Is this it? The Mid-level Manager’s Lament
I was talking last week with someone I met via an article I posted on LinkedIn. I liked him immediately. Why? He took a risk, contacting a total stranger to have a conversation about connections and change. We talked for 30 minutes about how people get stuck mid-career, and why change projects can be instrumental in turning that “stuckness” around, either within the organization you work for or outside of it.
It’s easy to feel trapped mid-career. You’re good at what you do. You have a decent title. A good team, or maybe they’re only an okay team, but they don’t make you crazy. You make pretty good money. And you have kids, parents, spouses and others dependent on you staying that course and keeping that money coming in. The “golden handcuff” syndrome.
You may try to move up through the ranks, but we all know the funnel narrows towards the top. The promotions don’t come as fast as they do when you’re good, and you’re younger. And maybe when that opening at the top comes up, you don’t fit the management “flavor of the month” that year. They’re moving towards a more numeric based environment and your brand is the “people” guy. Or vice versa. Or maybe you’re not in the central core business, but you do a great job that lets everyone else get their stuff done. You’re the greatest at it, but they just don’t know what to do with you next because there’s not an obvious career path in the organization. And if they move you, your replacement may not be as easy to work with. So you clock in another year.
Problem is, your resume starts to look pretty stagnant after a while. But the kids need college tuition or your mother-in-law moves in because early Alzheimer’s disease is setting in. And the cuffs tighten. And if the company blew up tomorrow, where would you go?
You need to be an aspirin or a vitamin, not a cog in the machine.
That’s why I love projects. Projects help other see you in a new light, and expose you to new opportunities. I started working on the types of change management projects we talk about at www.52weekturnaround.com early in my career, using them as a way to meet people and learn new career skills that have allowed me to work in many wildly different fields. Lots of times I “made up” the project and assigned it to myself, just to get something started. Now people hand me projects and say, “Can you fix this?”
To create real change, for yourself or for your company, you have to stick your neck out of your comfort zone. That doesn’t mean doing something wild, or illegal. It means strategically looking at where you are and where you might like to go. What skills do you want to learn? What area is growing in your industry? What other industries use similar skills that you already possess, and what would you need to learn about their world in order to switch industries? What is the one problem in your company that is making everyone crazy? Do you have an idea how to fix it? Who can you have a conversation with that might feel a bit uncomfortable but would help you stretch? Pick a strategic action, one that will solve a real problem or create real change. Avoid busywork.
Crazy things that have happened for me when I went out of my comfort zone strategically
Got the head of a 14,000 person business line as a mentor. By purchasing a United Way benefit ticket. For $75.
Wound up becoming a regular guest personality on a local television station for five years.
Helped open an African American Research Library in Atlanta (if you’re wondering why this is unusual, go take another look at my photo, and couple it with the fact that I grew up in New York).
Moved out of a government job in a public housing authority into the technology sector.
Had an article published in a famous law journal, (I’m not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV).
Am presenting in Brussels (despite speaking no French and no Dutch) on Lean Startups. Want to come? Read about it here. My topic is Anarchy vs. The ACCO clip: Lean Startups in Government Agencies.
But here’s the thing. The wacky stuff doesn’t happen unless you’re prepared AND putting yourself out there. You have to be willing to go outside the box and share what you’re interested in. That doesn’t mean pestering every senior person you meet with “Hi, I want to change jobs, will you mentor me and by the way, know of any job openings or how I can get out of this dead end gig?” It means having something new and interesting to talk about, that makes you memorable, and allows you to engage with people outside your usual circle. What’s your elevator speech? Has it changed in the last 5 years? In each of the examples above, there’s a bit more to the story. I had been doing my homework, growing myself and working hard at it, that put me in front of the right person at the right time.
Want to start creating some change? Take a look at our resolutions for 2014. Talk to someone in another department at work that you NEVER interact with and find out what challenges they’re dealing with. Take a look at the elephant in the room and see if you’re the person that can solve it for your company. Look at how other industries, similar to yours, have solved the same type of problems your industry is dealing with. Can you have a conversation with a stranger to find out how they did it and why it worked?
Come to Brussels and hear me speak (along with my co-presenter Carl Danneels who will give a great presentation on Lean Startups in the Corporate world). And share with me some of the wacky things that have happened when you stretched out of your comfort zone, so I can share them with our readers and they can get the courage to stretch.
If you need help seeing your current organization with fresh eyes, get a copy of our free booklet, “Reading the Terrain” by filling out your contact info here. “Reading the Terrain” is a field guide that asks you tons of questions about what’s going on in your business right now. By answering them, you’ll see where you can add value and where there are pain points.
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