The Secret to Midcareer Success

Star employees can rise only so far unless they develop social, or ‘secondary,’ skills.


Stanford University’s President John Hennessy at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Stanford, Calif., June 24, 2016.
Stanford University’s President John Hennessy at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Stanford, Calif., June 24, 2016. PHOTO: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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. Based in Massachusetts, NetScout helps companies and government agencies manage their information-technology networks. 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.

Leadership skills won’t develop on their own—they must be actively cultivated. That’s one reason why even students who are preparing to enter technical and scientific fields should pursue a well-rounded education, including the liberal arts.

These transitions can be rocky. Without the right preparation, highly talented employees may turn out to be more resistant than their less-talented peers to adopting new roles. 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. 

Why, besides the threat of declining productivity, should employers support the development of secondary skills? Because, according to Mr. Singhal, secondary skills have broad positive effects on the office as a whole. Skills like coding and accounting create value in an additive way. Communication and leadership skills are multiplicative—they help make the whole team more valuable.

Mr. Malone is dean’s executive professor at Santa Clara University.

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