Home of Your Leadership Life Coach
Do you want the corner office someday? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Mike Troiano, a partner at G20 Ventures, host of the podcast #AskTrap, and a former executive. They talk through what to do when you’re falling off the executive track, you’re moving up but don’t believe in the company’s strategy, or you have a rival who could block your path to the C-suite.
Download this podcast
Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Email your questions about your workplace dilemmas to Dan and Alison at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:
HBR: What Makes an Effective Executive by Peter Drucker — “An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used. Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the most effective chief executives in U.S. history. Similarly, some of the best business and nonprofit CEOs I’ve worked with over a 65-year consulting career were not stereotypical leaders.”
Medium: How To Be An Executive by Mike Troiano — “Back in the day you became an executive over time, carefully cultivated in the corporate hierarchy like a meat-eating houseplant. But that’s all changed now. Corporate hierarchy ain’t what it used to be, and if you go off and start a company, you get the title overnight.”
HBR: How to Get on the Shortlist for the C-Suite by Cassandra Frangos — “Rotating around the organization gives you a balance of experience. It also pressure-tests you in multiple environments and delivers a broader perspective. At Cisco, we prepare candidates for top slots by using executive assessments to identify strengths and development areas and by giving individuals strategic assignments to fill experience voids and provide greater exposure opportunities.”
HBR: What Sets Successful CEOs Apart by Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Stephen Kincaid, and Dina Wang— “Typically we see ‘take no prisoners’ CEOs last only as long as the company has no choice but to submit to shock therapy. These CEOs often get ousted as soon as the business emerges from crisis mode—they lose the support of their teams or of board members who’ve grown tired of the collateral damage. It’s no coincidence that the careers of turnaround CEOs are frequently a series of lucrative two- to three-year stints; they put out the fires and then move on to the next assignment.”
DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts and help you move forward. Today we’re answering your questions from listeners who want to be executives. Our guest is Mike Troiano. He’s a venture capitalist and a former executive and CEO. Mike, thanks for coming on the show.
MIKE TROIANO: Thanks for having me, Dan. Good to be here.
DAN MCGINN: How hard is it to identify whether somebody has the personality, the characteristics to make it into the executive suite?
MIKE TROIANO: It’s hard. There’s an expression in VC, you want to pick the right race and bet the right horse.
ALISON BEARD: What are some hallmarks of an inspiring C-suite candidate?
MIKE TROIANO: I really like people who have strong empathy for the customer that they intend to serve. After that, it’s really the ability to build a great team. A leader is someone people follow and you really look is this someone who looks for people better than them, smarter than them, more capable and finds ways for them to flourish, or is it someone with their kind of thumb on the people that report to them?
DAN MCGINN: One of the common threads in our letters today is that people are thinking ahead. The people who make it, are they that calculating or are they thinking about their career like a chess match?
MIKE TROIANO: The most important thing you want to do to get to the next level is to be effective at the level you’re at. So, it’s not like dressing. They say dress for the job you want. Yes, dress for the job you want, but perform the job you have. That said, in today’s economy we’re all responsible for our own professional development and I think it’s really important to have a sense of where you want to go and a sense of what are the capabilities, experiences, skills, relationships that you need to accumulate to get there.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s get started. Dear HBR, I am a global C-level executive in the making, settling for smaller roles for too long. I have more than 20 years of experience in my field and I’m great at what I do. But my resume makes it seem like I’m a job hopper. That’s mainly because in my early career I was a single parent and poor money manager. I chased pay rather than experience. In the past few years, my career has basically just happened to me. I took my current job because it was close to home and better for my family life and my boss is amazing. But she’s not seeking to grow the company to a level that will keep me satisfied and inspired. Coming up on three years here I feel stagnant. I realize that my current role and income are not where they should be. I thought I was making moves that would position me well financially. Go figure. How do I scale up in my career to match my degrees, certifications and years of experience? I don’t want to come across as ungrateful to my boss, but I do want to practice my craft in a larger, global organization that will allow me to grow and stretch myself. What should I do? Ambitious lady. Mike, what do you think?
MIKE TROIANO: Self-confident. That’s good. This struck me, the first thought that I had was just that this need to balance agency and loyalty. What you get hopping around in the language of the question-asker, is some degree of power over your destiny. The ability to make choices and decide what you want and I think in the overall noble effort to try and stick around and demonstrate loyalty at this firm, it feels like she’s sacrificed that fully. So, none of us have jobs in the way that my father thought about that idea. What we have are networks and gigs. And you need to be investing in those networks throughout your career and to do so, is in no way disloyal to your current employer.
ALISON BEARD: I think the real problem here is not whether she should look for new opportunities. I think she absolutely should if she feels stagnant. She wants more responsibility, she wants to move into leadership roles. I think that’s terrific and she should and shouldn’t feel disloyal to her boss. She can have a conversation with her about why she’s doing it. I feel like the real struggle might be moving where she wants to go, given a resume that doesn’t look great.
DAN MCGINN: If she really aspires to be in the C-suite, her resume right now has a lot of roles at companies that are not really putting her on the path towards that. Can her next move potentially make up for that? If she were to get into the right organization, could one job if she stayed there for two or three years overcome 20 years of kind of jumping around without a lot of intentionality?
MIKE TROIANO: I would say no.
DAN MCGINN: You’re looking for, when you do a C-suite search you’re looking for sort of full sweep of a career as opposed to what did you do the last two, three, four years?
MIKE TROIANO: Yeah and that doesn’t mean people haven’t failed or made mistakes, or gone down tangents. It’s that they have awareness of those things and they overall sum to a narrative that leads logically to whatever this next stop in the journey is. I will say that reading this letter, the only thing that indicates her to be someone who aspires to that is that she says she aspires to that. Like all the other things that seem important to her, really have less to do with that C-suite aspiration. So, I would sort of say, well why? Why do you aspire to that? Is it because it represents some tangible achievement that’s validating in some way, or are there emotional drivers behind that aspiration? My last class, my last day at HBS, I had a professor and he said something to us that I will never forget, which was you’re a group of high achievement people. Measure your achievements in life by what you sacrifice to accomplish them. And it was profoundly good advice. That at the end of the day it’s not a question of whether you want to be in the C-suite, we all do. Who doesn’t?
ALISON BEARD: I do not. [LAUGHTER]
MIKE TROIANO: Most people, a lot of people do. But the question is less so that and more are you willing to pay the price to do that? There are lots of tradeoffs involved with that kind of role. And that’s really the way to think about the question. It’s not just: Do I aspire to be at the top? Certainly. The question is are you willing to pay the price to achieve that outcome?
ALISON BEARD: How does she position herself as an attractive candidate when her resume is a little bit shaky and she’s not at the level she really wants to be at?
MIKE TROIANO: We all need to package ourselves for the opportunity we want. Be explicit and specific about the job you want to go to. Once you’ve done that then you have the ability to say, OK, what are the specific skills and experiences required to be successful in that job? What is a hiring manager for that job specifically looking for in the right person to fill that role? And then it becomes a question of how do I package my experiences, the things that I’m good at, my trials and tribulations over the course of a career? How do I package those things in a way that demonstrates my ability to meet those criteria? And it really is a packaging exercise. I mean at the end of the day I could spend my career 11 different ways. Part of your role as someone advocating for themselves and trying to advance your own career is to be able to put that together into a narrative that aligns with the narrative that a hiring manager is looking for, for a particular opportunity. So, I would say build your story from the opportunity back.
ALISON BEARD: It reminds me of pieces that we’ve published on how to onramp again after you’ve been a stay at home parent, positioning her weaknesses, the idea that she’s been in lots of different jobs as a strength. So, she has this really broad network. She’s been in lots of different organizations and I do think there’s a way to package that effectively. But I also think that not every organization is going to see her as their next rising C-suite star and so she needs to maybe temper her ambitions a tiny bit and just not get discouraged. Because it will take time to find that company that recognizes her for what she aspires to be.
DAN MCGINN: So, if we think about really tangible moves she can make here, maybe instead of saying global C-suite executive as her next step, she needs to think about aspiring small company executive. The idea that she needs to sort of scale her level and ambition to match the experience base she’s building from right now.
MIKE TROIANO: Boy, I hate to sort of limit people in that way. We can all do whatever we want to do. That’s one of the great things about capitalism such as it is.
DAN MCGINN: I’m an aspiring global supermodel right now, so. [LAUGHTER]
MIKE TROIANO: I aspire to a think full head of luxurious hair. I guess I’m pushing back a little bit on whether that is the right aspiration for anyone, to just say that I want to be a global C-suite executive as opposed to I want to lead an organization that does, that achieves some outcome. What do you want to achieve? Why do you want to achieve that? Are you willing to pay the price necessary to do so? I think those are important questions for someone at this stage of career. It sounds like maybe she’s struggling a little bit to try and figure out what’s next. I would say defining it in more specific and actionable terms is the first step towards figuring out what’s right for her to do next.
DAN MCGINN: So, Alison what’s our advice to this woman?
ALISON BEARD: So, we want to assure her that everyone should maintain their own career and manage their own destiny. So, it is not disloyal for her to keep her network open and to look for new opportunities. As she’s looking she should evaluate all aspects of other possible jobs against her current situation. The size and ambition of the organization, her boss, the impact that it will have on her family life, not just pay. When she’s interviewing she should also realize that she needs to package herself. Try to figure out a way to market her weaknesses, the fact that she’s had lots of jobs as strengths. So, we think it’s great that she’s aiming for the C-suite, but we’re not sure that she’ll necessarily be able to jump there immediately and it’s possible that a role in a global organization isn’t realistic. So, we just advise her to be patient and to take a step back and just think about exactly what she wants to do and why and find the organization that’s right for her.
DAN MCGINN: Onward. Dear HBR, I’m a young senior manager at a struggling mid-sized firm. I’ve been promoted quickly in three years, partly due to my good work, but honestly also due to the company’s troubles. Recently I took a great new leadership role. Then the next day, I was handed a layoff target and knew unreasonable growth targets. My team sees me as an executioner. The C-suite here lacks vision for success and isn’t willing to hear me out regarding the challenges we face. Their plan is to repeat the same actions that have been leading us to dismal results. I don’t want to leave my new team. Still, I’m considering looking for another job. I feel set up to fail and I’m worried about my own career. What do you think? Should I lean into the current opportunity, or should I actively seek other employment? My job is way too hard to do both well.
MIKE TROIANO: Well my first thought is competent people shouldn’t have to work for a company they don’t believe in. The whole point of going through whatever you’ve gone through to get to this point is that you have some degree of flexibility that you’re not sort of stuck, frozen into this company where you just, you don’t buy into whatever they’re trying to achieve. That seems like just the sort of, you die a little bit each day in that kind of role. I don’t buy this idea that you can’t do both well to that. Find a way to invest some of your time and energy looking out into the world to understand what’s happening and building the relationships that will advance you in your career.
ALISON BEARD: I completely agree with you. The first reaction that I had to reading this letter was you are on a sinking ship and you do not believe in leadership. And another VC that I worked with quite a bit, Jeffrey Bussgang says that one of the first things that he looks for when he’s investing in a company is the management team. And if you don’t believe in the management team, it’s not worth your money and it’s certainly not worth our letter writer’s time.
DAN MCGINN: I’m going to mostly disagree with both of you.
ALISON BEARD: Wow.
DAN MCGINN: He should be looking for another job, but it might take a while and in the interim, this is actually a great opportunity for him. And I’ve seen instances in which people on sinking ships have actually advanced their career.
MIKE TROIANO: I just want to react to that. It’s a cliché that in difficulty lies opportunity, but it’s a cliché for a reason. So, I buy your argument. I think it’s critically important though that he at least understand where people are coming from. There’s no harder conversation to have in business than we won’t be requiring your services anymore. And I think if you’re going to take that step as a manager, you have almost a moral obligation to give people an honest reason why you’re taking this action. It sounds like the layoffs that he has to do are not really performance related, but they relate to some aspect of the strategy or shift. And he needs to really understand that so he can communicate it to people who are in a really hard spot. And he owes those people a fair and honest rationale for why the company’s taking these actions. And if he doesn’t understand it himself, he’s not in a position to provide that.
DAN MCGINN: I’ve never fired anyone or laid anyone off, so I have no firsthand experience at this. At the same time, for our listener, I’d argue that there’s large chunks of the economy in which people are working where they don’t believe in the strategy of the company, the company’s, you know, it would be great if everybody were working at successful companies where they were heading in the right direction and there were lots of faith in the leadership vision. I think that’s idealistic. A lot of people work at companies that are like Dunder Mifflin. That’s the reality.
ALISON BEARD: Wow. That’s a really negative perspective.
MIKE TROIANO: Holy buzzkill.
ALISON BEARD: I agree with you. I think you have to find something to love in your work or on your team to make it worthwhile, or you need to get paid a ton of money. So, I feel as if, if he doesn’t have any of that, he’s not enjoying the work because he’s having to fire all these people, and then with the skeleton team he has left, he’s trying to hit unrealistic targets. He doesn’t believe in the vision and he doesn’t mention the fact that his salary is knock-it-out-of-the-park, and he seems to think that he does have other options. I just feel like that might be the way to go.
DAN MCGINN: So, it would be OK for him to stay if he’s being paid a ton?
ALISON BEARD: I mean it’s a factor.
MIKE TROIANO: But boy, you spend a lot of time doing whatever you do at work. If it’s something that you don’t, you honestly don’t believe in or don’t care about at some level, or particularly if you’re suffering, inflicting the challenges of that strategy on other human beings, I just got to believe that takes its toll. And the ancillary benefits that overcome that limitation, boy they got to be pretty compelling to stick around.
ALISON BEARD: One thing I will agree with you on Dan, he does say it’s a great new leadership role. It sounds like it’s maybe the first time he’s had a chance to manage a team. And so, if there’s learning that is one other thing that can keep you in a job. If you’re still learning and growing and it’s going to position you well for your next position, wherever that is, whether it’s at an organization, another organization or in this one, I think that is not a bad thing to stay for.
DAN MCGINN: I may be projecting here. So, I came to HBR from an organization that was failing. Because it was failing in downsizing, I got promoted into an editing job and if I hadn’t stayed there for a year after getting that promotion, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this job. So, I knew when this was going down that I wasn’t going to be there for five years. I wasn’t going to be there for three years. But I definitely got the sense that hey, this title and the experience that I’m going to get for a short period of time will definitely give me a different trajectory when I jump from here. And it proved to be the smart decision.
MIKE TROIANO: I would ask whether you would have stuck around in that job if the failures of strategy above you had serious negative consequences for the people below.
DAN MCGINN: That’s an interesting question. So, I didn’t have to personally lay anybody off, but I certainly saw friends and I was kind of a beneficiary of layoffs in a certain way. I was taking jobs of people that were getting jettisoned. It’s definitely a complex set of emotions. I was job hunting, but I knew that it was going to take a while and for the time it took, performing this higher level job was going to be to my benefit.
ALISON BEARD: That sort of brings me to a point I wanted to raise. There’s a huge emotional fallout, not just for the people leaving, but for this team that remains. So, how do you energize that group of people to do well, to perform when they’ve just seen half of their colleagues laid off?
MIKE TROIANO: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You don’t want to give the people who remain a sense that you’re amputating the finger one knuckle at a time. So, you have to at least be able to manufacture in your own mind some sense of mission and forward progress and help people understand how the difficult choices the company has just made and implemented against the people they used to have lunch with, at the end of the day is the right thing for the collective at some level. And again, I think it’s really hard to do that if you don’t buy into that strategy yourself. You know, it’s a tricky thing. There’s a new word I heard, workism. It’s this sense that I will derive my fulfillment and self-actualization through the work that I do. This is a relatively modern kind of phenomenon and I may be revealing myself as a closet workist in this view, but I do think that you should expect more from your job than just compensation and some level of peer relationship.
ALISON BEARD: The flip side of the workism argument though is that people shouldn’t act this way and that they can find other places to derive meaning and have fun, and enjoy their lives and just view a job as a job. So, our letter writer could take that tack.
MIKE TROIANO: That’s right. Needs to look within himself perhaps and see if he’s a workist or a lifestylist. At the end of the day it’s, the most important thing is just that you can be in your kayak at 3:30, good for you. But that’s not executive track. Executives are workists in this economy and at the end of the day, it’s a choice.
ALISON BEARD: So Dan, what’s the takeaway?
DAN MCGINN: So, we split a little bit on this one. Mike and Alison feel strongly that if the situation is, our listener doesn’t agree with the company strategy, thinks that the company’s heading in the wrong direction, has tried to communicate as best he can with the leadership about these views and not gotten any kind of listening, or any kind of response that it’s time to look for a new gig. It’s just going to be a negative environment. It’s probably going to take a sort of emotional toll on our listener and that he should just get out. Alison did offer one caveat that if he’s paid a lot of money, maybe it’s OK to stick around.
ALISON BEARD: Or learning.
DAN MCGINN: Or learning. [LAUGHTER] But mostly it’s about the money. I had a slightly more nuanced view. I saw this as a both/and kind of problem. He should absolutely start job hunting, but he should realize that it could take a while and during the time that it does take a while, there could be an opportunity here at least to perform a bigger job. This overall negative situation could set him up for a higher job because the time he’s going to be spending as a senior manager here at a young age. And that even if this is not a situation anybody would want to go on for a long time, from a resume standpoint, if not from an emotional standpoint, the time he’s spending in this unpleasant position could have some net benefits for him. Did I characterize your position fairly at least?
MIKE TROIANO: Well, you implied that we lacked nuance, but that’s a fair summary.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s go to the last question. Dear HBR, I’m a newly promoted manager two levels away from my CEO. I was especially glad to see this long-planned advancement go through because my company has seen a lot of change recently. Both my direct boss and her boss moved onto other organizations right before I was promoted. We have new leadership and I feel energized. This is a big opportunity for me to work more directly with management and demonstrate my own leadership abilities. Here’s my hang up. There’s another more senior colleague in the same functional area as me who seems to be vying to manage our team. We both report directly to the same C-suite executive. But this woman has a more senior title and decades of work experience on me. Although not at all in the area I lead. My boss has included her in our regular team check-in meetings. He mentioned that she’ll serve as a resource. He even said that she might be a proxy for him in the future if other pressing issues come up. I don’t want to be seen as an obstructionist, or non-inclusive, but I also don’t want to fall into any traps by including this colleague in too many meetings or decisions. I fear that could lead to her making a case to formally step in and take over our team with me reporting directly to her. My instinct tells me to do the bare minimum and not invite this person to opine on our work. I know I need to tread carefully, particularly since my boss has explicitly invited her to share input. How would you walk this tightrope?
MIKE TROIANO: Well, I think she’s missing some information which is what was the boss’s intention in creating this semi-ambiguous relationship? I think it’s perfectly acceptable for her to talk with the manager and say listen, I’m a little anxious about some of the ambiguity in the chain of command here. And I want to understand my role vis-a-vis this other person and how do you see her helping us be more effective, helping me be better at my job? Is there a particular weakness or limitation that you envision her shoring up on my part? So, I’d just like to understand what that is. I think it’s really important to understand what was the intention of the other person, particularly when the other person is a superior in this case. If you have concerns from there then at least they’re informed concerns as opposed to this situation which is partly anxiety caused by this other person. But it seems like some of the anxiety is because she’s not exactly sure what her manager wants in creating this ambiguous relationship.
DAN MCGINN: Our letter writer says that she’s thinking about not inviting the rival to meetings, to sort of quietly take steps to try to subvert her. How dangerous does that seem as a tactic?
MIKE TROIANO: I think that’s a mistake. Only because you’ve gotten specific requests from the manager to incorporate this woman and find ways to leverage her expertise. And running counter to that only risks painting you as someone difficult and non-productive.
ALISON BEARD: We should reassure our letter writer though that these feelings of anxiety or even envy at this colleague who seems to be in the boss’s good graces, is totally natural. And studies show people when they feel this way, either disparage or distance themselves from that person. So, it is completely natural, but I think you’re right. It’s a mistake to react that way. What she needs to do is definitely talk to her boss. Also, just think about what she brings to the table, the value she adds. So, she has a bit of competence going in. And then try to collaborate with this woman.
MIKE TROIANO: I agree completely. This is a totally human response and as such, the manager should have anticipated it. Like I blame the manager in a way for creating this situation where she’s on sort of shaky ground. I’m not sure what the deal is. So, 100 percent legit on her, but the shame on him.
DAN MCGINN: If our letter writer approaches the boss and tries to have a candid conversation about this, the way you suggest Mike, isn’t there a chance that the boss isn’t going to put cards on the table? If the boss is thinking about maybe relegating our letter writer to a less powerful role, or making other changes that are going to be negative, might the boss just kind of be vague or sort of say, well we’re going to see how this evolves. I could imagine a less than 100 percent candor in that kind of interaction. Is that something the listener needs to be aware of?
ALISON BEARD: I feel like there’s also a danger in having that conversation that she’s showing a little bit of weakness. So, I think it does have to be done really carefully.
MIKE TROIANO: Always. There’s always costs and benefits to this kind of dialogue. People are smart and have good intuition about other people more often than not, particularly professional people in this way. And so, yes it’s entirely possible depending on the way you ask the question that the manager may be, get a little cute in terms of the way they spin things, or the way they talk about it, but usually you can kind of see through the, between the lines, if you will. And you’ll know more than you know now. Even if you have to make leaps of inference based on what they say, the way they say it and what they don’t say to understand their true intentions. So, I feel like you’re generally in a better position having had the conversation than you are not knowing.
DAN MCGINN: I wonder if our letter writer, in trying to figure out what kind of behavior she’s going to show in this situation, needs to have sort of the possibility in the back of her mind which she’s raised directly in the letter, this rival of mine might be my boss in a few months and anything I do should keep that in mind.
MIKE TROIANO: Yeah, that’s only prudent. And I think that’s probably the next conversation. Once you understand the larger context of the manager’s intention, trying to reach out to this other person, to make sure that that relationship is productive, is probably the right next step.
ALISON BEARD: I think even if this person isn’t going to become her boss, she needs to learn to work well with her as a peer, understand what strengths she brings to the table, even learn from her in some respect. How does she go about getting over her worry and building bridges with this woman?
MIKE TROIANO: Yeah. I would say not by masking her true feelings. One of my kids is an actor and one of the things I’ve learned about acting is it’s not about pretending really well that you said, it’s about making yourself said. And so, I think a genuine, authentic effort to understand what does this other woman bring to the table that I lack? What can I get from them either in my own professional development or in the pursuit of my objectives? Make a good faith effort to try and figure that out. And once you’ve made that effort you can usually find some place to collaborate. Some way for, to work together for mutual benefit.
DAN MCGINN: Adam Grant likes to talk about the fact that rivalries in the workplace can sometimes be really productive for both parties. It makes you work a little bit harder. It sort of, there’s a chemistry that happens. This can create better performance.
MIKE TROIANO: I think that’s right. I think there are two flavors of rivalry. Productive rivalry which is what you’re citing, and unproductive rivalry. And I think policing that and making sure that you stay on top of that is the responsibility of the rivals. And you want to make sure that you’re seen as holding up your end of that bargain and I think if you can do that, absolutely. A little healthy competition never hurt anybody.
ALISON BEARD: Have you, have either of you ever seen people go from office rivals to best buds who help each other and have each other’s backs?
DAN MCGINN: I haven’t seen anybody go from rival to best buds, but I’ve certainly seen examples in which rivals can collaborate successfully on projects and benefit each other as opposed to sort of tearing each other apart. So, I think that professional collaboration is a completely reasonable outcome to hope for in this.
ALISON BEARD: So, maybe she should find a particular project to work on very closely with this woman?
MIKE TROIANO: Yeah, I think respect is the bridge between those two states of being with another person. Every sales organization in the world has regional managers that are in constant competition with one another and that dynamic can be very productive for the company that employs them. I found when those people have good working relationships it’s because they respect each other. So, it’s important to have that.
DAN MCGINN: Mike we know that the listener has to go to regular check-in meetings where this rival is also there. Sometimes the boss will be there. Sometimes he won’t. Meetings seem like they could be a particularly dangerous environment for conflict to be apparent to other people through body language, or through just the dialogue. What would your advice be to our listener as she goes into these meetings where people will have the ability to observe what she’s thinking and how she’s interacting with this person?
MIKE TROIANO: I think one of the ways to rise above the political moment is just to be explicit about what you’re trying to accomplish in a meeting. Being thoughtful as you go in about what are we trying to achieve here, and put that objective kind of on the other side of the table. So, rather than head to head kind of conflict dynamic, you want to make it so you’re both kind of on the same side of the conference table and the enemy, the opportunity, the whatever, the focus is something that’s a third party. And how do we work together to accomplish that?
DAN MCGINN: Whenever somebody aspires to the C-suite they know that they face this funnel that a lot of people are sort of working their way up the organization to these relatively few spots. Do you think that dynamic is influencing the sense of envy and the negative feelings in this situation?
MIKE TROIANO: Always. I work with a lot of startups as a VC and I think one of the benefits of a company that’s growing fast is it tends to create new avenues of opportunity and new ways to express whatever your talents and gifts, and proclivities are. It’s much harder to do that in a more static company or company where, because those hard funnels I think are more prevalent in companies that are lower growth, or that are stuck in a certain area. The good news and the bad news is I think there are very fewer and fewer steady state companies. We live in a context of tremendous change in the world and I think for a business to survive it has to be in a constant state of evolution. And that tends to create new opportunities and avenues. So, when you find yourself in that sense of kind of zero-sum game, look for ways to create a new game. And that idea might be something that helps the letter writer as well. Where are the avenues for me to pursue whatever my own aspiration is? Maybe it’s in the context of this one opportunity inside the organization, but being more thoughtful about other places that I can contribute may expand the scope of my responsibility and may reveal new opportunities for advancement that I wasn’t even aware of in my current role.
DAN MCGINN: So, Alison, what’s our advice?
ALISON BEARD: So, we think that she should start by having a conversation with her boss. What is his intention in getting the colleague more involved in her work? If she better understands what he’s after that might ease some of her anxiety. We think it’s a mistake to try to exclude or undermine this colleague. She needs to show that she’s collaborating. We think she should actually build bridges to the woman. She needs to figure out what she brings to the table and appreciate it, while also highlighting her own strengths. They should find ways to work productively together. And especially in meetings, she wants to focus on shared objectives. She does feel that her organization is sort of a zero-sum game. We think that she should look for a new game, new opportunities, other areas that she can grow and excel beyond this woman’s purview.
DAN MCGINN: Mike, thanks for coming on the show.
MIKE TROIANO: It was great being here guys. Thank you.
DAN MCGINN: That’s Mike Troiano. He’s a partner at the venture capital firm G20 Ventures and his advice podcast is called #AskTrap. Thanks to the listeners who wrote us with their questions. Now we want to know your questions. Send us an email with your workplace challenge and how we can help. The email address is DearHBR@HBR.org.
ALISON BEARD: On our next episode we’ll be talking about unwanted roles with Francesca Gino.
FRANCESCA GINO: There is the resistance to telling the person who proposed it that you don’t want it, but then you take on roles that you really end up hating.
DAN MCGINN: I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Thanks for listening to Dear HBR:.