"Here Is My Problem" Volume #3

Hello, and welcome to my semi-regular “Here Is My Problem” column in which I will attempt to give my advice as to how you should deal with a professional problem. If you’ve got an issue with a person at work, with your career, or even with your life, I’m here to answer your questions to the best of my knowledge.

If you need help, please email me at ez@substack.com with the subject headline “Please Help Me.” Nothing I am saying should be taken as legal or accounting counsel, and if you email me with “Please Help Me,” that is your permission to publish your (anonymous) question. I love hearing from you and answering these, so please send them.

Away we go…

I am looking for a new job. My current job was fine for a while (not great, but fine, and I’ll take fine). Then my new boss was hired in the summer of 2020, and after she started taking a very active role in the team around December 2020, things went downhill.  A month later I got my first bad annual review at the company because, essentially, I wasn’t doing enough project management stuff, instead of leading the team strategically, like my job was meant to be. She started to micro-manage me on things like sending meeting recaps and getting feedback on documents from every person I could conceivably get them from, and building roadmaps and gathering documentation and organizing SharePoint folders and making sure everybody knew certain details and updates.  Weekly status is just a trivia game of who can answer her random questions about when certain creative will be finished, or when a certain campaign is over.  To which my answer in my head always is “I don’t $#%$ know, ask the creative team”. 

My question is then (finally, amiright?) -- how do I answer the question I get in interviews of “why do you want to leave?” and do it gracefully -- without the extreme disdain pouring forth.  The actual answer is “well, I’m being micro-managed by a new-ish boss that wants me to do a very different job than what I was hired to do, that I want to do, that I am good at, and has a clear double standard.”  I’ve been going with some rebop of “oh, it’s time… I’ve been there for a while, want to try my skills in a new context and learn new things.”  But that doesn’t ever seem to land too well. Thoughts?  Am I over thinking this?

So, the “why do you want to leave your current job?” question is often a trap. It is an opportunity to see if you’re a liar (“It’s so good, but you know, this place is EVEN BETTER!”) or if you’re classy enough to describe being unhappy gracefully. What you want to do is land somewhere in the middle - while you don’t want to say that your new boss is a pain in the ass that makes your life hell, you also want to ask if you can be candid. When they say yes - they’ll always say yes - say that you feel you’re not reaching your potential under the current management and that you otherwise respect and appreciate the company.

If they ask for specifics, be diplomatic - say that you flourish when leading strategically, and some micromanagement has crept in, which has created more work than necessary. Say you respect that there are people with styles that don’t mesh with yours, and you’re still working with the person in question.

This is not a fun question to answer, and it’s one I don’t generally bother asking because it’s not going to tell you anything about the person or their situation. It is an unnecessary question that people ask because they think they have to.

Hi there! So, I’m currently looking to make a move, and I am trying to move away from the part of my industry I am in now – e.g. ad technology and data consulting and operations at an agency -- and either back to media planning, which I did for a decade and think my experience in tech and data could be very impactful, client side as a media or data lead, or to the tech/data sell-side as a product strategy or product marketing lead.

While I have a relatively varied background – I can’t just call myself a singular thing, like a data analyst or whatever – I have the skills to do any of those jobs well. I know the agency “game”, and have lots of experience and success across many facets of agency work, and have worked with many different types of agency teams. But, and here comes the question… How do I convince companies of this? I have found that if I don’t fit neatly into a defined role (“we are looking for a product manager, and your resume doesn’t say those exact words”), I don’t get much play. How can I better present or mold myself in such a way that I can make a switch of this type? What do hiring managers and recruiters need to see or hear to say “this guy could work! His unique background and varied skillset would be a benefit to us!”

I hate resumés so much.

But the answer here is quite simple: engineer multiple resumés for multiple jobs. Are you going for a data analyst job? Adjust your experience and the descriptions therein (without lying, of course) to match the job you’re going for. Reorganize the content and reword things so it’s specific to the tasks you’re going to do, and when you do the cover letter, make sure it speaks to a particular job.

Also…get warm introductions. I know this is easier said than done, but try and find a way to wiggle in - if you’ve got a decade in media planning, there’s no way you have nobody who can get you in somewhere.

Now, to make sure I’m extra helpful, I’ll tell you how to ask for a favor:

  1. Be very up-front that you’re asking for something. If you haven’t spoken to the person in question in a while, acknowledge that and apologize - and be clear that you wouldn’t ask unless it was very important/obvious you’d be good in the position.

    What this also means is do not pretend you’re magically catching up with them about their wife and their kids and their baseball career or whatever. It may seem rude to ask someone something, but you know what’s ruder? Masking it with a bunch of pleasantries. By all means, ask these things after you’ve made your ask, but doing the “oh how’s the wife and kids? Haha yeah, I love baseball! Anyway I need something from you” thing is crass.

  2. Be clear with your request. If you want an introduction because of a job, tell the person that.

  3. Make it easy for them. When you ask for that introduction, give them the information they need, and tell them you’ll gladly write out exactly what the request is or handle it in whatever way they want. Some people will be happy to write out a complete introduction for you from scratch - some people will literally forward your email, so make sure that whatever you’re asking is written in a way that you wouldn’t mind the party in question seeing.

  4. Thank them if they make the intro, and be incredibly gracious. You owe them one.

  5. If someone refuses to make the introduction, be gracious and understanding.

Here is my problem: I have trouble getting feedback from senior people.  Having worked for 17ish years, I’m not new at this.  And while clearly there are things I can still learn or do better, and I enjoy a good collab sesh just as much as the next person, I am always directed to seek out feedback from senior people, and usually many of them.  Instead of using my judgment on what feedback I want, and who I get it from.  The problem is, feedback from senior people is almost always capricious and arbitrary.  It often conflicts with feedback from other senior people, often conflicts with feedback given by that same person previously, and often conflicts with, you know, the actual project.  In fact, most of my jobs have had this problem to varying degrees.  The kicker, of course, is that if senior people don’t see their feedback incorporated in the final version or work output, it is a personal affront.  How do I deal with this? 

Welcome to being managed by a committee! It sucks.

The natural question here is, “why do you have to seek feedback from so many people?” And the answer is “because whoever is directing you to do so is bad at their job.” If that many people’s feedback is essential, then you have to be ready to fight them on their feedback or disregard it where necessary. This is an excruciating thing to do, and if they take a personal insult, you need to have your reasons for not using their feedback.

The critical word here is using. Not asking for their feedback means you’re dismissing their opinion. Hearing their input and not using it for an informed reason implies that you’re taking into account the views of every stakeholder and applying their ideas as much as possible - which may mean not at all. They may get upset at you for not doing so and ask you why. Your answer needs to be crystal clear and objective - if their feedback clashed with the actual goal of the project, you need to tell them that, and if they argue, say that you appreciate their input, but the core goal is to do [project goal] - and you’re happy to go into detail about the project and its goals.

Most people who get offended that their brilliant idea wasn’t in there are just being territorial and want to feel included and special and like they were farted directly from God’s butt. The best thing you can do is make it clear that they matter. They’re human beings, even if they’re annoying human beings!

So, focus more on why they’re offended and talk to them about it.

Please help me!

I've worked in public relations on the agency side for about five years now, and have been at my current company (about 10 people total) for just under four. I've had a ton of great opportunities and experienced a lot of growth at this company, and I do genuinely like most of my co-workers and clients. On top of that, I have a pretty flexible schedule and am working 100% remote for the foreseeable future. Last winter I got a title promotion and negotiated a semi-decent salary raise, but since then I've simply been burnt out. I had brought up my concerns to our Vice President (who is also my manager's manager), but hadn't been able to nail down what about the work was so draining. My CEO, who is heavily involved in day-to-day client operations, reached out directly to me in March saying she noticed a difference in the quality of my work. I owned up to it and also told her I was feeling burnt out. She tasked me with identifying the parts of my role that I liked and didn't, and that took me the most amount of time to complete. She said she wanted our goal to be to figure out what items on my plate could be delegated, and what items I should still handle. 

In the several months following that initial meeting, we've now had about five different "check-ins" to discuss the above. In the same period of time, I've put so much effort into analyzing my role and my workload, the nature of the tasks on my plate, etc., and I kept coming back to the same conclusion: there's simply too much work for me to consistently and effectively delegate. I can prioritize and re-prioritize all day, but there is constantly a backlog of work waiting to be done. I told my CEO and VP that I thought this was the problem and even outlined some tangible solutions I thought would help address the issue, but after the three most recent conversations with them, it's clear they think the problem is my time management skills, and that I don't take enough ownership over my accounts. 

I think I manage my time pretty well considering my workload while managing two others on my team, and my direct manager and I have an open and direct line of communication. I suspect my CEO is a micromanager, and that's partly contributing to my lack of account ownership. There's so little room across my accounts to "empower myself" (her words) to take ownership, because every decision, piece of content, and client email needs to go through her first. 

All that said, I guess my question is, is it even worth it to try and address this with my CEO? My job doesn't pay the best, but it has been stable and I'm worried about losing that stability. But maybe it's more harmful in the long run to stay? I don't feel valued, and I don't feel like I have the space to add the depth of value I know I can bring. 

Public Relations agencies are almost always dysfunctional because there is a really, really common thing where anyone above the VP level (and frequently above the Account Manager level) divorces themselves from the work product other than reading proposals and appearing in meetings. As a result, you get situations like this - a CEO who seems to mean well but doesn’t actually want to do the thing you need them to do. I have no idea why this industry attracts so many lazy sociopaths. Please get in touch with me if you have any ideas.

I also want to remark upon how insane it is that you are at a ten-person company where you have a manager, who also has a manager, who is a VP who I suppose has a manager (the CEO). That is your first real sign that this is a place to move on from - a company of ten people should not have more than, say, two managers, including the CEO. How much work could you foreseeably have to do?

The good news is that I can give you advice from my personal experience of working at a ten-person agency which at one point had eleven people and four managers, and two of the people in question were a Chief of Staff and an Office Manager (who I am not considering a manager in this case). And the answer is “leave, now!”

To get a little more specific, you are talking in the classic bad PR agency terms that I hate to hear - “you have a lack of account ownership” almost always means “we need more results and we need you to do more work that I am doing without me asking you to do it.” “Empower yourself” sounds like the kind of usurious #GirlBoss jargon that people use when they want to dance around an obvious solution (or pretend they’re wise).

Here’re some thoughts about your specific situation:

  1. Too many managers: This one’s obvious. Too many layers of management means things are slowed down, and I’d argue that not enough actually gets done because when you’ve got too many people managing they’re likely delegating work.

  2. Your CEO is a lazy psychopath: It may seem like your CEO is doing a lot by signing off on every email and decision, but what they’re actually doing is making everyone do the work so that they can give it the thumbs up and then immediately take ownership of it - kind of like the I Made This meme. To them, this is leadership - being the grand overlord that says Yay or Nay on every decision. It isn’t actual real work, but it sure looks like it and also makes the person in question feel important.

    I cannot express enough that if someone has time to manage literally every email and decision, they are doing absolutely nothing with their time.

  3. The company needs more people, and it’s the CEO’s fault: Another obvious one, but you’ve happened upon the real solution: there is too much work and not enough people to do it. This is a classic bad PR agency thing that they do - promise the world, say they’ll do everything, and then pass it onto the lower level people with a continual flow of direct or indirect bullshit about how you need to “step up to the plate” and “take ownership” of the constantly-growing pile of work. The reason the CEO does this is that she does not care and is making all the money. When she gets annoyed at you it’s because she has had to do work.

The reason this is common in PR is because of people like you who are willing to blame themselves for the CEO’s mismanagement and greed. It’s an industry that naturally attracts bright young people who want a people-centric career, only to be crushed by people like your CEO. PR is a chopshop industry that’s built on the backs of young people who suffer through CEOs like this and, more often than not, become exactly the same kind of CEO because they’re so burned out and jaded from years of being mistreated, framing it as “earning your stripes.” This industry has so, so many agencies that do sub-par work but get by on referrals from one source that they haven’t burned yet.

If you are a PR CEO who runs their company like this: I personally hate you and will undermine your business for the rest of my life. You’re a scumbag.

Also, if you’re reading this and trying to pretend you’re not like them because you have 5 managers and 15 people that actually do work, you’re still a scumbag.

Back to your question and the painful answer: quit, if you can.

There is no fixing this situation because it is so clearly a broken agency, run by someone who is actually pretty bad at business. You are better than this. You are being burned out not because of poor time management, or because of your “lack of empowerment,” but because you are being given an endless flow of shitty clients by a CEO who will take anything, and likely saunters around spending the money that you’ve earned her. Leave, and don’t worry about burning bridges with this person. If they run a company like this, they are likely not in any position to really do you any harm, and the only legacy they’re creating is one of broken, angry young people.

I also must say, from the bottom of my heart, that I am so sorry you are going through this. I know exactly how you feel - burnout is something that is created by both a large volume of work and the rate new work is generated, and as you become more burned out, the work becomes more difficult, which makes you more depressed and burned out, which makes the work even more difficult. While there are times to blame yourself for burning out, this is not one of them - you are the victim here. You are being abused - abuse isn’t always direct and violent, and can manifest through an institutionally-approved lack of empathy.

This may seem dramatic, but you will likely need some time to recover from this situation, and be tempted to leave the industry entirely. I’d say you should stay - PR needs more people who aren’t vile, so try and stick around - just ideally not with this firm.