How to Break Away from the Pack and Rise in the Middle Ranks of Management

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In 1959, Charles Edward Lindblom wrote a classic article about the way government worked. He titled it “The Science of ‘Muddling Through,’” although the use of the word science was meant in a sarcastic way. This article caused a stir in government circles but seemed to change little. In 1979, Lindblom followed up on his original article with one called, “Still Muddling, Not Yet Through.”

Lindblom took the phrase, “muddling through” from a concept that is well known to citizens of the United Kingdom. As a Brit, I understand that we sometimes need to have a stiff upper-lip and to muddle through somehow. However, while this attitude plays well within the safe confines of historical costume dramas and films about the wars of the 20th Century, it does not play well in our careers. To survive in the 21st Century, there needs to be a better way.

In my book, Become a 21st Century Executive – Breaking Away from the Pack, I refer to The Muddler as a person who muddles through their life and career rather than taking control. These individuals do not learn from people who have made mistakes nor do they learn from their own mistakes. By contrast, 21st Century executives do not let things simply happen to them. They learn from the people around them and commit to doing things the right way.

Each of us can decide to muddle through our own lives but when we get to work, our muddling through affects other people’s lives and careers. When muddlers attain higher levels of responsibility on the job, they can quickly become Muddle Managers who practice Muddle Management on themselves and their team members.

Taking ‘Muddling Through’ Too Far

In life, we can all get by with some muddling through, but too much muddling is not a good thing. What is worse, is that we sometimes accept roles or tasks on the assumption that we will be able to Muddle-Through until we figure out what we are doing. I know I have done it in my career, once while serving as a Senior Manager at IBM and again as a Senior Vice President at the now-defunct Sun Microsystems.

I was having a great career at IBM. After a slow start, it looked like promotions were coming my way. Then it all stopped. I had failed to understand the organizational changes that were happening around me. A lack of organization savvy left me exposed without a role and without anyone supporting me. My network was insufficient and my influencing skills weak. Yes, people loved to work with me and said nice things about me, but my career was going nowhere. I was reduced to muddling through.

In the end, I had to accept a role that some considered a step backwards before I could rebuild the credibility, content, approach and network necessary to restart my progress upwards. While I received a lot of training at IBM, no one had prepared me for this situation.

Some years later, I was working for a company called StorageTek Corporation that was acquired by Sun Microsystems. The team at Sun offered me a role when the acquisition was complete and I accepted. The culture of Sun was young and exciting, but the management team was unrealistic about the difficulties involved in executing their plans.

I remember one specific project, which was being driven from the top. Like most people at the company, I struggled with the project. While we all agreed on the importance of the project in principle, in practice the solution made no sense. Instead of fixing the situation, everyone just muddled through hoping someone else would make it work. Not surprisingly the project failed and, in the end, so did Sun. Sun was full of amazing and smart people who often lacked the middle-management skills necessary to ensure success.

These situations are not unusual. Many companies take a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ approach to middle management. If you don’t learn some basic rules, it is hard to make it to the top. Both your business and your career may depend on you learning these roles, but who will teach you?

Stop Muddling and take control.

Essential to Breaking Away from the Pack is finding the places and people who can help you accelerate your progress. The best way to do that is always through mentors. Mentors are wise people, who you trust, and can guide you through these middle-management challenges. Almost every successful person I have ever met has had multiple mentors.


Nigel Dessau is a nationally award-winning marketing professional with over 25 years of experience leading corporate marketing and communications for several multi-million and billion dollar companies. He began his career by working for IBM, serving customers and partners in the UK. Dessau decided to move to the U.S. following an assignment in New York, where he continued to work for IBM for nine years. Since leaving, Dessau has held senior executive and CMO roles at both private and Fortune 500 companies including StorageTek, Sun Microsystems, AMD, and Stratus Technologies.

Dessau is the creator and driving force behind the 3 Minute Mentor website, which provides significant career guidance in three minute videos. The website claims thousands of subscribers from all over the world. Become a 21st Century Executive is based upon episodes and concepts found in the 3 Minute Mentor.

Born and educated in Nottingham, England, Dessau lives with his wife in Boston, MA.