The Next Act—Pivot to Focus on Your Superpower

what is your mission?The Next Act series at Management Excellence is dedicated to helping experienced leaders and professionals revitalize and reinvent.

In the dozens of discussions I’ve held with 50-somethings on this Next Act career topic, I can literally count on one hand the number of individuals who expressed satisfaction with their work. It seems that after several decades of hard work, people are growing tired of the corporate grind. The most common answer to, “What’s next?” has been, “retirement.”

And please note, I’m not seeking out people who are dissatisfied or leading the witnesses in this informal research initiative. I’m simply reconnecting with old friends and colleagues and if the career discussion emerges (and it always does), I ask questions. 

When asked how they might spend their time in retirement, the typical answer is, “play more golf.”  While that’s an option, playing golf for the next 20 to 25 years might not be as interesting or fulfilling as they imagine. Frankly, it strikes me as a potential tragedy and loss of potential to have so many wise, experienced and capable people out on the links chasing around a little white ball.

Rethinking Your Options—Pivot to Your Superpower:

After listening to their career and job laments, I eventually work in some form of the question, “What is it about your work that you still love?I watch people light up as they focus on aspects of their work that give them energy and joy and fulfillment. One senior executive went on and on over his passion for mentoring younger professionals. Another loved the challenge of solving vexing technical problems and several senior sales executives described their passion for working with customers. While they didn’t use the word, “superpower,” it’s clear to me that these areas of enjoyment reflect their own unacknowledged or under-utilized superpowers.

The answer to this dilemma of late-career fatigue is simple. Simple, but not simplistic. This is the point-in-life when we are finally able to tap our great reserve of know-how and discover the incredible source of fresh energy that comes from tapping our respective superpowers. I’m not sure what laws suggest that the senior executive who loves mentoring cannot create a new, productive and yes, even lucrative role out of coaching or advising. (No one said you have to take a vow of poverty as part of this finding fresh joy in your work.) The senior sales executives might prefer to pick up a bag again, perhaps in another firm or more likely as a contract or manufacturer’s representative. The technical expert is needed in all manner of different environments.Extending the process, there are a tremendous number of problems in our world looking for solutions.

How might you pivot to focus your considerable experience and wisdom on solving one of those problems?

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsFor most of us, our work up until our early 50’s is about our families and our security. If that mission has been accomplished, it’s time to turn our abilities towards making a difference for someone else and as a result, for ourselves. Success was the driver before and shifting gears to significance can be career and life extending.

The real challenge may be finding the courage to escape the golden handcuffs binding you to your corporate situation as part of pivoting to your superpower. After a lifetime of climbing the ladder and earning the rewards of success, the gravitational pull of the status quo is strong. It’s easy to do the math and to rationalize running in place for a few more years. And for some, this is enough. For many however, there’s still the urge to do more, achieve more and help more. It’s just that the definition of success has changed.

The trappings of corporate life in our later years are mostly illusory. The office, the title, the power are all superficial and capable of being taken without our consent at a moment’s notice. Yet, you have something you are great at…something that you are passionate about and an audience waiting for you. Somewhere.

The answer to “what’s next?” other than marking time on golf greens until you die is likely right in front of you. It’s your superpower. You just need to take the time to see the intersection of your skills and your passion. Most of us know right where to find this sweet spot. However, we stop short of making the pivot. It’s uncomfortable to think about and frightening to undertake. Until you do it.

If you believe there’s something more for you to do with your productive time in life, it’s essential for you to figure out how to make the pivot.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

When the fire goes out on your urge to participate in the issues of your time, it’s a loss for all of us. Before that pilot light is extinguished, take the time to remember what it is you love to do and how that might play in fixing, helping or guiding someone or some group. While pushing away from the corporate desk might seem impossible, it’s not. The only one holding you back is staring at you in the mirror.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Art of Managing—Bad Boss? Are You Sure it’s Not You?

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsJust about everyone I’ve encountered recently—or so it seems—has an ax or two to grind with their boss. From, “she just doesn’t understand me,” to, “he’s only in it for himself,” to, “he micromanages me,” the complaints sound like the story lines of bad (redundant?) relationship-gone-wrong episodes of the Dr. Phil Show.

I ran into an individual celebrating leaving an alleged miserable manager in the lurch by quitting. Another was busy scheming of ways to undercut her manager by sinking one of the manager’s pet projects. (Harsh and stupid!) And, the coldest cut came from someone genuinely positive that his manager was out on sick leave. I asked whether it was serious, and the guy laughed and said, “It’s not my problem.” (Harsh and cruel!)

I’ve experienced my own fair share of individuals in leadership roles who would have struggled to organize a pumpkin judging contest for 8-year-olds. And there are more than a few I’ve encountered, where it has  crossed my mind that karma will be a b@tch. However, newsflash: it’s not always the manager that’s the issue.

If you’re struggling with a challenging boss, a bit of mirror-gazing might just be the ticket. While never excusing or defending bosses who violate ethics, values, and common courtesy, there are a good number who work hard at this most difficult of all tasks of being responsible for the work of others, and still end up on the short-end of your judgment. However, I can assure you from long experience, that a good number of you are no day at the beach to work with. (And yes, I resemble that remark. I made life challenging for a number of my well-intended managers. Too brash, too zealous, too aggressive—guilty on all counts.)

Take a look at the list, and if the mirror isn’t clouded by a bit too much ego, perhaps you might just catch a glimpse of yourself.

The Boss’s Top 10 Challenging People:

1. The One Who Doesn’t Think for Himself. Your favorite question is, “How would you like me to handle this?” Your favorite complaint is, “She’s a micromanager.” Hmmm.

2. The Soap Opera Star. Yes, it’s unfortunate that you crashed your 23 year-old car while driving your child to his court-mandated counseling the same morning you accidentally fed your dog cat food and the cat ate the bird in protest. You could sell tickets to your weekly stories, and while I empathized 52 tragedies ago, you’re wearing thin. I’m not sorry that I’m holding you accountable to the same standards for timeliness and productivity as your colleagues.

3. The Us-v-Them Revolutionary. It’s great that you take your role in building our culture seriously, however, if you would start working and spend a little less time raising a militia to confront the evils of management, perhaps things would go better for you.

4. The Office Politician. You’re networking skills are excellent. In fact, it seems like you are perpetually running for an office that doesn’t exist. Now,  about your project, your deadlines, your team’s performance…

5. The Outraged One. Yes, I know you find it preposterous and outrageous and reprehensible that anyone might dare to offer you specific, behavioral, constructive feedback. If I’m a jerk for doing this important part of my job, so be it. Here’s some heartfelt advice: GET OVER YOURSELF!

6. The Harmonizer. I love your idealistic view to what the workplace should look like. In your mind, there’s a lot of hand-holding and harmony and peace and orderliness. In reality, we’re running flat out for survival, and the process is just a bit messy. Work with me and I’ll work with you.

7. The One with the Chip on the Shoulder. Seriously, not everything is an insult to your intelligence. Your propensity to start an argument for dominance with anyone who you think even looks at you funny is annoying. Much like the advice to the Outraged One, GET OVER YOURSELF!

8. The Knowledge Hoarder. OK, we know you’re smart. Your willingness to only dole out nuggets of wisdom on the second Tuesday of the month is just annoying. And, it’s definitely not a strategy for long-term growth and development. Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are…

9. The Conspiracy Theorist. There are no aliens or alien craft on the third floor; that executive meeting wasn’t about you, and the look that you think you got from your boss’s boss wasn’t the, “Remind me to fire him” look. You see conspiracies where there are none and you play games where no one else sees the playing field. It’s obvious and funny and sad at the same time.

10. The “What’s My Career-Path” One. OK, good managers love people who want to develop and grow. It’s the people who want the promotion before they develop and grow that we struggle with. Newsflash: your progress down any path requires hard work, great results and signs that you can take on increasing levels of responsibility and deliver. While I can explain possible paths and strive to understand your interests and skills, and I can give you new challenges, I cannot predict your future. You make your future one step at a time!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s no doubt your manager owns the majority of the heavy lifting for building an effective working environment and for building effective working relationships. However, you are a stakeholder in this situation with a significant investment—your time and energy and your future prospects. The relationship is a two-way street. If things aren’t going well with the boss in your mind, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror at your own behaviors and make a few adjustments.

Thoughts on Navigating a Career Setback

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas, guidance and inspiration for your professional pursuits. Use the ideas in great career health!

Just about everyone I know has experienced a career setback at some point in time. Whether it’s the recognition that you made a poor choice or, you’ve been downsized, right-sized, outsourced and off-shored or, flat-out terminated, these often unexpected segues are painful. The challenge is to move beyond the pain and self-pity to something much more productive as quickly as possible.

Your natural inclination following a setback is to continue to replay the film reel over and over in your mind, looking for your missteps. This counter-productive process plays mind games with you. One client indicated she was having imaginary conversations with her ex-boss over and over again in her mind, working herself into a “would-have/could-have/should-have” bout of anxiety. Another individual remained in his darkened apartment and ordered in for about a week. He gained 10 pounds and in his words, “accomplished nothing but creating extreme gastric distress from his eating and endless review of the sequence of events that led to his termination.”

You cannot eat your way out of your past mistakes or bad luck, and no matter how articulate you become in your mind, your imaginary discussions won’t change the outcome. It’s time to do something other than sit and sulk.

7 Ideas to Help You Begin Moving Beyond a Career Setback:

1-Quit Looking for the Time Machine. I’ve been searching for one of these for years, but they don’t exist. You cannot go back and undo what has happened. If you were blindsided, acknowledge the unfortunate turn of events. If you were a party to a career crime, recognize your mistakes and culpability and put the experience in your rear-view mirror.

2-Turn off the Endless Film Loop. Reviewing the lowlights over and over again only breeds internal anguish and somatic symptoms. Pull the plug.

3-You’re More than Your Job or Title. It’s natural to feel like you’ve lost your identity. You need to remind yourself that it wasn’t your job, it was your firm’s. You were paid for your work and you have no claim on the job, the title, the former team members and the projects you were working on. They’re not yours. They never were. Let them go.

4-Get Physical. Immediately. The world feels different after physical exertion. If you’re out of shape, visit the Doctor and gain permission to get started. If you’ve been a weekend warrior in the gym, take it up about three notches. One professional described his workouts as his “corporate detox program.” The positive effects on your mind and body will alter your mood for the better with every workout.

5-Recognize that Sometimes (Often) these Events are Blessings. Unless you just give up, you will end up somewhere. While it sounds like a cliché, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have reported ending up somewhere better than where they were as a consequence of the setback. I recently ran into someone I fired 10 years ago. Not certain what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised when he greeted me with, “I’ve been wanting to thank you for the past 8 years.” After discussing his latest successful venture, I reminded him that the event was a decade old. He looked at me and smiled, and said, “I know.”

6. Explore a Pivot.  For many mid or late-career professionals, a setback offers a window of time to explore different directions. Don’t just think about exploring them, dig in and do your research and fieldwork. Consider taking on an role in the general zip code of your interest as part of your research. For a brief moment, you have the time to explore options and consider embarking upon a fresh journey.

7. You Were Just Knocked Down—Get Back Up. Nothing solves a problem like deliberate action. Put your skills and energy to work building a plan to get to your next step and then get started. Build a search and networking plan and execute it. Carefully craft a message to deal with the eventual awkward question of what happened. Acknowledge what you’ve learned, don’t lay blame and indicate how this is fueling your drive to strengthen and contribute. Don’t let the fear of these discussions keep you from moving ahead.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This too shall pass. The gravitational pull of self-pity is powerful and it’s something you have to fight with all of your being. A setback doesn’t define you unless you let it. The future is yours to create one day and one adventure at a time.



The Next Act—for Later Career Leaders

Seeking Leadership WisdomThe Next Act series at Management Excellence is dedicated to helping experienced leaders revitalize and reinvent.

Note from Art: with this post, I’m launching a new, on-going feature here at Management Excellence, focused on the issues and needs of later career leaders.

New and emerging leaders are our future. It’s essential to support their development as they take the reins in our challenging world. They are and will remain the focal point of my content here at Management Excellence.

However, there’s an audience whose needs in my opinion are grossly under-served in the career and leadership blogging and writing ecosystem: the later-career (read: over-50) senior leaders and executives.

Having spent a few years living in this demographic, I’ve listened as executive after executive has shared some form of the same set of needs outlined below. While most contemplate these issues in silence, I’ve learned that for many, they’re never far below the surface.

Here are a few of the comments/observations I’ve heard in recent months:

How do I juggle the demands of my role as a senior leader with a need to be more involved in my personal life?

I love to work. It’s not about work-life balance…it’s about doing the work I love. That’s balance for me.

How do I refresh and even transform myself and my career for this last leg of the journey?

How do I spend more time and energy focusing on significance and less on chasing success?

How do I detox from my 30-plus years of corporate life and regain my energy, fitness and sense of adventure?

Somewhere along the way, I lost myself. I want to get “me” back.

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsSomething funny happens on your way through your career and life. You wake up one day and your priorities shift. The goals you chased for so long have largely been achieved. Yesterday’s pursuit of title and compensation seems shallow in hindsight. The traditional career track offers few new options, and yet, you are approaching the peak of your wisdom and experience with so much to give back somewhere to someone.

Oh, and at your last physical, the doctor suggested rather strenuously that you need to drop 30 and start moving or you’re facing a whole new host of problems in the not-too-distant future.

All writing is personal, and there’s no doubt this new and on-going feature is motivated by my own experiences and the experiences of many of my clients and colleagues over the past few years. I had the doctor visit mentioned above and it was considerably worse than described. Nine months later, I’m 40 pounds lighter and in the best shape of my life since I was 18. (My wife agrees.) I’m writing a new book, polishing a keynote and importantly, focusing all of my professional energies on helping great people develop and transform as effective leaders and happy people.

The over-50, experienced and wise crowd will continue to play a critical, meaningful role in this world. While there’s no doubt many traditional career options will be ruled out for this audience (yes, youth is highly valued in a world where ironically, youth plus wisdom will be essential for survival and success), there are remarkable challenges to be undertaken and accomplishments to be earned for those who have traipsed around the block of life for a number of decades.

Often, what’s needed is a nudge or a kick in the seat to help people move beyond a creeping sense of the end of the road and into action. 

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are some remarkable veins of gold to be tapped in mining the needs of the later-career leader. Here’s hoping we build a community of similar adventurers in this new feature and help a good number of great people apply their wisdom in new and meaningful ways. After all, your best work is still ahead of you. You’ve been practicing for it your entire career!

Up next in the series:

  • Change your body, change your mind
  • How to begin exploring options for your next act

Leadership Caffeine™ Are You Making Time for the Big Topics?

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

When it comes to the forward-looking issues around talent, team and strategy development, the uncomfortable answer to the question in the post headline for just about all of us (myself included) is, “Not enough.”

From CEOs to front-line supervisors, there’s a gravitational pull to the daily urgent and urgent-unimportant that keeps us from the meaty and meaningful work of leading and planning.

Ask someone to shadow you for a day and then report on what they saw, and I suspect their description will focus on you flitting from one issue and brief encounter and meeting to another.

While there’s no doubt that the best leaders teach on-the-fly as they engage with team members, there are components of the role that require concentration and deeper thinking and dialog than the daily transactions. Coaching, feedback and professional development are the items most frequently sacrificed on the altar of time-pressures and they’re typically reserved for the annual performance evaluation…a poor substitute for regular, quality discussions. Taking time to work on strategy is also compartmentalized to a limited number of discussions, typically around the horrid annual offsite that tends to serve as the time for strategy.

In most of our days, there’s little time for us to think deeply about our work, our people or our business, and there’s little time for us to engage with individuals or teams in meaningful dialog about performance, growth and direction. And while we all get a strong vote in how we spend our time, there’s an almost addiction like quality to the pursuit of our more transactional activities.

A few years ago, I was engaged to coach a senior sales executive. His CEO was concerned about the lack of forward-planning for team, talent and strategy, and he asked me to shadow him for a few days.

After observing the sales executive in action, I asked him when he found time to focus on strategy and talent development for his team. His thoughtful and honest answer was, “I don’t. I enjoy the thrill of the daily hunt for business.”

I appreciated his honesty however, with that type of focus, it was clear he was the wrong person to be in a senior sales executive role. His priorities better fit the regional sales leader. We moved him to a role where he excelled in guiding the hunt for a smaller group and replaced him with someone focused on developing talent and refining and driving strategy execution at an organizational level.

My biggest gripe on the short-term preoccupation is reserved for the CEOs who are supposed to but mostly fail to model the right leadership behaviors as part of building their firm’s culture and future. We’re prone to mimicking the behaviors of those with power and influence and if the top boss doesn’t place a premium on either the developmental or forward looking strategy issues, than neither will her direct reports. It cascades downhill.

It’s Time to Make a Change:

Whether the deficit in your quality time with team members around development or planning is one of omission or commission, you can make changes in your approach and activities and move towards a better balance for everyone involved. Here are 4 ideas to support your effort to regain the high ground on the critical leadership and planning issues.

4 Ideas to Help You Increase Your Time Focused on the Big Topics of Developing Talent and Strategy:

1. Build the Time In to Your Calendar. While this is a bit of the “Captain Obvious,” it amazes me how few people actually block time in their calendars to allow for development and strategy work. The worst offenders are those who allow their calendars to be managed by others…either directly or indirectly through the endless scheduling of status meetings. Time is YOUR most valuable asset…act like you own your own schedule and set your priorities.

2. Measure Your Time Investment in Development and Planning Discussions. We all know that what gets measured gets done. One senior team established a time-target for development and strategy work and we’re evaluated on their performance versus the time targets. While there was no effective way to measure the quality of the time invested, the genuine accountability to report back on time and activities kept the issues front and center. To an executive, they did the same for their direct reports. It cascades downhill.

3. Let Your Team Members Own the Developmental Discussions. While slightly in contrast with my plea in #1 above to take control of your time, I observed a senior manager who shifted the accountability for regular scheduling of development discussions to her direct reports. In this case, it worked brilliantly. The direct reports developed a heightened sense of their own need to do the heavy lifting for their own professional development and would schedule time with the senior manager that turned out to be more mentoring than performance feedback. In this case, it worked.

4. Introduce “Future View” Discussions into Your Regular Meeting Routine. One CEO economized on his operations meeting agenda and added a “Future View” discussion to each monthly session. Participants were required to report back at the monthly session on issues, trends or ideas stimulated by customer input or observation or study of the broader bigger business landscape and market forces. She required every participant to come armed with one observation and to address it in the form of three questions:

  1. How might this issue/observation change everything for us, our industry and customers?
  2. Specifically, what does it mean for us?
  3. What if anything should we do about it.

The rich discussions blossomed into a separate quarterly strategy review where the firm’s strategy was vetted against the key trends and observations. They broke the back of talking about external factors once per year by introducing a simple, but not simplistic technique.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It takes effort to move beyond the issues immediately in front of us and focus on important, albeit more abstract topics like talent development and strategy. The mistake too many of us make is never pulling ourselves away from the urgent. The daily work is never done. However, the time invested in helping people grow and challenging and checking your assumptions about the external world is the time investment that pays real dividends for your efforts. Manufacture the time to talk about the big issues. You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.