First class coach

I've been in my job for a few years, and have worked my way up. I'm now next in line for my boss's job as head of department.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Trouble is, I'm not sure I really want it.

I detect a certain guiltiness in you at contemplating turning down the ostensible honour of this promotion. Don't feel guilty - it is very healthy to think about career moves more broadly in terms of your whole life, what's important to you and what you want in the future. Questioning what you want next, instead of letting yourself be carried inexorably upwards on the corporate escalator, increases the chances that you will end up doing something at which you can really excel.

As a client of mine put it to me a few years ago, having decided to step outside the company she had worked at for more than 20 years: 'All my life I have been chosen. Now it's time for me to do the choosing.' Having met her again recently, I was gratified to discover that she is very happy with her new, portfolio career and wishes she had done it sooner.

It is all too easy to follow the paths the organisation creates for us.

There is something comforting about having one's future mapped out, although - as seems to be true in your case - this can also induce claustrophobia.

This senior job may or may not be the right thing for you, and you owe it to yourself to explore the possibilities. Start by asking yourself why this next step doesn't appeal, and try to answer as deeply and honestly as you can.

Here are some reasons for not taking a senior appointment that I most frequently encounter from those I coach: my boss is great and I could never emulate him/her; my boss is a tyrant, as are most people at his level, and I don't want to be like that; the job is dull and would take me away from the work I love; and finally, I don't want all that pressure and would prefer a more relaxed life.

The problem is, some of these are based on assumptions that seem true to you, from your current perspective looking upwards, but which may not necessarily have to be true in the future. Take the questions about the role. Depending on the culture of your organisation, you might well be able to change elements of the role and the way it is performed if you were in charge, rendering the job more in tune with your values and interests.

A client of mine recently had this dilemma. The promotion he was offered was a significant step up but would have involved moving himself and his family to an undesirable location. He decided that he would not take the job under those conditions, but suggested to his company they change the location. They are seriously considering it.

Those who have rebelled against authority in the past or have disliked being subject to rules and regulations may view the idea of becoming an authority figure as a real obstacle to taking on a leadership position, even if they suspect that they could do a better job than the present incumbent. Learning to accept seniority and to embrace the prospect of being one of 'them', a member of management rather than one of 'us', the comfortable, less challenging role of the managed, marks an important milestone in maturity and also in effectiveness.

Of course, it could be that you really want the job but are scared of discovering that you're no good at it. If so, my suggestion would be to do some work on your confidence so you at least give the job a go. If you try it and it doesn't suit you, at least you'll know and won't waste time regretting that you didn't take the chance when it was offered to you.

One way to build your confidence is to make an inventory of your skills and add to it particular instances where you have already done elements of the role well or even adequately. If you unpack what's involved and have a truthful look at the real gap between what's required and what you can already offer, you will bring some realism to your decision. My guess is that you will be pleasantly surprised about how much of your boss' job you already do or know how to do.

In the end, your career is yours to direct and, since you are the world expert in yourself, the likelihood is you will make sound decisions about your future. If you take the job, having explored the alternatives, it will be a more conscious choice. If you don't take it, even though your organisation may be disappointed, they'll be better off not employing someone who is going to be unhappy in the job and who, in all probability, will not do it as well as someone who truly wants it.

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