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