Building a career can be like playing a game of snakes and ladders. You receive a promotion, and ascend. A colleague lands a plum role ahead of you, and you slide back down. Some people never manage to climb the ladder out of middle management: it is easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, and end up passed over for senior roles again and again.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By being forward-thinking, doing the next big job before it’s technically yours and managing your time well, you can escape the middle management trap.
Have a plan
It’s important to have an idea where you want to go with your career. It’s fine to take opportunities as they come up but if you want to end up in a really senior position, envisage the path that can get you there.
Charlotte Lions was deputy managing director of a fast-growing quantitative research firm before becoming department head at market research company, The Source. "I always had a plan," she explains. "At 21, I knew I wanted to be a director by the time I was 28, so I took the jobs at the companies that would help me fulfil that ambition.
Work on your personal development
Take a hard look at your skills and experience and work out where the shortfalls are. Get the training or mentoring you need to fill the gaps, whether that’s within your organisation or outside it.
"I knew that I needed to grow and develop my industry knowledge and experience," explains Anna Delvecchio, commercial account director at infrastructure giant Amey.
"I didn’t want to stagnate so making time to think about your own personal development is key." Sometimes, a non-executive role or short-term project or contract can help you learn valuable new skills, she adds.
"I have found that side steps and secondments can be invaluable, as per my recent secondment co-leading the development of the industrial strategy rail sector deal. This was a fantastic opportunity and experience and has given me greater impact internally and externally as well as improving my business skills."
Try to avoid getting bogged down in minutiae
The people who reach senior positions are really great at managing their time: they delegate the grunt work and focus on big, strategic moves that attract positive attention.
"If you want to be senior, you have to stop managing work and people and start managing the business," says Lions. "Employ people to take on the work. If you’re not able to hire people yourself, then speak to your manager about expanding your team. Ask if you can manage the new starters. Businesses grow when you have the right people behind you. I would be really impressed if someone took the initiative in my team, and asked to manage so-and-so because I want to do more of x or y."
Don’t be passive
Promotions aren’t always easily won; they have to be fought for. Approach your boss with an evidence-based argument for being promoted.
Delvecchio says that it can help to have several people in your corner too. "It’s important to make sure you’re being considered for new roles," she explains. "It’s not just about expressing interest, I have a number of mentors who have supported me over the last couple of years, as well as joining several industry groups to grow my network externally and help raise my visibility."
Start your own business
Speech and language therapist Anna Allen found herself caught in the middle management trap when she became a team leader a decade ago.
"I was given more and more 'management' responsibilities - meetings about meetings - so I spent less and less time with patients," she says. "I left this job for a post at the top of the pay band below. This is the ceiling for a solely clinical post."
Rather than let the experience stymie her ambition, she has set up a private practice outside her NHS work. This has let her take control of her career, while allowing her to continue the job she loves.
Unfortunately, the best way to get ahead is often to switch employers. If you have been passed over or ignored at your current organisation, go for a promotion somewhere else.
According to Lions, it is easier to get caught in middle management at bigger corporations. "It’s not hard to reach the middle but it’s really hard to get more senior because of the structure," she explains.
"I left a job with a big company that employed thousands worldwide to join a company with just 10 people. There, I was able to shine. I had autonomy for the first time: I was left to sink or swim, which brought out my entrepreneurial streak and helped me to grow."
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