The Dilemma of a Mid-Level Employee
The confusion between a role that you enjoy and the skill behind that role becomes more obvious as you progress into mid management levels
Every year, I meet over 500 mid-level employees across organizations in the IT, Banking, FMCG and other industries. These are normally interactions I have at conferences/workshops or a deeper one-on-one conversation where I try to understand what they are doing currently and what would they like to do in the future.
One of the common refrains I hear is the conflict between the security that a full time job offers and the unstated feeling (very few state it in clear terms) that "the world is passing us by".
Over these multiple interactions I have tried to explore these unstated feelings. By documenting these and providing some suggestions, my intention is to raise the level of awareness and provide some important pointers to you.
There are 3 types of mid-level managers:
- Security Blanket: Typically, these are folks who treasure the security of the job because they have at least one kid, a non-working spouse and a home/ vehicle loan. By nature they are very good in their work, diligent and perform routine tasks well.
- The Fence Sitter: Has the above demographic traits (good job/ a loan or two) but in addition he is also a social animal. He is influenced by stories of success and is tempted to start off something on his own or join a start-up. However, he has not yet got down to assessing the risks of leaving his current job and keeps pushing the decision point to "tomorrow".
- "I am Not in a Good Place": This type of individual is "not in a good place" for two reasons. He is not in the job he loves and/or is not performing adequately in his job for any number of reasons. He also has family responsibilities, which add to his uncomfortable position.
What is interesting is that the third type of individual is the one most likely to break the mould and become successful a couple of years down the line after he takes a plunge into the unknown. The Fence sitter continues in his self-doubt till he moves upward (yes ...Upward!!) to "not being in a good place". The security blanket type is methodical and while he takes a longer time to move to a discomfort zone, he creates the opportunity to plan it well.
By no means is this an all-encompassing classification. There are many nuances and I am sure many other possible ways of looking at the challenges and opportunities for mid-level managers. However, this classification in my mind, helps me to provide more apt advice (when asked for), which in turn resonates better with the individual and more likely leads to a proactive introspection. So here goes my advice -
1. Work on Your Strength Areas: I had an opportunity to advise an individual who was possibly one of the most intelligent people I had ever met. He was well read, strong with numbers, could foresee trends by putting together multiple pieces of data and was very articulate and passionate.
However, he was a disaster when it came to managing people and was constantly cribbing that he was not moving up in the organization and was frustrated. The good news is that he was aware of his ability (or inability) in managing people, yet that did not do anything to temper his expectations and he would constantly relate stories about how he had made efforts to overcome his weakness.
However, over the 3 years that I knew him, he had not worked on his strength at all and was now "not in a good place". The push from youngsters who were also equally analytical and more importantly had qualifications in the analytics field was pushing him towards negative behavior.
Today, the person is in a different role and performing very well because he has upskilled himself and works in a role where he is a strong individual contributor. Not only that, people look up to him for his acquired skills and he feels respected and desired. He is able to manage tasks across teams by leveraging his analytical skills and guides a team of over 15 domain experts, though not a single person officially reports to him. His focal point has turned towards his abilities and not his lack of skills. His soft skills are constantly improving as he matures in his role and people reach out to him for his expertise.
2. Discover an Interest Area: Easier said than done as most people drift through jobs that are assigned to them. The first three years of your working life are critical. Ideally, you should have rotated across as many different roles or departments as possible.
But if that has not happened, don't worry. Identify 1-2 tasks or situations that you believe you enjoyed and look for similar tasks. One of the young managers I was working with, however identified a role that no longer existed at his level. Such roles are typical in an IT company where in the early years specific coding skills are important, however in the later years problem solving skills become more relevant.
The confusion between a role that you enjoy and the skill behind that role becomes more obvious as you progress into mid management levels. While you may believe you enjoy coding, if you really introspect you may find out that you actually enjoy solving the challenges of creating a relevant output by writing a few lines of code.
Many young managers typically of the "security blanket" classification tend to enumerate a functional skill in their resumes, little realizing that their skill has led them to solving business challenges. Think of what problem you solved rather than the tool that you used to solve the problem. Young managers who are stuck in the "tools thinking process" would do well to take programs in managerial strategy, business modelling or just read books, which give them a larger global perspective. Design thinking programs are also helpful as they tend to connect discrete dots to paint a whole new picture.
3. An Honest Conversation: Have you had an honest conversation with yourself especially if "you are not in a good place"? The pressures of loans, family, delivering work projects rarely provide a pause to think. However, this is where a good spouse, friend or even a boss comes into play. While the frustrations have been building up, keeping it bottled up releases negative energy even in a conversation with yourself. The worst part is when you start justifying why you could not get something done or why you were blamed unjustly.
If you find yourself going through any of these conversations with yourself then it's time to have an honest discussion with yourself. Enlist a spouse/ friend/ colleague/ boss to talk to and specifically ask them to hold up a mirror. When you speak to them about what troubles you, ask them to reflect what they felt from you...negative energy or positive energy. In all likelihood what they reflect is what all your colleagues at work feel about you. The advantage you get by asking them to be honest is that you see yourself in the mirror.
Go back to the basics after you do this exercise and have a conversation about your strengths. You will feel the energy coming back into the conversation. Constantly, reinforce the positive energy conversations and do not go back to interactions, which make you feel negative. Very soon you will take proactive steps towards learning something new. Remember that the person who believes he "is not in a good place" is most likely to take positive steps towards rebuilding his career.
Despite the classifications that I have discussed above, the one factor that is common amongst all mid-level managers is the slow death of curiosity and the beginning of excuses.
In all my interactions, once the denial phase of excuses is over (believe me, it does not take time and it's not difficult to get over that phase), the new energy phase starts when an individual actively takes on a learning challenge - be it a new functional skill or just a new activity, which brings out a different dimension of the individual.
So regardless, if you are a security blanket, a fence sitter or if "you are not in a good place" just take that first step towards curiosity. Log on to a new skill program, which is up your alley or create an activity for yourself which looks interesting. You don't have to win the activity or be the topper in the new skill but you just need to rediscover your curiosity. Reflect your "learning quotient" and the world around you will reward you.