It is not luck that some people escape the middle management trap, it is good old fashioned personal organisation. Those that understand where their priorities should be and focus on the important, not the latest and loudest, gain an unfair advantage in today’s always on world. The ability to ignore unimportant distractions and to distinguish between what is important and what is not is not a talent, it is a skill you can learn and develop. It’s a skill you need to master if you want to get to the top of your organisation.
One of the nice things about working the way I do, is I have the opportunity to see many different people working in their work environment. It means I can observe the way people work, how they interact with each other and how they manage their time, the distractions and their colleagues.
The most interesting observation I have made over the years is the difference between the people who get to the top of their organisation and the ones who get stuck in the middle. The dangerous middle management level.
At the very basic level, people who get stuck in middle management are the ones who invariably have untidy desks. Papers, files and equipment are everywhere. When I look closer, their email inboxes are full of read and unread emails, they are constantly responding to every bleep, bling and tweet that comes from their phone or computer, and they are the ones who appear to always be chatting away with their colleagues about last night’s TV, or the Netflix binge that kept them awake until the small hours the night before. They are the first to complain about how tired they are, how busy they are and how they have far too much work to do. To them, being busy is a badge of honour they wear with pride, they boast about being busy and tell everyone who will listen about how late they had to work the night before.
In the opposite corner (usually the corner office) you have the other people. The people who appear to get promoted every year, the ones some people describe as “high flyers”. These people rarely complain about how busy they are. They arrive at work looking refreshed, their desks are clear of everything except the thing they are working on at that present moment. Their inboxes are clear except for the mails that have arrived in the last hour or two. They avoid gossip, they often take care of their health by taking a walk at lunch. When they are working on something they focus 100% on the work and politely ask colleagues to give them some time to finish the work when they are being interrupted. They are not constantly checking mails and their phones are often completely out of sight and it is very rare for you to hear their phones beep, bling or tweet. They turn off notifications, their phone is a tool to help them do quality work, not a device to which they have become a slave.
Offices and companies are full of people who are easily distracted, allow themselves to chase the latest and loudest and find themselves stuck in a job they can no longer progress in. There are a lot fewer people who have a clear set of priorities, who focus on what is important and are aware of what is coming up in the next three to six months.
If you are ambitious and want to progress in your career, then today, more than ever before, you need to be organised and you need to prioritise the important things and let go of the unimportant.
Here are six tips to avoid the middle management trap:
1. Work out what you need to get to the top
If you want to become the head of your division, then you need to figure out what skills and competencies you need to become head of your division. If you lack some of the required skills, then find out how you can acquire those skills. Maybe that means you need to talk to your HR department, or maybe you need to go back to college. Whatever it is, find out how you can acquire the skills and then go do it. In today’s world, your skills are your responsibility.
2. Be Timely and Reliable.
Get yourself organised and make sure you meet deadlines and milestones well before the deadline dates. If you are relying on other people to do their part of a project, chase them regularly. Being reliable is something I have discovered to be quite rare. Missed deadlines and late responses are the norm these days. Do not be that person. Be the one person people can rely on to do what they say they will do.
3. Stop allowing yourself to be distracted by the latest and loudest thing. Focus on the work. Take regular breaks where you move and walk around, and when you are working, focus on the work. Turn off your notifications and do not allow your phone or email to disrupt the work. Be polite, but firm with people who try to disrupt your work and steal your time. They don’t care if you get stuck in middle management. They only care about themselves. Stop giving them the time of day they do not deserve.
4. Get in to the habit of responding to emails in a timely manner.
If you cannot supply the requested information immediately, then do a quick reply explaining you need a little time and tell them when you will send the information. Then make sure you send the information BEFORE your own, self-imposed deadline. Never forget to thank the people who help you. Politeness does go a long way to grease the promotion wheels.
5. Get a good night’s sleep
Lack of sleep is what causes out brains to be easily distracted by the unimportant. If you truly want to be considered for the next promotion you need to be at your best every day. That means you need the right amount of sleep for you. Stop binge watching episodes of Game of Thrones or whatever it is you are watching and make sure you get to bed at a reasonably early time.
6. Maintain a clean work environment
Make sure your desk, email and files are organised and clean. Maintaining a clean email inbox, a clean desk and organised files means you will spend a lot less time looking for things and more time doing stuff. Important stuff. There really is something about having a clean and organised work environment that helps to focus your mind on doing the work.
These are just the basic steps, but as so few people in your organisation will practice them, following them will give you the momentum and advantage to become a top performer. It is not nuclear physics, it just good old fashioned personal organisation. As you develop good habits, become better at focussing on the important and better at filtering out distractions you will see yourself rising to the top. Being better organised and more focused on the important ensures you are the cream and it is the cream that naturally rises to the top.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century