The Boss’s Job

Very often it’s the one we most covet.  We look at the person immediately above us on the corporate ladder and think we could do that job.  We want that job.

This is especially true for the young and ambitious.  Early in your career when you’re eager to take the next step, make more money, and acquire more responsibility, it’s not unusual to begin to see the boss not as an ally to your success, but a roadblock.

But it can happen to any of us, any time in our career.  Those who are especially ambitious have their sights set on jobs well above their boss.  In that case one can view their manager like a car traveling at 55 mph in the left lane on the highway; a momentary nuisance that we plan to speed past as soon as traffic permits.

As a manager this doesn’t bother me in the least.  Better to have people working for you who are hungry and ambitious, they tend to work harder and go the extra mile.  Also, I can relate well to such people because that was me early in my career.

The best bosses I’ve had were never threatened by another person’s ambition.  They taught me that the role of a leader is to create more leaders, not more followers.  They take pride in watching people they’ve managed grow and go on to do great things. 

Having said that, it’s been many years since I wanted my boss’s job.  When I was the CMO of two large sales organizations and reported to the head of the division, I was never that interested in getting my boss’s job. And for the record, the same is true in my current CMO role.  It’s not because my ambition has receded, quite the contrary. Rather it is directed in other directions besides up. 

Looking at our careers as a ladder to be climbed is extremely limiting because there are only two directions one can go – up or down.  I prefer more choices than two, especially if one of them is bad.  As I’ve written before, the better metaphor for me is a jungle gym.  It’s sturdier in the wind, offers a variety of directions to explore, and way more fun to spend time on than a ladder. 

Also, a jungle gym is a much more realistic reflection of how your career is likely to go.  Rare is the person who climbs straight to the top, most careers are full of detours and side trips.  Often these unexpected turns make the most difference in the long run.

Ambition and self-assurance go together.  To want the boss’s job is to believe that you are ready for it, perhaps do it even better.  That’s a good thing.  However, such ambition can be counterproductive, even harmful, to one’s career if it’s not tempered with ample humility.  The reason you’re not the boss may not be just because someone else is sitting in the chair.  You may have serious gaps in your game that preclude you from getting the job someday.  If you’re not humble enough to acknowledge it and seek out ways to improve, you likely never will get what you most covet.

And, most importantly, if your vision and ambition only extend to the chair right above you, you’re missing the best parts of the ride.

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