In managing our careers, all of us need mentoring, coaching, advice, and a little bit of wisdom from those who have been there and done that. Sometimes, we can get all of that by reading about what iconic leaders do or have done. More frequently, most of us get the most insight from those closest to us - our families, friends, boss's, co-workers, and even those who work for us. Most of these people aren't famous and probably never will be.
During my own career, almost all of the best advice and insights I have been fortunate to have received have come from these sources. Periodically in this column, I like to impart some of those insights. But because they have come from people not named Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Richard Branson, unfortunately that advice can tend to stay within small circles.
Here's my attempt to expand that circle on something as our careers.
A Potentially Familiar Situation
Many of us may have found ourselves in a situation at some point in our careers where we look up our boss and think to ourselves: "I could do her job."
Even if we like our boss, sometimes on days where we are feeling particularly good about ourselves (and maybe particularly badly about the opportunities we feel we aren't getting in our current company), we might also think to ourselves: "I can do his job better than he can."
Personally, I can site more than one time in my own career where I felt this way. And who knows how many people who worked for me looked up and said, "What's that guy doing? I could totally do his job."
Thinking those things doesn't make us egotistical or arrogant. But it might make us a little less patient and informed than we think we are. Ironically, my best insight on this topic came from someone who used to work for me - and was also a good friend - who ended up in my role when I left a company. Based on his somewhat painful experience moving into my role, here's what he now tells all of his people:
"If you think you can do your boss's job better than your boss can, you probably don't really know what your boss's job is. And that means you're not ready to do your boss's job."
We only know the part of our boss's job we see
One of the biggest mistakes my friend came to realize he had made was that his perception that he could do my job was based only on the part of my job to which he had visibility.
What he came to find out quickly was that there was another whole part to the job that he was essentially being shielded from - politics, higher level leadership meetings and dynamics, broader cross-functional needs, and other fun stuff. In hindsight, as a leader I could have done a better job preparing him for the next level by not shielding him from those things. But I was young in my career, too, and that's probably a topic for another article.
Regardless of my own leadership mistakes at the time, for any of us thinking that we can do our boss's job, we need to be careful to not make that determination based on what we perceive to be our boss's job when we really do have a limited vantage point. It's an easy mistake to make. The bottom line is that what you see your boss do is never the whole picture of what his or her boss is asking him or her to do.
So what should you do?
If you're in a situation where you are feeling stuck on the ladder because you're not being given the chance to do your boss's job, the most important thing you can do is to try to learn as much as you can about what your boss's job really is (beyond what you see day to day). It's not about reading the job description, either.
It's about getting real exposure to that next level up. Even if you work for a company who doesn't have any formal way for you to get that exposure, many bosses will be happy to help you see more of the role. They might even be generous enough to let you do parts of it they particularly don't like in the name of your development and exposure.
And if you aren't on the best of terms with your boss, you can talk to mentors either within the company or outside of it who have held those level roles. They can offer insight around what you aren't seeing.
When I personally did this at all points in my career, I found myself just slightly more patient to get to that next level. And once I got to the point where I wasn't quite sure if I could actually do my boss's job better than he or she could based on a true understanding of the role, ironically that's when I knew I was ready for that job.