My former direct report is now my boss

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(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am a systems engineer at a prominent Sales and Engineering company. I was asked by management to assume a managerial role in addition to my technical responsibilities. I performed the management duties for little over a year during which I have learnt much about managing and mobilizing people and the importance of quick decision-making. The on-the-job training was not only for my development but it was to prepare me to assume the management position upon the promotion of the existing manager.

Finally, my manager was promoted but the company opted to advertise the position internally. Of course I applied, even after learning that my manager was not thinking of promoting me anymore when I asked him about the post. The reasoning was that I am more valuable in my current official technical role than I would be in a management role. I did not make decisions quickly and I was not assertive. In short, I work better with numbers than people -- at least this is how I interpreted the feedback.

Eventually, one other person applied and that person was an engineer who reported to me. I say was because she eventually was promoted over me. I do not feel bitter or resentful to her, in fact, she has been doing quite well since she assumed the role. However, I am not sure how I can manage my relationships with her and my ex-immediate manager given the expectations that I had. I still like what I do, but the disappointment has not passed and I do not want it to impede my productivity as well as inhibit my career advancement. To add to my confusion, I did not get feedback that definitively expressed why I would not make a good manager at this time and why a growth and development strategy was employed seeing that I was already doing the work.

Any advice is greatly appreciated.

This would be a totally awkward situation. It's one thing to have a peer become a boss but to have a direct report leapfrog over you to become your boss would be difficult, to say the least. I'm glad to hear that you are handling this without resentment.

She probably feels pretty uncomfortable as well, and it wouldn't be easy to go to her to ask what you need to do to be promoted, since you should have been the one coaching her just a short time ago. But, fortunately, you already got feedback on why you weren't promoted, even if you think it wasn't "definitively expressed." Very little about making decisions to promote is "definitive." Usually, there are multiple people (both internal and external candidates) who would do a good job. So, there is a possibility that you could have done a fine job, but that the decision makers believed that someone else would do a better job.

They gave you two answers. The first is that you're more valuable to the company in your current role. This can seem like a cop out answer, given by wimptastic managers who don't want to explain themselves. But, reality is, some people are more valuable as individual contributors than they are as managers. You have value. You're good at what you do. The company needs what you do to be done and it's certainly easier to keep you doing it than it is to replace you.

It's certainly true that most companies value managers more than they do individual contributors. In some cases, that's because managing is harder than doing. However, in technical areas, it's often the case that doing is harder than  managing and they want to leave the best people doing. That said, companies tend to forget to reward individual contributors with proper salaries that reflect their true value to the company. Therefore, the best doers often want to become managers, even if they really would prefer to stay as an individual contributor. Because, let's face it: Managing people isn't exactly a bed of roses.

But, they didn't just say you would be better in your current role, they gave you specific feedback: You didn't make decisions quickly enough and you weren't assertive enough. That is the "definitive reason" you are looking for. You may flat out disagree with them, but those were their reasons. And that is important in this company. 

Now, you need to ask yourself: Do you want to be more assertive? Do you want to make decisions more rapidly? Or, do you want to continue to do a fantastic job in your current role. Because that is a perfectly fine thing to do. And, in fact, if those skills aren't ones you're eager to take on, attempting to learn them and then taking on a management job may leave you unhappy. Sometimes it makes sense to stay where you are.

And sometimes it makes sense to say, "You know what? I am assertive enough, and I do make good decisions quickly. It's time for me to move to a company that respects me and is willing to promote me!" And then start applying for external positions. It is possible that you would be a fine manager, but (as they also said) you were just too valuable in your current role.

Don't take it as a personal failure. Take it as an acknowledgement of your awesome engineering skills.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

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