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Beware the Alligators: What Holds Middle Managers Back

  • Beware the AlligatorsThe Find: If you're a middle manager hoping to accelerate your rise into a senior position, beware a number of common pitfalls, including being too indispensable (also known as "fighting alligators"), warns this podcast.
  • The Source: A London Business School podcast from Richard Jolly, professor of organizational behavior.
The Takeaway: Jolly has a saying to sum up the situation that holds back many middle managers: "when you're fighting off the alligators, it's hard to remember you were trying to drain the swamp." Middle managers, he argues, are often excellent at fighting alligators, that is, doing all the down and dirty everyday tasks that make up the business of a company. Senior managers, on their other hand, excel at keeping their eye on overall priorities.

Why are middle managers so excellent at the small stuff? Probably because those are the skills that got them to their current level. Excellent technical know-how or specialized expertise probably boosted you into management, but these are actually not the skills you'll need to advance further, according to Jolly. At the beginning of your career it pays to be indispensable, but at some point being too good at "fighting alligators" means that a promotion doesn't make sense: the company would fear being overrun with rampaging reptiles. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that feedback gets sparser and of a lower quality as you ascend the career ladder. In short, no one tells you to stop being excellent in the way you're accustomed to.

So what should you do instead of suiting up for a nice wade into the swamp? Check out the insightful and relatively short (seven minute) podcast to find out Jolly's prescriptions for overcoming these obstacles.

The Question: What others tips can you offer to middle managers hoping to break into the next level?

(Image of alligator eye by OakleyOriginals, CC 2.0)

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