Dear Office Politics,
(First off, thanks for hosting and operating this site, you gave me some very valuable advice many years ago. So now I’m back again with a new dilemma for your experts.)
About one year ago I joined a new startup company as a department head, one level below top management. My mandate was to grow my new division with very limited resources for the first year, then if we can prove ourselves my department would receive much greater funding and staffing. And the first year went very well, we exceeded expectations by an order of magnitude.
That’s great, right? Well not exactly. Because we are a division that operates a brand new line of business, our success has created a lot of jealousy and bad feelings amongst the older, more established divisions who didn’t do quite so well. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible with the rest of the company, sharing resources, advice, personnel, etc., as needed. But now that it is time for top management to honor their commitment to fund more positions within my division (and a raise for me), they are balking and actually doing the opposite, saying that “margins and growth aren’t everything, maintaining our old company culture is more important”. In fact they criticized my cooperation with other divisions, saying it was a sign of weakness. Personally I think they care very little about company culture, it’s more a case of fear of competition and moving into territory outside of their comfort zone.
Note that I am in the entertainment industry, which can be very political (and sometimes a bit dishonest) by its very nature. I’m fine with that; it’s the sandbox I choose to play in. But I respect your opinions and was hoping for your advice – this is a privately held company with approx. 130 employees. Should I push for them to honor our original deal or do you think it’s futile?
AD Got Game
P.S. In 2004, I wrote a letter asking for advice on a situation with a prior game company that had changed business models, and that change had a negative effect on my career there. Fortunately I took your advice and left that firm about one year later – which in hindsight was a very good move as they have since rode a $60 million company all they way down to near bankruptcy. Your advisers would have a field day on some of the missteps that were taken there over the past few years.
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY FRANKE JAMES
Dear AD Got Game,
Congratulations on your successful leap to a new company! When I look back at the letter I answered for you in February 2004, one thing jumps out at me:
“I no longer have a say in overall company management… Now I’ve been asked to assign my employees… so basically my management role goes away.”
Four years ago, the fact that you were about to be cut out of managing people and resources was motivation enough for you to look for another job. The new startup in an existing company gave you that management opportunity. You’ve since established that you are a skilled manager, and can grow a business. That’s no small feat.
Trouble is senior management isn’t living up to the deal you struck. You hit the target, but they are withholding the resources you believe you’ve fairly earned. No wonder you feel betrayed. Should you push for them to honor your original deal or should you look for another job?
Unfortunately they have more power than you, so it’s not easy. As you seem to sense, if you push too hard for what is rightfully yours, you could be out of a job. So you want to be careful. However, your understanding of your mandate was that you would get funding and more staff, which is not happening. I would suggest broaching the topic with senior management. You may be able to work out a compromise solution that will get you some of what you want.
A ‘learning experience’
I’ve been in situations where a client has not honored performance fees which were ‘enthusiastically’ agreed upon in advance. Like you, we hit the target. But then the client changed the scoring system. Despite us doubling their sales numbers, the client refused to pay our success bonus. Although it was verbally agreed to, it was not specified clearly enough in our contract. We were screwed. We did press the matter enough just on goodwill to get part of our bonus, but not all. We were seething — but to have nailed them to the wall over it would have lost all their business. It wasn’t worth it. We chalked it up to a bad ‘learning experience’. The next time we had an opportunity to get performance fees, we spelled it out very clearly, in writing with a spreadsheet. But contracts are only as good as the people you’re dealing with. Litigation is so expensive and so time-consuming that it is rarely worth it.
The big decision for you revolves around corporate culture
I think Christine’s suggestions on how to make the most of your current job by building a brain-trust are excellent. They may help you to succeed right where you are.
But I think the bigger lifetime career decision revolves around corporate culture. What type of organization are you going to thrive in? Your new company appears to have given you some independence, but is essentially hierarchal. Your entrepreneurial mindset is at odds with the other divisions.
A partner sharing risk and reward
From your letter it sounds as though you see yourself as a partner in growing the business. Your management style is about empowering your staff, and you are willing to take risks in order to achieve rewards. This difference is really important to understand because it’s the basis on which you make an agreement with an employer.
Do you want to have your employer treat you as in a parent/child relationship, where you are helpless and must wait to be told what to do? The upside of this relationship is (supposedly) safety and security.
Or do you want to work in an empowered organization where each employee acts like a partner in the business and shares in the risk and reward? Peter Block, writes about the distinction between the two types of organizations in The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work. His thinking has been very influential in organizational learning and I highly recommend that you read it.
So, let’s assume that you agree with me, and say, “Yeah, I am entrepreneurial, and I would do better in an empowered organization.” What then? Do you move?
Well, you are a risk-taker… But you also have a number of dependents as mentioned in your previous letter. That bartender might go belly-up… I would caution you to give it careful thought and not move until you have a written offer from another company. The economy is obviously shaky right now. In January 2008, the U.S. Labor Department reported a net loss of 17,000 jobs, which was the first since 2003. Global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., noted concerns about the economy (triggered by the housing downturn and the subsequent collapse in the credit markets) are causing employers to postpone expansion plans and delay hiring.
Your Career Blueprint
While you are thinking your options over, I recommend you create a blueprint for your career. The best book I’ve found for that is Dreamcrafting: The Art of Dreaming Big, the Science of Making It Happen. Based on your track record, you have the potential to achieve great things in life. It’ll be much easier to create that big dream if you have a blueprint for success, on your terms.
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com. I’m delighted to hear that my earlier advice was helpful to you!
Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game
Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.