Are Metaphors Killing Your Career?

Posted May 4, 2015 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

I spend most of my time working with very ambitious, highly productive people who sit squarely in middle management. Middle management is a tricky area of the org chart to navigate. The biggest issue (as I see it) is that what got you to middle management often won’t get you to the next level…and senior leaders, for the most part, are really lousy at telling you where you’re falling short so that you can leap that hurdle. The reality of the middle is that the things that got you to that point – your ability to get shit done  – are now simply table stakes. The things that are going to get you ahead now are in the realm of “how you get shit done”. And that “how” feedback can come in very unclear and confusing ways. See if any of these statements sound familiar:

  • “We need you to step up and think more big picture.”
  • “We need you to “break something” and show us how you put it back together.”
  • “You need to operate at the 50,000 foot view now but know when to drop into the weeds.”
  • “Don’t forget, leadership casts a long shadow.”
  • “Know when to throw a smack down.”

I could go on. When delivering constructive feedback, many managers overplay storytelling and inadvertently become masters of confusion. Buried in the meaning of each of the statements above is a specific behaviour that you’re either not demonstrating at all or demonstrating far too much. With statements this vague, you’re at risk of continuously falling short of these new (unarticulated) expectations. So, here’s how you can take your career management back into your own hands.  If your boss is hitting you with some vague metaphor around how they need you to change your leadership, try this:

Thank them for the feedback and ask them this question:  What’s one thing that I could start doing that would demonstrate more of the behaviour you’re looking for?

There… that’s it. By asking for a specific action, your boss should be able to give you something more concrete. It’s critical to note that the emphasis here is on the ‘start doing’ aspect. It’s easier to start a new habit or behaviour that stop an old one. So, if your boss says “don’t be late for meetings”, just flip it around and make the action “start being 5 minutes early for meetings”. Your boss may get on a roll and give you more than one thing. That’s great. The more you have, the more you’ll understand what they’re looking for from you.

If you still don’t feel like you fully understand your boss, paraphrase back what you think they said so that they can further elaborate if they need to. “So, if I hear you correctly, you would like me to be more assertive in meetings when things are going to affect my area by pushing back on Bob versus accommodating him so frequently?” If you’re off base, your boss will clarify it for you further.

Once you’ve got some specifics to work with, put them into action and followup with your boss on a regular (monthly) basis to see if he or she is seeing some progress. (This may sound ridiculous but it’s important that you start getting your boss to look for the new behaviour vs. focusing on the old behaviours).

Don’t let vague metaphors about performance derail your career. Make sure you understand the new expectations that are required for you in role in order to get positioned for all the opportunities you deserve.

Happy leading!

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