TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Secret To Midcareer Success: Shift From Primary (Hard) Skills For Personal Productivity To Secondary (Soft) Skills For Leadership

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  The Secret to Midcareer Success, by Michael S. Malone (Santa Clara):

Why are some top professionals able to maintain peak performance throughout long careers, while others who may be even more talented quickly fade and fall behind? And why do some lesser performers suddenly take off in midcareer and accomplish astonishing things?  Two successful tech leaders offer remarkably similar answers to these questions.

Anil Singhal was born in India but emigrated to the U.S. before co-founding NetScout Systems in 1984. ... A key part of Mr. Singhal’s management strategy has involved helping top young employees make the transition to midcareer success. In particular, he believes that employees’ “primary skills” can take them only so far. “Those talents by which you earned your college degrees and first made your professional reputation,” writes Mr. Singhal in his upcoming book, can drive success for the first 10 years of a career. After that, “secondary skills”—social qualities like the ability to interact well with colleagues—become the key to continued success.

Mr. Singhal believes that most employers mistakenly nurture primary skills at the expense of secondary ones. This is especially true for employees who are highly productive right off the bat. Unless they move into management or mentorship roles, these increasingly expensive employees can become a drag on employers as their productivity naturally falls off.

That’s where leadership comes in. Facing a career plateau is hard, especially for star employees. But developing the ability to lead creates an avenue for sustained success.

Silicon Valley icon John Hennessy was a successful engineering professor at Stanford before being promoted in quick succession to department head, dean, provost and president. “I had to learn a new set of skills in a very short amount of time,” he recalled in a recent interview. Those skills were more social than technical. “When you move from the field in which you built your career and step into leadership, your technical talent becomes less important, and data becomes just another tool.”

In early midcareer, says Mr. Hennessy, professionals must develop the ability to bring people together and become mentors. They must learn how to unify a team around a single vision. “The ability to tell appropriate, compelling and inspiring stories” is essential, he says. Describing work as a journey shared among colleagues helps bring employees together in a common cause. ...

The secondary skills that will help them succeed in midcareer are radically different from the primary ones that brought them success in the early days. “You have to learn now enough to ask intelligent questions, not find the answers yourself,” writes Mr. Hennessy in a book on leadership to be published this fall. A mediocre technologist who is open to learning can become a great corporate executive, while a superstar scientist can turn out to be a lousy boss.

Shifting focus from personal productivity to supporting subordinates is a major part of the transition to management. Similarly, good managers must turn their attention away from the measurable metrics of the present toward a vision for the unpredictable future. For an employee looking to grow into a leadership role, these changes in perspective are as important as learning to communicate.

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