Stuck at Sr.Manager? 4 area of focus to breakthrough the plateau

published8 months ago
6 min read

Conversations For Career Transformation

Mounica Veggalam | 05-06-2023

Read time: 7 mins

Hey Reader!

A few days ago, I was struck by what Ethan Evans, Former Amazon VP and executive coach, posted on LinkedIn.

(Link to the full version of his article below)

This & a couple of client conversations got me thinking, what does it take to breakthrough?

Ethan Evans says this.

As a professional performance coach, I’ve a slightly in-depth take on this. So, today’s post is about 4 areas of focus if you want to stand out among the competition of Sr.Managers and work towards the director positions. Let's dive in!

So if you’ve been a manager, you’ve got good at these things:

  1. Giving feedback
  2. Growing and unblocking your reports
  3. Juggling various things to make sure all timelines fall in place
  4. Predicting specific problems and planning around them

It has probably been a journey to learn to say ‘NO’, think about what serves people the best, push back and shield your team, and recruit the right people (ooh, hiring!).

You’ve realized it’s a different ‘job’ than being an ‘IC’.

As Ethan points out in his post, it’s competitive. There are only so many director positions to the no. of manager positions. So, how do you stand out and prove your leadership?

The obvious (and cliched) advice: Get sponsorship. Increase your scope of work.

It’s almost a prerequisite. The other obvious advice is to improve your skillset and expand your network.

But, in most cases, it’s not enough. Could you learn the skillset on the job? Yes. Could you work harder and longer to cover the gaps? Sure. But that’s not what makes you stand out. Most can do that.

The secret is in personal transformation. And in changing your thinking to see the world in a different way. If you’ve read Atomic Habits or Radical Candor and tried to put it into practice, you know how difficult this is. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll get what you’ve gotten. To get something new - you need to change how you operate.

So, there are 4 areas you got to focus on:

Area #1: Your PRESENCE matters more than getting things done

The obvious (and cliched) advice: Develop executive presence (what the heck does it even mean?)

What do Obama, Elon Musk, and Sadguru have in common?

Though they span different industries and personalities, they have a strong presence. They’re calm, relaxed, and ultra-focused when you hear them speak. They’re not in a rush. They’re not lamenting what should have been or could have been or what’s next. They’re in the moment with the audience, 100%.

How is this possible?

When you’ve been a manager long enough, it’s common to have a massive backlog of items to be done, people to speak to, and a list of things you’re constantly striking off. A substantial mental load and a race with time.

Here’s a question: What if the entire salary your company is paying is for your presence?

  • Let go of the “I’m busy, gotta do 100 things’ mindset. Figure out a productivity system.
  • Train your mind to focus. Mindfulness is a great way to do this. When you say you’re going to focus on something, only do that. Become Indistractible.
  • Guard your mental presence. Whatever activities take you away from that, eliminate them ruthlessly (Mindless scrolling of social media, too much TV, draining relationships, etc.)
  • Allow internal reflection multiple times during the day. Journaling is the best way -it closes mental loops. Have lots of downtime between meetings

Ultimately, redirect your mind on who you’re BEING rather than what you’re doing. For example, You’re BEING Commitment when you’re indistractible. You’re BEING a coach when you’re talking to your report. You’re BEING a leader when you’re determining the direction of your product.

Get your presence in a state where you can slow down and improve your ability to catch those moments where everything is done in a default way. And quickly redirect with the right questions

More doing, more execution or delegation, more helping, and more churning are not the answer.

Area #2: COACH your reports to replace you

The obvious (and cliched) advice: Grow your reports proactively and promote them (yeah, been doing that).

The non-obvious: Develop their leadership. Coach them with a solid plan. Promote them to your position.

It’s simply not enough to have once-in-while career growth conversations. For each of your reports, you need to be clear on their goals and where they want to go.

  • Make a skillset development plan for the next 3 months
  • Redirect work to meet their goal. Bring in new scope of work to their benefit.
  • Give them in-the-moment feedback about how they’re showing up in meetings, how they could be better in delivering towards their goals, and how they could take you over one day. In other words, develop them to be leaders.

Read more about why coaching improves leadership, what mindset you need, and simple questions for a deep conversation- here and here.

ABGF - Always Be Giving Feedback. Your high-performers will thank you.

Area #3: Develop your POINT OF VIEW (Personal Brand and Confidence are by-products).

The obvious (and cliched) advice: Become a thought leader. Be more strategic (That grinds my gears. What the heck IS strategy?)

Whenever you think you lack confidence, skills, or experience, what you’re really lacking is a Point of View (POV).

This is the single-most game changer for any positioning (career or business). When I heard of POV from Tad Hargrave, a marketing coach, I was stunned by how simple yet profoundly impacting a POV can be.

He says, “You develop a POV so that you say - Hire me, don’t Hire me, but this is how it’s done”. You should be able to go to your L8 or L9 and say, “Promote me, don’t promote me, but this is how you solve all these X Y Z problems you’re facing.” These could be cultural issues, people issues, customer issues or the service issues.

When you have this POV about how a team is run, how a service is delivered, and what principles you are based on, you will find ways to ‘be more strategic’ (ever got that feedback?).

The best way to do this is to clarify your thinking through writing in public and giving public talks.

  • When you put yourself up to such projects, you automatically have conversations that build up your expertise, construct mental models and refine them.
  • The more you write and talk publicly, the more refined your POV becomes.
  • You build skills and a network as a by-product of this work.

So, take up a research project and start having conversations. A DEI initiative? What is your perspective on high-performing teams? What is your vision for missing gaps in your company’s offerings? What are your mental models in the tech industry? Share your thoughts publicly (LinkedIn or internal company talks).

Notice how I’m presenting my POV to you in this article. “This is how it’s done.”

Area #4: WILLINGNESS to get into tough conversations

The obvious (and cliched) advice: Pushback for your team, Advocate for yourself, and Confront the underperforming employee. (Yes, yes, tell me something new)

Senior leadership is all about powerful decisions that come from powerful conversations.

When you embody service and generosity, how do you go from “nice, friendly, and helpful” to an impactful leader? When you let go of your personality completely. When you stop trying to be liked. When you start sharing what you REALLY think.

The invisible box we often are in is the innocent seeking that we’re doing the right thing. You build up a self-image that you’re a good manager. You’re in the endless game of keeping up this image and finding ways to solidify it so that everybody around you agrees that, yes, you’re a good manager. This leads to a lot of posturing.

Your true empathy and service come forward when you-

  • keep your personal agenda and your ego out of the equation.
  • develop the ability to objectively step back from your emotions and take practical steps.
  • hold space for your reports as they go through their own emotions.
  • make courageous decisions despite the discomfort and how it makes you look

“Hey, we need to talk about that comment you made to Alice. This is not the culture we want in our team.”

This can happen when you focus on personal transformation through deep self-reflection and inquiry. Read about the common mental reframes here.

A coach’s support is invaluable to see your blind spots and get out of your boxes.

Alright. So to summarize, these are the 4 areas to think about as you make a plan for your promotion.

1) Your PRESENCE matters more than getting things done

2) COACH your reports to replace you

3) Develop your POINT OF VIEW (Personal Brand and Confidence are by-products).

4) A WILLINGNESS to get into tough conversations

Hopefully, you’re out of the perpetual cluelessness after a promotion conversation with your manager.

Here's the full medium article from Ethan Evans on this topic.

And as always, hit reply and let me know what resonated with you in this deep dive today and what could be your non-obvious focus area?

Mounica Veggalam

Hey, there! I talk about non-linear growth strategies and leadership development for tech managers. Get mindset deep dives to break through into senior leadership roles.

Read more from Mounica Veggalam