Surviving a Mid-Career Crisis

Amy was identified early on by her company as a high-potential employee.  Never one to shy away from increased responsibilities (and the accompanying stress), Amy was well respected by her colleagues and management for her tenacity and seemingly boundless energy.  It was no surprise for anyone when she quickly advanced through the rank and file and found herself in a high-profile role with responsibilities that put her front and center with corporate, interacting with associates from many departments.  She had a knack for managing it all and doing it with the type of professional demeanor we all could take a lesson from.  Then, as things inevitably do, something changed.  Amy’s innovative ideas were waning; she was no longer the fresh-faced newbie with a solution for some of the company’s most pressing issues.  While she still added value and performed her job at an above average level, something was different.  She was different.

Enter the “Mid-Career Crisis.”  Just like its well-known counterpart, the mid-life crisis, the mid-career crisis is a real thing and its impact to the productivity and happiness of a company’s best is often underestimated – until it is too late.  Just what is a mid-career crisis and what can be done to keep seasoned professionals as engaged as they were in the beginning?  These are valid and important questions, not only for employers who have watched some of their best disengage, but also for mid-career professionals who are finding themselves lacking the motivation that was once hard to contain and fighting an increasing level of cynicism – the kind they used to detest in others.  Is Amy becoming the burned-out professional she used to distance herself from?  Possibly.  Have her coworkers and managers noticed the change?  Perhaps.  Is this just an inevitable part of a career cycle of any professional?  Yes, and No.

Disengagement.  Burnout.  Whatever term you use – it is quite common for professionals to experience some form of this at some point in their career.  In fact, one could even say this is a normal part of your work-life existence.  After all, retirement was created for a reason, right?  But still, the mid-career crisis is different.  A mid-career crisis doesn’t go away when a difficult project is completed, when you took a week off, or when that “less-than-liked” coworker has left the company.  I define a mid-career crisis as a persistent crisis of professional identity marked with potentially self-defeating behaviors that had not previously been part of a person’s normal work life.  In Amy’s example, she’s still performing her job well, but perhaps not to her own personal standards. To top it off, she has to fight indifference and monotony; the job hasn’t changed.  For the most part, it’s the same great people, similar challenges, and the role is no less vital to the company than it was before. If she were honest with herself, she’s just not as excited about the work anymore.  She remembers almost gleefully pulling near all-nighters to help the company secure a key client.  Now, when the same type of work presents itself, she suppresses a sigh and tries to convey enthusiasm to her team members.  Oh, and late night work – forget it.  It’ll be there in the morning.

There’s no special formula for getting through a mid-career crisis, or helping your once high-potential employee do so; however, there are some key tools that can be used to get through the crisis and regain the high-potential employee.  Like everything else in life, one must first recognize the signs and acknowledge where he or she is.  “I am having a mid-career crisis.”  There.  You said it.  Step one – complete.  Here are few more tips that can help someone survive a mid-career crisis with their career intact:

  • Solicit honest feedback from a trusted professional mentor.  Now’s not the time to be coddled into a complaint-fest about your coworkers, the company, and corporate America in general.  While it may feel good at the time, the truth is a mid-career crisis is about the individual.  All the benefit enhancements in the world (while nice) won’t change the fact that your work doesn’t make you as happy as it used to.  Use this time to express those sentiments about your career with someone you trust who will maintain your confidence and support you (and hold you accountable) in taking strides to move past the crisis.  For example, Amy finally confesses that she has been avoiding projects that will require outside of the company interaction, something she used to excel at, and that, while she’s doing her job, she’s not giving it her best effort.  While Amy is well beyond “squeaking by” – she’s certainly not setting the world on fire.  Ask your mentor what he or she has noticed about your performance and attitude, their experiences with such matters, and for advice on how to refresh your professional life.
  • Survey your experience and work history.   While this may sound mundane, the effort is well worth the outcome.  As we grow and develop in our professional lives, things become routine.  Knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that have accumulated over the years are just par for the course.  People who perform this exercise are inevitably shocked by the amount of experience they have accumulated over their careers.  This activity is particularly useful for a mid-career crisis sufferer who may need to leverage those KSAs in the near future as part of the effort to reinvigorate their career.  Conducting a thorough professional review isn’t the same as looking at your job description or glancing over your resume from five years ago.  Both are typically woefully insufficient to detail the breadth of a seasoned professional.  Rather, this requires taking a good look at the evolution of your career, special assignments, trainings, and technologies that have allowed you to arrive at your current level.
  • Don’t assume moving to a new company will fix everything.  The good thing about being an established career professional is that you will more than likely be a hot commodity on the job market.  It’s very easy to presume that a job switch is a sure-fire way to reignite one’s passion for their work.  In fact, it could be that all you needed was a change of scenery – a new view, a new office, and new people – even the office coffee tastes better. (Picture the mid-life crisis Corvette.)   It could be that a new job is exactly what gets you out of the mid-career rut.  However, it is just as likely that it won’t.  We’ve all seen at least one person jump from the proverbial “frying pan into the fire” with a job change.  Once you have recognized that you are having a mid-career crisis, suddenly switching jobs could be just a rash as buying a new sports car – but a lot less fun.  While joining a new company is certainly a viable option, the first response to a mid-career crisis shouldn’t be getting your resume into the hands of every decision maker in your field.  Instead, conducting a review of your KSAs, where you are in your career, what may be missing in your current role, and what development opportunities exist is a much better place to start.
  •   Do explore career options internally and externally.  Once you’ve spoken with your mentor, conducted your career review, and suppressed the urge to immediately get your resume out to the world, it is a great time to explore career options.  This is a thoughtful process of taking an inventory of your skills, education, training, general experience, and identifying areas of career interest, along with any gaps or blocks that could impede your ability to put your career on a new trajectory. Exploring career options involves researching positions and organizations, including your own, for opportunities that will maximize your strengths and make use of your experience – without necessarily starting from ground zero.  In many cases, mid-career professionals have gained focused experience in a few areas and broad exposure in other areas.  Ask yourself the following questions:
    1. Is it time to take a deep dive in one of the areas of broad exposure?
    2. Where would such opportunities exist?
    3. Who do I know (or who do people in my network know) that have experience in this field?

These types of questions are an important part of a thorough career exploration for a mid-career professional.

  • Engage with your boss, human resources, or decision maker within your organization.  At some point, it will be time for the conversation about your career within your current company.  These conversations are rarely easy but being prepared is vital.  Instead of blurting out, “I’m just not happy with this job,” in a moment of frustration, you should be better prepared for a, pre-planned, constructive discussion.  Don’t be afraid to share that you’re feeling less challenged in your current role and are interested in exploring new ways that your experience can benefit the organization.  Doing the work of a self-inventory and career exploration will keep you from seeming like just another griping employee.  It will also show your boss that you’re serious about this and have given a change of your career trajectory a lot of thought.   Without the work described above, it might appear to your boss that you simply need a new assignment, a new title (same work), a few paid days off, or a small raise (not that you’d turn it down).  Being well-prepared with your own thoughts and ideas about how you can add value to the organization and enhance your career is key to a positive conversation.

As for Amy, well, she followed the advice laid out above and, after thoroughly preparing, had a meeting with her boss.  Her boss acknowledged that she had noticed a change in her, as well, and was interested in working with Amy to find something that would reinvigorate her.  With a little planning, Amy transitioned to a new technology implementation role that leveraged her knowledge of several business areas and existing positive relationships.  Amy was tasked with implementing a new enterprise system that would push the company to the next level.  Following that change, Amy got back to being the engaged and enthusiastic leader that she had been, and didn’t look back.

Authored by Myra Thomas, Principal, M.D. Thomas & Associates (MDTA)

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