Can’t Keep Covering for a Direct Report? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a regional VP for a global services company. I get excellent performance reviews, have been promoted regularly, and have had some employees tell me I’m the best boss they’ve ever had. I am ambitious and on track to be a senior leader in the company.

Five directors report to me. Our organization has been growing fast and they all need to get up to speed more quickly than they have been doing, so we are all working long days and the work is intense.

My problem is one of my guys I will call M. His mother’s health started failing about nine months ago and he asked for a transfer so her could be closer to her. He is an only child and is all his mother has. I pulled a lot of strings, moved a lot of puzzle pieces, and made it happen for him.

This would all be fine and well—but now, six months later, M is in way over his head. He can’t possibly do what is necessary to both do his job and take care of his mother. He is making mistakes because he is so stressed. I’ve been covering for him and asking his peers to pick up the slack, but I’m getting exhausted. I just can’t keep up with the work. The rest of the team feels the same way.

I worry that M won’t be able to get by financially if I ask him to take a leave of absence (our company doesn’t have paid long-term family leave). I don’t know what to do. I’m going to feel like a terrible person if I force him to take leave, but I can’t go on this way. Help.

Man Down

Dear Man Down,

I’m late with my column this week because I’ve thought about this, dreamed about it, and talked to five people about it. This is heartbreaking, and I’m so sorry you are under so much pressure.

I can’t help but wonder where your boss and your HR business partner are in all of this. It appears that you are expected to deal with this all by yourself, which doesn’t seem fair. So, first things first: you need to get some other folks involved here, because something’s gotta give. I would very surprised if your HR person doesn’t have some options they can share with you. This kind of situation is a constant in HR. Ask for help, right this minute. This is an emergency.

Next, let’s take a look at how you got here. Sounds like you are over-functioning for everyone around you. I suspect you’ve done this before and, in fact, have a long track record of doing it. Over-functioning works very well—especially for the people you are doing it for—until it starts to hurt you. What would happen if you just stopped? Well, I can tell you: you’d get a very clear picture of reality.

At least you are clear on the fact that this situation is unsustainable. (May I repeat your own words back to you? “I can’t go on this way.” You’re right; you can’t.) Get help. Get a temp. Hire some backup. Call in the cavalry. Yes, it will cost a little extra—too bad. You’ll never be a senior leader if you don’t take the opportunity to learn this lesson now. And you can never let things devolve like this again.

Let’s talk about M now. Was he an amazing performer before this situation? If so, then you need to do everything possible to keep him through this terrible time. Jim Collins, a researcher on what makes great companies and great leaders, talks about getting the right people on the bus. You can’t get where you want to go by doing everything yourself; you can only do it with the right people in the right roles. If M was a perfect fit and a star performer before this situation, get him some help. Be creative—lobby for extra budget with your boss. If he wasn’t that great a fit, maybe you can find him another role he might be better suited for in the organization that he can do part time.

Is that the meanest thing you have ever heard? It might be. It feels like kicking someone when they are down. But seriously, he must be feeling the pressure of not being able to properly do his job and of watching you and the rest of the team suffer. You aren’t doing him any favors letting things go on this way. The stress is not going to go away. You are ducking the hard decisions and the even harder conversation, Man Down, and it is time for you to step up.

When you try to solve everyone’s problems for them, you create new ones. Stop being a hero and face reality head on before the rest of team starts hating you and you start having panic attacks. You are the leader here, and you are responsible for finding a way to make the situation manageable and sustainable for as many people as possible—including yourself.

Being a leader is really hard. That is so harsh, I am so sorry. But it is the truth.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

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.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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