A VP Has Been Given My Project And I’ve Been Shut Out. What Now?

Question: A project I have been the sole worker on for two years now is getting a revamp and a new partner. Previously, the project was a major part of my job responsibilities and I called all the shots. With the revamp, I now must answer to a VP at the company, located in another state, who is now calling all the shots.

She shot down many of my ideas, which I understand is part of working on a team. But ultimately, she gives the green light on everything about the revamped project without much input from me.
What was once a very productive and inspiring part of my job is now controlled by someone else with more seniority, leaving me without any say-so. Since she is a VP, and I’m a coordinator (~2 years out of college), I feel that calling her up and “asking” to have more responsibility is pointless. Any advice?

Response: I’m not clear if the new partner you mention is an added coworker or the VP who is now in charge. You say you are a coordinator, which would imply there are others working on the project besides the two of you. If there are others, I’ll mention some aspect of that issue in a bit. To begin with, I’ll refer to the project in a generic sense, without regard to the number of people involved with it.

I’m sure you had a manager or supervisor before the change. If you still report to that person for most things and only interact with the VP on this one project, discuss the situation with him or her. Here are some things you can discuss—or think about on your own, if you don’t have a direct supervisor to whom you can talk.

1. Why do you think the changes happened as they did? I can see several possibilities:
* The project was considered to not be going well and the VP was brought in to improve it.
* The project was going very well and the company wants it to have a greater role, thus requiring the wider influence of the VP.
* The company wants the project to become a bigger part of their strategy and you don’t have the experience necessary to make decisions about it, but a VP does.
*The project’s status has been lowered or reexamined as to value and a VP is tinkering with it to see what should be done next.
*Some aspect of your handling of the project was considered to be a problem so you were removed as the main contact for others and a VP was put in your place.
*The VP was having problems and the company needed a place to put her. The project was a handy place to reassign her without having it seem that she was being demoted in her status.
*The VP is being groomed for higher levels of authority and this project is a way for her to be given increased responsibility.
*Someone higher up is having pressure put on them about something related to the project and the decision was made to go all out on it by having a VP put in charge.
*Organization-wide changes are taking place and the solid lines and dotted lines of the org chart are being changed all over the place—your project area is just one of them.
*The VP was placed over the project to give the project more status, but she doesn’t yet know how to work well through others and only thinks of her role as doing and directing, not collaborating or team-building. (Or, she has been told her role is to direct you and that’s it.)

2. What is the extent of the revamp? “Revamp” could mean a huge change in scope, budget or focus, or merely a change in staff, as has occurred. It’s natural to put the emphasis on how it affects you personally, but consider what changes it implies for the organization’s mission or priorities. If it has changed for you, what changes has it brought about for others, especially if the VP has changed protocols, policies or procedures related to the project.

3. What, if anything, were you told was the organizational objective of the revamp? If you know why changes were viewed as needed, you may be able to put the focus of your input on getting to that objective, rather than on other things that the VP may not be as interested in.

4. What does the new VP bring to the revamp in the way of experience, credibility or influence? If she knows she was brought in because of her knowledge and skills, she probably will not realize what you have to offer—especially since she probably doesn’t know you. If she has very little knowledge in the area involving the project, she may be blundering around and not want it to seem she needs you. Sometimes it’s good to know what you’re dealing with in that area! For one thing, it can help you in the subtle nuances of how you approach her. If she’s doing well and is confident, you can learn from her. If she isn’t doing well and is trying to fake it, you can at least know the origin of her actions.

5. Is there a higher level owner of the project, beyond your VP? That person may be putting pressure on the VP. Or, that person may have a goal that is good for you to determine and keep in mind for your suggestions about the project.

Knowing the ultimate purpose of the changes can make a difference in how you show your continuing value. Knowing what the VP has been told to do or what her history has been, can make a difference in how you view her interactions with you.

Your future with the project: At this point, it seems certain that for the short-term at least, your role is going to be that of support rather than director. Before you’ve had time to forget what you accomplished in the past, write a list of the significant decisions you’ve made, the work you’ve done or the way you’ve helped the project succeed. That way when you talk to the VP or others, you can refer to significant times in the project’s history, if it would be useful to do so.

I don’t know the nature of the project, but I do know that the history of everything is often forgotten and the person who knows it can have real value when it comes to avoiding mistakes of the past or duplicating successes.

If there are others working with you on the project, take a leadership role with them about embracing the most positive aspects of the revamp. They are probably feeling the same way you are, so you can help them feel more at peace about it or perhaps to use it to gain experiences and add to their future potential. If you are the only one working on it, you can do some self-leadership to find the best part of this change (as hard as that probably is to do.)

When you talk with people who you worked with on the project in your former role, be careful to not sound negative about the changes or about the VP in charge. If you have done some of that already, look for a chance to introduce the topic and say that you can see some positive results in the future. You can bet others are aware of the awkwardness of the situation and wondering how it’s going. Demonstrate how professional you are by moving forward in your work and talk.

It may seem useless to ask for more responsibility, but I think it is a wise approach. Rather than asking generally, have a couple of things in mind that you would like to take back or do more of, so you have the ideas ready for the VP. Put your focus on helping the project succeed by using specific skills you have or by taking on some of the more mundane parts of it as a way to be valuable. Let her see how you could help the project be effective and she’ll think of it as helping her be effective.

As disheartening as it is to hear, most people don’t care if we self-actualize or not, they just want the thing they’re in charge of to be a smashing success. So, let her hear and see your enthusiasm for supporting what she has decided is the right way to do things.

If you feel the changes are not good for the project or the organization and that she has made poor decisions, perhaps you can’t fully support all of it. However, in the life of the organization it will just be one project and you will find other things to support. Often when we’re in charge of something, it seems of cosmic significance. Looking back on it, after the thing has been eliminated or changed, we realize that life has gone on just fine. It’s a great way to stay humble and somewhat fatalistic about our work!

Last year I counseled a female executive who was in a huge conflict in her large business. Other executives, around the globe, were wanting their own staff to be in charge of decisions the woman and her staff had been making. She insisted it couldn’t be decentralized in that way and every conversation and video conference involved gritted teeth and unpleasant arguments and counter-arguments. She put a lot of work into showing why it should stay the same.

As the old Bob Dylan song goes, “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.” I could see she was not going to prevail and I could also see she was losing her friendships with other executives. I suggested she take the role of making it happen rather than having it viewed that she lost a bitter fight. That’s what she did—to everyone’s surprise and relief. The CEO met with her a few months later and told her what a great example she had been of working for the best for the organization. He said, “You really inspired me when I saw how you cared more for the company than for your own turf. I’ve used you as a positive example in many meetings, even outside our industry.”

The executive recently told me that giving up the work involved with the former method has freed up her staff for other things. In addition, the new method is not working well, which supports her original predictions and makes her inwardly gleeful! The other executives are being embarrassed and frustrated and now realize there was a reason it was being done the other way. I asked her if she was going to suggest her unit could take back the work. She laughed and said she doesn’t know why she fought giving it up, because it was an ongoing source of problems before and now she has one less thing to worry about. In fact, she said, if she is asked to take it back, she is going to come up with a strategy to avoid it.

It appears that you are just getting started with this company or organization, so this will be a good building block in the foundation of your career, if you can find a way to work through it and with it. I think you should make an effort to gain back some autonomy or at least some responsibility. If that doesn’t work, you can at least do an incredibly good job of the work you are not given to do about the project. The VP may stay in that role or may move on, but you will have kept your good reputation and perhaps have improved it in many ways.

Best wishes to you as you analyze what has happened and what is going on right now, then develop a personal plan for using this situation to gain personal and career strength. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what develops.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors