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Curing mid-level syndrome

Over the past few weeks, we've explored our disillusionment with the workplace and other longstanding societal issues, and framed the conversation largely in generational terms. While we believe that we've made incredibly astute points, we received the following comment from robjdisc: To move forward, let's have meaningful, civil conversations between generations and recognize who the new leaders / managers will be, and help them do the best they can.

Robjdisc makes a good point, and we agree that the next generation of leaders should have help in doing the best they can. To start, rather than helping these future leaders tackle the larger issues that affect our country (e.g., multiple wars, educational reform, dearth of good movies, etc.), we'll address an issue that is common to younger managers in today's workplace: how can those in mid-level positions continue to grow at work, even when there's no sign of a promotion on the near, or distant, horizon?

1. Seek out someone to mentor

On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive. After all, why would you help someone else grow when that's your objective? Well, three reasons. First, when a mid-level manager is focused on mentoring someone else, she is not focused on her own problems. Second, helping someone else can actually make you happier. Researcher Carolyn Schwartz of the University of Massachusetts Medical School has uncovered an intriguing trend: those who help others are significantly happier and less depressed themselves. Finally, assisting someone can add further purpose to your life. Michael Steger at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, has demonstrated that the more people participate in meaningful activities, the more purposeful their own lives are.

Less focus on your own problems, increased happiness and stronger purpose...If only we could bottle this up and sell it! But Steve Farber beat us to the punch. With his latest book, Greater than Yourself, Farber has outlined how this concept can be applied in the workplace. As Farber suggests, "truly great leaders in life become so because they cause others to be greater than themselves." So, our advice: The more you can channel these traits of the mentoring, purposeful leader rather than the frustrated clamberer, the more likely upper management is to move you up the ranks.

2. Inventory your values and behaviors

In many ways, leadership requires self-awareness, and self-awareness requires solitude. Since solitude is difficult to come by in our always-connected world, many formal leadership programs are, if nothing else, a great forcing mechanism for setting aside this time for reflection. But many mid-level managers might find themselves passed over for these opportunities--to which we say, do it yourself.

One exercise that can broaden awareness is to simply jot down your values, then evaluate your past behaviors against them. Specifically, are there decisions you make, or behaviors that you exhibit, that don't align with the values you hold dear? If "teamwork" is a core value, and you're constantly assigning work to one or two top performers, chances are you're not effectively communicating this value to your team.

Be brutally honest, and try to revisit these values and corresponding behaviors on a weekly basis. Over time, not only will values and behaviors become more aligned, but you'll be able to provide a more compelling rationale for decisions. The payoff? It could be your behaviors that are holding you back, and addressing them now could put you in a stronger position when an opening does occur. As an added bonus, eliminating your negative behaviors can significantly improve the morale of your current team, as a negative interaction at work can be five times as powerful as a positive one.

3. What's your philosophy?

While a promotion may be far off, it's likely that when it finally arrives it will be accompanied by increased responsibility. Many newly promoted managers wing it; they haven't given a lot of thought to what leadership means and how to effectively wield their new-found influence. This lack of forethought, combined with the intoxicating effect of power, can lead to downright disastrous results. To further complicate matters, a recent study indicated that 25 percent of U.S. companies either reduced their investment in their leadership program or never had one to start with. (The good news is that 39 percent increased their investment in these programs.)

But even without a formal leadership program, there is hope. As with mapping your values, articulating your own leadership philosophy can be a valuable exercise. In other words, simply write down what leadership means to you, along with the people and events that have informed your views on the topic. Once a draft is written, it can be interesting to explore the strengths or weaknesses your philosophy emphasizes. It's also fascinating to see how your philosophy aligns with the management philosophy of your organization, and how it might evolve over time. Regardless, an explicit understanding of what informs your views on leadership can be an enlightening experience, strengthen your decision-making rationale, and further separate you from internal competition.

4. Escape your comfort zone

We are creatures of habit, and in today's fast-paced and stressful workplace, comfortable routines require less energy. But a routine can have its own gravitational field, and many opportunities will pass by unnoticed as long as we passively accept the pull. If advancement is the objective, it's critical to become the wheat to everyone's chaff. In other words, it's important to diversify. Be the first to volunteer for projects outside of your group or department, or projects located in a less desirable physical location. If you're in operations, see if temporary assignments exist in accounting. If you're in accounting, see if sales support or product marketing needs assistance. The more skills you acquire, the more indispensible you are to your organization. Additionally, as you navigate through your organization, you will meet and work with a wide variety of individuals. If you continually do good work and develop strong relationships, you may soon be in high demand as needs are addressed in other areas of the organization.

5. Grow outside

For every article that suggests that an economic downturn is a great time to start a business, there's another that outlines the many challenges. But for mid-level managers that have set their sights higher than their current station, putting aside a small amount of time to work through a start-up idea--on a daily or weekly basis--could lead to valuable insights on whether the idea is feasible, and whether you can stomach the risk. Whether you begin to work on a business plan, talk to experts in the field, or calculate how much seed money you'll need to get started, you'll make forward progress and create momentum. For the hackneyed excuse, "I don't have time," any promotion at your current company would likely come with increased hours, anyway, so what's the difference? After all, no matter how good an idea, it will remain inert until some action--however small--is taken.

Mid-level managers who have been stuck in their current positions can find creative ways to continue to grow, and these efforts will eventually pay off. To robjdisc and all the readers that have left comments over the past weeks, we appreciate your engagement. We'd also like to hear from others. Are you stuck now? What strategies have you used to reinvigorate a stalled career, and how have you generated growth outside of the office? Let's see if we can help one another.

Have an idea for what we should write about next? Be in touch at info@menoconsulting.com, connect with us on Facebook, or visit us at Meno Consulting.

By Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl  |  November 18, 2010; 12:32 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership Training , Leadership skills , Young leaders Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Can we be honest and agree that organizations still are pyramid-shaped? That is, fewer leaders than followers are needed at any one time. So not all mid-level people can or should become higher level leaders. We need to find ways for organizations to recognize the value of those people who are not leaders but who are important contributors to the organization's work, and to reward them appropriately, make it worth their while to continue doing good work, and not make them feel as if there's something wrong with them.

Posted by: suevee | November 19, 2010 9:54 AM

As an executive recruiter, I agree with #1 above, but I recommend expanding it. As start-up companies and entrepreneurs form advisory panels to fill their experience cavities, I suggest that job-seeking careerists do the same by forming advisory panels comprised of senior business executives and key-influencers in the industries they want to enter. My practice focuses on green business and corporate sustainability jobs that many careerists want. While green business careers are highly desired, many careerists lack the skill and experience necessary to land a green job. Advisory panels help interested careerists overcome their sustainability-related experience cavities.

Posted by: dsmolen88 | November 19, 2010 9:33 AM

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