A red ladder attached to a wall symbolising career progression. The ladder ends half way down and two hands are trying to reach it.
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What about career progression for middle managers?

27 Mar 2019

A big part of a middle manager’s job is to ensure each member of their team progresses, but what about the manager themselves? Hays’ Jane McNeill is here to ensure they don’t get left behind.

No one is questioning your strengths as a middle manager. You expertly shape and execute the objectives of your team and you ensure these objectives align with the organisation’s overall strategy. You carefully manage the expectations and pressures from both above and beneath you. But, with so many balls in the air, do you sometimes wonder if you have dropped the one labelled ‘my career progression’?

Multiple studies have been conducted on the happiness of middle managers, including one by Harvard Business Review of more than 320,000 employees at various levels across a variety of organisations. The study found that middle managers were the least happy group of all respondents because they felt they were “on a treadmill rather than a path to a desirable career”.

Does this resonate with you? If so, it’s time to take action. Here’s why.

Continued learning benefits you and everyone around you

Career progression and continued learning go hand in hand. Teaching yourself something new won’t just bring you one step closer to your next promotion, it will also reignite that passion you felt when you first started out in your role. This enthusiasm will not only motivate you to drive your own career forward but will filter down to your team members and inspire them to grow their skills and expertise – all of which will act as a credit to you and your strengths as a manager.

Furthermore, technological change is sweeping across most industries. The more you grow your industry knowledge and stay up to date, the better placed you are to suggest innovative ideas to senior stakeholders and make an impact within the business.

The question is, how can you make your middle management career progression a reality?

Refocus and re-evaluate your goals

No doubt you have plenty of experience helping your team to pinpoint areas for improvement and plot out goals for the next year. Now it’s time to give your own career just as much focus and attention.

Think back to that moment between being promoted and becoming so tied up in management duties. What did you envisage the next few stages of your career to look like? And has this ambition changed, now that you have a better understanding of where the organisation is headed and what its vision is?

Put together some objectives that both align with this vision and what you want next from your career. Just as you would with your direct reports, make these objectives SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-scaled) and regularly check your progress against your goals. Ultimately, start giving your own career progression the same level of focus and management that you give to your direct reports, starting from today.

What might realistically get in the way of you putting your career first?

It’s one thing to acknowledge the need to focus on your progression but it’s another to realistically make time for it in a busy schedule. However, you need to make an ongoing commitment to your development, otherwise you will only end up back in the same stagnant situation that you’re in now. This means addressing the potential barriers to your upskilling, which may include:

1. Your mentality

Be honest with yourself. At the moment, how do you view the tasks that form part of your progression plan? Do you see them as supplementary to your current role and something that you will do when you have time? If so, this may be your first barrier.

Upskilling yourself needs to be treated as a core part of your role as a manager and woven into your current workflow, rather than an afterthought. Otherwise, you’ll put it off when your workload is piling up and you’ll consider joining a webinar, for example, as far less important than ticking a task off your to-do list.

Ultimately, you need to think of upskilling as an investment of your time in your future rather than a cost.

2. Your boss

You may now see your career progression as a priority, but you also need the buy-in from your boss if you want to make your plans a reality.

You may already have had an annual review with your boss in which you discuss your career objectives. If not, sit down with your boss and outline how you want to grow your skills and the ways in which she or he can support you – for example, assistance finding a mentor, or time to attend a webinar or conference. You may also request the organisation’s financial support for a professional course or training. When having this conversation, make the link between your upskilling and the resulting benefits to the business and your team clear.

Having been in your position before, your boss may be able to recommend other means of upskilling that you hadn’t thought of, as well as tips for making time to upskill yourself when snowed under with middle management tasks. This brings me to my next point.

3. Your hectic schedule

I understand how busy middle managers can get, but there are plenty of flexible self-learning options available that can work around you. You can usually access this on-demand on your devices. For instance, you could sign up to an online course and complete segments first thing on a Monday morning before the week gets away from you. You could download a podcast to your phone to listen to on your commute, or you could watch a TED talk on your lunch break.

I would also advise upskilling yourself in ways that involve other people – because this way you can’t cancel and let them down. If you haven’t already, initiate regular catch-ups with your boss where you check in on your progression plan. There’s also a lot to be said for meeting up regularly with a career mentor. This can be someone you look up to, can trust and can rely on to give you confidential, neutral and useful career advice. You should also book yourself into any organisation-funded training, events and talks.

4. Your delegation skills

Lastly, many middle managers also find themselves holding on to tasks that could be delegated to others. Similarly, many feel the need to attend meetings and conference calls that could be attended by somebody in their team on their behalf. Perhaps it’s time to start handing more over to your existing team. As your team members begin to take on more responsibility, resist the urge to micromanage. Instead, be as clear as you can with your expectations, let them do their best and give feedback on improvements to be made for next time.

Your career progression shouldn’t ever take a back seat, no matter how many people you manage or how busy you are. The people around you need you to be motivated, satisfied and the best you can possibly be at your job. For this to be the case, you must make sure you are constantly learning, growing and moving towards something bigger. This can’t be a one-off activity. Instead, consider it your new habit of a lifetime.

So, take a moment to realise your end game, realign your focus and in no time you will feel like your progression plan is back on track.

By Jane McNeill

Jane McNeill is managing director of both New South Wales and Western Australia at recruiting expert Hays.

A version of this article previously appeared on Hays’ Viewpoint blog.

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