6.30.2011

Middle Management


I am a bit of an anomaly among my peers in that I have spent almost all of my professional life in middle management. Sometimes it’s the best of both worlds, and sometimes it’s the worst; but for sure it’s different from many of my friends.

To simplify matters, let us consider that any organization, no matter how big or small and in whatever sector, has three layers of employees: the top dogs, the worker bees, and the people in the middle. For sure, each layer has its pros and cons. Top dogs have the most upside and the most power, but with that comes the stress and burden. Worker bees are least in control, but most able to leave work at work and to get really good at something specialized. People in the middle are like the center halfback on a soccer team, responsible for the whole field (left and right, offense and defense), which is both good and bad.

By the way, where you are may have little to do with how much money you make. After all, I know some worker bees who are really well-compensated software programmers and scientific researchers and electric engineers. And I know some top dogs who run very small and very underfunded non-profit organizations, who make hardly anything.

So what layer you are may have little to do with your earning power. Rather, it may have everything to do with what you are looking for in your work, and how important work is in your life. For many of my friends and colleagues, work is a vehicle for changing the world or for leaving your unique stamp on it. Being the top dog, whether in a government agency, social services organization, or entrepreneurial start-up, is the natural role for someone who sees work as a way to express oneself, live out one’s values, fulfill a vital public service, or right what’s wrong. The burden of the buck stopping at their desk (and the attendant long hours and/or high stress levels) is a burden they gladly bear because they accept the responsibility for their organization and for their cause. Not that they don’t value spouse and kids and church involvement and community service; but when there is a conflict in time and brain space, those things don’t always win.

For many of my friends and colleagues, work means taking pride in your craft, but is otherwise a vehicle for supporting your family. Being a worker bee, whether in a research lab, engineering firm, or computer company, is the natural role for someone who seeks to maximize compensation and minimize excess stomach acid. Not that these guys and gals are slackers, or don't feel pressure, or don't work long hours; far from it. But work doesn’t matter outside of work - you rarely hear these worker bees talk about their jobs outside of their job setting – and can be easily left there in order to focus on something else, like raising a family or serving in a church. As you might imagine, many of my friends who are Asian and/or Christian fall into this category, given our value on children and/or on ministry.

Neither group is inherently guiltier or holier than the other. Both are commendable approaches to work and life – one acknowledges that we spend a lot of time working and so we ought to figure out how to make it mean something, and one acknowledges that there is more to life than work and that it is just fine to do a honest day’s work but otherwise focus one’s efforts on more valuable things like family and faith. And both are fraught with the opportunity to be idolatrous and arrogant and misguided – one can quickly turn their job into an idol, while one can quickly turn their true focus into an idol.

So which am I? A little of both, which befits my general tendency to want to play center halfback and to aspire to the best of both worlds. I enjoy working, and want my work to mean something; but by choice and by circumstance, I have many pursuits and responsibilities outside of work and so welcome the opportunity to leave work at work and cultivate other aspects of my life. Thankfully, my temperament allows me to be in middle management; and thankfully, my employer and my employment situation is such that I can work hard at work (and satisfy myself in that way) but also enjoy some semblance of work-life balance (and satisfy myself in that way).

I guess that makes me fortunate, which I am, and I acknowledge that. Still, I cannot help but envy my peers at times. Sometimes it is those whose life situation and personal characteristics enable them to pursue a “top dog” position, with all of the attendant goods and bads that go with it. And sometimes it is those who have chosen to be a “worker bee,” doing good work and making good money but otherwise free in time and brain space to pursue other more important pursuits.

To further complicate matters, life situations change over time. Parenting kids is a role that changes as the kids get older. Our own stomach to put in the hours or bear the stress or pursue a dream may rise and fall depending on where we are in life. If we are married, we must add in the perspectives and the shifts of another adult whom we have committed to, and synch up our dreams and pursuits with theirs.

For much of the first fifteen years of my professional career, my solution has been to try to have the best of both worlds by being in middle management. It is, in and of itself, a fun place to be in an organization, just like playing center halfback on a soccer field. And, it lends itself to its own unique opportunities and constraints as it relates to balancing work within an overall portfolio of activities that make up your whole life. Who knows what life will bring next, but that’s where I am for now.

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