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

It’s the launch of “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager! Every day from now until the end of the year, I’ll be running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

We have so many updates this year that I’m going to be posting six to seven times a day for the next several weeks — so keep checking back throughout the entire day.

To kick us off…

Remember the letter-writer who thought her assistant would be better at her job than she was? Here’s the update.

It’s been about five months since I wrote my letter, and I’ve been on quite a mental journey since then. I did respond a little in the comments, and I wish I could have responded more. The outpouring of support was NOT what I expected. It was wonderful but overwhelming.

To be very honest, though, as nice as it was to read, I found myself discounting your response and the responses of the commentariat. I thought maybe I hadn’t explained myself well enough, and your response was based on a fundamental misread of the situation.

The first thing I did was have a heart to heart with Fergus about how he felt about his role. He told me frankly that he thought he wanted my job for awhile, and was on the verge of resigning when I offered him the promotion. Now that he’s seen it up close, though, he has realized he doesn’t want to do what I do. He said he loves coming up with ideas, bouncing them off me to sort out which ones to pursue, and then figure out how to make them happen together. He said, “I do my thing while you manage the children” (the C-suite). We also discussed his career goals and ambitions, and he said he doesn’t want to leave as long as he still feels like there’s work to be done here. He thinks we make a good team and he doesn’t want to work for someone else.

Then, he said something that really made me think. He said when I offered him the job, I told him “I want to give you the opportunity to be part of the solution.” He said that was what made the difference, made him decide to stay. He said it changed his attitude about how to look at problems, and he uses it himself with his own reports.

I thought… well, maybe Alison wasn’t crazy with what she said about my management abilities. I went back and re-read my letter and your response and the comments and I tried to really hear what you were saying.

A lot of the commenters mentioned imposter syndrome. I think I knew I had that, but also thought, doesn’t everyone? For me, the more pernicious aspect of my imposter syndrome is I thought I was promoted not just because I’m a woman, but just because I’m likable. If it was really based on merit, not personality, I reasoned, they should have picked Fergus.

When I expressed that in the comments, one commenter challenged me to analyze what being “likable” means in a work context. I did that, and I realized that people like me because I listen, I genuinely like other people, I’m diplomatic, I don’t lose my temper, I don’t have a big ego, and I want people to succeed.

I’ve also realized since then that I have good judgment and I’m not afraid to make hard decisions.

Seeing myself more clearly has helped me be better at my job. I see now that my self-doubt was interfering with my growth as a manager. Constantly thinking about what I thought I “should” be doing (coming up with Fergus-style Big Ideas) and feeling bad that I wasn’t, made me miss opportunities to do what I’m best at.

The phrase “servant leader” was mentioned in the comments, and that really resonated with me. I’ve decided to lean in to that, and value my approach as something not many people can do. It’s all still a work in progress, but it’s made all the difference in my confidence level. I’ll be forever grateful to you, Alison, and to all the commenters. I feel like a weight has been lifted, and I really mean that. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    What a delightful update. I hope you can lean into the idea that you’re great at your job!

  2. OrigCassandra*

    This is absolutely terrific, OP. You sound like the kind of person I’d like to work for, and I’m pretty picky about that.

  3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    This is the best type of letter. OP shares the whole process.
    And to the OP, well done on you for opening yourself to comments and accepting that “if everyone disagrees with me, maybe I am wrong.”

    1. BubbleTea*

      It made me feel the kind of happy I feel when my dog or my baby do something I’m proud of (which sounds weird now I type it… but it is a warm fuzzy feeling!)

  4. ecnaseener*


    I think about the phrase “soft skills” and how it sort of validates and minimizes these talents in the same breath. “Soft” they may be, but they are SKILLS and they’re valuable and they’re not easy! Keep on developing them and using them!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      They are sometimes the most important skills of all! How many times have we all thought that “x” is a great idea in concept but I’m vetoing it anyways because of how and who is presenting it. OP has those soft skills to make everything work better.

    2. ThatGirl*

      I’ve realized over the years that my technical/subject-matter knowledge is not as important as my ‘soft’ skills – people like me, I can work with nearly anyone and ask good questions to get to the heart of things. I mean, knowing how to use software or about the product is important too, but I can pick that up on the job — being able to come in knowing how to get along with people and communicate well is harder to teach.

      1. 3co*

        Yes! I’m working as a programmer, but I think my soft skills are essential to what I do.

        Lots of people have the technical knowledge to implement a solution, but not all have the communication skills to work with users to troubleshoot problems and identify the RIGHT solution.

        When my boss is hiring interns and entry-level staff for our tech support department, his emphasis is on soft skills rather than technical background. He says it’s easier to bring someone up to speed on the technology we use than it is to teach them to be kind and patient with confused, frustrated, or panicking users.

    3. LouLou*

      +10000. I didn’t remember the original letter, but reading it now it’s clear OP is extremely perceptive, stands up for her team, and sees the best in others. Those are real skills and not skills every manager has.

    4. Momma Bear*

      Absolutely. Some of the best managers aren’t SMEs but rather the ones good at peopling and keeping everyone going in the same direction. I value managers who value me. Managing the C-suite so the team can do the job is no small feat.

  5. C in the Hood*

    Wow! I love the things you listed about yourself in the later paragraphs. To me, *those* are the skills of a good manager!

    1. Twenty Points for the Copier*

      AND OP went through a long and difficult process to properly remove someone who was very detrimental to the team, even though he used to be her boss! One of the hardest management tasks of all on top of being perceptive enough and good enough with people to realize that Fergus could be turned into a very productive and helpful team member.

      This seems like really amazing accomplishments in a high degree of difficulty environment.

  6. lex talionis*

    “….. I’m going to be posting six to seven times a day for the next several weeks”
    I am in hog heaven!

    1. Free Meerkats*

      I have evaluations to write! But I need to keep refreshing AAM!

      Thank the Lard for multiple monitors.

    2. All Het Up About It*

      I’m literally clapping right now both because of this wonderful update – and the number of updates we have to look forward to!!

  7. Littorally*

    OP, this is a great update. You and Fergus sound like a really awesome team, and it’s cool that both he and you recognize that. When you know what you’re both bringing to the table, you can use your respective strengths to their utmost.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed – it sounds like OP and Fergus have really figured out the secret to “the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.”

    2. MM*

      I’m so, so grateful that Fergus really is worthy of OP’s regard for him and that he could in this moment be a bit of a counselor to her too–in the sense of reflecting the situation back to her in a way that was honest, constructive, and in the end supportive (for both of them). If he were a different sort of person, or at a different place with his views on this question of who should have which job, this could have all ended really sadly.

      But of course, part of how he got to the point of being able to play the role he plays in this update was through OP’s excellent management! It’s a great and special thing when partnerships that really work like this happen–a mix of competence, goodwill, and personal compatibility (the last of which can’t be totally planned for) that doesn’t come along every day–and I’m just happy for everyone involved.

  8. Myrin*

    Yay, OP, I’m so glad you’ve arrived at this point. Thank you so much for sending in an update and keep doing wonderful things. All the best!

  9. houseplant champion*

    Aw this is a good update. Good on you, OP!

    And *cheers* to the rest of Update Season! I can’t wait to someday send mine in.

  10. Annielivingingintheusa*

    I love updates like this, what an immense growth and self-realization this poster has gone through! Kudo’s to you and may you forever go on flourishing!

    1. Zephy*

      Agreed! I’m really excited for this Update Season, we’ve had some doozies even just this year. But if Alison has that many updates to share, then hopefully we’ll be hearing from some older LWs, too.

  11. AnonEMoose*

    This is a great update! OP, for what it’s worth, you listing your willingness to make hard decisions reminded me of something I heard that really resonated with me, and I think it’s a really important quality.

    In the video game “Dragon Age: Inquisition”, one of the companion characters who is from a non-human culture (it’s an incredibly detailed world and mythology – one of the reasons I love the game) says that his people don’t choose leaders from the most intelligent or charismatic – they choose the people willing to make the tough decisions and live with the consequences. And for me, that’s an important point – a leader has to be willing to make decisions. From personal experience, I can vouch that sometimes there’s no good option, there’s just the least bad option or the one with the fewest undesirable consequences that can be anticipated (unintended consequences are a whole ‘nother thing).

    So you go, OP – you sound awesome and like you and Fergus are both in a good place and are a great team!

  12. KHB*

    I hadn’t heard of the idea of “servant leadership” before, but it makes so much sense (and it encapsulates everything that I’m annoyed that my employer’s current leadership is not).

    Sounds like you’ve got a lot of big things figured out at a young age, OP. Your company and Fergus are lucky to have you.

  13. Where’s the Orchestra?*

    Management is a skill – and it sounds like you have that in semi-truck loads OP! Too often we just look at “hard skills” as being valuable, but if you don’t have people with the “soft skills” well, the company isn’t going to be as successful- because soft skills are what makes the rest of the world want to work with you.
    Congrats on the journey of realizing and celebrating that OP – it’s why you and Fergus make such a great team together.

  14. Madness takes a toll... please have exact change*

    This update makes me so happy. Kudos, OP, for being the type of person that makes others around her better. So happy for you (and for Fergus!).

  15. Gigi*

    All I’ve got to add here is YASS QUEEN! Getting rid of imposter syndrome is a constant and ongoing process, but you have had a major breakthrough and I’m so happy for you!

  16. animaniactoo*

    Hurray for updates season!

    And I love that it looks like the major issue was that you mostly needed to redefine what your job SHOULD be, what the role of a manager is, in order to see why you ARE the right person to be in that position. Congrats to both you and Fergus.

  17. I take tea*

    This update makes me so very happy to read! I’m so glad you seem to have realized your own strengths, as well as spotting them in others. Good luck going forward!

  18. anonymous 5*

    oh wow. This is a wonderful update!!
    Hoping that this is also representative of the majority of the updates we’ll be seeing, because I could definitely use more excellent things happening when good people are given the right kind of boost!

  19. Observer*

    I was SOO not surprised at the OP’s original response. But I am SO glad that she realized that she really IS good at what she does.

    OP, you can be really proud that you are getting so much value out of Fergus. The fact that you saw his value and understood how to get that to work for you, not in a manipulative way, is a really big deal.

    1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

      “I was SOO not surprised at the OP’s original response.”

      Yes, agreed! Receiving praising constructive feedback can be as difficult as receiving constructive criticism, in oddly similar ways since both challenge your perception of yourself.

      OP, thank you for writing back in. It’s great to hear that you are doing the work of taking in feedback and reflecting on it, rather than rejecting it.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Yes, yes, yes! I’ve had employees who were actually quite willing to listen to constructive criticism (because it matched their view of themselves), but squirmed visibly when given praise. Congratulations to the OP for her willingness to accept positive feedback.

  20. Dust Bunny*

    I’m better at a lot of the direct parts of our jobs than my supervisors are, but I’m not a better manager. They’re not the same skillset.

    1. londonedit*

      Definitely, and I don’t want to be a manager. I tried it a few years ago, because I believed that’s what you should do, climb the ladder etc, but I’m no good at it. I’m good at keeping all the ducks in a row and pushing books through an editorial schedule, I’m not good at managing people and dealing with the budgets and the meetings and the decision-making that comes with moving into the higher levels. My boss doesn’t really have a clue how my job works on a day-to-day level, but they’re much better at being a boss than I would be. I’d rather do my job well and have my boss there to deal with all the serious problems!

      1. never mind who I am*

        Not everybody wants to be a manager, and not everybody who wants to be a manager can actually be one. The worst manager I ever had–abusive, tantrum-prone, always belittling her employees– was getting a PhD in management. My direct manager is superb at dealing with the management-type stuff that I have no interest in doing and I would be terrible at. The head of our division has only a rough idea of what we do, but knows we do it very well. Me? I do what I do well, and I’m happy to be part of such a collegial and supportive team.

    2. TeeManyMartoonis*

      Years ago, I was an ambitious and somewhat cocky young go-getter, who could not understand why I was being managed by someone who did not know the technical ins and outs of certain roles the way I did.
      I mean, my coworkers and I were pretty much the the foundation and backbone of the organisation – from the outside it looked like my manager was just in charge of the fluffy parts, right?
      Until one day I was asked to take over his role temporarily when he was on leave.

      Within 3 days I immediately regretted taking on the role. What seemed like a fluffy role was in fact much more complicated and challenging than I realised. My manager had been juggling so much behind the scenes which I never took into account, and I also quickly learnt that you need to be reasonably skilled at dealing with people – which I am not.
      He was dealing with staff technical, emotional and stakeholder issues, and how he remained upbeat under pressure is beyond me.
      My agonising (and thankfully short ) tenure as acting manager made me see my manager in a new light. I realised that me being brilliant in one aspect of a role, did not necessarily guarantee that I could be an efficient manager.

  21. HugeTractsofLand*

    This update makes me so, so happy! It’s really important to recognize and lean into your own particular strengths. I’ve found the Strengthsfinder test to be the most helpful out of all those “work personality” quizzes for that very reason; the focus is on wielding the knacks that you already have instead of viewing your skills from a deficit mindset.

    Best of luck, OP!

  22. Eldritch Office Worker*

    And my heart grew three sizes that day.

    God what a great kick-off. Congrats OP! I’m so excited for update season.

  23. JustKnope*

    Cheers to you, OP, for the amount of self reflection you’ve done! It is really hard to combat our inner narratives, especially when they are so tied up with cultural norms. Your growth and willingness to see a different perspective are impressive. Can’t wait to hear what the future holds for you and for Fergus!

  24. Tuesday*

    I think the best kind of leaders have doubts and aren’t afraid to face those head on. The people who are too sure of themselves are the ones to watch out for. You sound great at what you do!

  25. awesome3*

    What an amazing update! I do wonder about the OPs for whom the advice doesn’t resonate, and this is such a great story about that. I’m so glad you’re valuing your skills OP, and it sounds like Fergus does too!

  26. Not Australian*

    Joining the chorus to welcome (a) update season in general and (b) this update in particular; I’m so glad OP and their colleague were able to come to an agreement about their work partnership and its strengths – that sounds like a really positive position to be in.

  27. Despachito*

    It was so good to read that, and I am happy for you.

    It is helpful in so many ways also for the rest of us. You let us into the process of your thinking, and it helps a lot to see that even the best of us (and you seem to be one of these) can and do have serious doubts about their abilities.

    I think it must be wonderful to work for you – the world is full of manager wannabes who care more about their hyperinflated egos than for the actual work, and you are the opposite of that.

    If you doubt yourself again, please consider that it is very likely that all these wonderful qualities are so intrinsically embedded in you that you think of them as of natural things everyone has, but it is definitely not the case. The Dunning-Krueger effect.

    Best of luck to you, if I ever had a manager I wish it was you.

  28. Green Beans*

    OP, one of my favorite coworkers was a master at organization, smooth process management, managing up/smoothing ruffled feathers, etc, and it was such a valuable skillset. She was my favorite person to work with – we would always split projects and feel like we each got the better end of the deal. She one time told me she hated coming up with ideas but loved making them happen. When she left, her replacement lacked most of those skills and it *really* hurt the organization.

    I think we’re often taught to devalue those skill sets because they look so easy when done right, and they’re typically “feminine” but I’ve found that they are one of the highest-value skill sets for any project, in part because they so easily make room for people to come in and maximize use of their skill set and expertise. And you need them at high levels too, if you want to create opportunities for your team to do their best at what they’re good at.

    1. Observer*

      I think we’re often taught to devalue those skill sets because they look so easy when done right,

      This is so true. But really? They are not easy. And they are SOOO important.

  29. turquoisecow*

    OP, you’re a great boss. Seriously. You saw a guy everyone dismissed as a useless complainer and turned him into a wonderful and self-reflective person. You helped him see himself better than he did, and made the company all the better for it. Now you just need to see yourself as better than you do, to know that you have talents that Fergus and other people don’t. It sounds like you’re well on your way to doing that.

    Seriously super happy for you. And Fergus.

  30. LC*

    This makes me so happy. I love hearing the whole process and seeing the whole journey that OP has been taking since then.

    To be very honest, though, as nice as it was to read, I found myself discounting your response and the responses of the commentariat. I thought maybe I hadn’t explained myself well enough, and your response was based on a fundamental misread of the situation.

    OP, I felt that in my bones. And I am so excited for you that you went back to reconsider Alison’s advice and what the commentors said. It’s so easy to see it in other people while always having reasons that obviously that’s not the case with you. That sort of thing is internalized deep, and recognizing that you do that is the first step in overcoming it (personally, I feel that knowing something in your head the easiest step, it’s far harder to actually know it in your heart/soul/whatever and do something about it, but that first step, at least for me, absolutely needs to happen before anything else can).

    I don’t think I’ll ever not have imposter syndrome at least to some extent, but it’s definitely something that can be managed and improved. I’m so happy for your progress so far, and make sure to keep this in mind going forward. I’m inclined to thinking “well I fixed it for that one thing so I must have fixed it for everything so in this new situation, I must really actually be a failure/not deserve this/whatever” so my advice is to not fall into that trap! You are amazing and you are human and both of those things can be true at once. Don’t forget to give yourself grace and keep being kind to yourself because you deserve that.

    Wishing you well for everything, OP!

  31. Jane*

    OP – you’re the type of manager I move mountains to work for, and the type of manager I do my best work for. That is *not* a skill everyone has, and it’s absolutely a skill.

    Yes, it’s partially being “like able”; but it’s a specific type of being like able. I’ve been lucky enough to have two managers and one project manager in my career who are like this. I am in a field with a lot of expected job changes in the early career stage, have historically been able to be picky, and actively seek this out and/or leave when I can’t find it. I likely would have left my current job if it were not for that project manager.

    Do not underestimate how valuable this is.

    As someone who lacks some of the soft skills and kicks ass at some of the hard skills I definitely get frustrated with less competent people being promoted for personality traits – but that is not what you’re describing, at all.

    1. Gary Patterson's Cat*

      Exactly! Me too. I’m content being a behind the scenes player as long as it’s recognized somewhere/somehow.
      There is nothing wrong with not being as knowledgeable as some of your direct reports and that in no way makes a person a bad manager. Your reports may have very specialized skills, but it does not mean they don’t also need you to run interference with executives or clients, or help their good ideas come to light.
      These are just different mindsets and different skills.

  32. DD*

    Great update and appreciate you took the time to update us.

    I’m embarrassing excited about the quantity of updates coming.

  33. Lady Danbury*

    Excellent update OP! I’ve worked for several Ferguses and almost all of them ended up getting fired. They had amazing ideas that they weren’t able to execute due to lack of buy in from the c-suite. In the end, that lack of buy-in lead to them being ineffective.

    Being able to manage up and cultivate relationships with the c-suite are crucial skills for managers. It doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you can’t get the support to execute them. A successful manager also knows how to identify and develop talent. You’re not supposed to do it all yourself. You sound like an excellent manager and I hope that you’ll continue to lean into your strengths!

  34. Annie J*

    Every army needs it Sergeants, people who suffer along with the troops so that the troops respect them, but are able to speak to the brass.

  35. RanWithIt*

    OP I relate to you so very much and I actually am crying reading this update. I’m so glad you’ve gone on this journey and are valuing yourself more highly. You’re inspiring me to do the same.

  36. AthenaC*

    Just popping in to say that I love the framing of “I do my thing while you manage the ‘children.’ “

  37. Bookworm*

    Aw, what a great update, OP. I’m so glad it seemed to have helped (and also LOL at Fergus not wanting to manage the “children”–I can relate!). Thanks for updating us!

  38. LQ*

    I remember reading this letter as I’ve been struggling with my own situation where I think someone else should have gotten the job. This update made my eyes well up and is making me think maybe I need to reconsider too. I appreciate this question and update and I hope you know even in your questions and updates you’re helping other people OP! Don’t short change your own skills.

  39. TimeTravlR*

    Thanks for the update! I am so Fergus and you are my boss (or at least I see a lot of similarities). I love helping come up with solutions but hate dealing with the ‘children.”

  40. Gary Patterson's Cat*

    “For me, the more pernicious aspect of my imposter syndrome is I thought I was promoted not just because I’m a woman, but just because I’m likable.”

    Do not read it like that! First, being likeable (read as calm and approachable) is a skill in itself! Especially if you must deal with high-strung C-Suite executives where being patient, respectful, and diplomatic are real assets. Trust me, I do not have these sometimes. Also, do not sell yourself short if you are good at presenting ideas concisely to the executive team or to clients. The manager who hired me was so good at that kind of stuff, whereas I get flustered and become easily derailed or become too detailed. So, I’m really like your Fergus, my knowledge is best deployed as a behind the scenes player who’s good at coming up with and executing creative ideas, and great at taking care of the details, but is not so good at presenting them or being persuasive enough to sell them to senior management. Having a manager like you is a good team-up. I hope you and Fergus become the dynamic duo of your office.

  41. fiona the baby hippo*

    This may have well been in the original comments bc I know the commentariat here are so good, but also as someone who is generally good at ‘soft skills’ (and is a woman!) its easy for me to discount how things like listening, being personable, etc aren’t important or ‘come naturally’ to me. I realized in the past few years as friends would say things to me like, ‘Well it’s so EASY for you to make friends!” that while, yes, it can be NATURAL for me, and certainly uses my natural skills, I still put effort into the things I do to maintain a good relationship with the people around me, both in my personal and work life. I wondered reading your letter if these traditionally ‘feminine’ skills like good listening, sympathy, etc, are easier to discount as real skills, even when they are your own.

  42. Atalanta0jess*

    What a splendid update! And writer, thank you for that reframe on “nice” or “easy to get along with.” I am that too, and sometimes forget that it’s an important work skill.

  43. Lacey*

    This is wonderful. I’m so pleased that you were able to come around to seeing the real strengths you bring to your job!

  44. bamcheeks*

    I realized that people like me because I listen, I genuinely like other people, I’m diplomatic, I don’t lose my temper, I don’t have a big ego, and I want people to succeed.

    I’ve also realized since then that I have good judgment and I’m not afraid to make hard decisions.

    I’m about ten weeks into my first management role, and this is very much the kind of manager I’m trying to be! Well done OP– this was really useful to read.

  45. Je Suis desole*

    The original letter and the follow up have been super helpful to me. I’m in line for a promotion that I feel (or felt) convinced that my peer is more qualified for. They are really smart, more of a “take charge” personality and are much more forceful than I am. But like Fergus, my colleague is more prickly and critical and can be less diplomatic. This situation is helping me to reevaluate what my strengths are and think about why my boss is adamant that I should be the person promoted.

  46. MCMonkeyBean*

    What a great update! I’m glad you and Fergus were able to have a frank discussion about it so now you don’t have to wonder if he secretly resents this setup. It’s wonderful that you guys have figured out how your strengths work well together!

  47. Teamwork Dreamwork*

    As a self-identified Fergus type, please believe me when I say
    A. I do *not* want OP’s job, and
    B. I *adore* a good manager like OP and *require* one to operate at peak performance.

    As a culture we really need to break away from the Peter Principle (in which “employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”) I do not want to be promoted up and away from the technical work I specialize in. If I had wanted to be primarily a manager of people, I would have specialized in managing people. I would rather stay in my role with increasing pay, all while working with a manager/collaborator who has the diplomacy, authority, and strategy to take my great idea and turn it into a plan. Yes, I’m a solutions wonk, but on my own, without support, I am timeblind as heck, bamboozled by project management, struggling to prioritize requests. Like yin and yang, I need a good complementary manager who fills in my weaknesses with their strengths. Teamwork makes the dream work.

    By the way, this is my favorite letter & update of the year due to OP’s and Fergus’s character arcs. A great story in real life with a happy ending!

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