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  • Writer's pictureJohn Rae-Grant

The Power in Powerlessness



I'd like to share a story about working with one of my direct reports, as I think there is a lesson here for most of us in how we deal with feeling stuck and powerless.

We had been struggling for a while to find a great fit for him, and it just wasn't working out in his current role, in spite of lots of tweaking. He let me know that he was looking at other roles in the company, and I offered to have him talk with my manager and my manager's manager to get greater perspective than I could offer. He did so, and it looked like he was engaged in other conversations to take things forward.

Except that those conversations died out, and I didn't follow up.

A month or so later, he let me know that he had been receiving interesting offers from outside the company, and this contrasted with the lack of uptake within. A week later, he informed me that he had accepted a role at a competitive company and was giving his two week notice.

The thing that was shocking about this, to me, was that the offer he accepted was a lateral (even a step down) move, into a job function that we were desperately trying to hire for. We were on the verge of losing someone with a proven track record and five years of experience in our company and with our tech, and missing out on filling a critical position.

Why would a smart, capable, PM with lots of experience at the company make a move like this?

I pointed out to him that if he really wanted to move into a field engineering role, he should do it at our company. He would have no start-up time, could move over at a higher level, and would likely get better comp. I also pointed out that I could make one phone call (to our head of Sales) and get that in motion.

His issue was that "our company hadn't shown him that he was wanted".

I made the phone call. Our head of Sales, and, subsequently, our CFO, got on calls with him, figured out the right fit, made him an offer, and nailed it. Elapsed time - <48 hours.

So now to the realization. After the dust had settled, we had our regular 1:1. He was sheepish about having changed his mind, and having caused so much “trouble” for people. I pointed out that he had moved from being a victim (“the company doesn’t love me”) to taking power. I further asked what had suddenly “empowered” him? What was the mystical power he had to wield in order to get what he wanted?

He said it was me making the phone call. I asked whether I had suddenly developed the ability to make a phone call? Had he not known that I would be willing to make a phone call on his behalf? Had he not known that he had that resource at his disposal?

Why did he choose to be powerless, when he had the needed resource close at hand for months?

Sure, the company, and certainly I as the manager, could have done better. But, given that he was the one I was coaching, I’m focusing on him.

We all do this. We all get stuck and stay stuck. There is something comforting, safe, and attention-gathering about feeling powerless. That is natural, normal and human.

Except that it sucks.

What doesn’t suck is making the things you want come true. What doesn’t suck is taking power.

So, it occurred to me that the feeling of being stuck or powerless is really a signal. It is a signal to look for the power you have that you haven’t noticed or admitted.

When I said to him “I can pick up the phone and get you an offer” his awareness of his power shifted. His actual power didn’t change at all. He was on the verge of taking a down step and leaving a company he believed in, because he didn’t admit that he had the power to get what he wanted.

And, once you realize you have power, in many many cases, it is easy to wield.

So, go ahead and have a pity party, but a short one. Then look around for the power you haven’t noticed, and go get what you want!

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