Hypothesis: Most high-performing careers hit a wall in middle management because practitioners shy away from taking risks to address high-quality problems. The conditioned responses to seek career progression act as traps that make it harder for practitioners to develop the skills required to expand the circle of influence.
Let’s unpack the hypothesis by addressing the following questions:
What is a high-quality problem?
A high-quality problem is one that requires self-discovery of a first principle which in turn, brings a shift in how you view your challenges.
To expand your impact beyond the role of an individual contributor requires the ability to establish the ‘why’ (clarity) and the specialisation to determine the ‘how’ (playbook). If we plot these two capabilities on a graph, it is easier to see the career progression in the form of milestones.
This progression is best achieved as a by-product of working on high-quality problems.
A high-quality problem requires self-discovery of a first principle that brings a shift in how you view your challenges. It is based on intrinsic motivation (recognition, challenge, collaboration) and needs you to embrace your weaknesses. If done right, such an experience can help you expand your worldview.
A good number of careers get stuck in middle management because of the comfort of solving low-quality problems efficiently.
Low-quality problems use your strengths, but they do not influence who you are as a person. They are mostly triggered by extrinsic motivation (promotion, pay, title) and often lead to strong non-productive biases.
Let’s say I am a male designer who did not attend a design school, picked up experience design skills for web and mobile on the job, and spent most of their life in a tier 1 city. Let’s say I have been fairly successful through my 5-year long career and I earn in surplus of my core lifestyle needs working at a mid-stage start-up solving a first-world problem in India.
Throughout my career, I have observed a growing urge to create an impact in the community that goes beyond the form factor of a digital screen.
If I have the following two offers in hand as part of my next post-Covid career move, I would think #1 is a high-quality problem and #2 is a low-quality one.
What are the common traps in middle management?
Expecting a predictable linear progression, inability to recognize the role of community at work in your growth, and a self-centred purpose are common traps in the middle years of a career that prevent people from pursuing high-quality problems. Here are the three common traps:
Trap 1: Expecting (and enforcing) a linear career progression
The academic experience conditions us for a linear annual progression. Real-world problems and solutions are hardly linear. The number of high-quality problems we need to crack increases for every incremental career progression we seek. When this doesn’t happen organically (such as, an expected promotion), we force it by chasing labels (title, brand, etc.)
Trap 2: Switching careers for a job instead of for a tribe
After the initial years early in our career, our long-term progression has a weaker correlation to individual brilliance and depends on the collective impact of the tribe we work with—whom we seek as mentors and whom we collaborate with. Finding that tribe is often more rewarding than hunting for a specific role.
Trap 3: Seeking purpose as a fact-finding mission
Think of a leader who inspires you. It can be anybody. No matter what they defined as their life’s purpose, I bet they arrived at a point in their journey where they absolved their own identity—they removed the “me, myself, and I” from their search for a purpose—to give undivided attention to their calling.
Thus, often, our individual “purpose” is not a fact-finding mission.
It is simply a by-product of the experience— the experience of truly bonding with our habitat, be it family, work or community, the experience of being ourselves without being judged, and the experience of contributing passionately without any fear of failure.
Once we find our habitat, we begin to become unstuck.
How can you expand your circle of influence?
You will organically grow as a leader by progressively challenging status-quo to solve intersectional problems by developing an original thought to drive clarity and pursue implementation.
For the purposes of this article, let us assume you are at a place where you are comfortable being—let’s refer to this as your ‘habitat’, a workplace environment where you feel belonged.
It is hard to spell out actionable suggestions to grow your impact without context. So, the following examples assume the context of the crafts involved in building digital products.
At the risk of generalization, you may say that most careers fall into two buckets: strategy or execution. In reality, most roles require you to be adept with certain elements of both capabilities. Here’s one way of showing progression based on your ability to define the “why” and execute the “how”.
The four phases of progression are defined as follows:
Let’s apply this to three specific career points on the graph—points A, B and C.
Example A: Digital Strategist at a Health Insurance Company
Example B: Project Manager at a Technology Services Firm
Example C: Full Stack Architect at an Early-Stage Start-up
As you can see, the specific high-quality problem to solve, based on intrinsic motivations, is highly contextual to your situation and aspirations. That is the reason this article is not about “How to unstick your career from middle management?”
There is no single prescription that will lead you there and if someone is selling it, I would be very cautious.
You owe it to yourself to define that pathway based on your understanding of the situation, often driven by an underlying desperation, followed by a personal journey to investigate the nature of impact you want to deliver.
I trust this article offers one possible framework to approach that journey. Good luck!
About the author
Rohit is a product manager, Deloitte Digital, at Deloitte Consulting India Private Limited, with 16 years of experience in collaborating with clients in retail, insurance, and healthcare industries for building analytics, web, and mobile solutions. He works closely with designers, engineers, and product managers to create the lego blocks for the culture, craft, and community to build a differentiated workplace while helping clients reimagine their future in the digital ecosystem. In his current role, he is focused on scaling the adoption of product thinking principles in creating and delivering digital solutions that elevate the human experience.
The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of his current, former, or future employers or any organization with which he is associated.