10 May

Master Stage 3 of Your Career, a Mid-Level Professional

Copy of "The Unspoken Truths for Career Success" on a table with a coffee mug

Adapted from Chapter 10 of The Unspoken Truths for Career Success: Navigating Pay, Promotions, and Power at Work by Tessa White

Being a workhorse with a high bar for individual performance served me well in the early Stage 1 and Stage 2 parts of my career. But at Stage 3, my inclination to do work by myself started to hurt me. I found it incredibly hard to include others because I had some experiences where teammates let me down. This pattern continued when I ended up a single mom at age thirty with three young children. It further reinforced this whole idea of “I’ll do it myself. I am the one person I can count on.” Collaboration and cross-functional projects are still my kryptonite and I have to stop myself from taking over.

With your own mid-career phase comes all of the parts I hated in college projects: getting on the same page with others, dealing with conflict, determining which battles you want to fight, and having a voice and opinion about the right strategy. So many of the judgments about you are based in part on how well you work in a team.

It’s like a college project on steroids.

Unlike Stage 2, where you were relying on yourself, you are now in a position that you cannot do all the work without relying on others to fill the gaps. You are beginning to interface with other departments because as your expertise gets deeper, your influence grows wider, especially if you are in a management position. Projects and problems you are solving cross department boundaries and require input and alignment. Unlike the wonderful and terrifying autonomy of the last stage, this new stage ups the ante, where cross-functional collaboration is the norm.

Shift to Interdependence

  • Job #1: Collaborating and partnering well with others outside of your own silo.
  • What’s rewarded: Using data, dashboards, and metrics to communicate progress (especially as you manage up).
  • How you get ahead: Getting comfortable with hard conversations.
  • What may surprise you: You’ll see clearly the disconnect between senior leaders and the individual contributors. You’ll see both sides but get stuck in the middle.

Keep Your Eye on These Skills

Using data

You cannot make decisions on “gut feelings” at this stage. The language of business is numbers, and this is where you dig in deep. You must be able to use facts, numbers, and metrics to drive your decisions and to measure progress.

Getting aligned

Many at this level engage in water-cooler talk and blame those above them for decisions they don’t agree with. There is no “us versus them” if you want to continue to grow your career beyond Stage 3. This is where you have the hard conversations to get aligned and get behind decisions once they are made.

Fatal Flaws

Acting in a “silo”

The independence that got you ahead in Stage 2 will be a problem in Stage 3. If you focus only on your team, and not on how you intersect with others, you’ll be missing opportunities to go faster and further.

Avoiding conflict

It seems so easy to avoid the conflict that inherently exists when you are straddling the needs of your department and those of other departments. But staying silent is just delayed conflict. Work issues out early and honestly.

Tessa White with a microphone and The Unspoken Truths for Career Success

Creating Strong Partnerships

You will find that leading change, whether it’s a project or a program, will take you outside of your own team, and you won’t have all the answers, nor will you always have the luxury of getting to call the shots. Instead, you have to work in true team fashion across departments and you’ll have to rely on others. It’s hard as hell. But you can’t be afraid to ask the questions or reach outside of your own silo.

This new level of interdependence looks like this:

You’ll need complementary skill sets

If you manage a team, you will need to build it out in ways that round out the existing strengths of the team (and your own weaknesses).

You’ll need outside opinions

You can’t be slow to seek out answers to questions or problems from outside resources. You will quickly learn as you become more of an expert that there is still so much you don’t know.

You’ll rely on other departments

You will need to rely on input from other teams for successfully executed projects. If you aren’t aligned with their needs, it will create constant rework.

You’ll need funding partners

To get cross-functional projects fully funded, you’ll often need to negotiate with other department managers to find money from their budget to make it happen.

You will work with outside experts

You will find that outsourcing or finding partners to help deliver services will become important. Sometimes it’s contractors who will do work. Often you will need new technology to create a full solution for a program or service.

The offsetting benefit that makes it all worth it is that you are creating visible results at this stage of growth, and you are perhaps the most important piece of the company. The single greatest desire I hear from individuals is that they want to make a difference at work. The mid-level roles are where most of the real work happens!

Getting aligned with other departments can be hard, and you might try to avoid some of the key conversations you need to have. What makes this stage so difficult is that rarely do departments agree or see the world the same way. You are in a constant state of refining and renegotiating the deliverables. It follows that the one skill you can’t live without is being comfortable with conflict.

If you can’t resolve differences of opinion, you can’t be a good collaborator. If you avoid other departments or act in a silo, it will ensure your failure! You can’t align if you aren’t working together.

The good news is that, despite how hard it is to be here in Stage 3 and moving from a place of independence to a place of collaboration, it is one of the best training grounds for the next stage of growth: becoming one of the senior leaders in the company.

Paperback and audiobook of "The Unspoken Truths for Career Success"

The Unspoken Truths for Career Success is a workplace manual that lays out the truth behind the lies that fuel the most common career frustrations. Tessa White explains the truth about pay, promotions, loyalty, burnout, office politics, and power. Available as: