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Consider the below environment with 10 made up people and their corresponding titles.

  • 4 upper peasants (Jeff, Jennifer, Joe),
  • 6 peasants (Gary, Gilly, Gordon, Gertrude, George, Gloria),
  • 1 peasant in chief (Master Chief).

The aim is to, well basically find how to advance the careers of these people without destroying the team regarding the below conditions,

  • team 1 consists of Gilly and Gary.(1 major & critical, several minor projects)

Gilly and Gary get along fine. Gary has been made responsible for a large project (without a position change) which they both work for. Gilly is several years more experienced. Gilly is one of those silent people who complain (or show joy) very rarely. Gary is less experienced technically but has shown initiative and has taken charge in several crisis moments.

  • team 2 consists of Gordon, Gertrude and Jeff (1 very critical and large project)

Gordon is very experienced technically from his peer Gertrude who admires his knowledge. Gordon keeps cool under pressure. Jeff has more technical knowledge and experience than both combined. Team members get along well, but Jeff is very resistant to management suggestions both technical and not so. He believes he is a technical leader if he must be any (despises the term leader), and actively dislikes and rebels against management of other forms. He enjoys trying new techs.

  • team 3 has Gloria, George, Jennifer and Joe (Several medium, 1 large project)

Gloria is a junior with the least tech experience in the whole group. George is expecting a promotion which he feels is way overdue. He is also resentful because of this. He is technically skilled and looks visibly uneasy and uncomfortable when tasks are given to him. He states almost on all possible occasions that his friends have management roles. Jennifer is a veteran of the company but with less technical skills then George. She firmly believes she can do a better job than the Master Chief but her methods and insistence on this topic feels very repulsive to other members of the group. She openly questions and mildly quarrels with the group chief in all decisions. The last group member Joe, who is a veteran of the group and also a technical guru. He dislikes all non-technical managerial tasks but none the less can do so to a low degree if need be. He believes no one can tell him what to do (except the Master Chief). Maybe rightfully so.

  • Now Above all is the Master Chief. He believes managerial tasks are tedious and prefers to assist team in technical tasks when time allows (sometimes when it does not). He may be promoted away and his position may be empty in the not so far future. That will create a power vacuum which most likely some will want to fill, furiously.

Somebody is going to be promoted to peasant leader in the group (management demand) also someone may have to fill the Master Chief title in due time. But there is no clear choice as to who. Since:

Promoting Gary, George or Gordon means moving them 2 steps up which will massively demoralize the rest of the group. Gilly, Gloria and Gertrude have no interest in this promotion. No one in the group would say no to the title.

That leaves Jeff, Jennifer and Joe. Jeff does not like management while Joe looks so-so. Jennifer is practically verbally asking for promotion.

My personal opinion is to somehow get Gary from team 1. But this feels like it would disintegrate the group in time.

Suggestions?

  • 4
    Are you sure that the people you think have no interest in the promotion really don't? It's not uncommon for people, especially women, to just expect that you will notice what a great job they are doing and promote them. You've spent a fair amount of time in your post focused on the malcontents, and maybe rightly so. Sometimes when someone is being held down they will become a malcontent. The problem is you don't have enough promotions to go around, so you have to determine if giving a promotion to a malcontent is going to help or not. – Amy Blankenship Sep 28 '15 at 15:50
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    Any reason not to open the position up to outsiders, while also allowing your current employees to apply? – Adam V Sep 28 '15 at 16:40
  • @AmyBlankenship Gloria and Gertrude do a splendid job but they have been with the group for 3 months and 1 year respectively with the exception of Gilly. Gilly almost always looks for guidance on what to do next despite her experience. Problem, calls Gary about what to do. Malcontents are technically superb and experienced veterans of varying degrees but even if one is promoted, will s/he be able to make others do whatever is necessary? – mechanicum Sep 29 '15 at 8:18
  • @AdamV Possible, but what about Jennifer? She really wants this position and is bitter because she has not received it already. – mechanicum Sep 29 '15 at 8:36
  • Maybe the question you should be asking is why are so many people on your team unhappy? – Amy Blankenship Sep 29 '15 at 14:53
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So it seems from all the back-and-forth in the comments that you value my opinion, so here it is:

All of your senior people have issues with MC or the people above him:

Jennifer:

She firmly believes she can do a better job than the Master Chief but her methods and insistence on this topic feels very repulsive to other members of the group. She openly questions and mildly quarrels with the group chief in all decisions.

Jeff:

Jeff is very resistant to management suggestions both technical and not so. He believes he is a technical leader if he must be any (despises the term leader), and actively dislikes and rebels against management of other forms.

Joe:

The last group member Joe, who is a veteran of the group and also a technical guru. He dislikes all non-technical managerial tasks but none the less can do so to a low degree if need be. He believes no one can tell him what to do (except the Master Chief). Maybe rightfully so.

So all three of your most likely candidates to replace MC are in open rebellion. Jennifer is the only one with a proposed solution "put me in charge and I'll fix this mess," yet she is the one that the team finds "repulsive." Let's assume that you're correct and the entire team feels this way rather than just you projecting how you feel about it. Does the team feel this way about her rebellion uniquely because her resolution involves advantage to herself? Are they really repulsed because she is "putting herself forward?" Would they be as repulsed if she were a man? Would you?

If there is any chance that this "repulsion" is due to unconscious sexism, the only way you can combat it is to not give in to it. Jennifer shouldn't be denied opportunity because some men can't handle an uppity woman. If she does a good job, they'll follow her lead. Your post hasn't suggested you think she'd do any worse of a job than her rebellious male colleagues.

What does the leader need to do?

I'm going to base the rest of my answer on these assumptions about what the position entails (since you haven't said):

  • Sets the overall technical philosophy for the team
  • Assigns tasks to the appropriate people
  • Keeps everyone motivated
  • Works to develop team members

At this point, I'm not sure how many of these MC is even doing. It's clear he's not doing most of them well. So you want to avoid a scenario where you get another MC in there.

But when you look at these points, you can see that you need someone in the job who has enough experience to understand the implications of their decisions. Even though Gary really stepped up, it's unlikely he's ready just yet. Trying to put him in charge of everyone could be a disaster, not necessarily politically, but just in terms of having a lot of decisions that are not going to move things in the right direction. And Gary could well be so overwhelmed that he quits in frustration.

So if your senior people are really senior for a reason, I don't think you can look further down the chain than them. And, taking your post at face value, Jennifer is the only one that wants the job. I don't necessarily think your impression of her technical merits is enough to put her out of the running. I have had people think I wasn't that technical because I often opt for the less technical solution rather than whipping out a lot of code. But it is because I make a point to understand both the technical solution and the nontechnical solution before making a decision. I'm not saying Jennifer is this way, but I do think it is more of a "woman" thing and because men tend to do it less, they are less likely to even see it.

But keep in mind, the other seniors may just have shut down because that's how they deal with poor leadership and it's just possible that one of them could potentially be interested in the job if he thought he could effect real change.

Moving forward

It seems to me your team has bigger problems than just the question you asked, so I'd like you to consider the following questions:

  • Why was Gary given an opportunity to prove his mettle but George, who really wants such an opportunity, wasn't? Is there a way you can provide him with such an opportunity so he can get the experience he needs to advance?

  • Why is it that Gilly needs confirmation of her every decision? Has she been knocked back at some point for making a mistake or just doing things differently?

  • Does Gordon have any ambitions? If so, what are they?

I think what you really need is a career development program that works to actively move people toward the positions they want to be in with things like mentorship or just putting people in assignments that will further their ambitions. Right now, it strikes me that your company takes ambition to be a negative, so it puts people that are not interested in leadership in leadership positions and avoids putting people who demonstrate ambition in those positions.

MPO is that since MC is happier doing technical work than management, you should find him a technical job with a title that's higher than his current title, assuming he's a good technician. You should either promote Jennifer or find someone from outside that's so good that she and everyone else will be happy following his/her lead. And you should find out what everyone else's interests are and take steps to move them toward their interests if possible in alignment with the organization's goals. So mentor George, for instance.

  • BTW, I thought this might be relevant... dilbert.com/strip/2015-08-16 – Amy Blankenship Oct 1 '15 at 23:26
  • Gary was given this opportunity due to an upper peasant in his group leaving. George was in team 1 as well but left for another team around 2 years before this event. Hence Gary was the only candidate. Gilly has always been this way as the rumors go. Gordon is cool and calm but wouldn't say no to any promotions of course. I agree with your idea about Gary. The thing about Jennifer is, I suppose, the upper peasants don't respect her and that rubs on the peasants as well. I've not been with the team long so I have no idea why. – mechanicum Oct 2 '15 at 8:17
  • Jennifer is currently quite resentful towards almost everybody and people feel that too (and share the feeling mutually towards her). Maybe she was right at some point but the company did not act for some reason. I suppose perhaps she is you in an alternate universe where it didn't work out. Thank you for the insight. – mechanicum Oct 2 '15 at 8:23
  • Then I guess your best choice is to try to find someone really good from the outside, if you don't think Jennifer can do a good enough job that people will follow her despite bad attitudes all around. The risk is if you are wrong about how good they are, you have someone in charge of the team who is not good and has no domain knowledge. So you have a mess on your hands. Good luck. – Amy Blankenship Oct 2 '15 at 14:51
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Errr... This is a really nebulous one, but after reading it:

1) I'd promote Gary to "Peasant Leader". He has shown an ability to take the reigns in a lightly difficult power balance, and Gilly will remain to anchor for team 1 in case more of a switch up is needed.

2) Team 3 is a ticking time bomb. You have at least two people who should not be given leadership who are gunning hard for leadership. With Gary as Peasant Leader, Id consider separating George and Jennifer since it sounds like they are feeding off of eachother.

Move George to team 1 to see what he's got, and if his story ends up looking as successful as Gary's. Also, see if Jennifer mellows out and gets a better grip on team 3 without having George to feed off of.

3) From here, it is a complicated equation. Candidates for Master Chief are Gary, George, Jennifer, and Joe. If Gary shines, he goes straight up to Master Chief. If not, he stays Peasant Leader.

From there, you see if George takes charge of team one, earning him a promotion. You see if Jennifer does better at containing her repugnance on team 3, earning her a promotion. If both of them flounder in the new structure, Joe is your anchor and he gets the promotion.

Above all else, this sounds like a very perilous balance that has formed, and the moment you start switching things up, you will probably sluff one or more disgruntled employees and be back to recruiting for a bit, which is a good thing (Jennifer and George dont sound like they will be able to put their money where their mouth is, and they are likely contributing more toxin than benefit to your structure now. If they sink, time to roll the dice on fresh talent).

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    Seems possible and reasonable but remember the 2 step career boost. Would you be happy if a person of lower position suddenly became your boss? To add insult to injury, he has less technical knowledge and experience than you. Sounds tough. The rest is a good idea. Actually all of this is a great idea. – mechanicum Sep 29 '15 at 8:32
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    FWIW, I have been Jennifer. And the reason I was Jennifer was the lead actually was taking the team and the code in completely the wrong direction. He left, and I've been cleaning up after him for 6 months. Could she be right? – Amy Blankenship Sep 29 '15 at 15:00
  • @mechanicum Yes, that would drive me crazy. It would drive me right to be breaking point. And as leadership, that is exactly the test I am using to see how the chips fall. If Jennifer implodes when the clearly 'inferior' coworker gets boosted ahead of her, then she will be demonstrating what would happen once the pressure that comes with the promotion hits. Gary is peasant leader. Jennifer doesnt implode. Jennifer gets to be Master Chief now because she passed the test. Gary is peasant leader, Jennifer implodes. Jennifer needs to find where her success will be, because it isnt where she is. – user2989297 Sep 29 '15 at 15:52
  • @Amy That probably is at play. That is the endless cycle of working in SDLC. The guy above you is always an idiot who doesnt know what he is doing, and the guy below you can never see the true genius of your vision. I'm sure given the steering wheel, Jennifer can do some good things, but does she have what it takes to hold off mutiny and keep her hands on the steering wheel. If she's the type to stage a mutiny of her own because she doesn't respect your decision, then she will not make a good captain herself. Not, at least, at this company. – user2989297 Sep 29 '15 at 15:56
  • That's what my boss thought, until he had no choice but to give me control. For the first few weeks I could tell my team had loyalty to the old guy and resented me. And then they saw how having someone who actually knew what they were doing made their lives easier. – Amy Blankenship Sep 29 '15 at 16:00
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I think there are two questions in here:

  1. How to find the best manager (or management structure) for the team.
  2. How to create a good career path for people that are not managers

It's best to decouple the two. Good technical managers are hard to find since they need to have three main requirements

  1. They need to have decent technical chops to be respected by the team, to understand what's going on, to set good strategic direction, and do a decent work break down
  2. They also need to have decent people management skills: listening, mentoring, dealing with people problems, organizational thinking, matching peoples strengths, growths areas and interest to the actual work, etc.
  3. The need to WANT to do management and actually enjoy it enough to deal with it on a daily basis

This combination is hard to find, many managers do it for the wrong reasons: feeling important instead of personal satisfaction. It's hard to tell from your description but the only person who may pass criteria number 3) would be Jennifer. At least she WANTS to manage. If she is good enough needs to be determined through a proper eval process. If not, you may have to look outside for a new manager. Making someone a manager, who is personally not interested in real people management is a recipe for disaster.

To keep the team motivated and engaged it's important to create a decent career path that doesn't involve people management. That's not easy but it's better than getting stuck in the mode where the only way up the ladder is by lording over other people.

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Based on your comment, I feel like your real question is "what do I do about Jennifer?" Being honest with her is your best bet. If your only options are "promote her into a position that's not necessarily best for the rest of the group" or "she leaves for a different company", you may need to take that chance because as it stands, I'm unsure that you'd want to promote someone whose actions are "repulsive to other members of the group" and who "openly questions and mildly quarrels with" the person who'd be her boss. On the other hand, if she's got the technical know-how, a greater desire for the job than others, and if she could get along better with her coworkers and the Master Chief, then she could be a great fit.

You need to sit her down and be straightforward with her.

Jennifer, I wanted to talk to you about the future Master Chief opening. I know you'd really like to be considered for it, but at the moment, I have real reservations about your fit, based on your current attitude towards [Master Chief] and his decisions, and how I feel like it's rubbing your team the wrong way. I want to see you succeed here, so you need to work on this between now and then. Let's set up a meeting to talk about your progress in four weeks.

This tells her a few things.

  • She's a major contender for the job.

  • She has a specific weakness she needs to correct before she would be considered for it.

  • She only has a short window to start making adjustments.

This is important - if the opening comes available very shortly, and you're able to meet with her and say "I'm sorry, but I told you this was important, and you're not making [any/enough] progress in this area, so we're unable to consider you for promotion at this time", she should understand that it's due to her own actions.

Perhaps the opening won't be for several months. You should still have these meetings very soon! She should get frequent updates on how she's doing - this shows her that you're very invested in her progress at the company, but that you're very serious about her correcting these flaws.

(Additionally, you don't say a lot about whether Jeff would want the position - if so, I'd have a very similar meeting with him. Tell him that his distaste for management is showing through, and that he'd have to work on that before he'd be considered.)

In the meantime, I would consider promoting Gary (and possibly Gordon) to "upper peasant" shortly, if they merit it. That way, whenever the Master Chief position becomes available, if you rule Jennifer, Jeff, and Joe out, they're at the same level and could be considered equally.

I would also sit down with George and explain what he needs to do before he'll be considered for promotion (to upper peasant, as well as Master Chief). Also tell him that his negative attitude has been noted recently and needs to improve in short order.

Finally - sit down with everyone else too! Talk about where they see themselves within the next year or two, and what they need to do to get there. If they've got sky-high dreams, you should be able to help them build a path to get there.

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    Having been Jennifer, might I suggest that if she's correct that there may be no way that she can "improve" her relationship with the Master Chief. If his decisions are completely wrong, she's probably biting back more contention than she's letting out, and the battles that she does pick may be helpful to the company, if she can win. If she is correct, the current Master Chief may have taken the team in a wrong direction for long enough that only an experienced person can recover it (so Jeff may not be able to). Be careful that Jennifer doesn't get to the point where she no longer wants to. – Amy Blankenship Sep 29 '15 at 15:32
  • I completely agree - in that case, however, if the Master Chief is being promoted, Jennifer is likely to continue to have conflicts with him, and her best bet may be outside the company. That's really unfortunate for the company, but if that's what they're signaling, it's better to understand that early and leave, than continue with the company and be fighting wrong decisions your entire tenure. – Adam V Sep 29 '15 at 15:59
  • He may be promoted to somewhere different. – Amy Blankenship Sep 29 '15 at 16:01
  • @AmyBlankenship Most likely correct. Though even if she was right, one can rightfully presume her demeanor towards master chief could be the reason higher management dislikes her moving up. As long as master chief is around that is. Is it viewed acceptable to openly question (sometimes with a tone bordering on aggression) most decisions of your superiors within an open office? – mechanicum Oct 1 '15 at 14:53
  • @AdamV I suppose your methods are the safest bet to keep the team alive. I'm just a peasant myself and the team looks like its going to disintegrate in a spectacular way unless something is done about it. I was planning to suggest a route to master chief before something bad happens. – mechanicum Oct 1 '15 at 14:55

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