In many organizations, being in middle management can be rewarding and fun. You are close to the business, have lots of contact with customers, and are leading a team of strong performers. You get to keep your hands in the work while also being responsible for setting direction and leading the effort.
But for some leaders who’ve been unable to move up, middle management can feel like being stuck in purgatory. In coaching leaders at this level, I explore reasons why their career has hit a plateau. The conversation can be uncomfortable, but it’s important to be clear-eyed and honest. If you’re wondering why you’re stuck singing the middle management blues, consider the following possibilities.
Lack of (perceived) competence. As hard as it may be to accept, sometimes people lack the skills to lead at a higher level. Perhaps you are a great middle manager who does well with a smaller team, but you struggle with work that involves more complexity, larger scope, or a bigger team. If you do have the skills, you may find yourself in a Catch-22: not being able to demonstrate your skills because you’re never given the opportunity to do so.
Haven’t taken the tough jobs that show readiness for promotion. Taking a pass on challenging assignments like leading an acquisition, joining a reengineering project, or volunteering for a task force is a missed opportunity to showcase your abilities. When something comes up, be sure to raise your hand.
Lack of champions. If you haven’t invested in building relationships with past and current bosses, you may have no one in your corner who knows your skill set and can advocate for you. Cultivating champions can be especially difficult if you work away from main headquarters. I have seen leaders take on an overseas assignment and do great work, but no one at the home office knows about it. When they come back to the States, they are an unknown commodity and struggle to find a new assignment. In some organizations, just being a couple time zones away can be the same as being on the other side of the planet.
Working on projects that aren’t the organization’s core mission. Special projects like heading up a charitable donation campaign or developing an employee feedback system can be very satisfying. But when push comes to shove, if the work isn’t considered mission-important you can find yourself sidelined.
Not being positive or doing your best. We all have had jobs that we didn’t love. If you complain or do only what it takes to get by, it’s not the unpleasantness of the job you were assigned that people will remember; it’s your negative attitude toward it that will live on. Always do the best you can with a positive attitude.
Are conflicted about more responsibility. The higher pay of a promotion may seem great, but the headaches at the next level can be even greater. You may be enjoying your current position but think you should want to be promoted — for the pay raise if nothing else. Dreading the added responsibilities may lead you to subconsciously (or consciously!) sabotage opportunities to move up.
Finding a path out of middle management begins with a thorough self-assessment. What will a promotion get you? Is that what you want? Do you have the requisite skills, experience, and attitude to succeed at a higher level?
Next, consider how you can set yourself up for success. Look for opportunities to demonstrate your skills. Ask senior leaders for feedback, obliging them to pay attention to your work. Enlist them in becoming champions by doing high-quality work with a positive attitude. Make sure you let your leaders know that you are interested in more responsibility.
Look for high-profile opportunities at headquarters or projects that are central to the organization’s core mission. These positions bring additional visibility and recognition for your skills. They also allow you to build or strengthen relationships with senior leaders.
If greater responsibility is what you want, take steps to show up in a positive and competent way, so when promotions are being considered, your name will be at the top of the list.