I think my assistant would be better at my job than I am

A reader writes:

I am the director for a semi-independent branch office (about 100 people) of a larger company. It’s a pretty traditional, conservative company, and it believes in promoting from within, and many people here stay many years. I’ve been here 15 years.

I was promoted to run this department three years ago. I was younger than all the other candidates but one (Fergus was the only other one my age, more on him in a minute). When I got the job, it was over several people older than me, all men, with longer service, who also applied for the promotion. This also meant I was now supervising people who had been senior to me, including Marvin, my former direct supervisor.

I believe the C-suite thought they were being very bold and daring selecting me, the youngest candidate and the first woman to hold my position. They had a vague sense they wanted “change” but I’m not sure they knew what that looked like. And I’m pretty sure I was selected over Fergus because he had a reputation of being difficult and a complainer and had butted heads with Marvin particularly. Marvin had been badmouthing Fergus to the C-suite for years. I’m pretty diplomatic and get along with people.

When I first got into the position, I realized things were even worse than I thought. I’d always known that Marvin, my former supervisor, was ineffective, but now I realized he was actively harmful. I had been protected from some of his power games because I was on his “good” list. (Fergus, naturally, was on the “bad” list.) It took a year but I documented everything and finally was able let him go. (Yes, I had to fire my former boss. Fun!)

That left Marvin’s position, assistant director, open. I decided I wanted to promote Fergus. The C-suite told me they thought it was understood that I’d hire someone more “seasoned” for the position. They also told me he was difficult and a complainer. But I was convinced that Fergus’s complaints were legitimate rather than just being the product of a bad attitude. Though I certainly noticed that he was terrible at managing up, I also noticed he was excellent at managing down. His staff loved him. I had a hunch that if he were in a position to do something about the things he complained about, he would.

I finally prevailed on the C-suite for the right to appoint my own next-in-command (which all previous directors had been allowed to do, guess why I was different), but when I offered Fergus the position, he initially turned it down. Then he called me back and asked me why I’d offered it to him. I listed all his many accomplishments and what I thought he’d bring to the position, and he told me it was the first time he’d been given specific, positive feedback like that. In 10 years!

He accepted the position, and Alison, I was right. In the two years he’s held the position, he has justified my faith in him 1000%. The first year we were both busy doing things we both thought were long overdue (and it was so nice having him at my side instead of Marvin!), but the second year, and now going forward, it wasn’t quite so obvious what the next steps should be. When Fergus realized I would listen to him, he came to me with more and more ideas, and I quickly realized his ideas were, frankly, better than mine. He asked for the opportunity to lead a project and to pick his team and do it how he saw fit, and he knocked it out of the park. He even gets along better with the C-suite now (and vice versa), because he has me to vent to. Then he can be more diplomatic when he talks to them.

Fergus is not perfect, certainly — he needs to be prodded on deadlines, he can make excuses for younger staff who he sees himself in (complainers), and he still hates the “political stuff” — talking to executive and other industry bigwigs whose egos tend to need stroking. I’m happy to do that, I know it’s one of my skill sets, to sweet talk people who are prickly or have big egos.

When I started, I was able to see some of the big problems in our department and address them, but now that these are mostly done, I feel like I don’t have the vision Fergus does. His ideas are just better. I feel like going forward, my role will be mostly giving the green light to Fergus and smoothing the way.

So, honestly, I think if the C-suite knew then what they know now, they would have hired him, not me. Or they should have. After the success of that first project (which led to more revenue for our department) Fergus came to me and asked me for a raise. I was able to advocate and secure one for him, even though the company usually doesn’t do that. And I was happy that our salaries would be closer! But then they turned around and gave me one too. Not as big, but still sizable. I know I do things, I recognize what I can do, but I honestly feel like I don’t deserve to make 25% more than he does and have a better title. He’s got the vision, the ability to execute that vision, the eye for talent in younger staff, and he’s high energy to the point of kind of being a workaholic sometimes. Am I crazy to feel like he should be doing my job?

You’re overlooking that what you bring to your role is what is allowing Fergus to be successful in his.

He’s not getting along better with the C-suite because he’s figured out how to manage up. He’s getting along better with them because you are smoothing the way and letting him vent to you instead of to them. Without you acting as that buffer, he came across as “difficult and a complainer,” to the point that it overshadowed everything else he could contribute. (The fact that his complaints were legitimate isn’t really the point — someone can be right and still be highly ineffective in the way they approach problems, and it sounds like that was the case with him for a long time.)

If Fergus moved into your role, he’d have to deal with the political stuff he hates, and he’d being doing it without you as a buffer. How is that likely to go?

It sounds like Fergus is perfectly suited to the role he’s in now and to the boss he has now (you).

The person with the best ideas and ability to execute them doesn’t necessarily have to be the person leading the team. But the leader pretty much always needs the ability to work well with people above them — and if they don’t have that, things are likely to go badly, sometimes explosively so. From what you’ve written, Fergus can’t do that very crucial element of your job. And that’s okay — he’s great at the job he’s doing now, and you sound great at recognizing his potential (which no one else did) and managing him in a way that allows him to be great at his job (which no one else did either). You have put in him a role where he can be successful! If he were in yours, it sounds like he’d likely fail.

Also, none of this is to say that your main value is smoothing Fergus’s way. The fact that you could recognize talent in Fergus when everyone else saw him as a problem and have been able to manage him so effectively says pretty amazing things about your own vision and your own management abilities. So does your willingness to identify and support the best ideas even when they’re not your own — something a lot of managers don’t do. Your vision might not equal Fergus’s in every realm, but you clearly have a strong and effective management vision and a way to sell things that management above you might otherwise resist, and that is hugely valuable for the kind of job you’re in. In fact, in many management jobs those abilities matter much more than generating good ideas, especially if you’re able to hire a team under you to do that piece (as you have).

I think you’re undervaluing the work you do and the role you play. You sound perfectly suited for the role you’re in, and Fergus sounds perfectly suited for his (and perfectly unsuited for yours).

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 184 comments… read them below }

  1. quill*

    OP, I’m reminded of a novel series, the Vorkosigan Saga. Being the main characters, the titular Vorkosigan family is good at many things – but it’s mentioned frequently that their main strength is not always being the best at all things (actually trying to do everything himself bit the main character in the rear a lot during the early series,) but in hiring, and keeping, the best people.

    When it comes to managing this situation, you might be a Vorkosigan!

      1. TiffIf*

        I have found that there seems to be a number of Vorkosigan fans here–I love it I have never found another forum where references to the Vorkosigan saga come up so often!

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series is also well worth reading. Penric in many, but not all, ways functions like Miles Vorkosigan, but the feel is quite different. I mean that in a good way.

          1. quill*

            I haven’t finished the Chalion series (wooo, pandemic!) but the royals who manage to survive the first book have some of this vibe too. Primarily in terms of “I don’t give a duck about the background of who i’m hiring if they do the job well.” I think it was a thing for Bujold in her writing.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              The Penric stories are set in the same world as Curse of Chalion, but have a very different vibe. Also, I agree with Tifflf below that while Curse of Chalion is possibly a masterpiece, the two follow-ons revert to the mean. Of course Bujold’s mean is pretty darn good, so that isn’t really a criticism.

              1. Jules the 3rd*

                Hunh – while I agree Curse is a masterpiece (and I was just commenting on how much I preferred ‘one of many set on the road’ to ‘One True Hero’), I think Paladin is even better. Very few fantasy novels have a female lead who is 38+ years old and a ‘figure of romance’.

          2. TiffIf*

            Oh I love Penric and Desdemona! I loved Curse of Chalion but wasn’t as fond of the other two so I was pretty excited to find Penric and Desdemona in the World of the Five Gods and enjoyed them so much.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Totally agree. And I love what she did with Ivan (handling snakes for Admiral Desplaines).

    1. Forward Momentum*

      This is a great example, because in that book series, the Vorkosigans’ effectiveness often arose from taking people that others had given up on (one of the characters’ teams was called the “Leper Colony” for this reason) and inspiring them to feats greater than anyone could have ever imagined.

  2. Anhaga*

    Alison is right in so many ways here–don’t undervalue your OWN ability to manage! The fact that you were able to recognize Fergus’ good work even with your former boss having some kind of bias against him, and to give Fergus the position he needed to do even better work, is no small thing. Much of what we do as managers is recognize ways that our team members are stronger than us and make sure that those strengths are used to everyone’s advantage. Being able to work with the C-suite and push back when they’ve gotten the wrong picture is a *hugely* valuable skill. It sounds like you and Fergus are in the right positions. Don’t let humility mislead you.

      1. Former Child*

        Getting along w/those below him but not above him makes me skeptical that he will change, unless he matures a lot. That seems to me to be a POV that’s self-limiting. Kind of frat boy or teenage. While you sound like you’re more mature.

    1. Journalist Wife*

      This is absolutely true. I’ve worked for many Ferguses and Marvins as manager, and only a couple of true OP-type managers. I can easily say that the happiest, most fulfilling, most rewarding, and least stressful years of my entire career BY FAR have been the ones I spent working for someone like OP, who trusted me, let me own my ideas while channeling them to the top brass in a way they’d say “yes” to AND give me the credit for, and had the right skill set to let individual hires truly shine instead of becoming ineffective complainers, or bitter/toxic over time. OP, I hope you read every single one of these boosting comments with genuine pride, knowing that strangers from all corners of the blogosphere have read your story and agree right out of the gate with Alison. Own your strengths. I’m sure I am not the only one wishing I worked for you IRL!

      1. Cj*

        “channeling them to the top brass in a way they’d say ‘yes'”.
        This is huge. I don’t think Fergus would be able to do this on his own.

      2. Sparrow*

        I fully agree with that! My last boss was great at this, and I have never felt so empowered by a boss, nor have I ever been so engaged with a job. It’s like Alison said – he was well suited to the management role, recognized what I could offer that he could not and trusted my ideas and vision, and used his position to make sure I had opportunities to utilize those strengths. It was great for me – I got to thrive in my role and not deal with the messy stuff – and I would definitely be open to working for him again.

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed OP – please don’t undervalue what you do – you increase the productivity of all the people under you. I’ve worked for so many Marvin’s, and it’s sooo miserable for everyone. Own what you do – you help everyone be successful, and that’s what good managers do.

    3. Gan Ainm*

      Yes OP, think of it like being the president – the president isn’t the most experienced in the economy, the military, security, housing, etc etc, instead the president listens to the cabinet, the experts who are the best in those things, and has sound judgement to use that info to make decisions. He (and hopefully she eventually) is the best at winning people over, getting them to see his vision and to follow where he leads.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      Up-managing the C-suite ain’t Cracker Jacks. And OP seems to be very good at that, to the benefit of all below her.

    5. RJ*

      Hell yeah! You are doing exactly what an excellent manager does, and we all know how tricky those can be to find. You are killing it.

    6. Ellie*

      Yes, you sound like an incredible manager, not just for being able to manage Fergus successfully, but for being able to fire Marvin and make the changes you needed to, to make the teams effective. You’ve been able to keep everybody happy, including the C-suites – that’s an incredibly rare thing!

      You sound like you might have impostor syndrome, I encourage you not to undervalue your own skills just because they are ‘soft skills’, there’s enough people out there who will do that for you. You are diplomatic enough to get everyone (including difficult personalities) working together successfully, you are strong enough to fire your old boss, and you have the vision and the skills to change the way your department operates so that it is far more successful than it was under your predecessor. Why wouldn’t you deserve a raise? And why must Fergus’s advancement come at the expense of your own? I’m betting there are other people above you that aren’t performing nearly as well as you are, why not replace them and have you and Fergus both advance up the ranks?

    7. allathian*

      Yeah, absolutely. LW, I’d love to work for a manager like you, because you’re able to sweet talk the big egos in a way that makes it much easier for your employees to do their jobs. I absolutely agree with Alison, Fergus wouldn’t be able to do his job as effectively without you acting as a buffer between him and the C-suite. I think it’s refreshing to find a manager without a big ego who’s great at smoothing the way for her reports, but please give yourself the credit you’ve earned, your team wouldn’t be as effective as they are without your contribution.

    8. Medusa*

      Yes. It sounds like Fergus is a subject expert, which is very different from being a good leader. LW is a great manager, and Fergus sounds like a great leader t o the people under him. I honestly think that being a manager and being the lead on projects should be different jobs, although that is almost never case. This is one workplace where it’s actually happening.

    9. Anna Badger*

      yep! in my last job, I was a team lead working for a head of, I came up with most of the strategy for my area and a lot of the strategy for the wider department, and my boss handled the leadership team. we got so, so much stuff done together that I would not have got done on my own.

      I learned a huge amount from said boss about HOW to pitch to leadership teams, and now I’m in a role where I do it myself. don’t discount what *you’re* teaching *Fergus* right now!

  3. Nanani*

    OP, I wonder if being one of few (the only?) women in this place has caused you to think that on some level, you’re getting ahead on some kind of tokenism rather than merit. Perhaps some people in your workplace think that!
    But it is demonstrably not true. You’d have flamed out if it was.
    Give yourself credit where it’s due! You’re rocking your job and deserve all the credit for doing so!

    1. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

      OP you sound like a fantastic manager. You were definitely the right choice for this job based on your productive management style and your ability to enact change.

    2. Momma Bear*

      Agreed. It’s kind of looking at everyone’s Instagrammed vacation photos and suddenly thinking your trip was bad. You bring a lot to the table, too. Don’t feel like you have to step aside for Fergus. Help his ideas along, but don’t be steamrollered by them/him. Sounds to me like you have soft skills he has yet to acquire.

    3. Letter Writer*

      I do think you’re on to something here, that I feel like I was hired for my token value and that affected my confidence. Also, I said it below in my long post, but I was also worried maybe I was chosen because I’m likable and easy to get along with, rather than for any particular merit. However, I have enjoyed confounding some of the people in the C-suite who I’m pretty sure believed I would be more biddable, haha.

      1. Ellie*

        Being likable and easy to get along with are core traits when it comes to things like management, coaching, sales, training, … do not underestimate how important they are. And don’t assume that having no soft skills means that you’re suddenly better at the hard skills either, the two are not connected. Maybe you were hired for your token value – I don’t know what was in your bosses heads. But if you were then they were incredibly lucky, because you are clearly doing a fantastic job.

        Please don’t buy into the idea that women can only be promoted on token value, or that you have to be able to do 100% of the job better than anyone else, in order to be the better manager. That’s a ridiculous expectation that keeps a lot of women down. That attitude is everywhere, you don’t need it inside your own head as well.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Management might just have decided “let’s have a woman… oh OP’s the only one? and tossed a coin and it landed on the edge so yes it was you.
        Or they might have seen that you would be capable of dealing with your difficult boss and finding your way to bring the best out in your reports

      3. Paulina*

        I’m coming late to this letter, so you may not see this, but:

        Women and minorities are often overlooked for reasons that don’t have anything to do with their merit. When bosses try to correct for this, it can look like tokenism. It may even *be* tokenism, in that the bosses may still not have properly understood your merit when you were promoted into the director position, and just decided to go with you for superficial reasons, or to give doing things a different way a try, or whatever. But if they didn’t see your merit then, that’s on them, and it’s clear from what you’ve been able to do and the raise they gave you that they definitely see your merit now.

        Being the potential beneficiary of an attempt at diversity is still largely more than offset by the tendency of those in charge to play to their comfort zones, and even then all you get is your foot in the door. That’s a foot in the door that plenty of the usual hirees get that isn’t always about their merit either. What you’ve done with that foot in the door — how successful you’ve been at running your unit — that has nothing to do with how your foot may have gotten in. How well you’ve done has more than earned all of it. And looking at what an amazing job you’ve done, it’s not that farfetched that one of the highers-up might actually have noticed that you had it in you to be great. Because you did, and you are.

  4. I'm just here for the cats*

    I wonder if the LW has a bit of imposter syndrome going on. Feeling like she doesn’t qualify when clearly she is an excellent person for this role and has been very successful.

    1. Allypopx*

      I think especially considering she seemingly sees herself as some kind of diversity hire, I think this is likely the case. OP you earned your position and seem to be very good at it, or else they wouldn’t have listened to you about Fergus or given you the raise they did. Give yourself at least as much credit as you’re giving him.

    2. Campfire Raccoon*

      I got that feeling as well. She’s obviously great at seeing talent, smoothing personalities, and helping people succeed. She is a catalyst for success, and needs to recognize her awesomeness.

      She is Afra Lyon in the Tower in the Hive series. She improves the talent of the people around her.

        1. Campfire Raccoon*

          You see it though, right? She lifts up the people around her and thus raises her own talent in the process.

      1. Cheerfully Polite Grey Rock*

        My immediate thought was she’s actually Damia, with the ability to boost everyone else’s Talent so they can achieve far more and at a higher level than they could alone, or even in a group without her.
        OP, you are allowing your team to shine, and they wouldn’t succeed half so well without you lifting them up and smoothing the way for them. It is a real talent, particularly in management. Own it!

    3. MassMatt*

      I was going to say this. Imposter syndrome can affect everyone, it’s especially pervasive for people that are managing to break down glass ceilings and other barriers. OP, it sounds as though you have managed to see great strengths in an underappreciated employee, and get them promoted, negotiate through terrible political pitfalls, manage up so this newly promoted guy can succeed, AND get rid of a toxic former boss. Any one of these are huge! Countless managers know they have situations like these they SHOULD handle, but just can’t or won’t.

      It might be that the newly promoted guy is all that and a bag of chips, but he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if not for you. It’s not a zero-sum game, hopefully there is room at your company for you BOTH to grow. It sounds like you’ve been really successful there, allow yourself to enjoy it!

      1. SuperDiva*

        This! LW, Fergus only got the promotion because of your advocacy, and now your support and championship is allowing him to succeed. You’re both in roles you’re well-suited for! Also, the weaknesses you mentioned are not minor — Fergus needs a strong manager, and you are giving him that. I’m also not an “ideas” person, so I get feeling slightly inferior or insecure about that, but the truth is that successful businesses need practical doers as well as creative thinkers, and one is not inherently more valuable than the other.

        1. Letter Writer*

          Thank you to all of you in this thread. I think saying I have a bit of imposter syndrome is very accurate. Also, I think I used to think of myself as an ideas person, but really I think I’m just good at recognizing problems and not giving up until they are addressed. Now that we’re moving into territory beyond “omg fix this” and into long term planning and strategy, I am seeing how much more of an idea person Fergus is than I am!

  5. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    Stay put, do your job to the best of your ability, and rest assured that when your next opportunity to move on and up arises, your company and Fergus will be just fine training your replacement.

    It beats being held hostage by the fear the company will collapse in your (inevitable) absence.

  6. Gigi*

    Wow, I teared up a little reading Alison’s response. I’m also a leader in a seniority-based government organization, and sometimes I see all these younger-in-the-service people KILLING IT and think geez, why am I even here. This is the answer. Someone has to make all the things go together. Like the LW, I’m a woman and I often undervalue the efficacy and communication I bring to the party. Thank you, Alison!

    1. StudentA*

      Yes, excellent answer from Alison!

      Oh, OP. How I wish humility was more prevalent among leaders. But you’re being so hard on yourself.

      This is one of those if it wasn’t for the blues there wouldn’t be rock n’ roll situations. Not to mention all the other nuggets Alison has illuminated, you’re handling pieces of the puzzle that allow him to shine. OP, you’re doing your job! And you’re doing it well. His success is the evidence.

    2. New Job So Much Better*

      Agree! Fergus would never have gotten the chance to show his talents if not for you. You’re valuable!

    3. Koalafied*

      Gigi and LW, I hope you (and anyone else in this boat) keep this in mind when you’re filling out your next self-evaluation. The higher you rise in the management chain, the less tangible work and ideas you’re producing the and the more leading and managing becomes the whole job. Don’t sell yourself short on your eval because you’re afraid of taking credit for others’ with – that’s exactly what you should be doing! Obviously doing so transparently, making it clear that you led a team that accomplished X instead of suggesting you did it all on your own, but you should absolutely take credit for your ability to get results. Not all managers can do that, and it’s what makes you so effective and so valuable.

    4. Thursdaysgeek*

      In a previous job, I pictured as my boss as the person who figured out who needed a wall, where it was needed, how much it would cost. My co-workers were the bricks, and I was the mortar. My boss recognized my value in holding things together, integrating, making us stronger. Unfortunately, her boss only saw the pretty bricks, and thought that was the main part of the wall, so both I and my boss were laid off. I still say there is value in being mortar: it’s not what people see when they look at a wall, but it’s an essential component.

    5. Letter Writer*

      Gigi, it’s so nice to hear I’m not the only one who has had thoughts like these! It’s hard not to look at high performers and think they should be the leaders, not me. Alison’s answer really challenged me to look at this differently.

      1. Queer Manager*

        I’m so happy to read this! Honestly, it sounds like you are fantastically suited to your role. Continue to shine by helping others shine. Kudos to you LW!

      2. Ellie*

        A term I’ve heard is that you’re the glue that holds everything together. You don’t always notice the glue but you certainly notice when its missing.

        I’ve also heard the term ‘mesh’ – good managers allow their ‘mesh’ to operate, you don’t want everything to have to go through you. Firstly, you don’t have the time, and secondly, your people won’t develop as they should if you dive in and rescue them all the time (and thirdly, you’ll never get promoted, or be able to take time off, if your people can’t function without you). You put the framework in place so that other people can work at their best. And the best worker on the team doesn’t always make the best manager.

        If you genuinely believe that Fergus could replace you one day, then you should really be lining him up with training, so that he can acquire some of those soft skills he seems to be lacking. Why aren’t you doing that? Is he perhaps not interested? Or do you believe that he can’t develop them?

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Perhaps Fergus could replace OP with some coaching (if he’s interested, but he probably knows his weaknesses and loves OP to bits for coaxing his strengths out), but OP does also need to look out for where she’s heading too!

    6. The Shadow Broker*

      And the experience! I’m one of those younger-in-the-service people at my job, and part of the reason I *can* kill it is the leadership and partnership of the more experienced, senior folks in the org that I work for and with. I watch them, learn from them, get advice from them, get my ideas vetted and critiqued by them, learn where all the secrets and bodies are buried through them. Do not undervalue your experience, leadership and mentorship and how much it means to the young’uns in the org!

    7. Jude*

      That sounds so much like my own manager, she semi-regularly makes throwaway comments like ‘it must be simple if she can understand it’, or ‘explain it to me in ways I can understand, dumb it down’.

      The thing is, we’re process experts; she shouldn’t know all the intricacies of our jobs, that’s what we’re here for. She’s a fantastic manager, literally the best I’ve ever had. She was my manager when I first joined my current company (we started at the same time in a new team), later that team was disbanded and we moved around within the company to different teams for a few years.

      In 2017 they un-disbanded the team (gotta love banks) and offered her the lead – everyone still with the company (and several who had left in the intervening years) who heard immediately applied. I’m not kidding when I say I would follow this woman to work almost anywhere.

      Don’t underestimate the value of a truly good manager, its not always down to ideas and technical skills – that’s what your staff is for a lot of the time. But if you can inspire the kind of dedication and loyalty that only comes with being both an effective manager, and a wonderful person, then everyone benefits.

      Wow sorry, totally got my soapbox out there!

  7. Heidi*

    I may be overinterpreting this, but it doesn’t even sound like Fergus wants the OP’s job. But if he did, it’s not like they could just switch jobs one day. If a promotion becomes available, he can apply for it and OP can advocate for him.

    1. Self-aware Fergus*

      Came here to say something similar about whether Fergus wants the role. I’m a little like Fergus – I’ve got very good leadership skills for some settings, but in other settings I’m impatient with what seems like BS to me, and I am willing to identify problems people don’t always want to hear about (or, to put it less charitably, I’m sometimes blunt and I complain). So in some roles, that makes me a great second-in-command: I can be the straight shooter who voices things aloud and gets reeled in by the diplomatic boss, and when we do this together, it’s really effective teamwork. I know this about myself and like taking on leadership roles that suit my talents, but have no trouble being the vice-whatever either when someone else is better suited. Maybe Fergus thinks of things the same way.

      1. NYWeasel*

        Hallo fellow second in command! I’m always happiest when I’m managing downward and I have a strong manager to manage upward and outward for me!

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        He certainly knows that OP was the one to see his strengths and coax great work out of him.

    2. Willis*

      Yeah, it sounds to me like Fergus is probably really happy the OP is in this role! She advocated for him to be promoted, gave him positive feedback, listens to his ideas (and venting), gives him space to do great work, and advocated for a raise for him. (Not to mention, canned the guy who was squashing Fergus’s ideas.) I bet he’s feeling like work has improved significantly for him with the OP in this role.

      1. Allonge*

        That’s true, and could be an issue. But the fact that it does not seem to be is a good argument for Fergus feeling ok with the current situation. If someone applies for their boss’s job and does not get it, very often they leave altogether, or worse.

      2. Uranus Wars*

        Yes, but after hearing about Marvin gunning for him, it sounds like might have been doing it to get out of a toxic situation/grow more and OP has allowed him to do that without having to take on the political and higher level things it sounds like he doesn’t like!

      3. LilyP*

        A lot has changed since then though! I think it’s likely that he applied feeling like it was his only chance to make the necessary changes and get his ideas implemented (and get out from under Marvin’s thumb), but now that OP is giving him green lights and support and credit he probably feels really differently

      4. Okay, great!*

        The OP said there were a lot of issues that needed addressed when she first took the role. Fergus might have applied because he wanted to be heard and use his ideas to fix them. Having OP give him that chance may have been all he was looking for, and he’s now happy with the way he is able to work.

        1. Letter Writer*

          I think this is accurate. He applied because he saw the need for change, but he has said since then that he would hate to do what I do. However, I guess I can’t shake the feeling that in an ideal world, our c-suite would be reasonable and value good ideas and I wouldn’t have to be a buffer to “sell” them on it. Fergus doesn’t butt heads with reasonable authority.

          1. linger*

            I think your feeling is correct — but that means your role is (partly) to make Fergus’s work environment closer to that ideal.

          2. Working Hypothesis*

            LW, part of the purpose of great managers like you is to deal with the inevitable ways in which we *don’t* live in an ideal world!! Fergus loves being the idea guy, and it’s good at it, and maybe if humans were entirely rational that would be a role that did not need an idea seller above him. But humans are not entirely rational, and so he *does* need a first class idea seller above him to get anything done. This is why he wasn’t getting results with his ideas when he worked for Marvin! You are a necessary component in this process. The entire marketing department doesn’t become irrelevant or worthless just because in a perfect world in which people all made completely rational economic decisions, marketing wouldn’t exist as a field, does it?

          3. Glitsy Gus*

            You’re possibly correct, but at the same time, he doesn’t enjoy the glad handing and politics of upper management. That will always be there even if people are overall reasonable. I really do think what Allison said is correct- things are as they should be.

            I’m much like Fergus, so I think I understand where he’s coming from. I’m really at my best when I have a manager who gives me my lead and lets me run. At the same time, I am really not good at greasing the social wheels, which needs to be done even with reasonable management. Right now I have that set up, my Manager is amazing at politics, big picture scheduling and relationships, I’m the nuts and bolts person who solves the problems and gets things done. Our company has many problems, but we are a really great team.

  8. velomont*

    I believe that one of the key roles of an effective manager is to facilitate, massage and finesse the talents of those who they manage. And if those being managed have talent at the coal-face and if you can effectively “conduct” that orchestra, you are a truly talented and effective manager and leader. Kudos to you LW.

  9. The New Wanderer*

    OP, I’m in a situation like yours with my own Fergus, at least the parts where Fergus is capable of doing really good things, bringing ideas and insights, and working independently but in parallel with me to accomplish goals. (We even had a Marvin-like person who was trying to undermine my position for a while but fortunately he retired not long into the project.)

    Last year I actually did offer Fergus the option of taking over the project as lead. He turned me down and said he really valued my ability to set the strategy, be the leader and public face to the higher ups, and let things run by consensus when possible but make tough calls when needed. He said he’s been happier working this project that previous ones because (paraphrasing) he feels he has autonomy and my trust and can focus on the actual work and not on the lead level stuff. He’s not interested in promotion at this point, he just wants a legacy of good solid work and that’s what he’s getting now.

    So, I agree with Alison – you don’t always directly see the value you offer in this situation but without you, Fergus would be in a much tougher position. Possibly even one that he wouldn’t succeed in, or at the least, not flourish the way he can now.

  10. A.N. O'Nyme*

    OP, there are so many cases of people who are good at their jobs – say, sheep counting – who then get promoted to Manager of Sheep Counting only to fail miserably. Managing and leading is about more than just being good at counting sheep. And as others have mentioned, given Fergus’ hatred of politics probably means he doesn’t even want your job.

    1. V. Anon*

      Very much this. I have worked for very few managers whose main talent was managing. It sounds like OP is indeed a talented manager. OP, if you never have another good idea yourself, but manage to support your staff’s brilliant ideas and get them what they need to make them happen? That’s everything. Do that. They will love you (they probably already do).

    2. another_scientist*

      Related, I think the issue that someone is promoted to manager, gets little to no individual-contributor work done, can often make them feel like they aren’t contributing anything. The manager role requires a completely different set of skills and tasks, and measuring yourself against the set of skills and tasks from your previous role is not useful. But OP, you are far from alone in finding this reframing difficult!

  11. Squeeble*

    OP, you sound like a fantastic manager, and I bet Fergus is happy working for you!

  12. Mollusk*

    Getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats is a monumental task — and one of the most important for a manager.

    H/T Jim Collins

  13. Clever Alias*

    I have nothing to contribute beyond what Alison wrote, but felt compelled to say +1.
    Because it sounds like you are a great manager, and I want to fill the comment section with people reinforcing that.

  14. I'm A Little Teapot*

    OP, I was Fergus. When I reported to you, I was a superstar. When I reported to Marvin, I had a breakdown and ended up quitting. Keep doing what you’re doing.

    1. Blarghle Blarghle*

      Seconding this. I came to say the exact same thing. I am Fergus, and the best thing my manager does for me is smooth the way and let me shine. It means the world.

      1. SarahKay*

        Thirding this. OP, I too am Fergus, and I don’t want your job. I want you to stay my manager forever, smoothing the way for me to relax, enjoy what I’m good at, and am recognised for.
        I got sent on some very useful leadership skills training a couple of years back and one of the things that really stuck with me was the idea that a manager should be an umbrella, keeping the rain (and other cr-p!) off their team so that they can do their jobs. I recognised that this was exactly what my manager did for me, and is one of the reasons I appreciate him so much.
        Keep being Fergus’s umbrella; you’re doing an amazing job!

  15. Bog girl summer*

    LW, I have Fergus tendencies myself and… I would love to work for a manager like you! Having you take the lead, handle egos, make sure things get done, all leaves space for Fergus to deliver the performance you’re so impressed with.

    It sounds like Fergus deserves a raise, and I hope you’ve shared how happy you are with his work.

  16. Cora*

    You sound like a great manager. People are often good at their day-to-day job but bad managers when in reality the manager having strong management skills is very important!

  17. AnotherAlison*

    “You sound perfectly suited for the role you’re in, and Fergus sounds perfectly suited for his (and perfectly unsuited for yours).”

    This was what I was concluding as I read the OP’s letter, so I was happy to see it in the response. Keep doing what you’re doing, OP. The only thing I’d add to the mix you may want to have some discussion with Fergus about what skills he would need to develop to have your role someday, or one like it somewhere else.

  18. Jcarnall*

    OP, the best managers I’ve ever had were those who fully appreciated that I was better than they would be at what I do, and who did their management job so well I became better at my job

    I bet you are the best manager Fergus has ever had, and you completely deserve the respecr and appreciation you get.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      This. I’ve had the good fortune to work for several people who saw their job as training/developing me, giving me the resources I needed, playing to my strength with assignments/projects, and clearing roadblocks/smoothing over the politics. I could not do my job without them and vice-versa. That’s how I try to manage now (some days more successfully than others :).

    2. The Shadow Broker*

      When I did a leadership training thing as a newer manager, one of the things I learned was that you should never be the smartest person on your team! Being the manager doesn’t mean you are the smartest or the one with the best ideas. You’re the one who gets stuff done and enables everyone around you to put those great ideas into action.

  19. hellohello*

    LW, if I had to hire a manager for a new team and had you and Fergus as candidates, I’d pick you. Fergus sounds like a fantastic individual contributor/project leader, but you had the vision and people skills to notice his potential, get the best out of him, promote his good contributions, and figure out how to wrangle difficult management to allow you and your team to do their best. A million Ferguses won’t help if you don’t have someone who can manage the way you did here.

    1. LKW*

      Agree 100%. Your ability to navigate the politics, push improvements, deal with bad news, manage downward and upward are all things YOU bring. You’ve been able to take Fergus, see through Marvin’s BS and direct his energy in ways that Marvin was never able to. You’ve proven that you are a good judge of character, that you listen and that you go with what you see, not by rumors and not by the safe political move. And you highlight several areas of improvement for Fergus that, if left unchecked, would make him unsuccessful in a different and potentially more exposed role.

      Have you talked to Fergus about his career path and where he wants to go? Have you discussed correcting those weak areas and why it’s so important? Do that, be his advocate. See if there are ways to continue to support his career at your organization. It doesn’t mean he has to replace you.

  20. Quaint Irene*

    OP, speaking as another Fergus with a good boss, please please PLEASE don’t undervalue what you’re doing! There are so many things my manager does that I would HATE and be SO BAD at, I would be fired in five minutes. I think she even likes some of them! Triple ditto everything Alison said.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Ditto. I’d have strangled people in my boss’s role, and she’d chuck office supplies at people in mine – but we work well together and make each other’s lives much easier.

  21. Richard Hershberger*

    Working on the sound epistemological principle that everything relates to baseball history, here goes: The St. Louis Brown Stockings were one of the early dynasties in the 1880s, under the ownership of German immigrant Chris Von der Ahe, “Der Boss President.” Von der Ahe was a colorful and controversial figure. Personally I think he was a superb businessman, but he played the clown. Read newspaper accounts at the time and you can always tell the reporter’s stance. The ones who thought he was a clown quoted him speaking in a thick German accent. Others noticed that he was building a winning team and making a ton of money doing it. This split continues to this day, among the happy crew interested in such things. The “clown” contingent claims that he didn’t know a thing about the game, and that winning team was actually put together by this manager Charlie Comiskey. To which I reply: Let us take this as being true. What we then have is an owner who hires a good manager, gives him the resources he needs, and then lets him manage. What exactly are we criticizing here? This is the baseball fan’s dream owner! Keep on letting Fergus succeed. This is the employee’s dream manager.

  22. Robin Ellacott*

    I’ve always heard that managing well means making sure your team can be as effective as possible. You’re doing really, really well at that, and far more than he could if he doesn’t work well with authority. Sounds to me like you’re both in the right roles, and you’re an excellent manger.

  23. Kimmy Schmidt*

    The fact that you advocated for a raise for Fergus is HUGE! You had your employee’s back, and you got him something valuable and tangible. You sound like a great boss in the perfect position for you.

  24. Dotty*

    Second everything here – I’m possibly in a similar position to Fergus. My direct boss was promoted from another department with less than half the experience to oversee multiple teams. I was sceptical at first but he’s genuinely the best boss I have and I’m now in the best possible role, one he shaped for me. I don’t have the difficulties in getting on with C Suite you mentioned for Frazer, but I’m also someone who focusses more on managing down and wasn’t quite what the C Suite needed. He’s given me the structure and he’ll help position things occasionally but the best thing he does is just give me space and a sounding board, make sure I have the resources I need. The business has tripled since we started working together – I may have been the one directly involved, but I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t given me the position and resources I have now so I wouldn’t underestimate the power of a good boss that can put the right people in the right place OP. If you haven’t read it I recommend also No Rules Rule by the guy from Netflix – about a leader’s role being to be identifying and giving space to talent

  25. Red Wheelbarrow*

    It makes me happy just to know there are managers (and people) like the OP in the world.

  26. Lacey*

    OP, you sound like an amazing manager. You’re doing good work and you’re right where you need to be.

  27. Elenia*

    Holy crap what a timely post. I myself am dealing with something similar. Have an absolutely fantastic underling who I feel could do my job very well. I have to remember she is at least partly fantastic because I work hard to make sure all obstacles are out of her way and she knows she is well-valued.

  28. Snarkastic*

    We all have doubts, but never doubt you are worth of that raise! Your questioning immediately made me wonder: Would the men who previously held your position question their worthiness for a 25% raise?

    1. LilyP*

      It actually would have been really not OK for your company to sit back and let Fergus’s raise (well-deserved though it certainly was!) bring his compensation close to equal with yours while you’re his manager and doing higher level work than him (management is higher level work!) and killing it at that higher level work. It would’ve been an obvious equity issue, potentially a legal issue, and would have hurt their ability to retain a superstar leader (you). It’s good that they did this preemptively instead of making you fight for it.

  29. Sara without an H*

    OP, a great manager is someone who can identify the right people for the right jobs and set them up to do their best work. This is what you’ve done for Fergus. He would never have had this job if you hadn’t advocated for him, and he’s obviously justified your confidence.

    A couple of practical suggestions: You need to sit down with Fergus and ask him how he sees his future career developing. Several previous commenters have pointed out that people are often promoted for their successes as individual contributors, then flame out badly. Fergus may have decided that he really doesn’t want a job like yours (especially if he’s lax about deadlines and hates schmoozing the higher ups), but would be interested in other kinds of professional opportunities. As his manager, you need to talk with him about his future and what he needs to do to make it happen.

    I don’t know your industry, but as I read your post I wondered if you were promoted from an individual contributor position and have trouble seeing management as “real work”? Bad management is conspicuous, but good management is often invisible. Take a cruise through the AAM archives for some ghastly examples.

    You have madly succeeded as a manager. Give yourself credit. Take a bow!

      1. Old Woman in Purple*

        Especially in regards to “Bad management is conspicuous, but good management is often invisible.”

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Yes, especially to ‘set them up to do their best work.’ Part of the job as a manager is to set your team up for success. I’m a teacher, so in my own work I frame it as setting my students up for success. There’s a different vibe, because y’all work with adults (for better or for worse), but some of the strategies are similar.

  30. Mental Lentil*

    The person with the best ideas and ability to execute them doesn’t necessarily have to be the person leading the team.

    This. If you want to be successful, you hire people with a different skillset (both hard and soft skills) and viewpoint to your own. This is why a diverse team generally tends to be more successful.

    (As a side note, I think this may be why a lot of start-ups fail: because TPTB end up hiring people with the same skills and outlook.}

  31. Penthesilea*

    Another Fergus here — If you’ve read anything about High Performance Organizations, you might have run across the idea that everyone’s job has elements of Management (systems), Leadership (strategy, vision), and Task or Technical work, and how much of each varies depending on your role. My boss (who just retired on Friday) once acknowledged to me that he was not good at Leadership or the strategic stuff. He was very, very good at Management, excellent at managing the systems around our work and keeping our Board of Directors happy. I was the strategic person in our organization. I would have hated having his role — and now that he’s retired and I’ve been approached about applying for his role, I’ve said No Way, No How! It sounds like you and Fergus are very complementary, and it’s a credit to you to seeing that possibility and making it happen.

    1. Letter Writer*

      This is so interesting! I have been thinking that being better at the “Leadership (strategy, vision)” piece than I am–which Fergus is, means that he should be, well, the leader. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

  32. Mockingjay*

    I so enjoyed reading this letter. The further I got into it, the bigger my smile. OP, you are an OUTSTANDING manager and the reason Fergus and the rest of your team can shine.

    Keep doing what you are doing!

  33. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    OP, I echo Alison about not undervaluing your own contribution. Also, you say that you think the c-suite folks just wanted to change things up when they gave you your role, and I get why you might think that, since you were more junior than those you were competing with for the position. But I think it likely that just as you noticed that Fergus had skills that were valuable if harnessed correctly, someone above you noticed that you had the political and diplomatic skills to really make an effective manager. I mean, they may have wanted to shake things up, but you clearly had caught their attention as someone who is easy to work with and who gets along well with others. They did not just pick you because you were a young woman and well, that’s different, so let’s give it a shot (well, I hope not anyways … it seems unlikely!). And honestly, I think the c-suite execs saw you harness Fergus’ talent and make him effective in his position and they saw you advocate for him to get him a raise, which shows you care about your subordinates, you value their contributions, you understand the importance of showing them that you value their contributions, and you were able to sell them on Fergus’ worth (which required a complete turnaround on their perspective on him from what had developed while under Marvin’s management – and it is not easy to change people’s minds on that level). That is why they gave you a raise too! The skills you have demonstrated are extremely rare and extremely valuable. You earned that raise!

  34. Coder von Frankenstein*

    A boss who can simultaneously act as a buffer between her people and the bigwigs; recognize and nurture talent; accept good ideas from others without feeling threatened by them; get rid of toxic subordinates when necessary; and advocate successfully on her people’s behalf? LW, you are the Holy Grail of bosses.

    I think you are selling yourself way short here.

    1. A Girl Named Fred*

      All of this. I left my last job because my management was horribly toxic – the longer I read OP’s letter the more I thought, “I would LOVE to work for a manager like you, please don’t doubt what you bring to your role!!”

  35. Krabby*

    Long time HR professional here, done lots of coaching sessions with tons of managers. I always find that the very best ones were the ones having the exact same crisis of ability that you are having now OP. They are invested in their team and have stepped far enough away from the day-to-day that they have time to do the schmoozing, advocacy, facilitation and support work that makes a manager great. But instead of recognizing how valuable that work is to the success and satisfaction of their team, they measure their output in the things that their subordinates are doing. Your jobs are fundamentally different now, and from everything I’m reading in this letter, you are killing it OP.

    1. Goldenrod*

      I agree with everything Allison said, and would also like to add that you have a quality that is so important in good leadership and so often lacking – humility.

      And also I totally agree with Krabby – I often feel like the people who are the best leaders are the ones who question themselves constantly, NOT the people who are over confident.

      You also give positive feedback and give credit where it is due. You sound like a kick-ass boss! Wish I worked for you. :)

  36. learnedthehardway*

    All the great leaders I have interviewed have said that their primary job is finding people who are (often) better than they are at the function, and running interference / removing the roadblocks / getting the resources for those people to get the work done. You’re doing exactly the same thing.

    Leadership is a very different skillset from functional / technical expertise in a field.

  37. Chantel*

    True leaders know how to make it so that their people fly.

    That’s you, OP. Well done.

  38. Xavier Desmond*

    Recognising what the best ideas are, even if they are not your own, is 1 million times more important as a manager than having the best ideas yourself.

    1. Allonge*

      This! I had a boss who was the only person allowed to have ideas on the team. This was not a good team to work on.

  39. Brian*

    This is a really insightful response Alison! I love that after reading this blog every day for more than, what, six years? seven?? I still learn from it!

  40. Budgie Buddy*

    This letter reminded me of the book Watership Down, which is about a group of rabbits striking out to found their own community. A lot of the book is about teamwork and problem solving, and the main character Hazel isn’t really the best at anything. He isn’t the fastest, the smartest, the most charismatic. He definitely isn’t the biggest. But he is the one who sees how to combine the different talents of his team, and that’s what makes him an effective leader.

    1. Sleepless*

      I wrote a high school essay on Hazel’s leadership ability. Richard Adams based him on one of his commanding officers in the RAF. I was always fascinated by the range of talents in the characters in that book.

    2. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

      I was also thinking Watership Down. Hazel wasn’t even the big ideas person-that was Dandelion, or in some ways Fiver. But none of the others would have been anywhere near as awesome a leader as he was.

  41. Ah choo*

    OP – I feel you! I manage a team of writers and every single writer is a strong writer than I am! But they love to crank out writing all day long. I am the schmoozer, the activator, the sheep herder managing all of them. It works out great.

  42. Dr. Doll*

    Alison, this is definitively my favorite answer you have ever given to anyone. Thank you SO MUCH for this nuanced, complex view of a situation that will hopefully lead to this kickass woman’s confidence soaring to deserved heights, and she can accomplish even more of what she wants to do for herself and the world.

    You both rock like the Rolling Stones.

    1. Despachito*


      I loved Alison’s answers and those of the commenters, because it is such a great insight.

      I would have the same doubts as OP, were I in her shoes. But I am more like Fergus (it seems there are a lot of Ferguses around), and I have little “soft” skills; if I were not self-employed, I’d absolutely love to work for someone like OP, but would very likely go down in flames if I were offered her position.

      OP, you absolutely deserve the trust of your superiors, your pay rise, and all the credits for enabling Fergus to give the best of himself. Please, do recognize that you are a valuable manager, one of those who are few and far between. There is no reason to be overly humble, but to hold your head high – you as heck deserve it!

  43. Blackcat girl*

    For the OP: the conductor of the hNY Philharmonic does not play violin well enough to earn first chair; same for flute, French horn etc. What the conductor does do is understand all the talents in the orchestra and leads them together to create wonderful music. That is what you are doing. You are managing you team to produce stellar results. You go girl!

  44. Vox Experientia*

    as i was reading the OP’s post i kept thinking “i would love to work for someone who recognized my strengths and would let me use them, and my weaknesses and help me overcome them. and one who can communicate them to senior leadership – wow”. OP i think you have a little imposter syndrome devil on your shoulder whispering in your ear. swat it and recognize your value. if the boss is the smartest person in the room then they’re a terrible at hiring. all i want in life is people smarter and more talented than me that i can lead. a boss able to recognize and correctly utilize and reward talented people is the best boss you can have.

  45. SeluciaMD*

    Just wanted to say that reading this letter and the response made my day. I’m a Fergus too and I adore my boss for all the ways she makes it possible for me to be great at my job without the hassle of the politics that comes with her role. She (and folks above her) have asked me many, many times if I’ll consider taking over for her when she retires and honestly, I have no desire to run things. I like where I am, doing what I do and not having to worry about a lot of the other stuff she does. So let me be one more voice in the chorus:

    You are clearly great at what you do. And being great at what YOU do is what allows Fergus to be great at what HE does. This is one of those scenarios where it really IS “teamwork that makes the dream work” (corny though it may be).

    Keep being awesome so Fergus can keep being awesome and everyone wins!!! :)

  46. Calyx Teren*

    LW, I agree with what everyone’s been saying so far. Catalyst leaders like you are *extremely* valuable. I don’t know if it’s kosher to recommend a firm here, but LW might really benefit from talking with ARC Leadership Dynamics. We’ve all been through career dev programs like DiSC, Mayer Briggs, etc, and while those are useful, during 27 years in industry (so far) there have been two companies who changed my whole approach to work. One was ARC. If the others are like blood typing, they’re like full genome sequencing. Their model (which leverages one developed by the US government to match people up with jobs they’d love and excel at) helps you understand your and your teams’ strengths / weaknesses / styles, avoid people’s Kryptonites, and communicate with people who have different styles so that they hear and understand you. It’s granular and specific and practical. Worth checking out.

    Again, apologies if I’m being too much of a proselytizer. I’m not connected to ARC and don’t benefit from referring people or anything like that. I just found them very useful for 10+ years and think they’d help you recognize and maximize your own value. They’d be useful for Fergus as well, in fact.

    1. Letter Writer*

      Thank you for this suggestion! I have been thinking it’s time for me to get some more formal training in management, through classes or other resources. I will check this out!

  47. Arctic*

    I agree LW is awesome. But there is no reason to think Fergus didn’t learn how to manage up. He had conflict with one person, Marvin. Why bring down Fergus to prop up LW? It’s not needed.

    1. I edit everything*

      No one’s bringing Fergus down. OP is lifting him up in every way. Which is why she’s ab fab.

  48. X marks the spot*

    Really, really, really listen to Alison.
    He’s a great sergeant. The troops follow him.
    You are a good commanding officer. You support your sergeant.
    The higher ups are happy because the place is running smoothly.
    That’s because of you.
    (I’m speaking as an individual contributor who got a retention bonus (when raises were limited because Covid) from the company because my boss said they could not do their job without me. So you ARE doing your job. It’s to get the best from your staff. Keep up the good work.

  49. 2 Cents*

    OP, speaking as the Fergus in the equation (not that I have brilliant ideas, but I’m terrible at smoothing over egos and can veer into complainer territory), do NOT undersell your role in his success. Yes, he has the ideas, but you’ve greenlit them, helped him get the approval, served as a sounding board, seen that they’re good ideas (not all bosses would!), advocated for him, and been able to see where faults are on all side. You are truly a gem!!!

  50. Sedna*

    Honestly just seconding what everyone has already said in the comments – I would kill to work under a manager like you, OP. You’re supporting your staff, emphasizing their strengths, and making it easier for them to do their jobs. I am just starting to manage people myself and I hope I get to where I’m half as thoughtful and skilled at it as you are.

  51. Sparkles McFadden*

    Fergus is doing so well because you are in your role, LW. You are doing a great job and your management is recognizing that. Please don’t sell yourself short. You are good at what you do. Own it!

  52. Analytical Tree Hugger*

    OP, I’m joining the chorus of commenters who are saying you sound like an excellent manager. Some of the evidence I see just in your letter:

    *You’re aware of the team’s morale, beyond just your direct reports (e.g., you know how your direct report’s team sees him as a manager)
    *You advocate for your team, pushing for them to receive the rewards they earn (e.g., raises for improving revenue)
    *The relationship between the team and the C-suite has improved since you joined (I doubt they would have approved the raises if they hadn’t)
    *You recognize the skills and talents of your team, then give them assignments and space to best utilize those skills and talents.

    I wonder, is some of your feeling of “not good enough” coming from not seeing leaders like yourself (in terms of leadership style and/or identity)? It seems like the leaders that are most promoted and admired (at least in the Western world) are those who follow the “genius with a thousand helpers” model; that’s unfortunate because more successful leaders are actually those who follow the “servant leader” model. That is, they figure out they can help the team achieve the best outcome, rather than trying to be in charge of everything.

    1. Letter Writer*

      Wow, you are really making me think here! I do think I look at Fergus and see him more in the mold of what a leader looks like. He looks like the “genius with a thousand helpers” and I am definitely not that. A “servant leader” approach might be another way that might be just as effective. I’m going to remember this!

  53. Xantar*

    Honestly, with a little tweaking this would be a fantastic Friday Good News post. OP you’re doing great. I don’t know if the C-suite promoted you to fill a diversity quota, but it doesn’t matter. You’re kicking ass, and you have definitively proven that you belong where you are.

  54. Undine*

    In addition to managing Fergus to be his best self, you don’t shy away from the hard stuff. You stepped up and fired Marvin! A lot of empathetic managers fall down by being too nice and waiting too long before getting rid of toxic people. I suspect that never in a million years could Fergus have done that successfully.

  55. Lobsterman*

    OP, you sound like an excellent manager who is good in a crisis, reads people very well, and brings out excellence in anyone around you. Fergus’s ability to succeed is a direct result of your ability to see talent, create a fertile space for growth, and clear obstacles.

  56. Kate*

    Another Fellow Fergus here. Please don’t leave. I don’t ever want your job and I will go back to hating my work life if I’m required to do what you do each day.

  57. Alict*

    OP, I wonder if it wouldn’t benefit you to examine the concept of stereotype threat. Basically, you sound like you’ve become so aware of being The Woman They Hired that it’s started to undermine your ability to do something you can actually do very well. This is a very well-documented phenomenon and knowing more about it may help you unpack and defeat some of the negative thought patterns that come with it.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I’ve never heard that term before, but I will look into it! It makes sense. Thank you!

  58. Boof*

    Oh LW, I got halfway through your letter and came to the same conclusion as allison; higher management’s role is often not to be the generator of ideas, but to be the liaison with the top brass / donors/ etc and the organizer / MANAGER of getting things done. It sounds like you are perfect at this LW and I think Fergus benefits from having you as his boss and not the C suite.
    Don’t undervalue your skills at doing this LW it’s as important (and rare) as being a creative genius etc!

    As to the salary, if you are senior, it’s ok if you make more! Though agree you want to make sure you are evaluating periodically that there is overall equity for similar roles/titles/work, and that you are paying at least on par with similar jobs in your area (if not better to retain the top talent) etc.

  59. Letter Writer*

    LW here. Thank you, Alison, for answering my question and for the many commenters who have said such lovely things about me as a manager! I have tears in my eyes reading Alison’s reply and all the comments!

    I wrote this on a day when Fergus had come to me with a particularly good idea, and I knew without a doubt I could never have come up with something that good. It was also after I’d fought for two months to get him the large raise I talked about in my letter. I was exasperated that my company was being so difficult about rewarding someone who clearly deserved it, and who I really didn’t want to lose. I started thinking the only way for Fergus to get the recognition and salary he deserved would be to have my job, and that led me down a bit of a spiral. Fergus is extremely high energy and has so much hustle, has very good ideas and is a great leader of the rest of the staff–I started wondering why on earth I was the director and not him.

    As some commenters suggested, I do think I have some imposter syndrome going on. The C-suite is not in the same city we’re in, so they don’t know any of us by our day to day work. When I got the promotion, I became convinced that after they decided not to choose one of the older, close-to-retirement applicants, they only had two choices, Fergus or me. And I worried I just got chosen because I’m more likable (and bonus points for diversity), not because of anything else.

    Fergus really hates dealing with the C-suite and is happy to let me do it so he can concentrate on “the fun stuff” (his words). We have discussed that we make a great team and our very different personalities really complement one another. I don’t think he wants my job, certainly not now, with the C-suite we currently have–however, he knows his worth and would have been extremely demoralized if he hadn’t gotten the raise that he did. I think maybe what I have a problem with is that I see my role as so much easier than his, and not worth the bigger salary that comes with being “director” instead of “assistant director.” A comment above said that I don’t see managing as “real” work, that when it’s going well it’s kind of invisible, and I think they hit the nail on the head. I will try to change my mindset about that!

    Also, my job was very, very difficult the first year, with Marvin as my assistant. He saw a manager’s role as handing out favors and projects as rewards for people he liked, and nitpicking and undermining anyone he didn’t like. He also very blandly and passive aggressively questioned almost every decision I made. Now that he’s gone and I have Fergus instead, my job is so much easier so it hardly feels like work at all, in comparison. I really felt like I was earning my salary that first year, fighting some very difficult and very lonely battles. Now my job is so much easier I think I felt a little guilty about getting a raise.

    I’m taking suggestions to heart about talking to Fergus about his future growth and plans (along with the rest of my team, of course!) so he can continue to develop. Thank you, thank you so much to everyone! You’ve given me such a boost of confidence.

    1. Elbereth*

      This was so wonderful to read. Thank you for responding OP! And I’m so glad that you have taken everyone’s words to heart. You sound like an amazing manager!

    2. MEH Squared*

      You sound like an amazing manager, LW. Not only for the reasons that everyone else including Alison have suggested, but also because you seem to have such a generous heart. It’s not easy to see the best in other people and not only that, but to nurture it to the extent you have. In addition to some suggestions that you may have a touch of Imposter’s Syndrome, I think you’re exhibiting something Dunning and Kruger discovered as they continued to study people’s competence and their self-perception of said competence.

      Grossly simplified, they found that competent people underestimated how competent they were because they assumed a task that was easy for them was easy for everyone. They vastly underestimated their own talent because whatever they did came naturally to them. I see this in what you’ve written here and above. You’ve minimized the things you’ve done as not as important or that you only got the job because you’re likable (which, at your level, is a talent in and of itself). I hope that what Alison and the commentariat have written can really sink in to show you what a truly outstanding manager/director you are. Most employees would be glad to have you as their boss because you would allow them to truly shine. Fergus is a great example of this and you two sound like you really complement each other.

    3. Rachel*

      You mentioned worrying that you were promoted “just” because you were “more likable.” I’d suggest that it’s worth unpacking what “likable” means in a professional context. It probably includes empathy, reading a room, communication, an ability to stay calm in tense situations…you might be lumping lots of skills together in that word!

      1. uncivil servant*

        I think it’s a really interesting case of someone possessing traditionally “feminine” skills – sweet-talking people with strong egos, being easy to get along with – and actually being rewarded for them. I’m not surprised that OP is reluctant to view these as real skills, because we undervalue those soft skills so often. Without going so far as to say this is proof of why women should be leaders (because women can have all kinds of skills), the fact that the skills that really set her apart are interpersonal should not be overlooked.

    4. Mrs The Plague*

      I think, too, that the fact that the work is easy for you is important: it *wouldn’t* be easy for a lot of people, and that’s worth noting. The fact that is comes easily to you means that it’s one of your gifts/talents, and that shouldn’t be downplayed.

      I definitely fall into the trap of believing that if something is easy for me, it means it’s not real work, or not as important as other work, and that leads me into this spiral of either beating up on myself, or seeking out things that ultimately make me miserable, but technically match up with some idea in my head of what’s important. It’s exhausting (and definitely part of that imposter syndrome thing!). Your gifts – as so many people have stated here – are valuable, and you’re allowed to see them as such. You don’t have to punish or devalue yourself because they aren’t someone else’s. :)

    5. Grey Coder*

      Just to pick up on one thought here: “Fergus had come to me with a particularly good idea, and I knew without a doubt I could never have come up with something that good.”

      There is a huge gulf between “having an idea” and persuading the powers that be to support this idea, explaining the idea to people outside the immediate team, making space in the schedule to implement the idea, etc. The idea is just the starting point, and the Ferguses of the world need you to help make that idea a reality.

    6. miss chevious*

      I just want to re-emphasize what so many other people have said in this thread — you are excellent at your role. As a leader, you’re going to see people who are better at certain aspects of the job than you are, and your job is to help them develop into their next role. Maybe they will get promoted and be your equal or your boss, as happened to you. If they do, they will have the benefit of having learned under a great leader. Maybe they will stay under you because they love what they do currently and love having you as a leader and want to be the second-in-command to someone who does the “unfun” stuff. Either way, you will be an asset to them in their careers, something that is not as common as it should be (witness all the crazy letters on this site!).

      In a short time, you have managed to turn a problem person around and harness him for the benefit of himself, your team, AND your company. That is one of the most difficult things a leader can do, and you did it quickly and efficiently. You are a natural manager, and your bosses are probably thanking their lucky stars they promoted you. You didn’t get a raise because they wanted to keep the gap between you and Fergus — you got a raise because they see the value of what you’re doing. Believe them.

    7. Wool Princess*

      My heart is so warmed. A good title for Fergus (maybe further down the line) would be “Associate Director”. I’ve seen a dynamic similar to yours work well.

    1. SarahKay*

      That’s just what this letter reminded me of too.
      LW, you wrote a such a lovely letter, got a great answer, and amazing (and well-deserved) comments confirming Alison’s answer.

  60. Steve*

    You mention the “political” stuff as it is not important – but is. Being able to recognize the rough parts of both those that work under you and those that work laterally and above you is vital. It is particularly important in a leadership role. As Alison said, Fergus would have failed without you – and still would.

  61. Badasslady*

    OP, it sounds like you have imposter syndrome, which is very common with women. But management is its own skill set which is really hard to master. You seem great at it though.

  62. ShwaMan*

    OP, *this is what success looks like*, and I can see why your bosses are happy with you, and gave you a raise. I hope you will see that Fergus would not have been successful without your skillful management, and this is why people like you are valuable leaders.

  63. MissDisplaced*

    As a “Fergus type,” I would say you’re perfect for the role you have! You trusted in Fergus and helped him achieve his potential.
    The one thing I would say is that maybe it’s time for you to concentrate on some new or different things you’d like to do since Fergus seems to be sorted out and functioning well at what he excels at.

  64. Galgal*

    OP, this actually reminds me of a conversation I had with my current boss about seven or eight months ago. (She thinks I’m better at ideas than she is, which I’m really flattered by, but don’t actually think is true! She has really great ideas, all the time.)

    It sounds like you and Fergus are a really great team, OP. I think you complement each other’s skills and strengths, and I’m pretty sure that after so many years of crappy management, Fergus is thrilled that he’s working with you. If Fergus had your role he’d have to deal with the politics. This is the same reason why I’m thrilled to be working with my own boss, who is great at that. Because I hate it, which Fergus clearly does, too.

    Funnily enough, OP, I have been in your shoes in a previous job, where I had my own Fergus. (It was a very different office culture than what I am currently dealing with.) We were an excellent team, and my own Fergus didn’t want my job.

  65. Small houseplant*

    I think this is a great example of things that come easy to you seem like they’d be easy for everyone, so you undervalue them. Oh yea, everyone can do that. But everyone can’t do that. What you do is valuable to your teammates and company. Rock on and celebrate that you put together this awesome team!

  66. lailaaaaah*

    Worth noting, OP#5, that Fergus doesn’t seem shy about whatever issues he’s having. If he had a problem with not having your job, it sounds very much like he’d tell you!

    (And for what it’s worth, you sound like an absolutely kick-ass manager. I wish there were more in the world like you.)

  67. JustSomebodyElse*

    I see lots of “Fergus-es” chiming in about not wanting to be pushed into management and/or loving the idea of working for someone like the letter writer.

    It really makes me wish the work world functioned differently on a grand scale.

    I’m a decent individual contributor. But I’ll be honest—I’m not a phenomenal individual contributor. However, I am great at people: I’m great at clear communication, I’m great at making people comfortable, I’m great at setting expectations and holding people to them, I’m great at seeing how everyone can most effectively function within a system, etc. In my free time, I am a leader of a large and complex interest group that I built from scratch with two others I recruited to help me.

    I really, really wish “servant leader” was its own career path. I’ll probably never be the best llama groomer, but I honestly think I’d be a very successful manager of a team of llama groomers. But I feel like I’ll always be stuck as “third best llama groomer” managed by a grumpy Fergus who would much rather be grooming the llamas himself.

  68. HLK1219HLLK*

    This. I think this is the best advice and most spot-on assessment that I 1,000% believe in (to quote the LW). Seriously LW, don’t overlook the fact that Fergus is successful BECAUSE of you, not IN SPITE of you. The two of you make a great team – Batman and Robin. Maybe Robin can drive the Batmobile every now and then, but he still needs Batman to KaPow! Thud! Whack! when the Penguin or Mr. Freeze trap Robin in one of their diabolical traps. :)

  69. Message in a Bottle*

    I am terrible at soothing egos of big wigs. That said, people genuinely like me. I just don’t like them. I hide it well, bit don’t want managing bigwigs to be a major part of my job.

    But does every leadership position, require stroking egos?

    O.P., you are a gem. Your letter so clear and specific about yourself and Fergus. Don’t underrate any of this.

  70. Greg*

    I am very open to my team that I can’t do my direct report’s day to day responsibilities nearly as well as they can and that I am ok with that. Your job as a manager is to set up the people that report to you (and in turn report to them) to get the best results possible…not do the job for them! One of the worst things my predecessor did was promote people from a sales position to leading a sales team because they “were the best sales rep.” Led to a few disasters. Just because someone is an expert at their day-to-day doesn’t mean that they are ready for that next step.

    It sounds to me as if you are the perfect person for this job, that people above and below you recognize that, and that you need to properly evaluate yourself!

  71. Pwyll*

    My last two great bosses were pretty close to how you’ve described yourself, OP, save for perhaps a bit more confidence. Neither really had a master plan for the work necessarily, they relied on their team of lieutenants to own their projects, pitch new ones, etc. I spent a great deal of time complaining to them as well, but their responses were to either ask probing questions to help improve my projects/pitches/suggestions/own management style, or help me figure out ways to communicate my concerns more productively upward.

    In some organizations, Directors aren’t about the work, they’re about the team. My directors were great because they were focused on building the right team of middle and upper-middle managers, not necessarily in trying to be a visionary in the actual work we did. They certainly understood the work and pushed hard on deadlines/tracking/results, and would have been good doing my role too, but that wasn’t their job anymore. And we were a far more effective team because of it.

  72. Malika*

    I can think of several organizations i worked in who would have operated on a whole different level if they had someone like the op functioning in the C-suite. The politics, recognizing talents and smoothing the way for aforementioned talent to shine resulting in great developments… That is an unmissable job within the C suite! I once worked at a startup with a CEO who had brilliant ideas but was terrible with people and managing talent appropriately. The startup is till going and the product is amazing, yet they would be game-changing if they had someone like you on the team leading the company, instead of capable managers that can’ t wrangle the company owner to save their life. We often think of getting things done as being innovative and high energy. Yet without the management of innovative plans towards successful execution, keeping stakeholders positive and open to different ideas, and ensuring talent is not bogged down in organizational politics innovation and energy can fizzle out into unimplemented plans and all round half-assness. I am glad you have read this letter and it has given you strength and that Fergus can focus on developing his ideas and career with a supportive leader who advocates for appropiate pay rises.

    One last thing… We think of tokenism as selecting a minority of choice because they just happened to be there. What i have noticed is that thoughtful leadership will make sure that a leader with a different background has the clout and skill to succeed. Tokenism doesn’ t look good and backfires on everyone, selecting a diverse team and identifying how every individual will strenghten your company very much does.

  73. Galahad*

    OP, you sound amazing at your job.
    They probably brought you on as much as 30% below what the average manager at your level (who is older / more experienced) is making. That is what happened to me, when first hired to director 20 years younger than the others…. and then you show up as being more effective than most of them after only 2 years.

    I would give you a raise, too.

  74. Jake*

    This is a prime example of the best producers not being the best leaders or managers.

    OP is missing that part of the picture.

    That being said, it’s also true that the best leaders for fixing dysfunction isn’t necessarily the best leader to maintain a functional system.

  75. tamarack and fireweed*

    Sooo …. I’m seeing a tale of someone promoted into a management role who proceeds to figure out an implement what her organization needs to be successful, gets rid of the ineffectual guy that was hard to dislodge and turn a highly competent but “difficult” employee from someone in constant conflict with his hierarchy to a valued contributor & expert. In short, she’s kicking ass. From how this sounds to me, the LW has ample reasons to be proud of what she’s achieving and I certainly hope her higher-up see the same thing.

  76. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    Alison, you just nailed that. I’m the sort to burst into tears when people tell me nice (and true) things about myself and I was actually feeling tears welling up in empathy with OP here. OP reckons management wanted change without knowing what they wanted: maybe but they are certainly very happy with what they got. More likely they could see that OP had it in her even though she couldn’t.

    OP, it’s possible, viewed from below (a place you know well, because you came from there), to think that Fergus is the tops and you just lucked into the role he should have got. Viewed from above, though, you have very successfully got rid of a negative element despite it being your former boss, and nurtured another former negative element into a star contributor. You are the one who has the talent to understand Fergus’s talent.

    I’d been given a job as admin for the sales staff in a previous company, and despite my best efforts I was not thriving in the role, nor helping sales staff to thrive. One of the sales people, who’d supervised me in a previous role too, told the boss I’d do better creating content. I was moved over, and quickly became the star of that team. I’m not sure all that many people would have understood that I would be so much better in the creative role, and I was very grateful to be moved. Did being a rockstar creative that mean I could head up the creative team? Hum, no, it was much better once someone else was promoted over me. She kept me on track and checked up on all the organisational stuff that just floated past me until it was too late.

    So, as a former Fergus, OP, let me tell you, you are a wonderful person, the best possible manager for Fergus and any time you forget it, just think back at that pay rise you got after batting for Fergus. That was management telling you, OK you think Fergus is good, we think Fergus is good only because you manage him properly.

  77. Wool Princess*

    I loved this letter so much. I was surprised by the response, but it hit so well. Alison, thanks for what you do.

  78. Justin*

    Congratulations on your promotion and thank you for sharing your story.

    It’s a great that you gave some who was considered a “complainer” an opportunity to fix the things they were complaining about. People who point out the flaws in an organization are doing so not cause it’s fun but because it is causing them legitimate frustration and they want the organization to be more successful and a better place to work.

    Often times these people are passed over for someone who tows the line and doesn’t make any positive change. Although this might be easier for senior management it doesn’t make the organization better in the long run. Of course not all people are going to use their new position to fix the issues they were pointing out but it seems like in this case it worked out for you.

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