Humphrey Armstrong is a Peoplemax Coach and registered Organisational Psychologist with over 25 years experience in assisting organisations, teams and individuals plan for managing change. As an Adjunct Faculty Member of the AGSM at the University of NSW, he has been a contributing author for the Skills of Managing People subject of the Graduate Management Diploma and the Change Management Qualification and regularly helps design and facilitate a range of executive education programs. Humphrey has a special interest in career planning and managing personal change for people considering mid and later life career changes including transitioning into retirement.
There’s good news … and some not so good news for “mid-lifer” and later stage careers. The upside is that new and innovative mid-career and later-life pathways are emerging as organisations grow horizontally through alliances and partnerships. On the other hand, the effective integration of these partnerships is a critical need that managers more accustomed to vertical career progression are sometimes not so comfortable meeting.
More experienced “mid-lifers” have or can quickly develop the necessary horizontal leadership skill sets. The question is: what does it take to navigate the snakes and ladders of later-stage careers?
The World of Radiating Possibilities
In their book The Art of Possibility¹ renowned conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra Ben Zander and his co-author Rosamund Zander (a family therapist) describe two worlds we can choose to live and work in. The first they call “The World of the Downward (and Upward) Spiral”, which they believe is typically driven by competition and fear. This world can galvanise and energise but also demoralise and paralyse.
The second they term “The World of Radiating Possibilities”. It is driven more by open-mindedness, curiosity and collaboration.
The Zanders believe both these worlds are underpinned by very different sets of beliefs and assumptions about how organisations work and how people are likely to behave in given situations. Unfortunately, the predominantly competitive and defensive strategies often employed within the world of career “snakes and ladders” tend to get in the way of seeing and making the most of opportunities. Or to put it another way making your own luck.
Those who primarily reside in the spiralling first world are often reactive and face the possibility that their career trajectory is predominantly up and/or out. This may suit some. For many, especially those working their way through their fifties and sixties, the wish to somehow extract themselves from always climbing ladders to achieve a more sustainable work-life balance can become a major driving force.
In their provocative article, The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change², Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg set about debunking the myth of midlife decline. Elliot Jaques, who first used the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, wrote that “during this period we come face to face with our limitations, our restricted possibilities and our mortality”. Strenger and Ruttenberg point out that having earned two doctorates, one in medicine and another in psychology and become an accomplished psychoanalyst all by his mid-forties, Jaques went on to develop a fascination for organisational design. In the 38 years from 1965 until his death he wrote 12 books on the subject, becoming a much sought-after international consultant. He formulated many of the theories he became famous for (including his ‘Levels of Work’ framework) in his late seventies and early eighties.
“… last chance to become the real us”
In many ways Jaques demonstrates the creative power of what the Zanders describe in their “World of Radiating Possibilities”. With life expectancy increasing and midlife occurring somewhere between 43 and 62, Strenger and Ruttenberg suggest “midlife is now our best and last chance to become the real us.”
However to do so may require courageously challenging the world of “snakes and ladders” and entertaining new - and sometimes lateral - career options. To maximise future job contributions and at the same time possibly achieve a more sustainable work-life balance, like Elliott Jaques, midlifers may need to adopt a more positive creative growth mindset as advocated in The Art of Possibility.
Of their 12 practices, described in The Art of Possibility and designed to help with switching mindsets, one that stands out is “Be a contribution”. The idea is to envision how you can best serve; that is be a contributor rather than trying to succeed or fail or compare yourself to others. Robert Greenleaf, the original proponent of Servant Leadership³, would have wholeheartedly endorsed this practice of firstly being a contributor to others before stepping up to influence others to contribute. And talking of leadership Ben Zander advocates giving all his students an ‘A’ at the beginning of term. However before the ‘A’s are bestowed every student must first write a letter in the present tense outlining what they would have done by the end of term to have earned an ‘A’. Not a bad way to bust the competitive effects of the Bell Curve, inherent in the “snakes and ladders” world.
The explosion of new digital technologies enabling us to make both full and part-time contributions from remote locations are generating new internal consultancies and project leadership opportunities. In addition, an increasing number of 60–somethings are not only finding new careers at Bunnings but are choosing to set up their own shops and niche businesses as ‘greypreneurs’, according to David Potts, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald Money Supplement of 24 June 2015.
As the Zanders maintain, personal and professional lives can be very different if frameworks are adjusted to focus more on creative possibilities rather than on a world driven primarily by ups and downs.
The Benefits of Targeted Career Coaching
Tailored mid- and later-life career coaching can not only assist people creatively explore all their possible career options but also help them promote and win support for their unique mix of contributions, both within and beyond their organisations. As Strenger and Ruttenberg suggest the full range of midlife (43-62 and in many cases beyond) can still be a great opportunity to re-invent ourselves.
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¹Zander, B & R. The Art of Possibility 2002.
²Strenger, C and Ruttenberg, A. “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change” HBR 2008.
³Frick, D. Robert K Greenleaf A Life of Servant Leadership Berrett-Koehler 2004.