Mia Mulrennan is Chief Talent Officer for Edmentium. Prior to that, she was a consultant focusing on measuring customer-centricity among employees. Her book, Passed Over and Pissed Off, does a great job of addressing the sandwiched Generation X, which often sees leadership opportunities bypassed as Boomers transition directly to Millennials.
I’ve found a more micro application of being passed over and pissed off. Almost every time an executive (let’s call her Rene) finds herself in a new position, there is another person (Lars) who was passed over. Most of the time, there is a Lars who is internally situated. He is respected for his tenure and his institutional knowledge. He is a valuable asset because he knows how to get things done. And often Lars is the biggest management challenge Rene initially faces. The greater Lars’s expectation of getting Rene’s position, the harder this dilemma is.
It is human nature for Lars to view Rene as the manifestation of his own personal failure in not getting the big job. It is a blow to his ego. And it is hard to avoid a skepticism about why the new boss was a better choice. It’s easy to imagine that the decision reflects the tyranny of the unknown, a bias that somebody from the outside is viewed as superior to the more familiar. To make matters worse, Lars seldom gets an explanation for the choice. He shifts into “prove it” mode, judging Rene’s first tentative actions and questioning her motivations in a way that is usually damaging to the new relationship.
Many new executives will hope there is no problem, or that any attitude problem from Lars improves on its own without making an issue of it. But hope is not a strategy. While Rene will be seen as the organization’s leader, he is perhaps the culture’s key influencer. If Lars undermines Rene, even unintentionally, she has a lot to clean-up among her broader team.
I believe Rene should talk it out with Lars early on. In a one-on-one discussion, she can recognize his value to her and acknowledge that her presence is not the outcome he might have wanted. She must make clear that she is the boss, not a colleague. Rene should clarify the authority and autonomy that Lars is granted. And she must offer him the choice of getting on board as a willing contributor or getting help in an exit.
Lars may deny that an issue exists. In response, Rene can offer evidence she has observed or just point out how normal it is for there to be hurt or resentment and how difficult that can be for the team’s effectiveness.
The honesty of this approach is bound to impact Lars. He begins to realize how his internalizing the situation can affect things beyond himself. The option of an exit may be a shock or a welcome avenue. At a minimum, Rene gains respect from Lars by treating him like a grown-up and for establishing a context that is bigger than either of them.
That tough conversation between Rene and Lars will not be a one-shot deal. Passed over managers who make a commitment to stay usually do so when they have something to call their own. That is where the granting of some authority to Lars is important. Rene probably has bigger performance issues than Lars, however Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” dictum is good advice. Lars will remain Rene’s biggest attitude issue for a while. This can impact the outcomes within his responsibility or it can leach out into the attitudes of the team towards Rene. She must remain vigilant and call out to Lars what she sees.
Sometime in our careers, and probably more times than we’d care to count, we have been pissed off about being passed over. But when you are the Rene doing the passing over, it might be easy to forget that there is usually an impacted Lars somewhere on your team. You might wish to avoid the direct personal confrontation with Lars. But there is a much broader constituency of team members who are depending on you getting your relationship with Lars on the right footing.
Leaving the Lars situation unaddressed avoids a face-to-face conflict short term. Long-term, it leads to metastasis. Being Rene requires addressing the situation early and staying vigilant for the longer term. Done correctly, even if you lose a talented lieutenant in the process, you establish your position as a leader, define the values that will guide your work and create the underpinnings for a stronger team.
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