Little Things

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The #1 Secret to moving past midlife roadblock – Taking a Step Back!


Victor Hugo once said, “Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.” If there is one thing Gen X is battling with today, it is midlife crisis. There are many real-life stories, tips, and blogs out there on dealing with midlife crisis or stagnation in life.

The Speed Breaker

As I see my daughter stepping into her career, I remember how heady and excited I was about getting started my career during my twenties.  Our life in the twenties is all about rushing headlong into our careers. Little do we worry about stuff like power struggles, office politics, or abysmally low salaries! Our ignorance gives us that confidence to tread into unknown waters and we go along with the flow. Thereafter, we step into our thirties, by the time which most of us get married, have kids, and focus on what we really want in our careers. Income, position, role, status, and promotions keep us busy and our priorities are clear where salary and growth is concerned. As we are busy careening into our careers, there’s suddenly a rude BUMP! We realize we’ve hit a speed breaker, which is usually by the time we touch our forties.

Truly the “Mid” Life

Besides our metabolism that slows down (and fat that settles comfortably around the middle), our career progression slows down considerably. Although we are aware that an organizational structure is a pyramid, little do we realize that the number of positions too taper out. Worse, we are caught in the dreaded M word – Monotony! Your title changes from Manager to Senior Manager to Director to VP, but your job more or less remains the same. All that you do is manage 2000 people instead of 20! To top that, if you are part of a humungous organization, you realize you are that insignificant bit that can easily get cut out one fine day. Some resort to politics or cliques to hang on to their jobs while others sink into despair. Ironically, forties are also a time when our kids become teenagers, and our parents, septuagenarians. Caught in the middle, did you say?! Expenses too mount to an alarming degree. College fees, medical bills, taxes and everything that seems to need maintenance. Forties is also when we get prone to malaise like hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety and heart problems. You have that sinking feeling in your gut that has suddenly become sensitive to what you eat.

Caught in the Middle

One overpowering feeling that I felt a few years ago was the claustrophobic feeling of “stuckness”. The endless possibilities of my twenties and thirties morphed into stumbling blocks where I realized it was too late to switch careers, especially once I began to find my career stagnating. I have had to take a 3 year career break in my thirties to take care of my kids in the past, which already set back my career behind by a decade. So by the time I was well into my forties, I was looking forward to catching up on that gap by putting my entire focus on my career. I realized how naïve I was when I hit my midlife speed bump all too soon, barely 6 years after I resumed work. Besides being passed over for someone younger, more qualified and not necessarily experienced, the other painful pill to swallow is to report to someone not competent enough. As though the generation gap at home wasn’t enough, there was the gap at work too. So there I was in my mid-forties caught between angst-y teenagers and ailing elderly, and a flatlining career. The cruel mirror started showing the signs of aging on my face, right from crow’s feet, under-eye bags, graying and thinning hair, droopy stress lines around the mouth, and the dreaded middle-age glasses! No matter what I did, I was looking old all of a sudden. Not a very happy feeling for sure.

Getting Unstuck

Midlife has also been a period of other losses – of those good old days, of people from your parents’ generation, and loss of certain beliefs in which I had lived my life till then. Everything reached a head when I lost my elderly parents-in-law to sickness within months of each other. Between the frequent trips to the hospital to the crematory to bickering teenagers and hormonal overdrives, this questioned suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “What is the purpose of my existence? Where am I going to go from here?”

I decided to take a couple of certification courses to further my career. On an impulse, I Googled the word, “coaching”. Believe it or not, an email found its way to my mailbox promoting a coaching certification program. I decided to take that up and explore where it took me.

Coaching has been a fantastic experience for me. I found the inward journey into the recesses of my thoughts and feelings very insightful, painful, yet liberating. I was able to acknowledge what was holding me back from moving forward.  It was a journey towards the unknown, for I uncovered negative behaviors inside me that were the true roadblocks.

Separating Behavior from Judgment

“Middle age is when your broad mind and narrow waist begin to change places”, said E Joseph Cossmann. Nothing could be truer, at least in my case! I had very definite ideas about people that affected my behavior towards them. As I consciously began to separate the behavior from the person, I was able to empathize with people from different generations, ethnicities, personalities and preferences and at least begin to understand there could be a point of view other than mine.

Becoming more self-aware

Overthinking and speaking without thinking – I was known for both these contradictory qualities! One of the tools I learnt during coaching is meditation. As I learnt how to focus only on my breathing, my tangle of thoughts loosened over a period of time. This incredible mindfulness exercise helped me become more aware of my health, my chaotic thoughts and my speech. Rather than the immediate need to react, I became cognizant of the need to pause, reflect, and respond.

Facing Fears

During my midlife challenge period, I changed from a cheerful and optimistic individual to someone with anxiety and low self-esteem issues. I began to doubt my capabilities and started to lose confidence in myself. Talking to good friends, having fun, pro bono coaching and mentoring, writing, networking – all of these helped tremendously in restoring my belief in myself.

Prioritizing on what I really want

One fine day it so happened that I had to walk out of my job. There was a growing feeling of discontent and unsettled feeling prior to that, and I had already started looking out for another job, but I had the usual wants of title, designation, salary, company, and other trappings. I had the belief that I absolutely need these to be happy in my career. In my solo year as a freelance consultant, as I reflected on this, I realized how narrowly I was viewing my future. I was so brainwashed into thinking that I needed that fancy title next to my name. One day when my teenager impulsively hugged me saying how happy she felt having me as her mother, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and inner calm.  I became conscious that I am more than my title or designation. My happiness need not be compartmentalized within just a career. It’s the fulfillment of having achieved milestones in my personal, family, health, and other aspects of my life that truly mattered. Today when I look at a job, it’s THE job content that I’m looking at. I need to know what meaning and “value” I’m going to add. The toppings or garnishes like title, designation and salary are not unimportant, but rather secondary.

Letting Go

Perhaps the most profound lesson I learnt during my introspective path was Surrender. Letting go of unconstructive and self-limiting beliefs, relinquishing the need to have control over every outcome, giving up my inner insecurities, and submitting to the future without overly worrying – these are some of the things I have been constantly trying to let go. I still struggle with anxiety and overthinking. Letting go is easier said than done, after all.

Moving Forward

As I took those steps back to pause, reflect and respond, I was finally able to reveal the roadblocks that were impeding my progress. It was a painful process as I had to battle with a lifetime of strongly held beliefs, unhealthy habits, and raw feelings. I really had to lay open my emotions and learn to accept without expectations. “Accept and Don’t Expect” became my life’s new philosophy.

Midlife is also a lot to do with change management. It is all about battling against all that is to discover what could be. The resistance is all within. And the solution also is all within.

I’m not saying that this process suddenly brought magic to my life. What is brought is a much clearer view of where I want to go and I what I want to do. Most importantly, I have realized that midlife is a beautiful stage when you can look forward to a richer life without pretenses. It’s similar to climbing a mountain. It is tiring, but offers a great view and perspective.

What has been your experience with midlife crisis? I would be happy to hear your story of how you made your midlife an enriching experience.

If you liked my article, please feel free to share it in your network. I look forward to your comments and feedback too! You could also follow my blog and tweets.

Here are some of my other related posts on LinkedIn that you might like to read:

Overcoming Workplace Stress

Who Are You Without Your Job Title/Designation?

Are You Being Judged?

Job Satisfaction – Is it Possible?

What Nobody Told You About Becoming a Manager/Leader

Of the many millennial clients I coach, at least 80% of them aspire for managerial positions after completing 6 to 7 years of work experience. While it is definitely an exciting and exhilarating experience with opportunities to grow and learn, it is not without its challenging and stressful moments. There would be situations that would frustrate you so much so that you miss your glorious and carefree days of being an individual contributor! Managers by their role definition, represent their team before their management and vice versa. Being the mediator is never easy, and managerial positions are by far the most stressful roles one can take on in a corporate setup.

As a first-time manager, I was aware of what I assumed were my expected roles and responsibilities. The first three years were a revelation. There were so many aspects and challenges that nobody told me about. There were days I used to dread Mondays and then there were days I felt like going back to an individual contributor role!

Here are some truths I have attempted to list down, with a few tips on how to deal with these challenges. Some are based on personal experience while others are based on experiences shared by other managers/leaders during our coaching and other discussions.

Fact #1: You are constantly being judged

Like a laboratory specimen, you are constantly under scrutiny. While there are a few who would encourage you, the sad reality is there are many who would love to see you fail. Being a first-time manager, you are likely to make mistakes. These mistakes would be blown out of proportion or used against you.

The one way you could ensure you have more support from your team and your supervisor is to constantly communicate and share your decisions. Admit your mistakes, however do not feel shy about expressing your accomplishments no matter how small they may appear to you. Provide regular updates and most of all – make sure you are highly visible and build a strong rapport with your team, your peers, and your supervisor.

Fact #2: You cannot take people at face value

Our corporate system still follows the age-old hierarchical process where the manager’s verdict holds more than 70% weightage in the employee’s performance rating. Naturally you will fall prey to office politics. The introverts and the shy ones might fall behind while the louder ones will be more successful in attempting to influence you. Some would flatter you while others would pretend to be on their best behaviour when you are around. Being new, you might want to implement new ideas. You may find many Yes-men (or women) agreeing with you. The flipside is, the others who see you succumb to the manipulation would feel disillusioned and become easily influenced by your detractors.

You will have to find a way to have objective yet personalized one-to-one interactions with everyone reporting to you. You will eventually be able to see an emerging political pattern. While it would be tempting to rely on those who seem to be your ardent supporters, it is important that you also focus on those who appear withdrawn during meetings and discussions. If it isn’t already implemented in your organization, you might want to consult your HR department on whether you could conduct an anonymous feedback survey within your team to help them voice their concerns or observations about you. It is never easy hearing negative things about oneself, but you have to bite the bullet if you want your team fully supporting you.

Fact #3: You have to put up with whiners and naysayers

This is perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of being a leader, at least for me. Most of us, (including myself), personally enjoy having team members who bring up counter-arguments to ideas on the table. Healthy opposition and debates, besides building trust within the team, also help in implementing a plan that has everyone’s consensus. It is the whiners and constant complainers who weigh you down with their negativity. A whiner is someone who always has someone to blame for his or her own mistake. Then there are those who resent a new boss and resist any changes proposed. They may not complain, but behave in a passive-aggressive manner that clearly shows their obvious disapproval. Perhaps what is frustrating about them is not the fact that they object to your ideas or suggestions, but that they seem to take everything personally.

You might want to get to know such people and show your willingness to listen to their ideas. Lending an empathetic ear helps – especially for those who might be affected by the changes you implement. However if you find this person constantly against you at every turn, it might help having a heart-to-heart talk with the individual letting him or her know how you need his or her support. You might want to let the person vent their views and listen with an open mind. At the best you might be able to turn around the situation. At the worst, you may have to assertively let them know you are the boss and that much as you appreciate their skills and contribution, you will not put up with negativity. In any case, it is important to keep track of any insubordination and make sure you communicate any warnings to this employee in writing.

Fact #4: You are the bearer of all bad news

Once a manager, you represent the executive leadership and the organization in every way. Be it a performance appraisal review feedback, the sunset of an old technology, organizational changes, or impending layoffs or salary-cuts, you have to be the one communicating unpalatable news in a diplomatic manner. Of course the most difficult job of all is letting people go if the business situation so demands. It would take immense amount of patience, tact, sensitivity, and most of all, compassion in communicating to the people affected by the decision.

Under no circumstances should you ever communicate bad news via email. Always get everyone together and maintain eye contact when you communicate bad news. After the group meeting, set up individual face-to-face meetings to demonstrate your willingness to listen. Your team will never forget the way you handled crisis situations, and you will win their support based on how well you faced the crisis and stood up to your people.

As for performance appraisals, I personally believe in monthly reviews. This ensures that your team is provided goals and a performance update on a regular basis. Also, you get to know how your team responds to your leadership.

Fact #5: You are lonely

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Lonely is the employee who wears the leadership mantle. Wearing a mask of control and poise at all times can be quite burdensome. You can never get too pally with a team member. Even a harmless lunch with your supervisor or team member could be perceived as political by others. It is even tougher when you get promoted to a managerial position from within the same team. At least in India, it is difficult for people to separate the role from the individual. You can never be too close to people who report into you. You have to maintain a professional balance in your relationship.

It helps tremendously having a leadership mentor or coach on board, who acts as a sounding board for leaders and enables them to confidently deal with challenging situations and behaviours by coaching them on a regular basis. As a manager, you could also form a forum with other similar first-time managers where you could meet together on a monthly basis to discuss and share common areas of concern.

The Importance of Having a Coach on Board

I can never stress enough on the importance of having a mentor or coach who can be the “go to” person for all managers. Having a robust leadership development vision is not enough. It is absolutely critical for growing organizations today to implement a leadership development framework that not only develops and nurtures budding leaders, but also provides them with need-based and timely support to help them learn from the challenges that arise. Today’s leaders also need to be change agents who influence and facilitate major transitions and transformations within the organization by effectively dealing with day-to-day tactical challenges, similar to those listed above. This can be a very tough role to play. Having an experienced leadership mentor and coach on board is no longer a desirable option. It is a vital requirement for today’s organizations if they want to sustain and grow their high potential leadership talent.

Why We Need Moms to Build Our Leadership Pipeline

In my article The Road not Taken: Becoming a Full-time Mum Made Me a Better Leader, I shared my challenges as a working mother with young children. While in one article, I talked about how women can empower themselves to be considered on equal terms with men, in another I discussed the ways in which we could make our workplace more women-friendly.

In this article I would like to address a significant chunk of leadership talent that remains sadly neglected, untapped, and worse, gets rejected for corporate roles. I am talking about stay-at-home mothers who seek a corporate career during the prime of their lives.

No Takers for Moms

In several parts of the world, especially India, the responsibility of managing a home and taking care of children, falls primarily on the woman’s shoulders. Much as she would love to take up a job, she is constrained for various reasons ranging from taking care of growing children, providing care to the elderly, or relocating and adapting to newer environments. The latter is true for women whose spouses are free to seek opportunities in other cities. By the time the children are old enough, these women are in their late thirties or early forties. Age discrimination being a huge factor, at least in India, these women get criminally side-lined.

One of my friends was unfortunately widowed after 15 years of marriage. She was a fulltime home-maker and mother, and had no option but to seek a fulltime job to secure the future of her two children. She has been unsuccessful in getting permanent employment in the company where she works as a contract staff, despite being far more productive and grossly underpaid than her permanently employed peers. Her stint as a home-maker and mother has been completely disregarded, and she is being paid lower than a fresher. Moreover, she is unsure of who to approach within the organization for long-term opportunities. My friend is just one example. There are millions of women in India who are educated, enterprising, and smart, but motherhood seems to be a huge setback for them.

Mothers are Leaders

Be it the Big 5 or Strengths Finder or DISC, organizations already have an arsenal of leadership behavioural assessment tools at their disposal. Whichever way we look at it, women who have managed homes and families successfully, can easily score well on certain basic leadership competencies, which we struggle so hard to find these days.

Moms Understand the Big Picture

It is mistakenly assumed that mothers deal with routine stuff. On the contrary, mothers are expert strategists. They set long-term financial, well-being, and personal goals for the family. Besides, they are great at breaking down these goals into actions. Perhaps the most important thing they do is lend their unstinting support to every member of the family and help them achieve their goals. Mothers are also experts in keeping their ears to the ground. They are well informed about everything important that counts. Everyone knows that Mother Knows Best.

When I was a fulltime mother, one of my goals was to ensure my children took responsibility for their studies and future. I did not want to chase them or nag them about their homework. It was tough and took loads of patience and hours of listening, but eventually I am happy to say that my daughters not only excel in their academics, they are also well-read and tuned into larger causes that plague our world today.

Moms Always Find a Way

A child with an earache? Short strapped for funds? Car broke down on the freeway? A mother has to use her resources to find a solution. One of my friends talked about how she was leaving for the airport as she needed to attend this conference. Just as she was all dressed and about to leave, one of her kids threw up. He was sick and needed immediate attention. She couldn’t just leave him like that. She contacted her office and cancelled the flight. She then asked her associate to fill in the first two hours for her. She spent the next few minutes calming her child and tending to him. She then got her associate to connect her to the conference via Skype. She did a great pitch and they got the deal.
Mothers have to be enterprising problem-solvers, and make the most of every situation. No wonder we have so many successful women entrepreneurs.

Moms Are Emotionally Intelligent

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says: “Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence—which makes sense when one considers that the Delphic oracle gave the advice to “know thyself” thousands of years ago. Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives.”

A typical mother’s day is fraught with unexpected situations and crises. A child hurts himself and needs immediate attention, a demanding relative tests your patience, appliances conk off during the eleventh hour, the husband needs to leave for office in the next 10 minutes, and your older child needs to get ready for school.

As mothers, we constantly question our ability to serve others. We micro-analyze every situation and reflect on what could be the best way to deal with tough situations with peace and harmony. As a mother, there were days when I wanted to shout and throw a tantrum, but I had to practice deep breathing and ask myself, “What is the best way to deal with this?” Initially, there were those days when a good crying jag or screaming fit would do me in, but when I realized the adverse effects of these on my kids, I resorted to singing while cooking to help me burn off the negative energy. Mothers always find constructive and harmonious ways to tune off negativity as they are conscious about their actions and the consequences thereof.

Moms Know How to Deal with Difficult Behaviour

A hard-nosed boss, a demanding client, a difficult team-member have one thing in common. They have the advantage. We need their cooperation and need to find a way to deal with their challenging behaviour. Who better than a mother when it comes to dealing with conflict?

Whether it is adapting to a different family (most women in India live with their parents-in-law), getting a child to eat his vegetables, or dealing with conflicts, a mother faces it all constantly. Persuasive communication, negotiation, diplomacy, or assertive speaking – a mother needs to use all these skills on a daily basis.

Moms Stand Up For Their People

A father might seem all brawny and muscular but it is the mother’s steely determination and unconditional care and nurturing that truly makes a family strong and emotionally resilient. Today when we have employees leaving in large droves because of an unsupportive or uncaring supervisor, we need leaders who nurture their teams and stand up for them. Emotional support and emotional security is always assured with mothers at the helm. Mothers are also great fighters, especially when it comes to any crisis that looms ahead. Moreover, they stand calm and stable during the toughest of times.

Towards Opti-mum Leadership!

A growing number of small and mid-sized companies are investing efforts in building comeback careers for women. “Womentrepreneur” is in fact, a hot new buzzword making waves in the e-commerce scenario. Think Zivame, Infibeam, Limeroad, and Yatra. These are but a few examples of women who turned their ideas into money-spinners. Imagine having women like these in your organization as leaders.

I not only know that full-time mothers have the ability to take on technology roles, but also firmly believe they have the capability to become strong leaders. Most companies already have a talent management strategy in place to develop future leaders. Why not hire mothers and groom them as future leaders? It can be argued that women who have been out of touch as far as employment is concerned, will take a while to get their bearings in the wide wicked corporate world. However since they already possess the intrinsic leadership qualities thanks to their experience as fulltime mothers, they would just need a while to get acclimatized to the rules of the game. My sister-in-law started her own successful corporate recruitment business after 20 years of being a fulltime mother. She is a shining example of how women can make it big not despite being mothers, but because they are mothers.

Isn’t it ironic that we celebrate Mother’s Day with pride, but do little for mothers who seek an equal footing in the corporate world despite being immensely talented?