Should You Work Hard to Make Your Boss Look Good?

She’s brilliant. She’s ambitious. She’s demanding. With her cape flowing behind her, while she’s leaping tall rungs on the corporate ladder in a single bound.  And she promises to take you with her. Your rewards are waiting in a pot of gold on the other side of her glorious rainbow. But there’s a price, right? Long hours. Someone else getting the kudos for your ingenuity and grit. Are the titles Protégé, Understudy, Successor, Right Hand Man really enough for you?

In the beginning and middle of many of our careers, we find ourselves laboring in the shadow of another. One of the shrewdest moves you can make as an up-and-comer is to hitch your wagon to someone else’s bight star until your can stand at a career crossroads and ponder, “I’ve learned as much as I can from following this person. Should I remain, and continue to invest in their impact, or is it time for me to forge my own way?

Should I stay or should I go now?

Should I stay or should I go now?

If I go, there will be trouble

And if I stay it will be double

So come on and let me know

                                                         – The Clash

Scenario 1: Your Calling to Be “Second”

Are you familiar with this drawing embedded here? It’s called “Praying Hands” by a German printmaker named Albrecht Durer, one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Do you know the story behind that image? Some have argued it’s apocryphal, but the tale bears repeating for our purposes. All of his life, Durer had dreamt of studying under a master painter, so he went away to school. While at art school, he met another aspiring artist, Franz Knigstein, who happened to be a few years older. They struck up a fast friendship, and eventually became roommates. After a couple of months, the two gents realize things aren’t working out. Because they are always studying art, they aren’t able to work to pay the bills. They are literally starving artists. One day, Franz says, “Look, one of us is going to have to get a job doing menial labor in order to support the other person while he goes to school.” 

Albrecht knew it was the only way, so he volunteered, but Franz refused. “I should be the one to work, because I am much older than you, and besides, you’re a better artist.” Franz starts working in the goldmines. Albrecht is empowered to study, and becomes, after a couple of years, a promising artist, but something devastating has happened. All of the manual labor over years gave his friend arthritis. His joints are so swollen and wracked with pain that he can’t even pick up a paintbrush anymore. He’s ruined as an artist. Well, one day Albrecht returns home with the wonderful news that he has sold a painting and has made enough cash so that Franz will never have to work again, but when he pushes open the door to their apartment, he see his friend kneeling by the table in prayer, hands folded, asking God to bring blessing on his good friend, Albrecht. Moved by the compassion and sacrifice of his friend, Albrecht took a mental picture of those worn, arthritic, servant hands. And he later painted them.

Durer went on to paint great works of art that taught an illiterate church population about the stories of the Bible. His friend went on into obscurity. Who had the greater impact? Who better lived their calling? I don’t know. And you know what?  It doesn’t matter. Sometimes you are fortunate to find yourself working for a truly good and talented leader who needs exactly the skills, temperament and determination you possess in order to be achieve remarkable results. If this business maven respects you, listens to your perspective and is willing to share in the rewards, sometimes the backseat of the rocket ship to success is the noblest of professions. It requires humility, and sometime some stark honesty: “Can we accomplish more together, with me in a supporting role, than I could accomplish on my own at the point?” You can make it possible for your boss to win, and together the two of can travel to new vistas that neither of you could have climbed alone.

Scenario 2: Your Calling to Eclipse

You might want to hang in there with a high-achieving boss, because you never know what could happen. First of all, that boss may exit stage-left for unforeseen reasons. The great composer Leonard Bernstein, had to step up when his up Carnegie Hall mentor, Bruno Walter, fell ill on Nov. 14, 1934.  In the 1950’s, actress and understudy, Shirley McLaine, was thrust into the limelight when the leading star of the Broadway show broke her ankle. Tom Brady wears seven Super Bowl rings on his fingers, in part, because he had to replace the highly-competent quarterback, Drew Beldsoe, in 2001. Remember what happened to Steve Jobs and Tim Cook?

According to a study of the Society of Human Resource Management, only about 21% of companies have formal succession plans in place. That’s why, at Emergent Execs, we stress the importance of management continuity. Usually, when a lynchpin leader suddenly retires, bolts for another company or otherwise exits a role, an org looks to the best performer on the team who has notably contributed to the group’s success.  As a high potential leader, sometimes the smart play is to bide your time, and learn as much as you can from your direct supervisor until the spot above you opens up.

A second scenario is that new opportunities and a new era may cause you to leap ahead of the boss you admire. Newton famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Plato wrote prolifically, while Socrates published nothing. Aristotle surpassed them both, without having to drink a drop of hemlock! Stella Adler taught the Stanislavski Method to both Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, and only posthumously got her star on the Walk of Fame. Gopal Krishna Gokale mentored Mahatma Gandhi. Have you ever seen a poster of Gokale, or heard him quoted?

Learn what you can from your boss. Take note of their strengths and leadership gaps. Ask for ride-alongs when they take important meetings. Inquire why and how they did things. Raise your hand to volunteer for stretch projects. Do your work with excellence. Some day, either in your current company or in another, circumstances may call upon you to step onto their shoulders and see further than anyone could have imagined.

Questions to Consider Before Bailing on a Rockstar Boss

If your boss is on the rise, or has even plateaued, there’s no clear-cut formula for knowing when it is time to exit the team, and seek your own fortunes elsewhere. Here are some questions to ponder before doing so.

1.      Have I learned the institutional knowledge, skills and competencies to be great at my supervisor’s job? Do they still have something to teach me?

2.      Does my boss take the opportunity to pass on hard-won wisdom in our one-on-one meetings or personal interactions? 

3.      Does my supervisor truly value my contributions, or do they treat me like I am a means to an end?

4.      Can I make a bigger impact and find greater satisfaction as the point leader?

5.      Have I hit a ceiling in my current role, and there is no foreseeable vertical move for me?

Maybe Get Some Outside Perspective

You never know, sometimes the lever that moves the world is actually the person behind the scenes, the second-in-command. And with some frequency, that individual, through surprising circumstances or intentional career-pathing, takes on even more substantial roles than their trusted mentor. Still other times, the record-breakers, prize-winners and true pioneers reach the inarguable conclusion that their time of preparation has concluded, and their moment of destiny lies in a leap of faith into something new. 

At Emergent Execs, we’re here to to be your confidential sounding board and coach as you chart your own path forward.

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