Q: My boss just threw me in the deep end of the pool on a new project; he has a lot of expertise in the area, me, not so much. Is this tough love, or is he setting me up to fail? Either way, how do I handle it?
A: Ask good questions, find others to learn from, and don't let it get in your head.
My bias is that it's helpful to stay positive, so in the absence of other hints, I recommend you take it as "tough love." He may have developed professionally through sink-or-swim opportunities, and grown a great deal from it. In that case, time may have eased the pain — or he just doesn't have other management alternatives in his tool kit. If, however, other evidence suggests that he wants you gone, I recommend starting to form an exit strategy before your confidence is undermined or you develop a negative track record.
In the meantime, you have this project to get through.
Start by giving yourself a crash course on the theory and practice of the project area. Find a book or articles online to read. Reach out to your network and talk to people in your field with that experience. If you don't know anyone directly, tap into your LinkedIn connections. This is not a time to be shy, and remember that people are typically flattered to be asked and are usually generous with their time. With any luck, things will click well enough with someone that you can get some ongoing mentorship on this work.
Make a plan, detailing every step you need to take, and noting where you feel like you'll need or want signoff. Be sparing with these, because the message you're getting is to make decisions on your own, so you can't be going to him for all the minor directional issues you'll face.
Meeting One with your boss is to review your plan, get feedback and finalize it. Have some questions for him, particularly to find out what level of regular status reports he wants so that you communicate at the right level. Get his agreement to engage at the milestones you've identified, too, so that he is expecting to weigh in.
When you get to each milestone, it's essential that you go in with a point of view. If you're not sure what the right decision is, lay out your alternatives, do a pros and cons assessment of each, and be able to summarize the benefits and risks of each. Without a lot of experience, you may have difficulty deciding which risks are worse (or which benefits are better). That's where your boss comes in — he can add the most value and be most impressed by your approach if you're thorough and thoughtful. And you'll get the most learning, too.
Bottom line, think of this as a test — and one that you can pass. Your boss may be trying to assess your persistence, your creativity, your problem-solving skills or your initiative. Stay focused on the business need, keep your confidence up and communicate consistently to ensure that this works in your favor.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.