I am in my early 30s, new to management but with 11 years’ experience in high profile financial roles—private equity, investment banking—coupled with an MBA from a top school.
I work for a midsized nonprofit as executive director of their affordable housing division comprising two functions. I run one function and a director named “Sarah” runs the other, which has 100 employees.
Sarah reports to me. She is in her mid-40s and has 25 years of experience in the industry—two with our firm. She barely finished high school but grew her career over a few decades with, no doubt, hard work. She is very good at her job. Sarah also carries a considerable amount of emotional baggage as she has been a victim of domestic abuse and poverty in the past—experiences that make her an authentic nurturer to the low income residents we work with. Please note that Sarah was involved in the hiring process for my position.
On my second day in this new role, Sarah entered my office to vent about an issue involving our department and an employee of another department. It was clear to me the issue stemmed from this employee’s lack of specific training. When Sarah made it clear she had no solution to the problem, I asked her if she thought this employee would benefit from training in this particular issue. Sarah’s face turned red and she stormed out of my office and into hers, closing the door. I approached her after a 15-minute cool down and she asserted that I was taking the side of this external employee. She also stated that when she is angered, she prefers to leave the situation. I asked her to consider talking through her frustration with me next time.
Day seven on my job, Sarah and I had our first formal one-on-one meeting. We reviewed some minor proposed changes to our mission statement, at her request. We had agreed to pick two or three versions and let our CEO give direction from there. After listening to her thoughts and putting a few of them on the list, I offered my off-the-cuff version—a near duplicate of our parent company’s mission statement. Sarah immediately said my version was a nonstarter for her and she would never work for an organization with that mission statement.
I asked Sarah to expand on her perspective. Once again, her face went red and she said, “You are so frustrating, I don’t even know what to say to you.” I could feel another walkout coming on, so I sat forward in my chair and said, in a gentle yet serious tone, that we needed to find a way to handle conflict in a healthy and respectful manner. She went quiet and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.
I was called into the CEO’s office later that morning. Sarah had reported to him that when I leaned forward in my chair, because of her background of domestic violence, her instinct told her I was going to attack her. I explained the situation, highlighted her walkout from day two, and asked for the CEO’s guidance. He told me I needed to earn people’s respect, be accommodating to interpretations of my behavior, and, essentially, tread lightly around Sarah.
Over the next few months, my relationship with Sarah improved only slightly but was cordial. The CEO continued to reinforce to me that I was to be no more than an open door and check signer to Sarah. This confused me as it is a direct contradiction to my job description—and the board looks to me as the executive director of the entire group. Sarah also highlighted to me a few times, including once in front of top executives, that I have no idea what goes into her job.
This toxic relationship is painful, and even worse is my CEO’s lack of support. I am sure it stems from his fear of losing Sarah—she is very good at her job and would be hard to replace.
This is the most confusing and anxiety-producing environment I have ever been in. If it continues, either: 1) I’ll get fired, 2) I’ll quit, 3) Sarah will quit, or 4) we will endure a painful existence together and the toxicity will grow.
What are my options?
Feeling Young and Dumb
Dear Feeling Young and Dumb,
Never underestimate the fury of the person passed over for the top job after years of excellent performance. As you said—twice—Sarah is very good at her job. People who do well at their jobs expect the big promotion. The fact that a whippersnapper Ivy League MBA born with a silver spoon in his mouth (which is, I am certain, her assessment) ended up with the job is probably eating her alive with resentment. That is the real issue here. It’s not important whether or not she was involved with your hiring. This is not rational—and the truth is, you will probably never win with her. It doesn’t help matters that you clearly feel superior to her, which I deduced from the language you used about her education and background.
We tend to think that if we are kind and respectful, people won’t be able to tell if we have contempt for them—but we are wrong. People, like dogs, know it when you don’t like them or when you have some kind of judgment about them. Even if you show zero signs of the condescension you obviously feel, Sarah is going to sense it and feel threatened. So one thing you might try is taking a cold hard look at yourself. Examine your nonverbal behaviors including facial expressions—even the teeniest ones—as well as the language you use that might give away that you know you’re smarter and more educated than she is. And just so you know: because you do this with her, you probably do it with others as well. Now would be an excellent time in your career to get a handle on what could be a career limiting character flaw.
I appreciate that you feel you are in an impossible position, because you pretty much are. Sarah is not only deeply aggrieved, but also dedicated to seeing you fail—and she probably doesn’t even realize it. Everything you tell me about her history and her behavior points to a downward spiral and puts her in a fight-or-flight state whenever you are near. Your CEO’s advice may be confusing, but he is right—and you have to follow it if you want to keep this situation from devolving further. As you implied, Sarah will be harder to replace than you will. The only way you are going to earn her trust is to back off and stay out of her way. A few months? I would say it will take you a minimum of three years of staying out of her way and you may just win her over. Your assessment of the four options sounds about right, although I would add a fifth: Find ways to add value to the organization and prove your worth in ways that do not involve Sarah or her group. This may be difficult, but it is your best bet if you want to stay with the organization.
I am afraid I am being awfully tough on you, and for that I am truly sorry. This is a really hard situation. There is a good chance you won’t be able to find a way to win, but what would be really tragic is if you didn’t learn an awful lot about yourself and others in the process. Growth experiences are usually fairly painful, and this is certainly one of those.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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