The Executive in Midlife

by Steven D. Axelrod, Ph.D.

My most common assignment as an executive coach has been to guide the development of the hard charging middle manager. These are executives who are typically, but not always, men , and are usually in their mid-thirties to early-forties. They are long on drive and ambition, and rather short on people skills such as active listening, persuasion, consensus building, and conflict resolution. They tend to be results-oriented, project driven, and highly focused. They admit that they “don’t suffer fools gladly” and have difficulty tolerating divergent opinions when the solutions to problems seem so obvious. These executives are typically abrasive, and in remedial cases, abusive. They are often “all business” and don’t show enough of their more human (and humorous) side.

In my experience this aggressiveness comes to light as a problem and the coaching assignment is frequently initiated on the cusp of a promotional opportunity. The organization values the executive’s contributions but there is a sense that he is not yet ready for the broader responsibilities of senior vice president or managing director. In some cases organizational sponsors may point to the kinds of “soft skill” gaps noted above. In others, there may be a more global sense that the executive lacks polish

I like to think of the coach’s role with these executives as helping them “ride the wave” of development from early to middle adulthood. Some are natural born surfers, but others need help spotting the wave and riding it. Understanding the normative developmental challenges of this era can help the coach guide the executive through the “transformational task” (Gould, 1993) represented by the promotion.

The anthropologist David Gilmore has described group rituals in traditional cultures that allow young men to demonstrate their fearlessness and physical prowess, thereby proving their manhood (Gilmore, 1990). In our culture the emphasis in the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties is on the acquisition of technical skills and their application through activity, initiative, and assertiveness. This is typically what I would call the “manager as hero” role. The executive prides himself in being able to do what hasn’t been able to be done before and on doing it faster, better, and cheaper. From an organizational perspective this provides a critical infusion of energy into the enterprise

Levinson et al. (1978) have described a “midlife transition” ushered in by the awareness of aging and death or by signal experiences of limitation or failure in some sphere of functioning. (This was brought home to me during an offsite teambuilding activity when several executives on the cusp of this transition described very personal encounters with death and failure as critical events that made them the persons they are today.) The result of the midlife transition, as described by Axelrod (1997), Jaques (1965), Neugarten (1975), and Gould (1972) is a restructuring of the personality, with increased emphasis on awareness, insight, and affiliation. The pleasures of being, experiencing, and understanding become as important as the excitement associated with striving and reaching. Gender polarities are less sharply drawn. Growing children and aging parents help foster a sense of generational continuity as well as a deepening sense of both limitation and responsibility.

Under optimal circumstances, as executives develop, they add characteristics of role functioning that mirror the changes of the midlife transition described above. A shift in cognitive functioning is a critical driver of this change in role functioning, but interpersonal and work style characteristics are also important. The following are some of the “soft skills” that define effective functioning as the executive moves into a senior vice president level position:

  • Longer time frame and increased capacity for strategic thinking
  • Increased propensity for reflective thinking
  • Increased ability to acknowledge, understand, and integrate the meaning of personal and career failures
  • Increased tolerance of ambiguity and paradox
  • Increased ability to listen to and appreciate different points of view
  • Increased ability to reconcile differences based on an understanding of underlying trends and causes
  • Shift from a work style based on “brute strength” or endurance to one based on prioritizing and leading broad efforts
  • Increased ability to look broadly across the organization and identify with the larger mission

Case Example: Jerry, S.V.P.

Jerry was a vice president in his mid-30’s in a major financial services company when his coaching was initiated by his boss, Kathy. She respected Jerry’s intellectual firepower, project management skills, and his aggressive, can-do attitude, but was concerned about his tendency to make others feel excluded, blamed, and dominated. Jerry had focused on “managing up,” but now Kathy would not feel comfortable promoting him unless he became better at fostering collaboration on a larger scale in this matrixed organization. Kathy and others had concluded that the “wunderkind” would have to grow up

The results of a 360 assessment were painful for Jerry. He had to face the degree to which his hard-driving, impersonal, and abrupt style had alienated his peers and some of his direct reports. His confidence was shaken. He wondered if he should limit himself to an individual contributor role, and felt adrift without his characteristically aggressive management style. A coaching plan was built around Jerry’s reaching out more actively to both peers and direct reports, and taking the time needed to forge consensus. He met with participants in the 360 survey to share the key results and solicit help in changing. He learned how to listen more effectively to others and to tune in more to their needs, motivations, and constraints. His needs to be the smartest and the one who was always right were identified as problems, and he learned to tone them down.

Jerry had grown up fast in his lower middle class family. He felt the wound of his father’s financial setbacks during his adolescence, and was intent on reaching a position of security that would protect him against anything of the kind ever happening again. In his career he had been promoted rapidly and ahead of his peers. Not getting the SVP promotion “on schedule” was the first time Jerry had to confront failure in his work life. Simultaneously, he was being faced with setbacks in his personal life. His son had begun to show behavioral problems in school, and he and his wife were at odds over the best way to respond to these difficulties. Jerry had begun to reflect on his own childhood and his similarities to his son. He was also beginning to sort out his own values and approach to raising children.

Eventually, Jerry began to examine his close relationship with his boss, Kathy. He had become overly involved in gaining the approval of this volatile woman, and embroiled in her power struggles in the organization. We began to work on differentiating his own style, values, and goals from Kathy’s, and to stake out a more independent position in the organization. He became aware of the collateral damage caused by his need to be the boss’s favorite, and learned how to rebalance the needs of his boss, peers, and subordinates. While Kathy fumed and at times berated Jerry for being disloyal, she promoted him. Jerry moved from a project management role to become the leader of a 100 person organization.

In the final phase of executive coaching, our focus was on Jerry’s leadership of his organization. He worked on bringing more of himself personally to the leadership role, demonstrating a better sense of humor about himself and more forgiveness of others’ shortcomings. He guided the leadership team toward developing a vision for the organization and working more effectively with each other. He became strongly committed to developmental activities for his entire organization and began to meld his drive for results with a commitment to meaningful change and growth.

More articles in this series:
Executive Growth Along The Adult Development Curve

The Adult Development Framework
Case Study – The Executive at Late Midlife: In the C-Suite

Executive Growth Along The Adult Development Curve was first published in Consulting Psychology Journal,57(2) 118-125, 2005