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

midlife

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?

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Be Heard and Overcome Gender Inequality

Becoming a successful professional is no mean feat. And if you are a woman, then it is all the more commendable considering the hoops you might have jumped through to get there! Being a woman in the corporate workplace is like walking a fine line. You have to strike the right balance. Underplaying your strengths may project you as being a pushover, while playing a tough nut might earn you the tag of being too aggressive. Notwithstanding our legendary capabilities in managing multiple roles and balancing expectations from multiple stakeholders from home and at work, climbing the career ladder can be quite stressful. No matter how often companies shout from the rooftops about diversity and inclusion, the gender balance is still tipped in favour of male leaders. While there are companies that appoint women in executive positions, the candidates are not necessarily the best examples for the role, thereby further increasing skepticism in men about women leaders. As a result, the truly capable women find it very tough proving their mettle.To be successful leaders, women have to battle and overcome many situations and behaviors.

Ditch that Superwoman apron!

As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” We are a long way off, especially in India. One of my friends once made a very perceptive observation about Indian women in the past 30 years. She said, “You know, it has taken 30 years for the Indian woman to get out of the kitchen and take her place at the boardroom. But in these 30 years, very few Indian men have gotten into the kitchen. They are still stuck in their stereotypical past!” I know of women colleagues in top positions who have to get back home in the evening to serve dinner. A significant number of working women in India return home around the same time as their spouses, only to have their spouses relax before the TV after a “long exhausting day”, while the women get busy with the kids or household chores or dinner. I’m one of the few fortunate women whose husband contributes more than his fair share of house work and considers me his equal. Ironically, some women I know (and men), judge me for that. In India, and I’m sure in many parts of our world, women are brought up to believe that if they don’t cook or do household chores, they are inept. Furthermore if they let their husbands do any of the house work, they are regarded as completely weak and incompetent. Running and managing a home needs team work. It is important for us to get it clear in our heads that we need our spouse and family to pitch in. And if you hate cooking, delegate it to someone who can do it better! Of course you will be judged. Too bad for the one who judges. I have previously written about how women can let go of behaviours that weigh them down in this article that was published in AVTAR I-WIN’s newletter The Future of Work.

Beware of underhand chauvinism

The Indian corporate workplace has many skeptics when it comes to women employees. Which is why it isn’t surprising that women in male-dominated teams are at times treated depreciatingly like delicate china dolls. “You don’t need to attend the meeting.” (What new ideas are you going to contribute?) “Don’t you have to rush home?” (It’s easy for you. You don’t have to stay up late.) “Why do you need the job?” (You have your husband or father for that. Don’t you have to take care of your home?) “I’ll take care of the project” (Don’t bother your pretty head.) It might seem shocking, but this is completely true in many teams. One of my bosses (at a very top level) advised me to hire male candidates as I could count on them to work beyond office hours. He didn’t realize he was insulting me. During our very next quarterly conference he talks about gender diversity. The point I’m trying to make is, we don’t live in an ideal world and the earlier we realize it, the better. You have to make it clear that although you need to be home on time, you are capable, and want to take on high visibility projects. And if a confrontation doesn’t seem palatable to you, take the chauvinism with a pinch of salt, but sweetly and firmly let your male colleagues know that you are tougher than you seem!

Ask assertively!

In my article Are you Visible, I had talked about practical ways to assert our ambition. We women have an ESP radar where we tend to understand unspoken requirements and find it very difficult articulating our needs. Shyness or downplaying your abilities won’t do. We need to speak up and stick our necks out! Some men will refuse to see it as assertiveness and consider it arrogance. It’s their problem. Women, when they do get promoted, the ones with a voice are considered a threat and are usually relegated to positions of lesser power or influence. It requires immense amount of courage and self-assurance for women to ask for what they want and doggedly pursue their goals. Glenn Llopis in his article, puts it beautifully.

Listen to your intuition

Like I mentioned, women are very perceptive and excellent decision makers. Traditional Indian families are a great example. While the patriarch appears to be the head of the house, the matriarch is actually the neck who decides which way the head turns! The woman communicates her views using her intuition so skillfully that the man feels it was his decision! Likewise at the workplace, many of your views may be considered emotional and lacking logic. I’m ashamed to say that I used to feel embarrassed about voicing my thoughts in a male-dominated circle at the fear of being ridiculed. Our left brain might take the logical decision, but it is strongly guided by the intuitive and emotional right brain. So if you feel something isn’t quite right, or that you have a point of view that is different, be bold and express it. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about your gift of intuition.

Seek a balance

Yin and Yang. Left brain and right brain. Male and female. True success requires a balanced view of things. In our objective to achieve gender equality, we must not seek opportunities because we are women. We must seek success because we are capable. Gender equality or ethnic diversity is not feminism. It is all about exercising untapped prowess and thinking of ideas that have never been thought of before, in order to come up with limitless possibilities. Fortunately, times are definitely changing for the better. I see the millennial generation of men and women regarding each other in more equal terms. To see a true balance of power, we have to understand the strengths that both male and female employees bring to the table. We need to discard our stereotypical mindsets to magnify our combined power. I would like to end with these wonderful lines by Alanis Morissette: I don’t want to be your other half I believe that one and one make two

The Road not Taken: Becoming a Full-time Mum Made Me a Better Leader

(Published on LinkedIn on Nov 21, 2014)

After 13 years of a glorious career in Mumbai, when I moved to Pune with our two daughters to join my husband, little did I know what life had in store for me. Back in Mumbai, like most Indian women, I used to live with my in-laws who took care of my children. When I arrived in Pune, I was very excited at the prospect of setting up a home of our own. I had it all neatly planned. Find a home on rent, set it up, enroll our older daughter in a school, find a daycare for the younger one, and find a job.

I was fortunate to be able to check off all of these items from my list, and within six months, I got hired by a growing company as a Vice President. I was over the moon to say the least! I hired a domestic assistant to help me with my household and kitchen chores, and I was all set. My new job was very exciting. The company was getting ready for an acquisition, and they had plenty of international projects and processes that needed streamlining, and new managers who needed mentoring and direction. It was a role right up my alley, and I had tons of ideas whirring inside my head. As the clients were scattered around the globe, managing my time schedules was challenging to say the least, but I was raring to go out there and make a mark.

Everything went smoothly for a while, and then things suddenly changed. My older daughter found her new school very intimidating. She was finding it very difficult adjusting to the new study pattern, her teachers, and her new friends. Moreover she missed coming home to her grandparents (which I didn’t realize). All this resulted in her dwindling test scores. One day as I was addressing a meeting with my team, I felt a weight pressing down on my shoulders. It was Guilt rearing its ugly head, but I ignored it.

After a few weeks, I found myself watching my domestic help cooking vegetables in more oil than that was necessary. Since she had to wrap up the kitchen work before I left for work, she used to work at top speed and in the process, ended up wasting resources. More flour, more detergent, more oil. I could see the wastage, and my shoulders sagged a little more.

Having two little children is not without its own challenges, is what I slowly realized. They fall sick (especially when you have an important meeting), they need help with their homework, they need help with their art projects, they need proper nutrition and care. Mostly, they need someone to just listen.

One evening after I completed three months, I lost my temper at my younger daughter. She was barely three, and wanted to play with me. Of late, I was finding it difficult dealing with her tantrums, without realizing that she needed me to spend time with her when I got home. But there I was on my laptop, drafting apology emails to clients and reviewing some reports, all so that I could be better prepared for my next day’s meeting. So while my daughter’s little hands tugged at me, I just absent-mindedly handed her a toy, asking her to play with it while “mamma completed her office work”. My shoulders were weighing a ton, and I also started suffering from stress headaches. The Guilt meter was way up there.

When I completed six months in the job, something happened that was the turning point in my life. My older daughter had got low scores yet again and I thought of staying up late helping her with her studies. I had to get into an “urgent client email” once again. My younger one called out to me asking if I could please give her a goodnight hug. I nodded at her promising I will soon enough. It took me a stressful two hours to finally shut down my laptop, and I saw both my girls fast asleep. As I saw their innocent peaceful faces, my Guilt meter tore into me. I was finally feeling guilty about ME. I was missing out not only on their childhood, but also on the gift of parenthood.

The very next day, I handed over my resignation.

For the next three years I was a full-time mother. These years have been the most precious and humbling years for me. I acquired a deep respect for my in-laws and women who chose their kids over their careers. I discovered a new passion – cooking. I put my corporate experience into practice at home by streamlining my kitchen operations! My headaches vanished, and I joined a gym where I was able to shed off those stress tires.

I have finally gotten back to a mainstream corporate career over the past eight years, and life couldn’t be better. Besides being a mentor to women, I am also a coach for women seeking to grow in leadership positions. Assertiveness, decision-making, delegation, empathy, being a role-model – all these are leadership skills that I learnt by staying at home.

Of course, there is always a pay-off. My career trajectory took a considerable dip. And of course, there IS a glass ceiling and there IS discrimination against women. More so against women who take a sabbatical for their families.

Do I regret that decision to choose my children over my career? The company from where I had resigned, eventually got acquired by a large multinational. Had I continued I would have probably been at an executive level by now. However would I have survived the enormous guilt of not following my heart? The first thing I did after quitting my job was to tutor my older daughter. That year, she stood in the toppers list of her class. I watched her with blurred eyes as she was being felicitated by her school. Yes, I am happy I chose to be a mother.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

#RoadNotTaken #ProfessionalWomen #Leadership #Women #Homemaker #Motherhood #WhatInspiresMe #Careers

Job satisfaction – is it possible?

bored

As I go through the host of articles available online on leadership, management, motivation, and happiness, I’m struck by the following facts about the corporate workplace today:

  • People are discontent
  • People are disinterested in their jobs
  • People feel “stuck” in the present
  • People want to feel motivated
  • People want something exciting to happen

The lure of the bubble

It happens to most of us. We graduate and want to be selected by prime organizations hoping that would be our big ticket to the great career. “And what is that great career?” No one has a clear answer. “Good pay”, “great work culture”, “growth opportunities”, “good position”, and so on goes the list. We are all those eager hopefuls that walk out of a college campus into another one that is centrally air-conditioned feeling all important and charged. The fact that we are similar to a hundred other people does not faze us. In fact we feel proud on being part of such a big company. On the surface we feel we are poised to do something exciting, whereas in reality, we know we are in that safe “job security” zone. This false sense of excitement is what lures us to the big companies.

When the bubble bursts

We are swept along with the flow in our secure life-jackets in the happy boat for the first three to five years where we learn new skills or accomplish our daily assignments without realizing that something has changed. All of a sudden, we see a few of our co-workers on a different, shinier and bigger boat, and reality strikes. These co-workers decide to do something daring like jumping into the sea and swimming to a different boat. We are left adrift in the sea of routine and think, “Oh no! I would like to be on THAT boat!”

Eventually, after the initial excitement of the new job or new role fades, routine sets in. The same safety blanket now becomes a stifling chain that has us trapped. Boredom sets in, followed by discontentment and finally, disengagement.

In our initial years, we are part of a larger group. As the organization expands, new opportunities arise and before we know it, some of our select co-workers get chosen for higher positions as team leads or managers. Some of them leave the company for better roles in other companies.

Is it possible to stay excited?

Job satisfaction is that profound yet clichéd phrase, similar to happiness. Like happiness, job satisfaction is not constant, but rather a state of mind. Is it possible to stay happy all the time? Can we ever get a role that gives us job satisfaction all throughout? Is it possible to sustain excitement? It isn’t easy and needs work, but it is possible. Here are some of the ways we could manage our expectations and understanding of what makes us happy in our jobs.

Ask yourself: What do I want?

Growing and changing is an inevitable part of our lives. The things that made us happy even a couple of years ago, may not cut it today. As circumstances change, our requirements change, and so do our wants and needs. However we need to be careful about not wanting something because someone else has it. Remember that adage about the grass being greener on the other side? You need to put yourself, your uniqueness, and your strengths into the equation.

It helps asking yourself the following questions every year:

  • What is great about my current situation?
  • What isn’t great about my current situation?
  • How do I want to see myself this year?
  • What could I do to get there?
  • What are my fears? What happens if I fail? What happens if I succeed?

These questions have helped me gain perspective on my current position and where I wanted to go at crucial junctures of my career.

Take charge

It doesn’t help getting on a career boat just to enjoy the ride. You need to keep looking at the horizon to check whether the boat is taking you to your destination. Rather than wait passively for things to happen, you need to proactively steer your career the way you want it to go. Talk to people who have done it, read articles, participate in discussions, take a few courses if required, whatever, but do something. If that doesn’t help, you may want to throw the life-jacket and jump into the sea. There is no point complaining about the boat and the life-jacket! Your needs have changed, and you need to take action and take charge of your life.

I reached my first growth plateau after I completed five years in my job. I felt unhappy and stuck in my current role. At that time I felt that I stood a better chance of reaching my sweet spot if I opted for lateral growth opportunities. I took on a role that no one had taken before. It was considered a risk at that time, but I never regretted it. While I may not have reached an executive level in these twenty years of my career, I was fortunate I got opportunities to take on new roles, new responsibilities, and getting to learn something new.

It’s your choice

Here’s a popular quote that is one of my favourites. “The 3 C’s of Life: Choices, Chances, Changes. You must make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.” Here’s a fourth C – Courage. It takes courage to make a choice. Throwing off a life-jacket and diving into unknown waters is not going to be easy. If you find that intimidating, here’s another quote by Karen Salmansohn – “What if I told you that ten years from now, your life would be exactly the same? I doubt you would be happy. So, why are you so afraid of change?”

It is possible you might find that the risks of change outweigh the excitement, and decide to stay back in your safe boat. Don’t be too judgemental about yourself. Remember, staying back is also a choice. Once you decide to stay back, accept your choice and look at things you could do to sustain your enthusiasm.

I had to quit from a prime and prolific position in a growing start-up as I faced a dilemma in my personal life. I had to look after my children who I felt, needed me. Being a full-time home-maker was a new experience, but I’m glad I took those three years off to do the usual mom things like baking, playing with my children, and helping them with their homework. Today I have a great equation with my daughters. I believe they consider me their friend and confidante and a great sounding board. While I may have lost some ground in my career, I got a chance to invest precious time with my children during their growing years.

Create magic in the mundane

At times circumstances are such that you may not want to take risks. A baby, elderly parents, tight finances, or unplanned expenses could hold you back in your current job. Is it possible to work some magic in your mundane life? There are ways in which you could make your job more meaningful. Here are some ideas that always work for me.

Innovate

Look at your job and your responsibilities with a critical eye and ask yourself, how could I make this work more creative? Can I write a mobile app? Can I deliver the project with extra features? How can I reduce the time to deliver without impacting quality? Why don’t I initiate a series of training workshops? Once you get started, you will be surprised at the ideas that flow.

Give

The law of Karma states that you get what you give. What goes around comes around. Start contributing to your circle. You could volunteer to train new employees, conduct knowledge sharing sessions, or coordinate events. You could also pitch in for community service or volunteering activities conducted by your organization. Try doing something for someone without expecting anything in return. Well, you get more than just something in return – a sense of purpose and inner joy.

Lift

Lift your spirits and others’ around you. Energy, whether positive or negative, is contagious. It is easier sliding back to negativity about your boss or your job, but takes effort to lift yourself above the negative pattern you’re languishing in. If you have decided you are going to have to continue in your current job, then look at your situation positively. Ask yourself – what am I benefitting by continuing here? If you can’t see any benefits, don’t kid yourself. Get off the boat, but don’t weigh others down with your negativity. Lifting your spirits isn’t difficult just a physical effort. The effort is psychological, spiritual, and mental as well. Indulge in humour, or some recreational activity like games or exercise. Spiritual activities like meditation, yoga, prayer, or soul music can work wonders on your sense of balance.

Rediscover yourself

When was the last time you used your talent? It could be cooking, photography, dancing, music, drama, or painting. If it has been ages since you last picked up the brush, try. The first stroke is possibly the toughest, but once you get past it, the sense of liberation is pretty exhilarating to say the least. I was a singer during my college days, and somehow over the years, I lost the habit. I have attempted to practice singing again; although I may not sound very great, I feel wonderful. It’s all about fulfilling the gaps in other aspects of your life. We dedicate a huge chunk of our lives to our careers and families forgetting that we need to nurture other aspects of our selves too.

Are you visible?

As a coach, I get to talk to many aspiring individuals who express a desire to get selected for managerial positions. They are usually people with significant experience in their core function and are eager to grow into a more visible role. A majority of these people have also expressed unhappiness in being passed over by the management for someone (in their opinion) less skilled or less experienced. “It’s as though I’m invisible!”

It’s a noisy, overcrowded workplace

It’s become an information bombardment at the workplace over the past decade. Emails, instant messages, online notifications, online meeting have facilitated the growth of global organizations where employees communicate without seeing each other. As a result we have too many desk managers who manage teams from their cubicles rather than walking around and meeting people face to face.

So as a manager, among 130 emails, which one do I read and respond to? In my periodic face-to-face employee interactions, which employees leave a lasting impression in my mind? How do I know who really did the work and did it the best? And most of all, who to my eye, is the one to watch?

The attention-grabbers

We all have seen them. The ones who talk the most. The ones who laugh the loudest. The ones who make sure you know about everything they do. We have seen them in school. Teachers usually love them as they are the “know-it-alls” and the ones that raise their hands or assist the teacher in erasing the blackboard. They know the knack of making the teacher feel special. Take yourself for example. Who would you notice? The students who complete their work quietly or the ones that announce their progress to the teachers?

As humans we are fallible. No matter how non-judgmental or discerning we try to be, we do get drawn towards those who make us look and feel good.

Managers seek solidarity and support. Some managers like yes-men, some admire those who ask questions, some appreciate those who chase results and make them look good.

So how does an employee get her manager to sit up and really take a look at her capabilities and her accomplishments?

Five tips for becoming more visible

It isn’t easy trying to grab attention when you are naturally attention-averse. In my growing years I was taught the virtue of modesty. “Make your work speak for you”, “Do your duty and you will reap the fruits eventually”, “To minimize your achievements, talk about them!” These were some of the words of wisdom drilled into me. It took me many years of lost opportunities, acute disappointment, and hidden resentment to realize the secret are of actually making people take notice of my work.

Here are a few tips based on my experience that have helped me tremendously over the years.

Rise to the occasion

Rather than thinking of how good you are in your role, think about what is it that your manager needs? Is there a meaty project coming your team’s way with no one to coordinate it? Is there a scarcity of people and more work than the manager can handle? Is there a specific skill requirement that the team needs? Look at how you could position your current skills to meet the need. The idea here is to make a significant impact at the right time. An effort that will be a huge win for the team. Once you have worked out the idea in your mind, approach your manager with your proposal.

Stick your neck out

A manager likes people who participate, respond quickly and positively. Be willing to erase the blackboard. You could volunteer to mentor new entrants, help with some administrative reports, or even train your peers on a required skill.

How many times in a class did you know the answer to a question but were afraid to raise your hand? We refrain from volunteering out of fear. Fear of being ridiculed, fear of criticism, fear of change, or fear of failure. A manager’s role is full of risks. If you want to become a manager, you need to overcome your apprehension and demonstrate to your manager the ability to take risks and learn something new. It’s easier to blame an overenthusiastic colleague for “hogging the limelight” rather than trying something new or daring. Ask yourself – “What is stopping ME from volunteering for that complex assignment?”

Express! Express!

The easiest way to get attention is to speak up. Ask questions during team meetings. Come up with suggestions. Appreciate a colleague for his help. Thank your manager for supporting you. Express your views on a solution offered. Initiate and conduct meetings to encourage conversations. Communication skills amount to 80% of a leader’s role. Expressing or articulating is a great way of demonstrating your communication skills to your manager. However note that it is important to communicate assertively and positively if you want to be noticed for the right reasons!

Stop trying to be perfect

As an individual contributor, you are used to being in control of your output. You are so good at your job that you can easily spot defects or deviations. In contrast, leadership is a very subjective role. A manager learns a lot by trial and error. Mostly error. Error in judgment, error in estimation, error in planning, you name it! It is not possible to grow as a leader without making these mistakes. However, these mistakes help a leader learn and grow. Are you willing to make errors AND accept blame?

Ask for it!

It isn’t a nice feeling being passed over for an opportunity you have been waiting for. Oprah Winfrey has a nice quote for it. “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” Quite a few of us, especially women, don’t ask for what we really want. We hope someone observes us and appreciates us and gives us what we want. I have been guilty of this as well. Expecting someone to have mind-reading skills is frankly illogical! Your manager may have observed your good work, but does he know of your ambition to become a leader? Approach him and explain to him what you really want. Ask him how to go about it. Let him know how you intend to support him towards the team’s goals.

It’s a networked world after all

The global corporate workplace is no longer a simple layer of hierarchies. With dotted line reporting and matrix reporting structures, it is more possible to get connected with various other teams. It is not only important to get noticed within the team, but also across cross-functional groups. This is especially true if you want to grow as a manager. Volunteer for employee committees, social causes, or other group activities. Work-life balance is always a challenge for working parents. However at a time when you really want to get noticed and grow, you may want to stretch your schedule a bit to accommodate these initiatives.

Modesty does not mean keeping silent about your accomplishments. You don’t have to brag or exaggerate your capabilities. Good managers can see through the hyperbole. Be honest and objective, yet express your career goals.

Finally, if you do feel that you don’t have the room for huge additional responsibilities at this point in your life, then don’t resent that colleague who got that promotion. Be happy for him. You will get your chance too.