The middle management career dilemma


In recent years organisations have become flatter, teams have become smaller - jobs bigger, change is relentless and the pace of business, work and life keeps increasing. Given all this, it’s no wonder so many middle managers feel ‘stuck’ in their careers, wondering where to turn next to find success and fulfilment.                   

As a senior recruiter working on roles across accounting, finance and strategy disciplines, I see some common challenges facing leaders every day. So here’s my take on why this dilemma exists and what you can do about it.

Firstly, I want to say that most senior candidates I meet understand how much the world has changed in the seven years since the global financial crisis. Amidst constant restructuring, technology and market change they are being asked to step up – to do more with less and take a broader commercial view, to lead people and to manage outcomes not processes. And largely they are ready and willing to do all this and more. The question is, how? How does a leader with 20 years’ experience, an expert in their field with well-honed technical or financial skills, reposition themselves to be the kind of leader organisations want to promote or recruit today?

Tip # 1 Develop and demonstrate broad commercial mindset

No matter how technical your skills set or background, employers want leaders who can communicate, influence and manage people at all levels of an organisation. If you’re interviewing for roles with SMEs they are going to look for evidence that you are thinking about what your skills can bring to the whole business not just to your area of expertise. In a large corporate, the senior executive will want to be sure you have one eye on your internal function but also how your decisions impact other functions and more importantly the customer and shareholders’ value. 

Tip # 2 Talk about a focus and passion for achieving outcomes

When people come from an operational mindset where they are specialists in what they do they tend to talk about their experience ‘managing people and processes.’ Yet the rise of cloud computing and the strong push toward off-shoring back office functions, means employers today are looking for leaders who can manage networks of internal stakeholders and service providers to deliver business outcomes. Strong managers often have these skills, but need to re-frame them in an outcome focussed way to be perceived as someone with the drive and commercial acumen to get things done.
Tip # 3 Develop resilience and emotional intelligence

In a recent blog post my colleague, Lucy Ribón, talked about the emotional intelligence (EQ) CEOs are looking for in financial leaders. Change, consolidation, competitiveness and globalisation are not expected to let up so the leaders of tomorrow will be those who are constantly developing their interpersonal skills, self-awareness and personal management skills. This can be particularly challenging for managers with robust technical skill sets who haven’t always had to excel in this area, but I believe every leader now needs to hone emotional intelligence to get ahead.

Tip # 4 Understand where you fit in the strategy and build strong networks

Successful management candidates really understand the company's strategy and align their skills to it in a meaningful way. So I recommend taking the time to understand what the company you want to work for is trying to achieve - now and in the future - and how can you can add value. Once you know the answer spend as much time as you can networking at all levels to make your capabilities known.

Getting that internal promotion or new leadership role hinges on being proactive in managing your career and positioning yourself as someone who can help an organisation achieve its strategic goals. If you need help developing EQ, try to find a mentor or get some coaching. If you need more commercial skills, consider leading or supporting a strategic change program. If you need experience in another function, ask for a secondment. Don’t wait for your organisation to spot and develop your potential. Some do it well but the world is moving fast and each of us is on our own in today’s leadership race.

If you're looking to take the next step in your career, email me at or call us on 03 8399 9300



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