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I’m in over my head

I work in the marketing department of a small company, and was recently promoted to manager. My old job has since been filled, and this new person reports to me. My boss used to be the director of marketing, but he left months ago, and has not been replaced. This means that I’m now basically the lead for all of the company’s promotional efforts; nearly every department relies on me and my associate for support. It’s also my first time managing someone.

My concern is that I’m not sure I’m ready for this level responsibility. My new boss is a vice president, and while she’s great, she doesn’t have any background in marketing. I feel I have nowhere to turn if I need advice or guidance. I’m also becoming increasingly convinced that I don’t have enough experience to provide my new associate with the support/direction he needs. What I’d really like to do is ask my supervisor to hire another marketing director—someone who can focus on overall strategy, and who I might use as a sounding-board—but I’m worried this would reflect poorly on me. I’d love to prove myself up to the challenge, but as things stand I feel that the best thing for me, and the company, would be to look for a new marketing director. Should I suggest this, or simply power through it and hope for the best? I feel overwhelmed, and worry about burnout. – Name withheld

Do not—I repeat—DO NOT ask your employer to hire someone else.

Or at least not if you hope to have any future with this organization whatsoever.

Whether it is by circumstance or design, the job of marketing director seems to be yours now. It is unfortunate that you don’t yet feel up for it, but communicating your doubts, while admirable, will only ensure that your employer will always, always, always think twice before giving you additional responsibility.

The mistake you make is assuming that you and your organization’s interests are aligned here. As you say, you feel a new marketing director would be the ‘the best thing for me, and the company.’

But that’s not really true, is it?

Yes – your employer stands to gain from the additional expertise and competence that a more experienced marketer (and manager) might offer. And you’d obviously benefit from having a mentor to lean on, as well as one more body with which to share your department’s workload.

But from your employer’s perspective, they already have a new marketing director: You. The work seems to be getting done (although perhaps not to the quality you’d like to see), and no one has complained about your performance (at least not yet). Why then go to the trouble—much less incur the cost—of hiring (and paying) someone else to do the job? You could burn out, as you fear – or go down in a big ball of flames. But either way, your organization will have to hire a new marketing director anyway. Why not see if you can handle it first?

Understand that none of this is done out of malice. Undoubtedly, your employer genuinely wants you to succeed. But again, that’s mostly because it’s good for them, and their bottom line. (Something about all this makes me think you haven’t been given a raise commensurate with your new responsibilities.) You’re being tested, in other words, although your employer would probably say ‘challenged’ or ‘pushed outside your comfort zone’. They may not have thought it through all that well, and it might not have come about in the way you hoped it would, but this is often just how hierarchies work.

So what should you do?

Start by asking for the title of ‘Director of Marketing’. I know it’s not what you want, at least not yet, but hear me out.

For one thing, it’s a professionally appropriate way to force your employer to clarify things. Do they intend for you to be the new director? Maybe they’re actively looking to replace your old boss, and they just didn’t bother to tell you – an outcome it seems you’d welcome. If they’ve decided instead to throw you into the deep end because it’s the path of least resistance, this will force them to own up to it.

Don’t worry, though. They probably won’t actually give you the title. Were they to do that, they’d almost certainly be compelled to pay you accordingly. (This is also how hierarchies work.) Again, I suspect part of the calculation here is to get you do the director’s job for cheap. Asking will nevertheless reflect well on you. It suggests you’re the hard-working, motivated and ambitious employee they want you be, not the shrinking violet who wishes they’d just hire someone else.

Having put your employer in this slightly uncomfortable position, now come to their rescue by offering to accept the title of ‘Acting Director’. This works to your advantage for several reasons:

(1) It avoids the pay issue. You can magnanimously agree to remain at your current salary while their search continues, or until you are formally promoted.

(2) You can use it to better control your workload. For example, you can legitimately claim you need to check in with your own boss (that inexperienced VP) before taking on new projects, or rearranging your priorities. After all, you’re just the ‘Acting Director’. Explain to your colleagues that these decisions are just not up to you, and that you’d hate to overstep your role.

(3) If things do turn out poorly, and you somehow find yourself in need of a new job, you’ll have a flattering few lines and title to add to your resume. No need for your own career to suffer simply because your current employer doesn’t have its act together. It’s not going to come to this, mind you; I can all but guarantee it. As motivated as they may be to avoid hiring a new marketing director, they’re even more motivated to keep you. You seem like the only one in the marketing department who has a clue. That’s your power here.

(4) Finally, whether it works out or not, you’ll be gaining valuable experience for whenever you do feel ready to be marketing director, wherever that is.

Got it?

Finally, you say you don’t feel ready to manage someone yet. Believe it or not, this is the easy part. All you have to do is:

Be the manager that you would want in this situation.

Be frank with your new associate about what you feel your strengths—and limitations—are. Let them know that you don’t feel as experienced as you’d like, or as they perhaps deserve. But assure this person you are determined to do your absolute best anyway – that you’ll support them in their work, and whatever you do lack in experience you’ll more than make up for with dedicated effort, and a commitment to helping them be the best employee they can be.

Then the two of you—working together—can begin to come up with a plan for dealing with the enormous workload you’ve been saddled with, and the daunting challenges you both now face.

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