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TL;DR: The Department Director doesn't trust/believe myself or the Program Manager and is actively demeaning (though possibly out of ignorance rather than true malice), and this is putting the project and the company in danger of going under. Neither one of us wants to resign and let the project fail, but the stress is debilitating and if something doesn't change soon, it's going to fail anyway.

Are there any things we can do to try to salvage the situation?


Background: I (34m) am the lead engineer for the biggest active project at a ~200 person high-technology startup in the USA. This isn't the largest project I've been responsible for in my career and not my first time leading people, but it is the first time with "lead" officially in my job title. The Project Manager (33f), who is functionally my boss, was previously in the top leadership of a smaller startup in a different tech industry. The Department Director (mid-fifties male) has a more traditional background, having worked many years in a couple of the established giants in this industry. The three of us have been with this company for a little over 2 years. The CEO (mid-forties male) inherited the company from the founder many years ago and, though he claims to have an engineering background, seems to have a much higher opinion of his abilities than is reasonable.

The PM and I get on very well; I feel she's doing an admirable job managing this project and most of the other PMs and engineers agree. According to comments and performance reviews, I'm at least on-par with the other, sometimes 10+ years senior, lead engineers in my department. The Department Director doesn't see things this way, however.

On the engineering side, he frequently remarks that decisions "I" have made are wrong and should have had his approval first, even though every such decision is made with a team of at least 3 people that includes the chief engineer for the entire company, in accordance with company policy (which the DD signed). He also often insists that he's unaware of issues or decisions the technical team is working, even though I (and all the other team leads) send these to him in weekly reports and have him on standing invitation to our weekly department meetings.

On the Project Management side, he tells my PM almost daily that he wasn't informed about issues or needs that she's brought up repeatedly, sometimes even on the same day. He demands that she build out schedules for each group working on our project, then tells her he doesn't believe the results and to do them again. He denies that key personnel on our project were diverted to a different project in the same department, even though the charge codes prove it. And I've witnessed dozens of little remarks inserted into conversation implying that he thinks she's stupid. I'm not certain that he's even aware how demeaning his behavior is, but it actually got bad enough at one point that the PM nearly resigned in tears.

In my view, the DD is demonstrating sexism, ageism, or some combination of both, with his own helping of arrogance piled on top. And his blatant distrust and demeaning attitude is not only affecting the PM's and my wellbeing, but it's having a significantly detrimental effect on the project. We can't get the DD to acknowledge problems or approve money or resources that we desperately need, and the project is on the verge of missing delivery. In this industry, if you miss a delivery deadline you're more likely to get cancelled than forgiven, and losing this project could definitely end the company. The PM and I haven't resigned because we're passionate about the product we're trying to deliver, but things can't continue this way for much longer.

Neither of us knows what to do to "fix" the situation. The PM's own manager tends to support the DD's behavior. HR has been consulted and didn't do anything. The CEO seems to actively ignore bad news and has turned a blind eye to the situation. Other senior managers we've consulted so far also had no ideas. The PM and I have tried to make the risks so clear that a child should be able to understand -certainly the other PMs and engineers who've seen them understand- so I don't think the issue is with us, but perhaps I'm too close to the problem to see clearly.


Question: Are there any things we can do to try to salvage the situation?


Thank you for your feedback and comments so far! Edits for clarity:

  1. There are 2-3 people in the company who have the necessary skills/experience to replace me. There is currently no one in the company capable of replacing my PM; the company would have to hire someone new or promote someone with less experience. All the other existing PMs are over-tasked as it is.
  2. I have discussed this with my direct manager, the chief engineer, and other project managers. All agree that the behavior is a problem and have their own stories/examples, but none have presented any realistic suggestions to improve the situation. My manager is a very laid-back guy close to retirement, and I think he honestly doesn't give a crap anymore.
  3. The DD does not treat our other projects with the same level of scrutiny, although two of them are worth about half what my project is worth (~$100M). The PM for those projects is a late-forties male (I keep bringing age and gender up because I suspect part of the DD's issue is that my PM is a young woman).
  4. The DD jumps on everything he perceives as a mistake, large or small. I am not aware of any mistakes that I or my PM have committed which resulted in a significant loss of time or money to the company, and the DD has not cited a particular example of such. As mentioned above, the DD claims that many of our decisions are/were wrong, though the PM and I did not make them unilaterally or without his knowledge. Per policy, the DD does not have to approve every decision; only those above a specific money value.
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    Welcome to the workplace.SE. I feel your pain. I also have a hard time to answer your question since there is so much to unpack there.. I think you'll have a better chance to get a useful answer if you focus your question on the core issue (and maybe split of some other aspects into a new question).
    – Helena
    May 14, 2023 at 19:17
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    When you say, "which the DD signed", is that in reference to (a) "every such decision", or (b) the "company policy"? May 15, 2023 at 6:19
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    If the choice is between your health and the health of the project, may I suggest that your health needs to be more important to you?
    – David R
    May 15, 2023 at 14:15
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    It's hard to protect your own career, let alone someone else's. You could seek legal advice, but that can mean a path of no return ... I personally would seek a new job in this situation, and advise your colleagues to do the same. May 15, 2023 at 14:30
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    Does the director treat all projects, PM's, and team leads this way ? Or does he only want to focus on your project because it has high financial value and impact on the company ? May 15, 2023 at 18:22

3 Answers 3

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No, you cannot salvage the situation.

It’s sad, but these are the kind of interpersonal dynamics that there is very little solution to. If the CEO was different, the two of you could approach him and say “we’re fed up and going to quit because of this guy” and possibly force change, but the reality is with a 200-person “startup” they can most likely make it work without you as well as with you. You’re not critical and irreplaceable at that size, if this were a 12 person startup it’d be a different story. Neither is the PM, you can hire PMs quickly and inexpensively compared to devs.

So basically decide whether it’s best for your career to find a new job and bail now or wait till you deliver the current project as a resume booster and then bail.

Sorry for the bad news, but I have worked in more than a dozen tech companies and if there are 2 contiguous levels of poor management it will never change.

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    And if this was a 2000-person company, there'd be more levels of management and more buffering between the CEO and the folks doing the work. Small but not tiny, with management infighting, is really hard to do anything about unless your immediate manager is willing and able to isolate you from the noise so you can just do your own job. I wish I had a better suggestion for you.
    – keshlam
    May 14, 2023 at 23:13
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    Be very wary of the temptation to do things the company doesn't value "for the good of the company."
    – keshlam
    May 15, 2023 at 6:17
  • This answer stinks (well, the situation more than the answer, per se). But reality is like that sometimes, I guess. No denying the truth of it. +1. May 15, 2023 at 20:46
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    Another possible explanation is that the director wants to push the PM and team lead out of the project so that he can install his own favorite right-hand men/women on this high-valued project. May 15, 2023 at 21:21
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Neither of us knows what to do to "fix" the situation.

There is no 'fix', there is obviously another agenda here that has little or nothing to do with your performance or your PM's. Unless you can work out what that is and mitigate against it you're just stuck with handling it or leaving.

Your main issue here is that you're making it a team issue, when it's more likely that it's an issue with your PM, you're a target because you're making yourself one.

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    "Your main issue here is that you're making it a team issue, when it's more likely that it's an issue with your PM, you're a target because you're making yourself one." - I think the director dislikes both the OP and PM (separately) regardless of wether the OP thinks of this as "a team issue" or not. May 16, 2023 at 19:19
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    @Job_September_2020 yep, because the op made themselves a target. It's what happens in real life. Best to keep your head down and let those PAID to take the responsibility handle anything above your level and out of your control
    – Kilisi
    May 16, 2023 at 19:22
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    Unfortunately it isn't possible to "keep my head down" in this situation; I'm ultimately responsible for the technical success of the product, and when I'm not getting the help or resources to achieve that success, it's my job to squawk about it. Unfortunately, it's /supposed/ to be the DD's job to believe me when I squawk. May 17, 2023 at 0:29
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    It's your job to squawk to your PM, not to the DD. It's your PM's job to decide whether and how to take your issues upward, and to decide whether they need you directly involved in that process or not. I understand that you're defending a friend and co-worker, and I accept that, but the amount of actual leverage you have here is minimal and you may actually be interfering with the PM's effort to manage it unless you are extremely careful... and either way you're increasing your visibility, perhaps at the expense of your PM, which can be good or bad. Pick your battles, and weapons, carefully.
    – keshlam
    May 17, 2023 at 1:06
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    It probably can. But in the absence of other information, and in the context of this question, I stand by my answer.
    – keshlam
    May 19, 2023 at 2:49
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This is a tough situation and you have already done sensible things to try and solve it. With an obstruction to a project, the choice is to go through it, or go around it. DD controls money and resources required for the project to succeed. He is the obstruction. You tried going around via the CEO, and it didn't work. So going around isn't an option.

DD may indeed have a personal problem with you and the PM, and this may even come from sexism, etc. (It might also not be sexism. Maybe, like Larry Page, they just don't like project managers.) Without excusing that, good work still tends to win people's confidence, especially in a startup context. It does seem that DD expects different behaviour from his PMs and lead engineers to what you currently do. To go through that obstacle, you will need to perform the expected role to some degree.

I get the impression that you are used to situations where the DD is relatively hands off, and so long as they are given updates and a chance to dig down as needed (such as open invites to meetings), that covers it. Secondly, it sounds like DD isn't quite knowing or saying what they dislike about the project, but that some things about it are triggering some expert intuition learned from their own work history. From his perspective, the vibes are off, as it were. The weekly updates aren't resolving it, because they feel the foundations of the project are broken. This is a guess, but maybe they also prefer more top-down planning in their projects. Maybe they also consider asking for more resources midway in a project as a bad sign.

I suggest making the headline problem access to resources and success of the project, with the main obstacle currently being the political one of DD approval. Prepare two documents with an expected audience of one. The first is a short report and the second is a slide deck. Re-summarise the fundamental technical design ideas of the project in these documents, pulling from whatever existing documents you have. Schedule a two hour deep dive meeting with the DD to go through them, with just the DD, PM and you in attendance. The agenda:

  1. Technical description of project
  2. Need for resources to deliver successfully
  3. What changes does DD require to approve these resources?

Now, hopefully, (3) is just a matter of project management changes, or small technical changes that resolve risks DD is concerned with. If it's major technical design changes, presumably you will be limited by time and resources, making some of them not possible, even if they were desirable. I'm not saying to just take orders and do whatever wacky thing DD wants, but to flush out what his actual technical and project concerns are. You might flush out that there is no way he will approve any other resources, and either time or scope will be impacted accordingly. Then, hopefully in the meeting itself, you can propose changes that address his concerns, are achievable, and don't compromise the design. Otherwise, once it is clearly stated, you can at least round back quickly, say after talking to your technical team. Or if resources are explicitly blocked, well, you at least got senior management to state and accept the risk.

With this approach you can hopefully also understand how DD prefers to work, and there can be less drama next time. It also gives you and the PM more experience in managing up.

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