The ladder of success is never crowded at the top – Napoleon Hill
As you climb each rung of the corporate ladder, you will be presented with new challenges. Positions at the lower level of the organisational chart tend to focus on granular details and deep knowledge of the specific tasks in that job function. Middle managers earn higher wages and have more autonomy than the workers they manage, however they may not actively participate in strategic decision making. Middle managers are often tasked with enforcing strategic policies that they did not draft. Unfortunately, middle management can act as a ‘career trap’ where many people can languish for years on end.
Broadening your horizons is the first step towards climbing to the next rung on the corporate ladder. This will necessitate a willingness for you to step outside of the parameters of your current role. Your mindset will need to shift from focusing on your area of expertise to thinking about the organization as a whole. Comfort zones are often well padded and many people enjoy the security and benefits of being a ‘specialist’ in one area. If you can go beyond your core functional role and demonstrate a good, strategic understanding of the business, the marketplace, the revenue drivers, the stakeholders and the future direction then you will stand out from your peers. Additionally, when senior leaders begin looking for candidates to groom as their successors, being visible and being vocal will position you as the ideal choice. Can you demonstrate that you have developed a commercial perspective and strategic outlook?
A popular article in the Harvard Business Review captured a very important reality in its title, ‘You can’t sit out office politics.’ It is imperative that you understand how the leaders in your organization work. After all, no one can exist in a vacuum in an organization. As you take the elevator to your next office, you will have to work with and deal with the people who are already on that floor. Gaining a firm grasp on the internal politics of your business will help you navigate all the complex challenges you will inevitably face. Interpersonal and good communication skills will pave the way for more effective collaboration, understanding, rapport and trust. Stakeholder management is a key leadership skill. People who can understand and manage politics, forge partnerships and interact effectively with others will move towards organisational leadership roles. People are the p in politics. Can you put yourself in another person’s shoes to understand their perspective? Embracing diverse perspectives can foster innovation and help to broaden your horizons.
As you prepare yourself for your next career opportunity, it is useful to do a skills audit. In which areas have you achieved mastery? People who want to propel their careers forward need to expand their skill set and develop cross-functional capabilities. Volunteer to take more responsibility and find opportunities to work in multi-disciplinary teams so that you can learn from others. Take courses to fill in any gaps in your skill-set. By working on projects and applying the knowledge you have gained from your courses you will start to develop a track record that will help you break out of the status quo. Do not be afraid to pursue high growth opportunities and expand your impact in areas that have a high potential for business growth. Taking the lead on these projects will prepare you to assume and handle more responsibility in the future.
Much of what middle managers do is relatively operational and mundane in nature, especially in comparison with the entrepreneurial role of the top management. Executives provide strategic direction and integration, especially when rapid decisions are required. We have all seen that a CEO can come from any background. Agility is important. How quickly can you adapt to new situations? How well can you adapt to working with multi-generational and culturally diverse groups of people? How well do you know your industry? Can you recognize trends ahead of the curve and capitalise on them? Can you keep your business at the forefront of its industry? Be curious, read industry blogs, attend conferences and network. Learn about other industries. Can you adapt an idea from another industry to suit your industry? The knowledge you glean can help guide future strategic initiatives as you progress out of middle management. From being operationally focused, shift your focus to a more strategic, future-focused perspective.
If your company views you as irreplaceable in your current position, you will not be considered for opportunities for advancement. By empowering your team to function without you and grooming your own successor, you will pave your own path towards promotion. Knowing how to develop people is a key skill across the leadership spectrum from entry level manager to CEO. Develop this skill early on and the more experience you accumulate, the more you will be able to give back to your mentees.
Organisations are like pyramids, with room for growth becoming tighter and tighter the closer one moves to the top. To work through these barriers, you will need to stand out and have an established track record of success. Demonstrate that you are proficient in performing current tasks and capable of learning new bodies of knowledge and managing new areas and levels in your organization. It is also important to keep an open mind, linear career progression is outdated. There are many twists and turns on the path to success. A lateral move to a different business function may just help you develop another area of expertise. This additional feather in your cap will help you move towards and excel in higher leadership positions later. After all, a CEO must have some understanding of the functions of all the departments in their business.
Stress management is vital to your long-term survival in any profession. Ambition left unchecked is dangerous especially if you sacrifice your physical and mental health in the process. Go easy on yourself and grow at a sustainable rate. Look at all aspects of your life and ensure that you devote time to building these other areas as well. Health is the new wealth. Relationships are precious. Do not take them for granted. True success comes from achieving and maintaining balance.
Finally, hiring a coach who can partner with you on this journey can expedite the process, help you gain deeper self-awareness and help you identify barriers and internal blocks. A good coach can help you reconnect with what you love about your life and work and help you chart the right path towards fulfilment of your goals. Stephen Covey said, ‘if the ladder is not leaning against the right wall , every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.’ It is imperative therefore, to make sure you are climbing the right ladder by really getting to know yourself, your values, and the legacy you wish to leave behind. Once you find the right ladder, please remember to enjoy the climb, and celebrate all your successes along the way.
The Senior Management Leadership Programme integrates key management concepts and best practices to develop strategic thinking and leadership skills as well as an integrated view of the business landscape in relation to market dynamics. This course is offered by Strathmore University Business School, one of the top business schools in Africa and Nanyang Technological University, one of the top universities in Singapore.
Article by Shailja Sharma, Executive Fellow and Coach