Many mid- and late-career managers find themselves forced out of their jobs before they are ready to retire. A study last year found that more than half of older U.S. workers confront this risk. In this opinion piece, Jeff Pundyk offers insights into the factors driving this trend as well as steps late-career managers can take to prepare if they find themselves on the outs. Pundyk is the former publisher of The McKinsey Quarterly and also led the Thought Leadership team at The Economist.
Congratulations. You just got that promotion you’ve been working toward. You are a vice president or a director or an executive vice president or a senior vice president or the chief something or other. It is well-earned recognition of a great career. Enjoy it.
Oh, and get ready to be fired.
Mid- and late-career management is being hollowed out by consolidation, technology, the gig economy and globalization, leaving experienced workers unprepared to navigate the new world of work. According to a study published last year by ProPublica and the Urban Institute, “more than half of older U.S. workers are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire, suffering financial damage that is often irreversible.”
While you may not be in any short-term risk, you need to start acting like you are. Too often when experienced workers who have developed the skills to rise within an organization find themselves displaced or stuck among a shrinking cohort, their skills, expectations, and experience fail them. And the older they are, the greater the risk — and the tougher it can be to find something new.
Why? Because their skill set is narrow, their networks are limited, and their mindset is still based on an old idea – that with more responsibility comes more security.
This is no longer true. Organizational structure is changing fast, becoming leaner, less hierarchical and more fluid. Simultaneously, the commitment of companies to employees is becoming more transactional. Remember all those talks you’ve had about your “career path”? The very idea is dated, meant to give you the illusion of a long-term commitment and to build a sense of dependence on the organization.
The mid- and late-career mindset needs to change.
Old Deal, New Deal
The old deal was clear: Work hard, develop specialized skills and rise in the ranks. Status, security and stability followed. Today, there is a premium on agility, adaptability and collaboration, all skills that are very different from the ones that got most middle managers this far. Even the biggest organizations are becoming cross-functional and team based, working with resources both inside and outside the traditional organization.
Those who can adapt will both shore up their value within their organization and be better prepared should they find themselves on the outs.
Adopt an “untitled mindset.” You are not your title. You are not defined by your job. In fact, in today’s world, it’s useful to think of your job as a project. Hopefully, it will be a long-running project, but it is a project, nonetheless. And understand that projects begin and end. Rather than thinking in terms of a career growth path, try defining a series of projects within your organization. Form a team, accomplish a project, disband the team, and move on to the next project and the next team. In this world, job titles and even job descriptions are less relevant than your contribution and your ability to draw on the right resources.
“Organizational structure is changing fast, becoming leaner, less hierarchical and more fluid.”
Develop a portfolio of projects. What is really important that you get from your work? Is it structure? Prestige? Access? Money? Impact? Companionship? Purpose? Something else? Get involved in outside projects that can provide some of these things. And, not incidentally, use those projects to develop new skills, to expand your external network, and to test ideas. You will find yourself energized in new ways while you hedge the risk of being completely dependent on your employer.
Save for the worst case. Be ready to provide your own financial security for longer than you might think should you find yourself unemployed. Start an emergency fund that can extend your severance. It will give you the flexibility to try new things, to wait for the right opportunities, and it can keep some of the stress of the situation at bay.
Embrace ambiguity. Disruption, volatility, restructuring, new business models, new partners, agility – all these bring with them real ambiguity. And with ambiguity comes the opportunity to stretch, to innovate and to develop your own skills.
But first, you have to recognize ambiguous situations and treat them differently. For many mid- and late-career people, this can be uncomfortable; experience seems to count for little. Developing a comfort with ambiguity and pushing in the face of that ambiguity to do things that don’t come easily is an essential survival skill whether you work in a big company, a startup or independently.
Always be learning. The world is moving fast. Keep up. The knowledge and skills that got you this far are just the ante. Read everything. Try emerging technologies and platforms. Admit what you do not know and acknowledge that what you do not know can be important. Rediscover your curiosity.
Know your story. There was a time when your title and your company name were your story. Your job title was your calling card, your identity, a source of pride, and a shorthand that everybody understood.
Today that answer traps you in a narrow box. Your resume is not your story. It is all those projects. It is all those networks. It is all those ambiguous situations that you navigated. It’s the missed opportunities as well as the success. It’s the hard-earned lessons learned.
Spend some real time thinking about the arc of your experience. What are the through lines? What are the critical moments? What’s your story?
“There was a time when your title and your company name were your story.…Today that answer traps you in a narrow box.”
Tell it. Over and over. Make the time to network. Do not wait until you must. Rather, one of your projects should be meeting with people purely for the purpose of hearing more perspectives and sharing yours. Too often, the day-to-day work overtakes the things we think of as ‘nice to do.’ Networking is not a ‘nice to do.’ It’s a must do. It will make you more valuable to your organization and it will make you better prepared for change in every form it may take.
I am not suggesting a late-stage pivot or a second career, although either could be an outcome of adopting this mindset. I am suggesting that mid- and late-career managers need to make significant adjustments to how they approach their careers. They must expand their skills in order to manage a structural change for which nobody has trained them.
This much is irrefutable: Having a job no longer solves for stability. It can provide some sense of security for as long as it lasts, but don’t mistake short-term security for long-term stability. With the right mindset, however, stability can come from you, not from your employer.