Are You at Risk of a Mid-Career Rut?

It might sound odd, but people need the most help not at the beginning of their careers, but in mid-career — especially when it comes to making decisions. That’s a key finding from a research study coordinated by one of us (Julia). The study asked 500 college-educated adults in professional careers (representative of 16% of U.S. adults) to indicate the degree of their agreement with statements about their behaviors when making important work decisions throughout their careers. The questionnaire also asked them to assess each decision’s degree of success.

The results were startling: Less than 50% of decisions made in mid-career were rated as successful. People are most susceptible to making decisions that lead to less-than-successful outcomes between the ages of 40 and 48, according to respondent assessments. The people reporting less-than-successful outcomes strongly agreed with such statements as:

  • “When making this decision, I was so busy with day-to-day work that I didn’t have enough time to think strategically.”
  • “At the time I constantly second-guessed myself and tried to talk myself out of making a change.”
  • “I found the whole process of making the decision stressful and unnerving.”

In other words, at the very time when people attain management roles and need to make the decisions that could improve the enterprise — as well as decisions that could advance their career — many become trapped in the status quo. Focusing on the tasks of managing the day-to-day, managers stay in their comfort zones rather than setting new directions.

At the start of their careers, people generally understand that their lack of experience means they need to identify how to become an effective contributor, by learning a company’s processes, practices, and culture. As they gain experience and skills, however, they get more — and more complex — responsibilities tied to enhancing the enterprise’s revenue, profitability, or brand reputation. In other words, mid-career professionals are evaluated on more than simply working within the status quo. They are expected to create and drive purposeful change. The danger is not realizing this shift.

We have found that one reason for not adapting to this meaningful shift in expectations is that — with increasing personal and family responsibilities, as well as higher positions and incomes — the average mid-career manager feels they have more to lose if they make a mistake. They talk themselves into making decisions that play it safe, where they feel in control. They put off decisions when they should be examining what needs to change. In decision-making moments, they overestimate the risks of change and underestimate the risks of preserving the status quo.

That’s not to say these managers are underperformers. They usually have years of hard work behind them in managing processes and producing results. But as they avoid new solutions and ideas for purposeful change, they get passed over for opportunities, promotions, and financial rewards. Feeling stalled in their career, they start feeling undervalued and overworked.

There are ways to break free of this trap. If you find yourself in this position, the first step is to get help from a trusted mentor — someone who has made difficult decisions, taken risks, and managed those risks, and who has the self-awareness to give good counsel. Many companies train supervisors to be more like a coach and a mentor, so start with them. Find someone in your organization who you trust and respect, but don’t feel that you need to stick with only one mentor over time. We have found that it is normal and healthy to seek new mentors throughout your career, people inside and outside your organization who have achieved what you aspire to achieve so that you enrich your learning.

Then find ways to have more exposure to that person. Ask for a meeting to discuss a particularly challenging or exciting work matter, or to learn about how the mentor went about making a difficult decision and helped an initiative become a success. Or invite the mentor to a meeting you’re orchestrating. Alternatively, you can take an indirect approach by observing the mentor from a distance, reading about the person’s career, or attending events where the individual is speaking.

You should always have an important reason each time you ask to connect with your mentor, whether it is a phone call, lunch, or an in-person meeting. Respect their time by reaching out no more than six times a year, and prepare your talking points and questions in advance. Focus on what they did, what challenges they faced, and how they overcame them. The best way to engage a busy person as a mentor is to have genuine curiosity and the desire to learn.

Beyond mentorship, consider getting help from an executive coach on a regular basis. An insightful coach can help you understand what’s holding you back, as well as define a better value proposition for what you bring to your organization. They can help you see the difference between reactive problem management and leading proactive change. Finally, a coach can help you explore options, assess risks, and understand ways to manage those risks.

For instance, consider John (name has been changed). Like many, John focused on today’s goals and problems, confident that evidence-based performance results would lead to promotions. John achieved his team’s target numbers 20 quarters in a row, but after being passed over for bigger jobs three times, he finally reached out to a coach to understand why his career had stalled. John’s boss gave feedback to the coach that he would rather see John take more risks and make a mistake than play it safe all the time. Coaching helped John understand that, while he was delivering results, his decision making around strategic questions needed work. His company was looking for leaders who could drive new ideas for sustainable growth in an intensifying competitive marketplace in addition to contributing to quarterly performance. Once John understood that the work of leading includes — but also extends beyond — the work of managing his team, he could connect his skills to ways he could lead a change in the distribution strategy.

If you’re a mid-career professional, take an honest look at what you are doing on the job. Ask yourself:

  • Do you spend each day getting through what’s on your calendar and to-do list without asking if your involvement makes a difference?
  • Are you critical of change without truly considering the likely consequences of maintaining the status quo or the potential rewards of change?
  • Do you avoid or procrastinate making decisions that you perceive as creating more work for you or as taking on risk you would like to avoid?
  • Are you seeking help to understand how the work of leading is different from the work of managing?
  • Have you articulated what kind of leader you are and what kind of leader you want to become?

If you answered “yes” to any of the first three questions or “no” to the final two, you might want to seek support to ensure your career doesn’t become derailed. If you would rather avoid the subject than seek help, you’re abdicating your power to lead your career. Take charge. After all, you’re not doing your job if you’re too busy to think about the future.

Laurence Minsky is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. His most recent books include Global Brand ManagementThe Activation Imperative, and Audio Branding.

Julia Tang Peters is a leadership adviser to C-level executives and the author of Pivot Points: Five Decisions Every Successful Leader Must Make.


How to Mentor a Perfectionist

It never ceases to amaze us. Bring up the topic of perfectionism in a room full of corporate CEOs, college presidents, or U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, and you’ll see the same knowing smiles and nods of the head. Moreover, you’ll hear thinly veiled bravado about who among them is the most-perfect perfectionist. Many of them will extol the virtues of seeking perfection, and more than a few will include the pursuit of perfection among their notable strengths. Work environments that foster a zero-defect mentality often exacerbate this veneration of perfection.

The erroneous notion of “good perfectionism” is so widespread that many people struggle to distinguish toxic perfectionism from positive characteristics such as desiring achievement, striving for excellence, and setting high personal performance standards. Research by psychologist Thomas Greenspon indicates that it is a mistake to conflate perfection with a striving for excellence. Perfectionism and the desire to excel are not different locations on the same continuum; they are entirely different constructs. The notion of good perfectionism turns out to be a hopeless oxymoron. If perfectionists are successful at work, it is in spite of their perfectionism, not because of it.

Take those same CEOs, college presidents, and service academy students, and mention that habitual perfectionism is linked to emotional distress, relationship dysfunction, and even the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and the smiles and bravado will begin to fade. True perfectionists know these hidden costs all too well.

The science on perfectionism as a personality syndrome reveals that perfectionism consists of two discrete elements. First, perfectionists set impossibly high — and clearly unattainable — standards for their own performance. Second, perfectionists are relentless in severely criticizing themselves for failing to achieve those performance hurdles. Ultimately, perfectionists are afraid of failure, worry about the possibility of mistakes, are motivated by a strong sense of duty and obligation (rather than enthusiasm or healthy challenge), and are preoccupied with the possibility that others will disapprove of them. Some might even be described as “working scared.”

Rather than a recipe for success, perfectionism is a “script for self-defeat,” says psychiatrist David Burns. In their quest to avoid mistakes, perfectionists stifle their creativity and avoid taking necessary risks. Self-critical perfectionists are significantly more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression (guilt, anger, sadness, low energy, lack of pleasure), anxiety, hopelessness, and even suicidal thinking.

How does perfectionism take root? Although the science is imperfect, perfectionism appears to blossom from some combination of genetic predisposition, parental behavior or modeling, and sociocultural factors. In addition to modeling emotional distress and anxiety about their own performance, there is evidence that perfectionist parents are more critical, demanding, and less supportive of their children. Perfectionist parents may use affection and approval as a reward for flawless performance. When children are imperfect or make an error, the parent’s obvious disappointment or anxiety will be interpreted as rejection.

Gender also matters. Not only are women more prone to “inherit” a parent’s perfectionism — particularly a mother’s — but they also encounter a host of biases and stereotypes regarding their competence, which can fuel the need to strive for flawless performance. Among these, the prove-it-again bias may be the most pernicious. To be seen as equally competent, women are often required to demonstrate their competence again and again. Men are more likely to be evaluated on potential, while women are evaluated on performance. And performance standards for women tend to be strictly enforced. This means that while men’s blunders may be forgiven or forgotten, a mistake at the hands of a woman is scrutinized and remembered, fueling a woman’s self-imposed and self-critical demands for perfection.

In historically masculine organizations and professions, women are more vulnerable to imposter syndrome. In these contexts, even the most competent and high-achieving women can harbor doubts about whether they belong and even whether or not they are deserving of their own successes and achievements. Such internalized gender bias, when coupled with external stereotypes at work, may create a perfect storm of self-doubt, self-criticism, and the setting of impossible standards for performance.

A perfectionist is a tough person to mentor or coach. The most productive and meaningful relationships are characterized by transparency, reciprocity, openness, and trust. Yet a perfectionist never lets a mentor discern areas for growth and development. Not even relative weaknesses are shared. And so a perfectionist’s desperate need to appear flawless may sabotage the value of mentoring or coaching. Even if a mentor astutely diagnoses a mentee’s perfectionism, the mentee may resist the mentor’s efforts to accept imperfection.

What’s a mentor to do? Here are several imperfect but promising strategies for helping a mentee overcome the most insidious effects of perfectionism at work:


  • Check your own perfectionism at the door. Have you struggled with unreasonable personal standards and self-criticism? If so, be particularly cautious about the model you offer mentees, and appreciate the risk of — openly or subtly — endorsing a mentee’s self-defeating perfectionism.
  • Focus your mentoring on affirmation, validation, encouragement, and support. Express value for your mentee, not their performance, first and foremost. When your mentee falls short or believes they have failed, help them to cultivate a sense of curiosity, inquiry, and risk taking about what went wrong and different approaches for moving forward.
  • Firmly but kindly identify perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors in your mentee. Challenge them to learn to recognize and reject such unreasonable demands. You can try doing this through artful questioning, like Peter Falk in his character of Columbo (I’m confused, you’re insisting that you be perfect. But like the rest of us, you seem to be human, and of course we know that to err is human. Can you help me understand that?).
  • Employ well-timed self-disclosure about some of your own mistakes and missteps. Show your mentee how you learned from each mistake, how each has been an opportunity to grow professionally, and, most important, how you continue to accept and even like yourself as a fallible human being who strives for imperfect excellence.
  • Never pretend about competence you don’t have. It is often helpful to say, “I don’t know that, let’s find out together,” thereby giving your mentee permission to not have all the answers.
  • Use humor often but thoughtfully. In the anxiety-ridden world of the perfectionist, empathic humor can be medicine for the troubled soul. For instance, when irrational self-demands are expressed in the form of frequent and rigid “I shoulds,” a mentor might lightheartedly say, “I suspect that all that shoulding on yourself isn’t getting you anywhere. Let’s try a more reasonable approach.” Or try a paradoxical intervention to humorously highlight a mentee’s catastrophizing: “Yes, I’m certain you are correct. If you don’t perform flawlessly in the meeting this afternoon, I’ll bet both of us will be fired on the spot, end up homeless, and never be able to find work again.”
  • Push your mentee to be open to the very thing a perfectionist fears the most: imperfection. Elicit agreement from your mentee that they will deliberately make some minor mistakes and refuse to fix them. For instance, ask your mentee to send you an email filled with typos — and to tolerate the anxiety it may create.
  • Recognize and accept that perfectionists can be tough to help. And recognize that you are a thoroughly imperfect mentor.

W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women as well as other books about mentoring.

David G. Smith, PhD, is an active duty U.S. Navy Captain and Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. His research focuses on gender, work, and family issues including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women.





Bring in Outside Experts to Mentor Your Team

Organizations depend increasingly on independent, temporary workers, even for mission-critical work. We call this subset of freelancers who do strategic work in companies or nonprofit organizations agile talent. They contribute technical expertise that an organization does not already have to a critical project or initiative. By providing temporary support, they make it possible for organizations to resource their critical activities more cost efficiently.

Many of the benefits of agile talent have been widely reported. But a benefit that has received less attention is the contribution they can make as mentors to an organization’s full-time staff. Tapping into your outside experts to help in the development of internal employees is a valuable way to address the needs of both. Experts are often looking for ways to help junior people in their profession, and younger employees are hungry for training and development. For example, research by Google, reported by Jolt, points out that less than 20% of tech employees in Silicon Valley believes the training they receive fits their goals and needs.

A practical framework for mentoring is based on the career stages work of Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, former professors at HBS. Their research has found that high-performing professionals tend to transit through four distinct stages of development:

  1. Apprentice: Helper and learner; establishes a reputation for trust, teamwork, and cultural congruity.
  2. Individual contributor: Builds recognized functional expertise; makes a significant independent contribution; demonstrates accountability and ownership for results.
  3. Mentor/coach: Contributes through others as a formal manager, an idea leader, a project owner, or an informal employee developer.
  4. Sponsor/strategist: Sets or influences strategic direction and important decisions; exercises power on behalf of the organization; prepares future leaders.

Stages 3 and 4 are developmental stages where mentoring skills are typically developed and sharpened. And, it turns out, agile talent in stages 3 and 4 is often eager to provide coaching and mentorship to junior professionals working with them.

But it’s not only their career stage that makes agile talent potentially excellent mentors. For example, successful agile talent is, almost by definition, entrepreneurial. They are actively involved in building their business, developing their strategies, growing and maintaining strong customer relationships, and creating a service offering that’s attractive to their market. This type of entrepreneurial mindset is extremely helpful and is very often lacking among full-time employees who don’t have significant market or competitive contact.

How can an organization encourage the mentoring of employees by their critical outside experts? We suggest five steps that leaders can take.

Establish Informal Coaching Relationships

Experts are often brought onboard an organization to solve a crisis. When this is the case, it may be difficult to arrange for a formal coaching relationship with members of your full-time staff. And it may be difficult for agile talent working remotely to provide mentorship to those on-site. But when circumstances are more supportive, stage 3 or 4 agile talent may be eager to support the development of young high potentials or junior professionals in your organization who would benefit from a coaching relationship. In past work, my arrangements with outside experts always included time for them to teach me as well as work with them. These experiences were some of the most valuable of my career.

Provide Channels for Sharing Knowledge

Managers tap these outside experts for help because of their knowledge and experience. Beyond the project contribution, technical and functional experts should be asked to share their expertise and educate the team on best practice insights and new innovations in their field of expertise. A brown bag lunch with the team, for example, helps to build the team’s relationship with these experts and reinforces collaboration and engagement. More-formal methods, such as after-action reviews, are useful too.

Involve Experts as Part of the Brain Trust

Smart project managers know that bringing a team together to collaboratively solve tough problems both builds teamwork and improves performance. Extending this participation to agile talent is a potentially powerful opportunity for young professionals to see new or alternative approaches to problem solving. And it is very likely to lead to closer relationships and greater developmental engagement between outside experts and internal staff employees.

Engage Experts in Providing Developmental Feedback

Many years ago an HBS colleague asked me if I was interested in developmental feedback. I was, and his comment was tough to hear: “You are talented but sloppy. You need to be more organized and disciplined.” It was one of the most helpful bits of advice I’ve ever received. While painful to hear, over the past couple of decades I’ve learned to appreciate the clarity and sincerity of his comments. It put me on a developmental journey that has made me a better professional. In the years that have followed, I’ve consistently done something similar, asking my students and consulting clients if they are interested in feedback. They almost always are.

Connect with Experts’ Networks  

Agile talent is often connected to different networks than the internal team members with whom they are working. I’m frequently asked: Who has interesting ideas? What are you reading? What are the innovations you find most exciting? As a result, I spend a fair amount of time introducing people to one another and suggesting networks to join or individuals to meet. We encourage managers and team members to seek the advice of outside experts and to explicitly have the conversation about who is worth getting to know and where interesting or innovative things are happening.

We live in a time when keeping up technically and professionally is increasingly important and difficult. Mentoring is one of the important tools that managers have to contribute to the development of their team. Utilizing agile talents as mentors and coaches is a way to multiply the value of an organization’s investment in outside experts.

Jon Younger is the founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, a non-profit research organization, and works with several start-ups in the on-demand staffing space. He is the co-author of several books in talent management and HR, including Agile Talent (HBR Press, 2016). He teaches in the executive education faculties of the University of Michigan and the Indian School of Business. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..