Search This Blog

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Every Professional Should Know About Mid-Career Crisis?

The career growth path in any organization is like climbing up a cone, slippery along the way and with just one top. What that means is only one professional will get a chance to reach the top. Many will reach the second, third and levels below to stagnate there until they get retired or fired.

One typically enters the workforce at the age of 20-25. By the age of 35-40 one would reach the first mid-career crisis and if one is lucky to get above into the management ladder well and good otherwise one would flame out there itself. Again at 45-50 one would reach the second mid-career crisis and get a chance to move into senior management ladder and in case that doesn’t happen one can flame out there itself.

The First Job

The excitement felt after landing the first job is an amazing experience for all of us. At that point “getting a good job” means everything in the world. Good in this context means a job with a branded company with a high salary and a seemingly exciting role. Besides, the feeling of finally becoming financially independent of your parents is an awesome one.

For few weeks and months all seems to go well in the first job. Very soon, however, reality strikes in an “on your face”, harsh way. There might be issues one would actually experience or get to understand from a closer angle, such as:
  • limited opportunities to learn and grow
  • monotonous and predictable work
  • unclear performance expectations and vague, infrequent feedback
  • lack of alignment with the organizational culture
  • friction with other team members
  • low motivation caused by an intimidating supervisor
  • low motivation caused by a weak manager
  • loss of faith in the organization’s future caused by uninspiring leadership
  • unclear, confusing directions and signals from higher ups
  • brush with power plays and group dynamics intended to preserve the political structure
  • deliberate exclusion by higher ups from important communications
  • illogical reporting structure intended to preserve control by the top man and his club of boys
  • clash with strong personalities with bloated egos in powerful positions in the hierarchy

The First and Subsequent Moves

So the thought that would eventually cross the mind is, “let’s move on”. After moving on and settling into another job in another organization, the above cycle would get repeated in a few years time. And so on it goes, another job in another organization, and then yet another until one reaches 10-15 years of experience and starts expecting a senior position.

At this point, mid-career crisis strikes and moving on becomes increasingly difficult for reasons listed below:
  • Acquired experience would be in a specific industry like pharmaceuticals, automotive
  • Acquired experience would be in a specific functional/technical area like sales, administration
  • Openings available for a certain experience will be limited in terms of number of positions and companies that need that experience
  • There might be mismatch between current compensation and title with what is on offer 
  • Those who will do the hiring will look beyond functional/technical competencies into cultural/political competencies. Some examples of this are:
    • A hiring manager will not hire someone with stronger qualifications and credentials
    • A hiring manager will consider the political environment in which a candidate will have to work while assessing her suitability for a position
    • A hiring manager will bring his bias in recommending a candidate

Mid-Career Crisis

Mid-career professionals are in a career transition mode and must remain calm and positive as they go through it. In case they fail to progress to higher levels (and as hard as it may sound, many would fail), they should absorb the failure in a clinical and philosophical manner. At this point in one’s career one should be highly self-aware about one’s strengths and weaknesses and in a way come to an honest admission of the fact that “one simply doesn’t have what it takes to go higher” and the fact that “it’s perfectly fine if you stand no chance to become a CEO one fine day”.

Organizations need highly specialized, deep expertise to develop next generation products and services and will align with the market changes rapidly. This might, however, take a toll on the professionals with highly specialized, deep expertise in an area as they will need to constantly and quickly learn something new, unlearn it and learn something else new. Such professionals can easily ride over the first mid-career crisis and the second one with extreme difficulty.

Top executives, knowing well that such professionals are a necessity for their business will cultivate such professionals and keep them motivated by titles such as Chief Engineer, Fellow and Distinguished Engineer.

Mid-career professionals who possess highly specialized, deep expertise in an area are viewed as rock stars in an organization until the time the market needs for such an expertise exist. However, in case of a demand shift in marketplace such professionals might find themselves out of favor unless they quickly migrate to highly specialized, deep expertise in another area. Those professionals who fail to cope will flame out from the corporate world.

Organizations need generic, wide-ranging expertise to run business operations smoothly, handle the day-to-day usual stuff.  Business is not as simple as developing a product and selling it to customers to make money. Any business needs to navigate through the expectations of its various stakeholders – government bodies, regulatory agencies, investors, customers, competition, employees, etc. The demand for such professionals tapers off while moving up the organizational hierarchy. Such professionals can easily ride over the first mid-career crisis and the second one with some difficulty.

Top executives, knowing well that they also had taken this path to the top will cultivate such professionals and keep them motivated by titles such as General Manager, Vice President, Senior VP, Executive VP.

Mid-career professionals who possess generic, wide-ranging expertise as functional and resource management are viewed as necessary evil for running the business operations smoothly. In case of troubles in business operations such professionals might find themselves out of favor unless they are working in areas to do with legal compliance and supporting business operations in a direct way. Such professionals will, however, be easily able to find employment in other organizations. Those professionals who fail to cope will flame out from the corporate world.

Managing Mid-Career Crisis

Our careers are an important part of our existence and not moving up and getting stuck or getting fired and shown the door may seem as a personal insult and a question mark on our individuality and importance in our own eyes and others that know us. It need not be this way.

Career progression depends on both individual competency, performance and how various factors play out in the career of a professional. In all situations, however, it is a truism that all but one professional will reach the top. It is also a truism that the professional at top can also slide down in no time (CEO firing is not as uncommon as one would wish it to be). 

Keeping in view some of the above aspects what can a mid-career professional do? Can he really do much or anything?  Can mid-life crisis be managed? There are some aspects which can be managed and many more which can’t be. Knowing which ones can be managed and which ones can’t be is as important as effectively managing the ones that can be managed and hoping for the best for the ones that can’t be managed.

Worst are those mid-career professionals who are in small organizations as they may have limited opportunities to learn and grow and in case they are made redundant will find it very difficult to get another job. Small organizations are generally managed by an old boys club which would be reluctant to induct a mid-career professional as part of the club. And mid-career professionals, especially those in the midst of second mid-career crisis, will not find it easy to get into a bigger organization since they will lack the understanding of scale and complexity of business in a big organization (as compared to a small organization).

Such professionals should try to move back to a bigger organization, join the rat race to reach as high as possible, and the moment they realize they will not be able to reach the first, second or third level and become redundant in the next organizational restructuring, put a plan to move back to another smaller organization at a level or two up at the bigger organization or get into a startup or get into consulting, etc.

Slightly better are those mid-career professionals, especially those in the midst of second mid-career crisis, who work in a bigger organization as some of the second level professionals might move into a smaller organization and become the top man. Many others who move out or forced to move out can end up starting their own consulting or advisory firm. Some others may float start-ups and designate themselves as the founder and top man. However, most of these professionals end up realizing very soon that this movement is generally one way with a slim chance to return to a bigger organization.

Such professionals the moment they realize they will not be able to reach the first, second or third level and become redundant in the next organizational restructuring should put a plan to move back to a smaller organization at a level or two up at the bigger organization or get into a start-up or get into consulting, etc.

Far better are those mid-career professionals who are founder and owner of a small or medium sized organization whose business model has potential to grow further. And best are those whose company becomes big by the time they enter mid-career.

Such professionals should try to ensure the survival of their organization as they will not find it easy to work for others in case their business fails for any reason. Some of such professionals might sell their business to another organization in a life-time deal and then retire.

They will not need to work for money any longer but may pursues many ideas purely for the kick one may get from them. However, they will need to stay focused on avoiding living on the edge as that can wipe their wealth rapidly in no time.

Popular Posts

Blog Archive