When Your Boss Is a Benchwarmer?

Liz RyanMon

My friend Ray called me recently. He travels like a maniac, so I hear from him when he's sitting in the airport or standing in a taxi line. Often he calls just to kill time. But this most recent phone call was different. "I need your help. I'm really at my wits' end." Here's the story he told me:

Ray works as a product manager for a consumer-products company, where he's responsible for one of the company's product lines. He manages the product strategy, market research, and the products' branding, packaging, and marketing efforts. But he also spends a lot of time supporting the sales team--so much time that Ray spends 80% of his time on the road, which is about 50% more than he's happy with.

The good news is that Ray's boss loves him. The boss never misses an opportunity to say, "Ray, you do a tremendous job." And Ray's boss's boss is just as complimentary. Ray's manager even told him that the big boss mentioned Ray's great work at a C-suite meeting. That's all the good stuff Ray had to report.

An Offer Could Change Things

The bad news is that Ray is about to keel over. He's always in customer offices, supporting the sales team and talking about the products, or sitting on a panel somewhere or creating a new PowerPoint deck or fighting some fire or other. He's doing three or four jobs. And he can't take it anymore.

"So what are you going to do about it," I asked. He said he had talked to his boss. "You seem to like my work," Ray pointed out to his manager. "Your boss does, too. I like it here, but I can't maintain this pace and this workload. I want to do a terrific job in the assignment I was hired for. I'm trying to do that, but it's really hard to do when I'm essentially performing a sales role at the same time--or maybe two or three of them. I have to give up one of these roles, or I'm going to crash and burn."

Ray said his boss was very sympathetic. "I hear what you're saying," the boss told him. "Here's what you should do. Call this headhunter friend of mine. You're a sharp guy. You go to an interview or two, you'll get a job offer. Bring the written job offer back here, and I'll see if I can leverage that to get your workload reduced."

The Possibility of Backfire

"You're serious?" Ray asks. "You want me to go an interview and get an offer from another company just to have a negotiating tool with your boss? What if that strategy backfires? What if the big boss is turned off by the fact that I've been job-hunting or calls my bluff? And what if one of these offers is really appealing and I end up taking it?"

"Oh Ray," laughs his boss. "You wouldn't leave me, would you? Listen, this is the way to play this. I can't get you what you want unless we have a lever, and a great job offer from another company will do the trick."

Ray called me just after this conversation with his boss. "Can you believe it?" he asked me. I told him that yes, sadly, I can believe it. "Your boss has no juice with his manager, so he needs you to go obtain the one thing that he thinks will get his boss's attention --an offer for you to leave the firm and go somewhere else," I told Ray.

Someone to Be Pitied

Ray thought it was really weird that his boss was pleading with him to go start interviewing. I told Ray he should start interviewing, but not for the reasons his boss said. "Your boss is a sad guy, someone to be pitied rather than scorned. He's so juiceless that he doesn't even know how pathetic it sounds: 'Go get a job offer so I can get my boss's attention.'"

I also told Ray that once he got an appealing offer, he should tell his boss he was taking it--not bring it to him as a negotiating tactic. "He'll be disappointed but not surprised. Most juiceless managers like your boss have lost plenty of team members over their careers, because they can't or won't do the leaderly thing and stand up for their employees."

What Ray needed to understand was that in an organization so goofed-up that managers are telling their employees to bring in offer letters for leverage, trying to tell the guy off would do no good. "Your powerless boss stays in his job at the pleasure of his boss. These kinds of people need one another," I reminded Ray. "You don't need either of them. You are too smart and capable to stay in an organization that works that way."

Doing the Boss a Favor

"Thanks," said Ray. "I thought I was going crazy there for a minute. I thought maybe it was only me that thought an assignment like that from a boss to a subordinate--to start job-hunting without really wanting a new job--was insane and unethical."

I pointed out to Ray that his boss has been in that environment for so long he can't see the craziness. It feels normal to him. "You'll move on, wish him well, and perhaps do him a favor or two for him down the road, when you're running a division somewhere," I said. "There are juiceless Harrys in lots of organizations. Deep down, they know they're letting their employees and their shareholders down. You don't have to talk about it with him. Why rub it in the poor guy's face?"

It took Ray about six weeks to land his new position. His boss said, "I figured one way or the other you would be happier--if you brought me an offer letter I could use it to get your workload reduced, and if you got a better job that would be good for you, too." Well--thanks for the good wishes. No thanks for the managerial support, but then again, we learn from our poor leaders as much as from our great ones.

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