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Stuck in jungle of middle management?

5 Career advancement tips for people who are stuck in middle management

Many individuals will reach a point when their careers seem to plateau. For middle management professionals interested in career advancement, those plateaus can feel nearly impossible to overcome.

Because of the critical role they play for their organizations, middle managers often act as the glue between the executive team and the workers. Laura Handrick, careers analyst for Fit Small Business, suggests this is why middle managers can be particularly hard to replace.

“It takes a commitment from the organizational leaders to promote middle managers and risk leaving the team at the hands of a new or less experienced manager,” she says. “Being a great middle manager is often what makes you non-promotable — you’re too good to lose.” 

But if you’ve set your sights on career advancement, know that there are things you can do to ensure you don’t remain stuck. We spoke with a handful of experts to hear their take on the middle management career trap as well as their top tips to help middle managers find success climbing the ladder.

The reality of middle management

One study of nearly 22,000 full-time workers found that middle management professionals experience feelings of anxiety or depression at nearly double the rate of all workers. Middle management occupies what the authors of the study call a “contradictory-class location.” This means that middle managers earn higher wages and have more autonomy than the workers they manage while still earning less than their superiors and having little say in big decisions. In effect, they’re tasked with enforcing strategic policies they had no part in developing. As a result, many of them end up feeling stuck.

“Although middle management is a milestone in anyone’s career, it often acts as a career trap,” explains Brett Helling, CEO of Ridester. “Middle managers are expected to execute many processes, manage big teams, implement new strategies and keep the environment positive. They can get drowned under the massive workload and don’t find enough time to prepare themselves for career advancement.”

A separate study focused on employee satisfaction found mid-level managers fall in the bottom five percent for engagement and commitment. What contributes to their unhappiness? The authors listed things like viewing the organization as inefficient or ineffective, feeling overworked and seeing little opportunity for advancement.

But it takes more than just the desire for advancement to transition out of your middle management rut. You need a different mindset. Katy Curameng, business professor and director of career planning and development at Brandman University, makes note of some of the distinct differences between middle-management and executive-level positions.

“Generally, middle managers are used to solving problems and being rewarded and praised if they can do this well,” she says. “At the executive level, they need to switch their thinking to strategy, innovation and creating new value to drive the organization forward.”

With that in mind, you might find it helpful to review the following five tips our experts have provided for middle managers who hope to take their careers to the next level.

5 Things managers can do to advance their careers

While there might not be a clear path out of middle management, these strategies can help you find your way forward.

1. Become a master of your organization

To progress out of middle management, you need a willingness to step outside of the parameters of your current role. You need to start thinking about the overall organization.

“Middle managers can go beyond their core functional role and demonstrate a good, strategic understanding of the business as a whole — the marketplace, the revenue drivers, the cost profile and the future direction,” says Shefali Raina, a New York City-based executive coach. “Middle managers who build this commercial perspective and demonstrate it in their interactions get seen as seasoned, potential senior leaders.”

It’s also a good idea to get to know how the leaders in your organization work. Gaining a firm grasp on the internal politics of your business can only help you in climbing the ladder. Solidifying your skills in the area of organizational leadership can help you even more.

“Large corporations are political machines and those who understand how politics, messaging and stakeholder management work are best positioned to move up and participate at that level,” Handrick explains.

2. Learn more about industry trends

Successful senior- or executive-level professionals are agile when it comes to trends and keeping the business at the forefront of its industry. Handrick says middle managers need to show they can learn about these things as well.

“They need to be curious, read industry blogs and attend conferences, bringing new ideas and approaches to grow the business,” she says. “No one gets promoted when their mantra is, ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’”

3. Pursue cross-functional and high-growth opportunities

It’s easy to get in the habit of maintaining the status quo, but Jana Tulloch, founder of Tulloch Consulting, says that’s a mistake if you’re looking to advance.

“Those wanting to propel their careers forward need to take a look at where they want to be and what gaps exist in their skill set or in their experience — then seek to fill that gap,” she says. Tulloch also adds that letting your boss know you’re looking to take on more responsibility and sharing your ideas for process or performance improvement can be critical.

James Stefurak, founder of Monarch Research, LLC and managing editor of Invoice Factoring Guide, suggests expanding your impact in areas of the business that have high potential for growth. He recommends taking the lead on new projects.

“Specifically, ask to head up initiatives in a newer, developmental area of the business,” he offers. “Excelling at this new venture will increase your value at the company.” You might also seek out cross-functional projects. This can be an effective way to gain visibility from senior leadership.

“It’s a great way for strong middle management candidates to have a business-wide impact,” she says. “These types of projects help demonstrate that middle managers can lead teams and stakeholders, manage complicated bottlenecks and drive results at senior levels.”

4. Abandon your need to be liked by everyone

When it comes to demonstrating your potential to advance to a more senior position, Helling calls attention to your ability to foster an environment that can bring out the best in everyone. He points out there are five different generations working together, and they all have different working styles and priorities.

“Don’t try to be liked by everyone,” Helling says. “It’s good to have a friendly relationship with subordinates, but remember you are there to lead them.”

If you’re eager to learn more about the range of different leadership styles you could use to be effective in today’s multigenerational workforce, you may find a program like the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) at Brandman University to be particularly helpful. The MAOL program was designed for professionals who are seeking to explore leadership styles and strengthen their ability to focus on individual growth that leads to company success.

5. Empower your team to function without you

Being a leader, Tulloch suggests, is less about monitoring and managing than you may think. “It’s about developing and enabling your team, and it’s about continuous improvement and business growth,” she says.

If your company views you as irreplaceable in your current position, you may be less likely to see opportunities for advancement. But if you focus on empowering the employees you manage to function well without you, you may be able to help pave your own path for success and ask for a promotion.

“If you have a team, find a peer or someone else in the company to serve as your backup or trainee,” Handrick offers. “You need to demonstrate to management that your promotion won’t leave your position empty.”

In the same vein, Handrick encourages middle managers who hope to advance their careers to always take their vacation days, highlighting the importance of self-care. “Allow yourself not to get burned out in the job so that you can keep a positive attitude,” she says. “In addition, your leadership team will see that your team can survive and even thrive without you.”

Take your career to the next level

While you may feel stuck in middle management right now, there are clearly some ways you can work toward career advancement. In addition to acting on the five tips our experts provided, you may find that going back to school could give you an edge in landing that promotion.



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