Does Your Boss Have Your Back?

When I was fairly young in my HR career, I was walking by my boss’ boss’ office (let’s call him Eric) while visiting our corporate headquarters in Manhattan. Without leaving his desk, he called out:

Karin, can you please do me a favor? You see there’s this meeting that I’m unable to attend, and it would be great if you could attend it for me. Sally, the Senior VP of our call center division has an absence problem. She asked me to attend, but I’m busy. I think it would be great if you could go talk employee engagement. It’s starting in a few minutes so you should head down now.

Honored to be asked, and delighted for the exposure, I eagerly said “Yes!” and ran off to the meeting. As I entered the room (apparently late), all conversation stopped.

“Who are you?” Sally barked.

“Oh, I’m Karin, Eric couldn’t make it, but asked me to come instead.”

“This is an important issue, and needs to be handled at the senior level! Doesn’t Eric care enough here to show up? Why didn’t he let me know he was sending you? What’s your role? Don’t answer that. I’ll be right back.”

She slammed the door and called Eric.

“You can stay, she grumbled.”

Oh, wait for it. It gets worse.

The VPs around the room had all kinds of ideas for how to “fix those people;” none of which involved actually talking to them to understand root cause.

I piped in and told them so.

I was completely ignored and they went on with their planning.

Later that day…

I was on the elevator when the doors opened and Sally walked in. When was this day going to end?! I tried to get absorbed in the crowd, hoping she wouldn’t notice. When we stopped at her floor, she asked me to step off with her for a moment.

You’ve got great ideas, but you’re incredibly clumsy.  As a manager, you don’t tell a room full of VPs all of them are wrong in a meeting with their peers. You quietly take notes, and then talk with a few of them offline to stakeholder your ideas. You really ticked me off, so I couldn’t even process what you were saying. But I’ve been thinking about it and you’re right. I’d like you to lead the HR leg of this project. You help me fix my absence problem and I’ll help you learn how to navigate politically so you don’t sabotage what could be a promising career. Sound like a deal?

She smiled for the first time that day.

It was the start to a beautiful mentoring relationship. She always had my back.

Two VPs with position power: one with his back firmly against the wall, protecting himself. The other taking a risk on a naive but passionate kid. What a difference it makes when someone has your back.