Hi Andy and Emma!
One of my reports is very junior and has major confidence issues. We have some strong personalities around the office, particularly in leadership, and she keeps getting walked over. I try to give her softballs to level up her confidence, but my manager treats her like a doormat and is throwing her curveballs (and sometimes beanballs).
Do you have any tips for managing up at a toxic VP while helping to develop someone high-potential on the front lines? I’ve considered telling her that her best move would be to get out, but I don’t know how to handle that conversation as her direct manager.
Andy: I love that you’re building up your report, and I love that you’re wondering how many hits a person can take. In baseball, a beanball gets you on base. At the office, the rules aren’t as clear.
Emma: What makes this whole beanball of a situation so complicated is how hard your manager is making it for you to manage. It’s challenging enough to try and be a good boss when you have the full support of everyone you report to. It becomes a total mindfuck when the people who are supposed to be in your corner are derailing you.
Andy: We can brainstorm strategies with you for days — and we definitely will — but I doubt there’s a silver bullet piece of advice that will solve this problem. There are too many different players and you’re all humans: each of you is going to have different things you like and want. One big question I have is: What does your report want? Does she realize she’s being beanballed? Has she asked for your help?
Emma: Another one: Is the intensity at your office typical for your line of work, or is it just toxic? Is it toxic enough you should consider how it’s impacting you?
Andy: We have lots of questions, but we’ll end the one-sided interrogation and move on to some of the strategies we might try, or have tried before. Ultimately, I recommend mixing and matching and making your own Thanksgiving plate with what feels right from this assortment.
Emma: Good luck! Let us know how it goes.
7 Ways to Build Up a Frontliner in a Beanball World
1. Intervene during doormat and curveball and beanball moments
It’s pretty normal to let the bad or bizarre behavior of senior leaders slide. We both have, whether it’s a busy VP who bypassed Emma and asked one of her reports to do grunt work, or a CEO who inadvertently insulted Andy’s team. That’s power dynamics for you!
But as a manager and also as a human, you have permission to assert yourself and the order of operations you’ve built for your team. Just keep in mind, being a human shield is emotionally and often physically exhausting. Endlessly intervening isn’t a long-term solution.
2. Talk to your VP in a 1-on-1
Because we so often let people higher up the org chart do whatever they want, your toxic VP may be quite literally unaware of their actions. Or, they may be highly aware and doing them with a very specific agenda in mind. You won’t know until you ask. In a 1-on-1, you could try something like:
● Can I get your take on Jordan’s presentation?
● I notice you seem to single Jordan out in meetings. Is there a reason?
● I’ve been working closely with Jordan on growing his confidence in high-pressure situations. I’d love to share my strategy with you and talk about how you can contribute.
Be careful that you don’t go into this defending your report. Curiosity will get you farther here. Until you know where your VP’s head is at, you won’t know what your next move should be.
3. Loop in HR
If your VP is acting truly inappropriately (bullying, harassing, threatening as opposed to, say, being immature, selfish, blunt) you should bring it to HR’s attention. You do not have to fix this complicated problem alone.
It can be hard to know if something is “bad enough” to talk to HR. If that’s the case, start documenting what you see happen between your VP and your report. When you have a handful of entries, ask your HR business partner what they think, unofficially.
Bonus: HR can also be a great resource to strategize broadly about how to get high-potential frontliners more opportunities. They may be able to point you to a new way to have these skip levels interact, like a mentorship program, a hackathon presentation, a sub-committee, etc.
4. Ask your report what their career goals are
Just checking: is what you want for your report also what she wants? It’s so easy to latch on to a person’s potential and thrust them into growth without asking. We’ve certainly both done it. Remember, just because someone has long fingers doesn’t mean they want to take piano lessons.
5. Build your report up in a safer space
We’ve both worked under VPs who don’t have the skill or patience to work with someone who’s still learning. It’s frustrating, but not unreasonable. If that’s the case, you may be putting your report on too large of a stage too soon. It’s a little like the time Andy was in kindergarten and tried out for the all-grade talent show with The 12 Days of Christmas — the longest song of all time. It was too much song and too much stage for someone so young and so untrained in singing. Did they let her into the talent show? Yes… to perform a much shorter song.
You can give your report the same spotlight, but with a shorter song. Or consider creating similar experiences to the ones she keeps getting beaned in, only in a safer space — on your team, in practice sessions, with lots of drafts and revisions.
6. Prep and post mortem every encounter
If your report is resilient and hungry for these opportunities, you can take a “go forth crushing eggshells” approach — no more tip-toeing around a toxic VP hoping to get it “right.” This method is more like coaching a boxer. It’s not always going to be pretty, but you can help them prepare for the rounds, you can squirt water at their bloody mouth guard, and you can beam from the sidelines whenever they get an arm raised in victory.
7. Tell your report to quit and help them develop an exit strategy
We’ve recommended this before. It’s not a bad or wrong thing for a manager to want for their report. If yours is never going to move up until your VP is out of the picture, you can be honest about that. Start strategizing what she can get out of this role and what she needs to be well-positioned for whatever’s next. Then, be her ally in making it happen.
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Strategies Edition