My new job is a giant over-promotion and I am horrified
June 6, 2016 6:24 AM   Subscribe

One week into my new job and it has dawned on me that I have absolutely skipped many steps in my career and I am unqualified. The pros: More money! More challenge! The cons: It feels like a countdown to me being discovered as a fraud and getting fired. How do I position myself for the best outcome? (Very long, if you need a good book)

For some background, I work in a technical position in a non-technical field. I am not a developer or a coder or an IT person and do not know how to code or program things, though I work *with* a lot of that stuff if that makes sense. Think similar to a technical project manager (but not really at all). I have been in my industry for 7 years out of college, but have been "specializing" in my technical niche for only 3.

I left my last company wanting to branch out from the administrative, day to day grunt work that was becoming repetitive and numbing my brain. I was not getting the chance to work on big strategic initiatives, and when I was getting the chance, I was not motivated to actually work on them because I was so inundated with stressful data-entry stuff that always needed to be turned around on tight 24-hour deadlines. So I wasn't actually learning anything, I was just exhausted and phoning it in. As a result, I was 3 years into my niche without actually being any kind of expert on it...I only felt like I "knew" about 25-35% of it. When clients or other departments would have deeper questions, I would always have to loop in my manager or director to fill in my giant knowledge gaps (and sadly, I would kind of let them take over from there so I could get back to grunt work). I eventually was promoted to a "manager", but it was out of sheer luck of people leaving, and I didn't actually manage anyone. My workload was about the same - still data-entry stuff, still driving me crazy.

I knew I needed to make more money, expand my career, and use more skills than just attention to detail and data-entry on tight deadlines. A recruiter connected me with a new, smaller company (about 50 people) that didn't even have a department representing my field yet, but they wanted to start one. I interviewed. I thought I was honest about my skills - "my background is in this", "No, I have never actually used that software before and have a limited understanding of it, but I have heard of it and assisted with implementation". etc. I asked if there were any technical requirements for the job - any table stakes that would be a deal-breaker if I didn't have experience with it? They told me as long as I had a baseline understanding and a willingness to learn, I'd be good.

I was shocked when the recruiter called back to let me know they were "thrilled" with me and wanted to move forward with a final interview. I was really surprised. I expressed some hesitation - it sounds really challenging, and like it may be above my pay-grade since I'd be the only person at the company doing what I do. I did not want to set myself up to fail. He said that's totally understandable, and he followed up with the company to give them my feedback, and they came back and expressed that this would be a great learning opportunity and as long as I'm willing to learn, I'd be a great fit. I am willing to learn! So I did the final interview and a few days later it led to a fantastic offer. I was so eager to get out of my previous job, make more money, and expand my horizons, I jumped on it.

I started last week. It's the most intense case of new-job jitters I've ever had. My title is apparently "Director" (which was a shock, because the job application and offer letter was for "manager" ie "project manager"), which is so scary to me, because I have never been director of anything and used to go to my own director with questions about...everything. There is no one above me or under me to fill in my giant knowledge gaps. I am alone. People have been introducing themselves to me and saying things like "thank god you've started, we were putting off some projects and waiting for our new Director of XYZ to start, so we could get your input" and go on to explain some stuff that I know absolutely nothing about: Software that I've never used, tasks I've never done, extremely complex projects I've never led - if anything, it sounds like they are more knowledgeable than me, the "director", about how these projects are done.

What sucks the most is that the people seem so nice, and the company culture seems great. Lots of laughing, very casual and friendly - my old company interactions seemed marked by stress and tension, but here people seem much warmer. I feel like every day is part of a countdown that leads to me being discovered by these nice people as a fraud. "Who the hell hired this guy? What is he doing here? He doesn't seem to know anything." I am envisioning their faces when I fail at leading the major migration between X software and Y software, which I have never done before, because it is the type of giant accountable project that a Director does, and my experience has entirely been that of the plebe who does the groundwork after all that complicated stuff is finished by someone at a higher level. I will be exposed as a know-nothing.

The only options I can think of is to give it another week or two and if I'm still feeling entirely in the dark, either a) come clean to the people who hired me about how uncomfortable I am with the work, and if it leads to a mutual parting of ways, so be it - it wasn't meant to be and exclude it from my resume while I search for new work elsewhere. Or, b) as my friends/old work colleagues have been advising me: "Fake it till you make it. You'll learn it all eventually" The problem is I am not a bullshitter and also hate pissing people off by confusing them or trying to get by on bullshit alone. I learn by doing, which means I'm probably going to make a lot of mistakes as I go with no one above me to consult with for advice. And in making those mistakes I will let a lot of people down, and make their own work-lives more stressful. I wish I could find a freelancer on Upwork or Elance and literally pay them out of my own pocket, on my own off-time, just to chat with them and ask "can you please explain to me like I'm a child how this project would be done," because I am feeling like I know about as much as a child right now.

To summarize: I don't know what to do. I feel like I am about to disappoint a lot of people who, for whatever reason, saw something in me. I feel I've spent my career as a dishwasher and am now suddenly running an entire kitchen. What would you do? Have you ever skipped way too many rings on the career ladder? How did it turn out and how did you cope? Do you know someone who has, and succeeded? Someone who has, and failed? Any input is appreciated. You can email me at if you need follow up.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
So, you say this company doesn't have a department for your area yet, but now they've hired you. Do have a mandate to hire a team of people who are familiar with some of these details? Because that would definitely help relieve some of the pressure, I'd think.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:29 AM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Hi CEO, loving the work culture here. Great place. There's lots of work to be done. I'm super excited about that. So...what the process for me hiring my team?"
posted by taff at 6:30 AM on June 6, 2016 [14 favorites]

Your job, as a new hire for the next 1-2months is to sit back, listen, and ask questions. take notes. constantly take notes. Note who is waiting on what project, note what systems are used, note what is going wrong. Do not propose solutions or direction for at least 4-6weeks.

Ask questions. learn people's names. your job as director will be to link up the right resources. To note that hey person B has the same problem as person E, and person B noted this potential solution to X, but that might also work for A & E. lets get them talking. Establish process and controls. Document the crap out of everything you learn, particularly in the beginning.

After 2-3 months, you look into hiring a right hand person. OR moving someone from an existing role into that of your lieutenant.

Your job is not to "fake it till you make it". it's "listen, learn the pain points and propose solutions". you've been in the weeks for so long, that you know the details. now you sit back and look at the big picture.

You'll be fine! (memail me if you want to chat further)
posted by larthegreat at 6:34 AM on June 6, 2016 [44 favorites]

You're going to be okay! Don't give it another week or two - give it another month or two. Or six. This type of Imposter Syndrome is so, so common when you start a new job. You have been honest throughout about what you know, and they still saw potential in you and are willing to give you a shot. You're clearly intelligent and want to do a good job and that's rarer than you'd think. Don't bullshit these people; be honest about what you don't know going forward. Ask questions. Try hard. When something seems overwhelming, break it down and move forward one step at a time. You'll be okay.

My husband was in a similar position a year ago, being offered a job with a huge pay increase and technical responsibilities he didn't feel qualified for in the least - but they liked him, they knew he was bright and would be a good fit with the team personality-wise, and they were willing to teach him what he needed to know. A year later he's on track to professional certification in his field, supported by a boss who knows both his limitations and his capabilities and helps him develop what needs to be developed. It sounds like that's what this company wants to do with you. It really is possible they want to set you up to succeed, not to crash and burn.

Also, for what it's worth - I've had the same type of job since I left college 16 years ago and recently moved to a new company and, even though the duties are basically the same, have had many moments of "what the fuck am I even doing right now." Changing jobs is stressful, no matter what. Your freaking out is normal. It's going to get better.
posted by something something at 6:36 AM on June 6, 2016 [15 favorites]

In addition to the point above about hiring your team, use the people around you who are intimate with the problems. Inspire them to propose solutions, promote them from within, empower them to be a team that can build a foundation for making change happen.
posted by matildaben at 6:58 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ya i mean i wish my job sucked like this:
What sucks the most is that the people seem so nice, and the company culture seems great. Lots of laughing, very casual and friendly

You were honest. They loved you and hired you FOR the learning experience. The best advice is what larthegreat says. Just learn the people and the company for now. That's your primary job.

Do NOT leave in a week because after 2 weeks you feel overwhelmed. Do not. If this seems like the only choice i would strenuously recommend a therapist to talk to.
posted by chasles at 6:59 AM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

"They came back and expressed that this would be a great learning opportunity and as long as I'm willing to learn, I'd be a great fit."

It sounds like they know you're not an expert, but they think you have the capacity to grow into the job. Hiring is a pain in the butt; they think they made the right choice. Prove them right!

Keep in mind, too, that as an upper-level manager/director, your job isn't to develop expertise in the details of the systems you'll be implementing. Your job is to work with your boss and other departments to identify what needs to be done, acquire the resources to do it, and oversee the work of your team in getting it done. Familiarity with software, hardware, etc., is useful to a manager, but detailed knowledge can actually be a hindrance, since it's possible to get bogged down in the details rather than delegating that work to an expert team member.

"There is no one above me or under me to fill in my giant knowledge gaps."

Who is above you? Do you report directly to the CEO? And when can you hire someone under you who could fill in those gaps, once you're clearer on exactly what they are?
posted by brianogilvie at 7:36 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the sort of place that might be more than happy to send you to a training or pay your tuition for a course if you identify specific gaps. You were transparent about your level of knowledge; they hired you for your existing experience and your willingness to learn. So go learn! What an amazing opportunity to do so.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:55 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I just figured some professional coursework would be involved when you explained the details!

Figure out what you don't know and where to learn it. Your job should pay for the training.

There is no problem here :))
posted by jbenben at 8:05 AM on June 6, 2016

You're not the first to be in this position - so give yourself some faith and take a deep breath, because you have now identified you have a little bit of work to do to get to where you need to be.

As larthegreat said above, just sit back and soak in what you can. This is okay. You're not going to be expected to introduce new initiatives immediately.

Most importantly, knowing that you have some work to do to get up to speed on your current role is a great, insightful realization. Not many people are aware of their limitations, but knowing that will help you keep an eye out for information and opportunities that will help you develop quickly into your new role.

Hang in there!
posted by glaucon at 8:13 AM on June 6, 2016

People have been introducing themselves to me and saying things like "thank god you've started, we were putting off some projects and waiting for our new Director of XYZ to start, so we could get your input" and go on to explain some stuff that I know absolutely nothing about: Software that I've never used, tasks I've never done, extremely complex projects I've never led - if anything, it sounds like they are more knowledgeable than me, the "director", about how these projects are done.

That sounds really stressful. Be upfront about your lack of current knowledge, but if you frame everything as "I'm going to have to learn about X" instead of a flat dead-end of inability, you won't come out looking incompetent, only new. For each of these interactions, try to come up with:
- one statement about your current situation, i.e. Jeff talked to me about that project yesterday, it sounds like they're the primary user of that software.
- one thing that you acknowledge you need to learn, with a "next step" that's as specific as possible. i.e. someone in my old company talked about that software, but I've never used it, personally. (and now getting specific:) I should make sure I have a copy installed on my desktop so I can start familiarizing myself.
- one question that this person can answer, i.e. can you make me a list of possible experts on that, is there anyone on Jeff's team who really knows that software?
- one personal opinion, which doesn't have to be 100% factual, but you need to practice making statements and educated guesses. i.e. "I think that software's better at making well-formatted documents than doing the data analysis, I hope Jeff's team has someone working on data analysis who isn't wedded to this software." And it doesn't matter if they do or don't, and your opinion is as valid as anybody's, but if Jeff goes out of his way to demonstrate that they've got the data analysis covered using this software package, theb you've just had a useful conversation with him about how he uses the software and you've learned something. Stating opinions is useful! It's scary at first, but it can lead to great conversations.
posted by aimedwander at 8:21 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I felt like this when starting my current job. I went home everyday and cried for the first two weeks. It took me about six months to realize hey, I'm not bad at this - or at least people think I'm doing a good job. 18 months later I'm very well respected here.

Most people are not 110% rockstars at their job. They're like, 60% or 70% and they either fake the rest or do the minimum so they don't get fired. You're brand new! Good people will make allowances for that. They hired you because they think you can do this. If you have a good culture - and it sounds like you do - I think you'll be fine. Give it six months; unless you're singlehandedly tanking million dollar projects, it's unlikely you'll be fired. Even if you straight up don't know what you're doing, they survived somehow before you came on board, and they will survive until you're up to speed.
posted by AFABulous at 8:43 AM on June 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

They told me as long as I had a baseline understanding and a willingness to learn, I'd be good.

This should be your mantra. Maybe even double check it with them if/when you ask them a question about the title you've been given (which I would definitely ask about). But, speaking very generally, we learn when we're challenged and what is terrifying today will be old hat tomorrow. You'll find resources of your own without needing to loop in a manager. You're that manager now, and in time you'll know the ropes through practice. And practice includes error, so remember that you're not expected to be infallible. You're supposed to have a baseline understanding and a willingness to learn.

posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:48 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wanted to emphasise larthegreat's advice, it is sound. You are facing the transition between being a "individual contributor" (expectation of hands on doing things) vs. "director/manager" (coming up with solutions and getting those things done, not necessarily by you). Read their advice, apply it.

I wanted to raise a small flag though. This new, small company sounds very "start-up"-ish. There is a pattern of startups hiring "potential" because they're cheaper than hiring experience. Titles are cheap, especially at a small start up, and it's not uncommon for some companies to expect you to be an individual contributor and be hesitant to give you the budget and resources to actually build a team. I would definitely start a conversation with your own manager to talk about what the vision for this team you are supposedly building is and what their expectations are of how quickly it's built out. Make sure that a team is coming and you have the support to create one.
posted by like_neon at 8:56 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hire people all the time who are underqualified in key aspects but whose personality and aptitude tell me they will grow into the roles and be a great fit. I always tell them the job will be "hard mode" and I don't expect them to be experts in a month.

You can't expect this of yourself either. As others have said, absorb everything and keep working at this and you will be fine.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:01 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Write down everything everyone says that you have never heard of and then google it. Then when someone asks you about it say "Well I'm new but here's my opinion" and give an opinion. Then ask what they think. Half the time they'll say "Well no this is how that works" and you say OH OK! If they fire you they fire you. But more likely you will just figure out how to manage this role by failing and listening and learning.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:53 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's normal. You don't necessarily need to know how to do everything in your department. That's why you hire a few key subject matter experts. In fact, it's almost better (in one way) if you aren't an expert. They recommend courses of action to you. You... don't know what they're talking about, so you have them teach you the issue. Over time, they have to do this less and less. When you become the expert at that thing, it's time to move on.

Just make sure you're using your critical thinking skills. When they tell you things, does that make sense? Subject matter experts can easily fall into group think or "that's what we've always done" thinking. You, with your fresh eyes, can say "that doesn't make any sense to me." It clarifies their thinking to have to explain it to someone else.

Don't worry, you'll learn - sometimes by your people telling you what they did that day ("what even does that mean?" learning experience), sometimes the hard way, unfortunately ("Well, I'm going to make sure that never happens again" experience). Trust the people who hired you and ask your boss when you're not sure what to do. It's expected, and it will be ok as long as you haven't falsified anything in your application.
posted by ctmf at 11:17 AM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm coming back to reiterate: Just start giving people your opinions. You don't have to be correct, and it's okay (for now) to preface it with "I'm new at this but I think maybe..."

You're worried that other people know more than you do, and that's actually awesome. The best way to get somebody to share their expertise is to be wrong in front of them, people will swoop right in and fix things. Asking if they can find time to help decide what to do will take forever, but saying "Let's do X" will prompt them to either say "Okay, sounds great" if they agree, or "No way, we have to do Y, here's why" and then you learn a lot.

The worst thing that could happen is that they don't know more than you do, and they blindly accept as true something that you made up out of thin air, and everything tanks. This is a possible process but a super-unlikely end result, because the more forward motion it gets, the more chances you'll have to see how things are going and update your opinion to something that works better. But you kind of have to already be in a place where you're constantly giving your opinion on things, otherwise you'll have a bigger barrier to entry when you need to speak up.

It sounds like one of your coping mechanisms in the past was to hand off hard tasks to other people. When there's someone whose opinion you value (eg your old boss), it can be easy to defer to them. It can be so easy to defer to them so automatically that you stop actually forming your own opinions! So you're just out of practice with having opinions about this stuff, because you never had to come up with them, you could just pass it off to the boss. And now you aren't just supposed to have an opinion, you're supposed to be able to say it in thoughtful well-worded sentences, immediately on the spot, in front of people. Maybe it'll help to break it down; at your old job you could have practiced having secret opinions that you never told anybody; at your new job you'll say "let me get back to you" and go form an opinion, and practice writing it down in email form and sending it off within a day or so. And eventually you'll have the confidence to just spew coherent opinions at the drop of a hat.

Stating your opinion is an important skill for moving up in your career, for making that transition toward leadership. And it's very learnable. But you need practice. It's okay to get it wrong, especially because in these situations not saying anything is at least as bad as saying something incorrect (assuming you're not going to stick to your guns when you start discovering you're wrong).
posted by aimedwander at 12:08 PM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Get a mentor, inside the company and/or outside of the organization ( look to your university alumni organization for help ).
posted by seawallrunner at 1:28 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm training for a new career and taking classes with people who are also starting out in the field. This morning a woman made a comment along the lines of, "I kind of suck at [skill x]". The instructor immediately said, "let's turn that around. Say 'I haven't yet mastered [skill x]' or 'I'd love to improve my knowledge of [skill x].' Your employer believes in your potential and however terrifying it may seem now you can and will learn the things you need to know. This is a fantastic opportunity to master skill x and improve your knowledge. Personally I'd be thrilled about a job where I got paid to learn. You can do this.
posted by bendy at 9:51 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Try saying, "tell me more about...".

Your job is no longer to be the subject matter expert. Your job is to know who the subject matter expert is and refer people to them, and to be able to learn as quickly as possible when someone comes to you with a new challenge about something you are not an expert in, because that will happen constantly.

I actually disagree with the specific example of "someone mentions issues with software X so I will download the software to learn it" - that is likely to put you too much in your comfort zone of grunt work, and might be some specialized sw used only by one group. You would be better to go to a few high-ish or well-recommended people and get their input on what software is most commonly used and what you should familiarize yourself with. A training course or three wouldn't be a bad idea either.

Talking to your team and supportive folks around you and learning from them is going to be your #1 job for at least the short term, and that's where your energy is best spent.
posted by Lady Li at 12:43 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is exciting! Stressful, sure, but exciting! Congrats, sounds like you have a great opportunity here. Take a deep breathe, remind yourself everything is going to be fine, and follow some of the great advice above.

A few things to keep in mind:
*All new jobs at new companies come with a learning curve, even more so if it's an interesting role at an interesting company that's at the head of the pack. A job that has minimal learning curve could be a dead end. Better to be learning than bored.

*Of course your colleagues know more than you do about the problems and possible solutions! They've been at the company longer and have been living with the problem you've been hired to take care of. But guess what, they have their own problems to solve and duties to handle. They need someone (you) who can focus on the problem full time. They are also a goldmine of information. Setup time to have proper conversations with each relevant person, get a handle on what the problems are that you've been hired to solve, the possible pros and cons of various options, and figure out what the relative priorities are for each of the problems.

*A person can be hired for reasons beyond pure technical skill. Just because you are not the most technically proficient, does not mean you were hired by accident. Your other skills, such as project management or ability to work well with technical people (not a skill everyone has), among your other experience and background, can be equally valuable.

*Congrats on leaving the last job where you were also stressed out and phoning it in. That's one of the worst places to be. Also, never again pass off the juicy, learning opportunity work for someone else to handle because you're too knee-deep in mind-numbing administrative work because you think it's more efficient, will keep the work on schedule, you're sticking to what you know, etc., etc., etc. That line of thinking is totally backwards.

*Now that you've got this new role, you need to insist on staying in the loop on those juicy problems and solutions and stick your nose in so you are learning how to solve similar problems in the future, and be able to reference the situation in the future when similar problems arise. If there is too much mindless admin work, that's where you vocalize the need for a junior hire in a support role to take on those duties so you can focus on the bigger issues. It may sound selfish and costly if you've never done this before, but trust me it's more costly to have a senior person squandering his/her expertise on junior level tasks when s-he could be solving bigger problems for the company. Everyone wins, and most definitely the company wins, when everyone is suitably tasked to solving problems at their level. It's not selfish, it's smart. Ask me how I know. :)

When in doubt, try to think like the CEO: "What would the CEO do in a parallel situation?" or "What does the CEO need from me that will make his/her job easier?"

Speaking of CEOs, do you know how often a CEO moves from a company selling X product/service to a company selling Y product/service, where X and Y products/services are serving completely different markets with completely different problems?

The answer: all the time. Because those CEOs are hired for their relative knowledge, experience, contacts, and prestige, among other things. Those CEOs still manage to do their jobs, even when they know almost nothing about the new industry. That's because they surround themselves with smart people who do know the situation intimately, and those CEOs take that info and figures out how to get results. Do that.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 8:52 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's true that you need to be responsive to your environment and focus on absorbing things and learning.

But I think that they hired you for a reason!! Try and be confident in your abilities!
I wonder if you have seen this before, but it's about imposter syndrome. Her story sounds very similar to yours.
Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 10:15 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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