Do I compete against my career mentor for promotion?

Our regular column gives you the chance to seek wisdom from Just Recruitment’s workplace agony uncle. This time: what to do if potential career progression threatens a valued friendship.

Dear Tim,

I find myself in a terrible fix. Now in my early forties, I am on the cusp of achieving the sort of professional success I’ve always craved. I’ve been a middle manager for some years, with responsibility for a sizeable team of people and the opportunity to help shape the future of the organisation I work for.

But for some time, I’ve felt ready for a further promotion, and a suitable vacancy has just come up. In the hierarchy of my employer, this would take me to director level, giving me the chance to oversee a whole division of our company and lead on its strategy. I’d report directly to the chief executive, have overall responsibility for more than 150 people, and receive a very healthy increase in salary, as well as a nicer company car and enhanced pension contributions.

What’s not to like? Well, the problem is that someone else wants to have a go at applying for the promotion, and it’s someone who’s been a close friend and mentor throughout my career. This person recruited me into the company, having helped start me out in my chosen industry when I graduated 20-odd years ago. He’s been a valued colleague for a long time, and someone who I’ve always looked to for guidance and support.

Without meaning to sound arrogant, I think I’d beat him to the job if we both apply. While he’s fantastic at some aspects of our work, he doesn’t have great people-management skills or entrepreneurial instincts – both of which are crucial to success in this role.

So what do I do? Go up against him and risk losing a valued friendship if I secure the appointment? Or keep out of the race to give him a clear field? Any advice you can provide will be gratefully received. 

- Worried friend

This problem is as old as the hills, and I applaud your sensitivity in raising it. When the pupil outgrows the master, it can be a trying time for all. The taken-for-granted dynamic between you is shifting, and suddenly you’re rivals rather than mentor and mentoree. 

But you need to be realistic about all this. From the sound of things, your friend and advisor doesn’t have much chance of succeeding in his application for the director’s position, whereas you do. Maybe your career has been shaped in an era where soft skills – communication, staff management, pastoral care – are just as important as technical know-how. And perhaps your mentor is of a generation where these things matter less. 

Either way, ask yourself this, and be sure to answer as honestly as you can: if you step aside, “clearing the field” as you put it, will your friend actually secure the appointment, or will your employer recruit from elsewhere? And how will you feel when neither of you is there at the top table, shaping the future and calling the shots?

Far better for one of you to be there as the boss than neither of you. And since this person has clearly had a huge influence on your career and outlook, his contribution to your management style will be obvious. He will be there right alongside you, because he’s shaped you, even if he doesn’t have the trappings of a senior management position.

I know that’s a bitter pill to swallow, for you and especially for your friend. And he wouldn’t be human unless he felt a pang of envy if and when you score the top job. But he’ll also feel pride in your achievement, and even if there’s a bit of awkwardness in the early days, you’ll soon get over it. You’ll have to; after all, you may need to turn to him for advice, just as you always have done.

That puts a huge onus on you to manage the relationship appropriately when you secure promotion. If you are his line manager, you’ll need to set clear boundaries and expectations about the nature of your relationship. But in an era of non-hierarchical management structures, that shouldn’t be impossible. And you’ve history with this person, so you’ll both have a vested interest in making this work out for the best, whatever that may mean.

My advice, then, is simple: have a chat with your mentor, explaining that you’re going to make an application for the director’s position because it’s the right time, and you think you’re the right person for the job. If he still wishes to apply it’s down to the interview panel to judge between you. But by being up-front about your intentions, without offering any comment on his suitability for the role, or his chances of success, you’ll establish a healthy spirit of openness and cooperation.

Then let the process takes its course, secure in the knowledge that the best candidate will succeed. If that’s you, great. If it’s your friend, get ready to eat some humble pie.

And if it’s neither of you – well, you’ll have something to moan about when you next grab a beer together, won’t you?

© Copyright Just Recruitment 2018

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