Above 25,000 feet is the Death Zone for Managerial Careers

'Why settle for ordinary when you can be extraordinary'

Scrambling up the greasy organization ladder of success looks easy from the outside. You study hard, work hard, politick hard and then you arrive at the corner office, getting full recognition for your many talents. Right?

Unless something happens to derail you. At the most senior organization levels there is a need for something special, an addition to the success recipe. This overlay skill is a tolerance of ambiguity. Let’s have a quick look at how this works in practice and how you might start to build this skill for the future.

Base Camp 1: Most people can learn how to supervise others. You probably know the work area well. A couple of juniors – who may be marginally more clueless than yourself at that point in your career – secure the prize of having you for a boss. Provided that you don’t get a rush of blood to the head and start to believe that you are God’s gift to Management – you should be able to survive this experience. Learn to live with the idea that you are not friends with the people who work for you. During this early phase of your managerial apprenticeship you start to get things done through others and understand the difference between apathy, empathy and sympathy (go for the middle ground).

Base Camp 2: Assuming you survive the first steps, you might actually be given the job of managing something (it’s not just a new title and business card – you have to really do stuff). The ‘stuff’ under this heading typically becomes more complex. The classic Henry Fayol definition of management as planning, organizing, leading and controlling kicks into play. At this level in the organization, the air is a little thinner, the oxygen of success scarcer. It’s harder to survive because of office or factory politics and you also start to notice a number of competitor climbers. Sometimes, it’s hard to judge who is where on the mountain. Competitors can look like they are climbing well at this early point, but in this ‘snakes and ladders’ game, they can descend quickly – sometimes against their will.

Welcome to the world of perception – where it’s not just what you do – but how you are perceived – that determines your rate of progress. But the really good news here is that spoofers – eventually get caught out; you can’t fool all of the CEO’s all of the time.

Base Camp 3: At this illustrious stage in your career you may be given responsibility for an actual territory. You will be appointed as the Manager for Monaghan or Montserrat or somewhere equally important. The powers that be trust you to find your way to work and home again safely. But you still want more. There are higher levels to conquer – before you finally slip off those managerial crampons. You have your eye on the big prize, that corner office, windows on both sides, a leather couch over which hangs a framed photo of you shaking hands with the President, your own cappuccino machine…

Base Camp 4: Phew! You made it. At this most senior level, leadership is about managing contradictions. Being unable to satisfy stakeholders needs (which are often contradictory), trying to manage today and tomorrow (“80% of my job is internal and the other 80% is external”), attempting to stay focused on the BIG picture but being constantly dragged into the organization tool shed. This is the death zone for most managerial careers. Senior managers can’t talk to anyone internally because it’s ‘politicking’ and so have to overcome the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Leader. They’d survived well in the earlier phases of the climb, but at this level it gets really wooly.

Business Climbers: Edmund Hilary was the first person to conquer Everest. However, if you ask the question “who was the 2nd person to climb Everest?” most people forget that it was Tenzing Norgay – the Sherpa. Climbers don’t make it alone – they need support systems. Senior executives also need support for a successful career and external Management Coaches have become the Sherpa’s of the business world.

Management Coaches: Coaches now play an equivalent role to Tenzing Norgay, supporting the executive climb. Today’s managers, often holding postgraduate qualifications, don’t want to know about ‘The history of thought on effective Leadership’. They want micro-skilling (“how do I persuade Toni O’Neill to agree to our Merger proposition?”). They don’t want to be part of development programmes with mixed participant levels (“Let’s start by each person introducing themselves and clearly stating what you want to achieve from this workshop”). Like the Burger King advertisements, senior executives want to ‘have it their way’ (“See you at 6:30 am in the Juice Bar in Westwood”). That’s why coaching has become a growth industry. And that’s how the very best coaches have become the hidden persuaders in the business world.

So, if you are already climbing in the death zone (or intend to arrive there shortly), find a Sherpa who’s made that journey before. Don’t be afraid of heights. And like Sir Edmund Hillary, your name is the only one that people will remember.

Paul Mooney


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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