Are We Taking Mid-Career Talent for Granted?
Mid-career talent and middle children share some parallels. In a family, the eldest typically benefit from being the center of attention while the youngest receive care and nurturing from the whole tribe. Middle children often learn from observing others and get less dedicated attention. As a result, they learn how to figure things out for themselves. It’s easy to see similar patterns for mid-career talent in the workplace. They typically have enough domain expertise, professional experience and personal clarity to be productive in their daily jobs without significant interventions from their managers.
They’ve hit a stage where they learn through observation or simply figure things out on their own.
So let’s compare the value that employees bring at different stages of their careers.
Early career colleagues bring new perspectives, emerging potential and thinking that is not biased by organizational history. This talent pool is naturally prone to making multiple careers moves early as they explore what works for them and what doesn’t — and that’s OK. If they exit, you want them to leave feeling that they might return some day.
Later career employees are typically strong at pattern recognition, are less driven by the next big promotion and are known for sharing their unvarnished opinions. They have a more measured view of what constitutes a crisis at work and the battle scars to prove it — some would call it wisdom. They tend to be motivated by contribution and legacy, as they’re mindful of how they invest their time.
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That leaves us with the massive middle — our mid-career talent. This talent pool often has the most career options. They are laser-focused on their careers and often have competing demands for their time outside of work, including expanding families and continuing education. Within organizations, they are motivated to think strategically about both the near term and the long term, as they weigh decisions against the impact on their career trajectory. And therein lies the risk. Mid-career talent is increasingly self-sufficient, market-ready and detached from their managers — all at the same time.
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What Could We Do Differently for Mid-Career Colleagues?
I regularly write about the importance and influence of leaders in organizations. With mid-career talent, it is critical for leaders to stay connected to them in this volatile, employee-oriented labor market. Scores of industry research reports from both consulting and research firms point to the need for human-centered managers. This isn’t fluff or marketing language for recruiting. The research points to the need for real behavioral shifts in how we lead others, and it’s particularly salient when leading employees who have choices in the labor market.
Here are some suggestions of actions leaders can take to become more human-centered at work:
- Give individuals as much agency as is reasonable. If hybrid has taught us one thing, it’s that flexibility is highly valued. Enabling more individual choice about when, where and how to work is tables stakes. This is especially true for colleagues who seek to integrate the complexities of their personal and professional lives.
- Proactively acknowledge that we all experience stress and even anxiety. Label it — call it what it is and demonstrate that you understand. Talking about an issue helps to normalize it, which in turn makes it possible for others to share their experiences and seek help. It also demonstrates vulnerability which signals both courage and compassion.
- Demonstrate empathy in our words and actions. Empathy is possible when we imagine what it must feel like to exist in someone else’s circumstances. Even if we haven’t had the same direct experience, we can imagine the resulting emotions that our colleagues must feel when facing challenges both inside and outside of work. This means acknowledging that someone may need additional support and trust in difficult and often private circumstances, while maintaining regular check-ins about progress.
- Engage with teams, not just individuals. The sense of connectedness that humans crave was shattered during the pandemic, so focusing solely on the individual falls short of what we all need. Leaders can foster a greater sense of connection when they purposefully bring their team together.
- Encourage career growth even if it means someone leaves your team. It’s much better to develop and retain the talent within the organization than have them leave altogether. Act as a mentor, introduce colleagues to foster career exploration, and support professional development activities outside the organization to feed their desire for growth.
- Promote both physical and mental health. Again, label it: there’s power in naming something and normalizing conversations about health while still respecting privacy boundaries. Time away from emails, taking breaks from being on-camera all day, adjusting commuting hours when coming into the office, and respecting time away from the office are all healthy actions. And when together in the office, don’t forget the main reason for being there — to be with one another and create shared experiences that transcend the daily tasks of work.
Rebecca Ray is the executive vice president, Human Capital, at the Conference Board, where she leads the US Human Capital Center. She is also a frequent speaker, published author and has won multiple awards in recognition of her work in leadership and learning.
In my research at The Conference Board during these recent years of global pandemic, social unrest and economic crises, I have looked at employee attitudes toward remote work, returning to the physical workplace, COVID fears, leadership styles, organizational culture as well as mental and physical well-being challenges. In February of this year, more than 70% of respondents told us that beyond a competitive salary, retirement plans (including an employer match) and workplace flexibility are top priority for workers. Employees consistently indicate that they want flexibility in terms of how, when and where they work so that they can better interweave their personal and professional lives. They also told us that they are willing to walk away from an organization that can’t offer it; flexibility is now simply table stakes.
But employees also leave for other reasons: some for increased compensation (but not as much as you might think); more than one in four quit because of disappointment with their company; and among those who are considering leaving there are generational differences: Boomers want recognition, Gen Xers want a new role and millennials want salary increases. Addressing these desires is where leaders can play a pivotal role — long before your employees hear the siren song of the recruiter.
About the Author
Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.