Stuck in the middle

Stuck in the middle

Keeping your career on track and managing the feeling of deflation when your rise to the top hasn't occurred at the giddying pace you'd hoped is a challenge. It's a challenge that also affects employers, whose mid-tier ranks have become a revolving door. Jessica Kennedy talks to mentors and those at the top of their game to find out their tips on how to rise above the pack

B&T Magazine
Posted by B&T Magazine

If it's bright at the start and lonely at the top, then it must be crowded in the middle.

In the middle ranks of agencies and marketing departments across Australia is a throng of ambitious 20 and 30-somethings whose jostling for that next 'big break' blocks out their once-clear career paths.

"When you are the bright young thing it is easy to harness your potential because there is veracity and there is learning capacity which keeps you stimulated." This, according to Moon Communication Group's chief executive Anouk Darling all changes once you reach a mid-tier role where the focus is on delivering, not proving yourself.

"And then, depending on where you are in an organisation, you are looking to the person above you and you are tapping on their door. If that person is also doing a brilliant job and they have just entered that role, well they aren't going anywhere."

A recent B&T poll, which found that almost six in 10 adland agency staff feel stuck, supports Darling's view.

More than 500 people answered the question: 'Are you happy with your career progression at your agency?'. The majority (58%) said 'No, I feel stuck and am not sure how to move up', 18% said 'Not yet, but my employer is supportive and I am planning my next move'.

Just 24% answered 'Yes, I'm where I want to be'.

There are a number of reasons why the 'yes' pool is half the size of the one in which people feel stuck, and it’s more complicated than there not being enough roles.

Those professionals who feel like they aren't progressing may, at least partly, have themselves to blame. 

"This is an industry where people just get promoted really quickly. So the question has to be, why? What are you doing wrong?" says Miles Joyce, the chief executive of digital shop The White Agency.

"Particularly in the digital space, there is such a shortage in our industry that people are being over-promoted so quickly," says Joyce, who believes most juniors expect to make the leap to a senior position in only a couple of years.

Shooting through midlevel is entirely dependent on self-motivation, something Edentify's managing partner and former CEO of Maxus, David Gaines, says is most likely lacking in those who aren't moving forward. 

"You probably need to have a bit of an honesty check with yourself and say 'am I still sitting around for people to spoon feed me and show me how to progress?'," he explains. 

DDB Melbourne's managing partner Lisa D'Amico does a lot of mentoring and has noticed too many people placing too much expectation on their employers to drive their careers. 

"While an agency, like any other business, should have career progression plans, it ultimately lies with the individual," she says. "It's your career after all. A mentor can help you figure out how to navigate your way up but you must enter the relationship prepared with your objectives sorted.

"You have to come to a mentor with a sense of what you want to achieve out of it because it is not a therapy session."

Here are the five bits of advice D'Amico disseminates amongst her mentees:

  1. Self assessment: "When people come to me and say 'I don't know where I'm going and I'm not progressing fast enough', the first thing I ask them to do is assess themselves in how they think they are performing in various areas. While good employers are there to grow and develop their staff, ultimately you are responsible for your career path, it's not up to your employer. If you want a management career you need to start by managing your own career. Where do you want to be in one year? In two years? And what are you doing next quarter and the quarter after that to actually get there? When you start asking those questions people start thinking differently."
  2. Stand out: "Coming in everyday and just doing your job will get you paid each month – it is not going to get you promoted. That sounds harsh, but there is doing your job and then there is doing something beyond your job, that's where you get noticed. A mentor can help you figure out how to get noticed."
  3. Attitude:  A positive attitude also attracts management's attention. "What's your attitude today? Are you going to win or are you just going to plod along? I don't expect everyone to be on a super high everyday but there needs to be a decent attitude and an attitude that you want to do well."
  4. Remember the small things:  Working on a big pitch with senior staffers isn't the only way to get noticed and promoted over time. Equally important is how you deal with your day-to-day jobs. "I have someone on my team and his attitude is just outstanding. He's bright, he is great with clients and he gets just as excited about delivering a brilliant idea and doing a great presentation to a client as he would getting his client invoices paid at the end of the month."
  5. Stay true to yourself: "Sometimes people think they need to behave a certain way to get promoted. How I manage, present or do things might be far too different for another person. Don't try to copy someone, find your own way and find people who inspire you and whose values you want to adopt – but don't try and be something that you are not."

Churn of mid-tier professionals across adland is high according to Darling, who estimates the average amount of time spent with an employer is now 18 months to two years amongst 20 to 30-year-olds.

For ambitious job-seekers the promise of a larger pay packet is tempting, but D'Amico says when considering a promotion from another employer the environment of that workplace should be top of mind.  

"In career progression, never ever ever compromise your values," she says.

To combat the churn and retain good young talent, Darling believes employers need to invest more in life skills training, "so they are achieving, learning and growing without physically having to get a new title and job".

Continual personal development would in turn alleviate the pressures faced by those working below an under experienced manager. 

Joyce says, in digital agencies particularly, there are a lot of young managers who have been promoted into the role and have never managed people before. 

The "number one reason" the digital industry loses people is because those young managers don't have the experience necessary to provide their team with clear career paths, he says.

If you are feeling stuck but there are no obvious impediments to your development, Gaines says you may need to be braver.

"You need to give yourself permission to fail to a certain extent," he says. "Go and try something new and even if you fail it, as long as you learn from whatever happened, there is nothing wrong with that. That is how people progress.

"You just have to keep a little bit of fire under your backside and learn that feeling intimidated and uncomfortable is a good thing."