I know I can count on your can-do attitude to get things done no matter what". Well, I definitely got my resume updated in no-time but at the end we were both miserable about the whole thing.

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

Is this a competitive thing? Or just a naive boss?

HimDownStairs
HimDownStairs

This sounds like an adaptation from the Jim Carrey film, Fun with Dick and Jane.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

I have been getting star reviews, record pay rises, and compliments from all over, but not the promotion I asked for. I have made it clear in reviews, in writing, in interviews with bosses up to director level, that what I want is not the money, not the compliments, but recognition in the form of a promotion. Now I have the choice of starting again with a new company and having to build up my reputation all over again, or plugging on in the hope that one day... It doesn't seem like much of a choice.

tdarmond
tdarmond

I don't qualify these ruthless tactics and sacrifices as ART. I see it as wasting valuable people, their resources and preventing companies from growing out of "good ol' boy" mentality, unable to merge with Best Practices in line with internal and external customer service. So what can we do about it? Watch our backs constantly? Not look forward to advancement or personal growth? Not all companies are like some of the examples here, thank goodness. I hate to say it, but I think personalities & gender still are subject to sabotage if they rub someone the wrong way. Sometimes I wonder if maintaining a low profile and getting your work done on time is the key to success.

rlcallaway
rlcallaway

I was mentored and promoted and followed a former boss as he climbed the ladder carrying me with him as he became a Senior VP at a Fortune 50 Company. I got all of the tough jobs and the really controversial ones and was instrumental in his rise. He was a nice guy but one who could never deliver the bad news -- that was my job. I received the nick name "Ming the Merciless" because he couldn't fire people or tell plant manager's they needed to get a grip or get out -- that was my job. He was popular but I quickly became his hatchet man feared by all. I fired, layed off, and terminated more than my share of employees and senior managers. As a reward I was promised the Plant Manager's position at our new West Coast Plant. However, that position went to someone who had less experience but was "easier to get along with". I was complimented and patted on the head and even given a wonderful new job but a dead end one. I saw the writing on the wall and looked for a new job.

GSG
GSG

In my case, I was having to deal with difficult doctors. I was the best person as I did not back down from them and was not intimidated. I got very tired of doing that, as I was always the "bad cop" to someone else's "good cop" and the docs always thought of me as a threatening presence ready to punish them if they did no toe the line. That gets very tiresome, so I left, which was ultimately a wise decision as it started me in the IT profession. At some point, someone else needs to step up and share the responsibility, or they'll be forced to when the person leaves.

Eoghan
Eoghan

I worked for an organization that was growing through M&A. We went from $500M to $1.2B in 6 months time, and my department did all the integration work. Finally merged with another large organization. Six people were made VP, three from each organization. I was passed over; Why? Simple, I was told "You know what you're doing and we need to keep you as Director". Took me 3 weeks, and I was gone.

jksawdon
jksawdon

I use to be an executive administrative assistant and I also was the best (and only) person to deal with all the difficult people and problems. It became extremely tiring and in many ways prevented moving up the career ladder, as the corporation couldn't afford to lose me (because who else is going to deal with the pain-in-the-butt people and the other problems). Lost me anyway, because I would terminate my position without having a new position to go to (wanted to broaden my horizons!) and the company bigwigs eventually hated me because everyone else now had to deal with the difficulties and they didn't like that (how dare I leave them to deal with such things!) Luckily, I had an aptitude for computers and find it enjoyable and while I still deal with difficult people, most of them are appreciative of my assistance and don't take advantage of my being "nice." Biggest problem is that people don't want to deal with a "problem" employee, don't want to have any negativity reflected on them and just plain don't want to take responsibility for anything. They would rather just toss it to someone else and when they do have to take responsibilty they don't understand and become angry because you are suppose to cover their backs and you let them down, never admitting that they let you down first. To be honest, I liked leaving the companies in the lurch. When they would say, "What are going to do without you?" I would respond, "Not my problem" and it wasn't. When they would call to ask me to "help out" when I was unemployed, my response was "You cannot afford me at a billion dollars a nano second." Burned bridges, you bet; but there is a part of me that always enjoyed doing that and it served them right and I was always able to get a better position than what I left without using them as a recommendation.

steven.taylor
steven.taylor

I worked for a company in Dallas, in which I liked the people and enjoyed the work. We started with a small development team, but over a few years grew from 4 to 12 team members. As we grew, my role evolved into troubleshooting, maintenance and such, because of my skills in these areas. I became "indispensible" and when I experience burnout (like working 30 days straight) and wanted to resign after three years, I was offered work as a contractor on an hourly rate I couldn't turn down. And told I could go back into development work if I trained a replacement. Empty promises. I continued to be put into troubleshooting and maintenance roles because no one else had the desire or skill. Management continued to hire new developers and my skill set languished because I was the go to guy on legacy and proprietary systems. I finally made the decision after a few more years that the money wasn't worth it and moved from the big city to the country and found something much less stressful, even though the money is not as good. If the management of that company had keep to their promises, I would still be there.

Gochoa3664
Gochoa3664

I just rcvd my rvw. Same as last year: everything was a 5. (5 being the highest you can go). Nothing negative. I got a lousy % raise and no promotion while all my bosses friends got HUGE increases and promos. Im told Im the BEST EVER employee. Im the go to person for just about everything because I have a great repore w/other depts and unlike others here, I know how to research and find the answer. Supposedly, Im valued above all, but actions speak louder than words. Im really the Office Doormat. If someone doesnt want to do something, they throw it at me. Literally..I come back from a day off and there is trash on my desk, empty boxes waiting for me and that is just the tip. Im looking for a better job but the market here sucks. I have no choice but to stay until something better comes along. Im sick of giving 110% while all the other 80% givers get the pay, the promotions and pats on the back. GRRRRRRRR.

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