“John, we need to talk about Bill — it looks like we’re going to have to replace him.”
The person speaking was the COO of a large tech company I’ve worked with for years, helping them with their executive development. He was talking about a guy who until recently was regarded as a superstar — one of those managers who moves up the career ladder very quickly. I’d started working with “Bill” (not his real name) three years earlier.
At that time he was regarded as a “hi pot” — or high-potential — guy. They wanted me to help groom him for bigger things. He impressed me with his intellect and strategic thinking. We talked and corresponded very frequently during the period I worked with him. Even after the assignment was completed, Bill continued to drop me a line to tell me about his latest promotion or added responsibility.
But listening to his COO describe what was going on, I realized that after we’d quit working together, Bill had made mistakes along the way and was now in danger of career suicide. Unfortunately I’ve seen similar things happen with others more times than I care to remember. Hopefully this blog will prevent the same thing from happening to you.
Bill came into the organization at a senior manager level. It didn’t take long before everyone noticed that he was very smart, competent, and prepared to work hard to get tasks completed. In a national company that has a lot of projects going on, he was golden. Bill was tasked with multiple projects. When he asked, he was given staff to help. Over time he gained a reputation for being both a competent executive and a great manager. Additionally, I’d been told by the HR boss that Bill had a good sense of humor. That’s a good trait in a tough environment.
Bill was promoted frequently and made it to the level of vice president far sooner than his peers. People said he could always find a solution to any problem, and it seemed like he could do no wrong. Additionally, he had the ear of the bosses, was viewed as technically brilliant, and showed that he could be a good solid team player. Just as important, his team held him in high regards. (I saw that clearly in his 360-degree evaluation.)
So what happened? Why is this former superstar about to get turfed?
In a nutshell, Bill forgot one of the first rules of executive success — to manage up.
A busy guy, who worked long days, he felt that when it came to time balancing, his greatest priority was to spend time with his team and his direct reports. While I agree that one should give as much time to their subordinates as possible, I also caution that it’s critical to keep one’s boss(es) in the loop. Otherwise they respond badly.
A nervous boss can be like a new puppy — easily made nervous and quick to bite anything that surprises.
Bill was getting things done but not keeping his boss in the loop. He mistakenly presumed that because everyone was a “professional,” they’d “know” that he was spending his time focused on the right things. However, because the boss wasn’t entirely up to speed, he became frustrated when his own boss asked for information about Bill’s projects. He spoke to Bill about it repeatedly, asking for updates or step meetings to get a handle on things, but Bill delayed and even rescheduled too often. Despite good results, Bill has now fallen out of favor because he didn’t understand corporate courtesy, etiquette, or simple common sense.
And now, the big boss is looking to replace him.